Slowly Reading St Athanasius: Something is rotten in the state of Denmark

by John Stamps

Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. Something is also rotten with the Human Race. Something worse than Hamlet’s creepy uncle and lutefisk.1 This corruption stinks to high heaven. Far worse than malodorous lutefisk is the stench of death.

Take the Gospel story when Jesus deliberately shows up late to Bethany, when He already knew that Lazarus was sick to the point of death. By the time Jesus and the disciples arrive, Lazarus is long since dead and buried. Mary and Martha are grief-stricken. He wants them to take Him to the tomb and show Him the grave. He then asks the unthinkable, “Take away the stone.” Martha, ever practical, protests vigorously: “Lord, by this time he stinketh: for he hath been dead four days.” (John 11:39)2 Death stinks. If you read enough of the popular Harry Bosch novels, you learn valuable life lessons suitable for later use in theology. When you go to a crime scene, always wear a mask. All the nasty smells from a corpse are “particulate.”3 You’re smelling a human being decomposing bit by bit into nothingness.

That’s exactly how St Athanasius characterizes the human race. We stinketh. Like Lazarus, we have fallen into death and corruption. He concluded §4 by stating that human beings, if they did not remain in God’s very own life and goodness, would instead remain in the corruption of death. If we let our disobedience fester, we dissolve into death, decay, and corruption. We decompose into nothingness. When we despise and lose the knowledge of God, we despise our well-being and we lose sheer existence with it. We corrupt ourselves into non-being.

We’re now ready to jump into §5.

For God has not only created us from nothing, but also granted us by the grace of the Word to live a life according to God. But human beings, turning away from things eternal and by the counsel of the devil turning us towards things of corruption, were themselves the cause of corruption in death, being, as we already said, corruptible by nature but escaping their natural state by the grace of participation in the Word, had they remained good. Because of the Word present in them, even natural corruption did not come near them. (De Inc. §5)

Question: Why were we the cause of the incarnation? (De Inc. §4)
Answer: Because we were the cause of our own corruption. (De Inc. §5)

God knows all-too-well that we homo sapiens are fragile creatures. Every living creature in Genesis 1-2 is what the Hebrew Bible calls nephesh hayah, usually translated as “living souls.” When God created winged birds in the sky, every manner of living thing that lives in the waters, the livestock, the wild animals, and the creeping things, He made them nephesh hayah (living creatures/נֶפֶשׁ חַיָּה). Then last of all, when God created us, He also created us nephesh hayah (Genesis 2:7).4 We are biological creatures through and through, no different than whales or bears or hummingbirds. At the level of nephesh hayah, our life is bios life, subject to disease, wear and tear, and anything else Nature decides to throw at us.

But God’s grace protected the human nephesh hayah in a special way. He made us in His very own image. We were not vulnerable to the way of all the other nephesh hayah, dissolving back into nothingness. He bestowed upon mere mortal men and women the grace to live a life according to God. Our nature might be frail, but through grace, we participated in God’s very own living Word. There was no radical transcendence between God and us. God was not “way up yonder.” The Word of God was present in us. God was closer to us than we were to ourselves.

This was all dress rehearsal for theosis. But no, participation in God wasn’t good enough for us. We wanted something more. We turned away from God. We wanted autonomy. We wanted to be gods but without God — a-theosis.

… just as Wisdom says, “God created the human being for incorruptibility and an image of his own eternity; but by the envy of the devil, death entered into the world” (Wis 2.23–4). (De Inc. §5)

Wisdom here is not just the name of a book of the Bible. Wisdom speaks to us. She everywhere preaches, sings, lectures, and witnesses to us. But we listened to the devil’s counsel instead of listening to Wisdom. On the face of it, the devil’s counsel is ridiculous. “You shall be as gods.” The devil certainly couldn’t deliver on his promise, for he made none. He only stated an obvious theological truth. We shall be as gods. Theosis is our future. Theosis is our destiny. God is preparing us for an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison. (2 Cor 4:17) But there is no short-cut to theosis, least of all by disobeying God.

The careful reader might notice the devil makes his first cameo appearance here in De Inc. §5. The devil’s envy is puzzling indeed. The devil envied us, really? But of course he did. He is pure spirit, a ministering spirit sent to serve flesh and blood men and women who will inherit salvation. We featherless bipeds (with broad flat nails)5 are made in God’s image and he is not.

For now, the devil really is a two-bit player in the mystery of evil. The demonic barely appears at all, only much later (e.g., De Inc. §25).

This apologia of St Athanasius certainly surprised me the first time I read it. Maybe you will be surprised too. Here is why. In the sweet fundamentalist church I grew up,6 every summer we scheduled famous Gospel preachers to stir up revival in Sin City (Las Vegas Nevada, that is).

Of course, some Gospel preachers were better than others. But the most notorious of all was a fire breathing dys-evangelist7 who closed out his week of scoldings and harangues with his (in)famous sermon, “What Is Hell Like?” If no other motivation brought wicked sinners down the aisle to the front of the church for repentance or baptism, this good brother intended to scare the hell out of you. The sermon from start-to-finish was a lurid description of judgment, the eternity of hell fire8, infernal torture with the devil and his fallen angels, and a surprisingly completely inventory of hell’s entire infrastructure. Somewhere during the sermon God’s love and forgiveness might have been slipped in. I forget, because hell occupied the center ring that night.

But just to state the blatantly obvious as sometimes we must do, this tactic is exactly what St Athanasius does not do. Instead, he depicts human beings falling into corruption and dissolving into nothingness, and God doing everything He possibly can to stop us. Pay attention to what is not here, indeed, in the entire book.

  • No sinners in the hands of an angry God. Jonathan Edwards would be bitterly disappointed.
  • No Wrath of God.
  • No threat of eternal hell and eternal punishment
  • No Turn or Burn.
  • No mention of original sin or ancestral sin, no appeal to Adam and Eve.9

And speaking of sin, it isn’t mentioned often. Only 11 times. But St Athanasius has quite a lot to say about corruption — 59 times if anyone is counting.

Instead, St Athanasius appeals to our better angels, if such angels still exist after an avalanche of evils. He wants us to see for ourselves how we wounded ourselves with a brutal self-inflicted wound. Our nature already was fragile. It had no independent reality of its own. God ex-nihil-ated us and the only force holding us back from dissolving into sheer nothingness is God Himself. God made human beings from dust and to dust we all too easily return.

When this happened, human beings died and corruption thenceforth prevailed against them, becoming even stronger than its natural power over the whole race, the more so as it had assumed the threat of the Deity against them through the transgression of the commandment. (De Inc. §5)

Death entered the world and lorded it over us as a vicious tyrant and usurper. The nasty consequence of it is every single human being became corrupt unto death. Corruption grew in strength over the entire human race. Corruption was a terrible enemy that defeated us again and again.

St Athanasius curiously states, “corruption assumed the threat of the Deity against them.” We kept racking up disobedience after disobedience. And the penalties for disobedience kept being racked up, as if the devil was keeping score. This threat is not an arbitrary exercise of arbitrary authority by a Cruel Divine Judge, where non-violent criminals are sentenced to draconian jail sentences for drug possession, possession of a crack pipe, shoplifting, trying to cash a stolen check, and so on.

By contrast, God threatened human beings with a natural consequence. Turning away from God, we “head straight for non-being, toward utter corruption” (Anatolios, Athanasius, p. 36). If you cut yourself off from the Source of Life by willful autonomy, you will die. In this case, death is not cruel and unusual punishment. But corruption took the threat to the next level. In the perverse logic of death and corruption, if we decide to reject God, then let’s make a complete dog’s breakfast out of it. On corruption’s scorecard, the penalties kept mounting up.

One disobedience was not enough. We created new evils and new offenses, more self-imposed wounds to slide off into corruption.

The fundamental human problem in St Athanasius isn’t that we didn’t follow the rules, although there is that. We’ve become our worst enemies. We have brought death upon themselves. We have fallen into self-destructive and nasty habits that contaminate and dissolve our very humanity.

For even in their transgressions human beings had not stopped short of any defined limits, but gradually pressing forward they had passed beyond all measure: from the beginning they were inventors of evil and called death and corruption down upon themselves; while later, turning to vice and exceeding all lawlessness, not stopping at one evil but contriving in time every new evil, they became insatiable in sinning. (De Inc. §5)

We turned away from Goodness and Life. We invented the opposites — evil and death. Humans indeed advance and progress. We forge ahead boldly towards evil, nothing, and self-destruction. We exceed lawlessness. We don’t stop. We can’t stop. We compete in lawlessness. Not only within our nature but even against nature. God calls forth sun, moon, stars, and so on. But we call forth death and corruption.

God created human beings. But human beings invented evil. Humans created in the image of God have our own creative capacities. St Athanasius hasn’t said anything so far about human capacities to invent cool stuff like the wheel, 45 records, Spam, liquid soap, the Flux Capacitor, Velcro, CPAP machines, the electric guitar, and, best of all, the More Qualitative-Quantitative Ontological Lapsometer.10

But St Athanasius goes out of his way to stress the many ways humans “contrive” evils. This is one skill we excel at. We are prodigious inventors of evil. Now St Athanasius doesn’t say humans hold the exclusive patent on evil. After all, it was through the envy of the devil that death entered the world. Envy and presumably other deadly sins like pride and wrath, we can safely lay at the devil’s door. But lust, gluttony, greed, and sloth all require bodies. Presumably the devil and the demons don’t have much use for gluttony or sloth.

God did not create corruption, ignorance, evil, and death. We did. As Fr John Behr writes in the introduction, evil has “no real existence but is conjured up by our own invention.” Conjured and invention are the words of the day here. Abracadabra! Our pathetic prestidigitation conjures the nothing out of nothing.

Then comes the avalanche of evils.

For there were adulteries and thefts everywhere, the whole earth was full of murders and plundering. There was no concern for law regarding corruption and vice; every wickedness, individually and jointly, was being carried out by all. Cities warred against cities, and nations rose up against nations; the whole world was torn apart by factions and battles, everyone competing in lawlessness. Even acts against nature were not far from them, but as the witness of Christ, the Apostle, said, “Their women exchanged natural relations for unnatural; and in the same way also the men, leaving aside natural relations with women, were consumed with their desire for one another, men committing shameless acts with men and receiving in themselves the due reward for their error” (Rom 1.26–7). (De Inc. §5)

St Athanasius’s litany of our descent into the abyss of nothingness reaches its final crescendo. Human beings unleashed an avalanche of evil. The litany is familiar. But worth rehearsing.

Humans invent one evil after another because not one of them can possibly be satisfying. Only God can slake our hunger and our thirst. Socrates in Gorgias (493a-b) famously called human beings “leaky jars.” Any wretch of a human being could consume the entire universe and it still would not satisfy our hungers. Only Goodness, Beauty, Truth, and Faithfulness can satisfy us. But then we’d have to give up autonomy, theosis-without-God (a-theosis), wouldn’t we?

The problem is, we cannot short-cut theosis by leaving out obedience to God. He desires communion. We prefer autonomy, because we don’t want to be restrained by God’s leash. We would rather worship Nothing than God. But sadly, autonomy is not freedom. Autonomy is death. Autonomy leads us into the Abyss.

C.S. Lewis showed us the right way to theosis in the chapter, “Counting the Cost” in Mere Christianity. But earlier, he also showed us the wrong way.

What Satan put into the heads of our remote ancestors (Adam and Eve) was the idea that they could ‘be like gods’ – could set up their own as if they had created themselves – be their own masters – invent some sort of happiness for themselves outside God, apart from God… The reason why it can never succeed is this. God made us: invented us as a man invents an engine. A car is made to run on petrol, and it would not run properly on anything else. Now God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel or spirits we’re designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing. That is the key to history.

The snake’s promise was filled with irony, half-truths, and deception. The snake spit out ironies and half-truths when he told Adam and Eve they would be “as gods” if they ate the forbidden fruit from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The irony and truth is being like gods was their God-given destiny. God offered us the grace to live a life according to God, to share in God’s very own life. Not mere bios, but genine zoe, the real deal.

But the snake proved to be a very bad consigliere. He was not to be trusted. His counsel was bad in every way.

The deception was that the path to theosis isn’t a matter of eating this piece of fruit, no matter how delicious it tasted, no matter how beautiful it was. We become like gods when we trust and obey the true God, the God who is Goodness itself, who won’t let His good and beautiful creation fall into ruin, rot, and corruption.

Turning now to De Inc, §6, St Athanasius poignantly asks the reader: “Since the rational creatures were being corrupted and such works were perishing, what should God, being good, do?” God’s Word is Truth. If humans disobey God, they will dissolve into nothingness. To save us in the very best sense of God’s healing salvation, He must reverse the corruption. What we did, God must un-do. But how? Stay tuned.


[1] In Hamlet, Marcellus insinuates to Horatio that Denmark reeks like a putrid fish rotten from head to tail. And lutefisk – cod brined in lye and then soaked to remove the nasty caustic solution – is a disgusting gelatinous Scandinavian delicacy once described by Garrison Keillor as the Lutheran equivalent of penance. His description is meet and right. You are supposed to eat lutefisk with lingonberry jelly. It doesn’t help.

[2] You got to love the sheer earthiness of St John’s Gospel in the venerable King James Version. “There will be an odor” (RSV) is a sad lapse of judgment by the RSV translation committee. Not nearly as powerful as “he stinketh.”

[3] For example, City of Bones or Dark Sacred Night written by the inimitable Michael Connelly. You don’t want to be inhaling microscopic bits of a human corpse up your nose. Watching the Bosch series on Amazon Prime also teaches you valuable life-skills, for example, the proper way to eat the buttermilk pancakes at Du-Par’s at the Farmer’s Market on Fairfax in Los Angeles.

[4] Strictly speaking, humans don’t have a nephesh. We are nephesh. According to Hans-Walter Wolff, nephesh “stands for needy man per se … nephesh therefore does not say what a man has, but who the person is who receives life (hayyim): ‘person,’ ‘individual,’ ‘being’ … If we survey the wide context in which the nephesh of man and man as nephesh can be observed, we see above all man marked out as the individual being who has neither acquired, nor can preserve, life by himself, but who is eager for life, spurred on by vital desire, as the throat (the organ for receiving the nourishment and for breathing) and the neck (as the part of the body which is especially at risk) make clear. Although in this way nephesh shows man primarily in his need and desire, that includes his emotional excitability and vulnerability” (Anthropology of the Old Testament, pp. 21, 24-25). Yes, I read this a long, long time ago. It made sense at the time. Some of it might still be valid.

[5] Per the discussion between Plato and Diogenes the Cynic of what a human is. Plato defined a human being as a “featherless biped.” Diogenes plucked all the feathers from a chicken, barged his way into Plato’s Academy, and proudly announced, “Behold! I’ve brought you a man!” To save face, Plato qualified his definition.

[6] I am not being ironical. Oakey Blvd Church of Christ back in the 1960s and early ‘70s was a sweet church to learn about Jesus and be nurtured in, in spite of your occasional journeyman dys-evangelist. When I read a Flannery O’Connor short story about some crazy preacher, I’ve been there, done that, and bought the t-shirt.

[7] Per Friedrich Nietzsche, The Antichrist §42. Sigh.

[8] The Gospel preacher used many ingenious analogies to describe the length of eternity to hyper-literalists like myself: “An ant walks around a metal orb the size of earth and by the time it begins to wear a path around that orb, eternity has just begun.” There were more. I wasn’t convinced.

[9] Although Athanasius does talk about “man” (i.e. the human) sinning.

[10] The ontological lapsometer is the greatest invention ever. Read all about it in Walker Percy’s Love in the Ruins.

(Go to “Divine Dilemma”)

This entry was posted in Athanasius, John Stamps and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Slowly Reading St Athanasius: Something is rotten in the state of Denmark

  1. Jack Heaton says:

    John this is wonderful in theory, in practice, in everything.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. John A Stamps says:

    Thanks, Jack!


Comments are closed.