Slowly Reading St Athanasius: The Divine Dilemma

by John Stamps

Everybody loves a good moral dilemma. The current favorite dilemma is the infamous trolley car problem popularized in The Good Place. A trolley car hurtles down the tracks out of control. You are standing at the switch, ready to pull the lever to one of two different tracks. If you pull the lever and switch the runaway trolley to the right track, there stands your beloved Aunt Sallie. But if you switch the runaway trolley to the left track, there stands four nuns and a Nobel Laureate who will create a vaccine to cure Covid-19. You have to choose who gets smashed by the trolley. The choice is literally in your hands. Both choices are pretty grim, right?

But my favorite dilemma is the Euthyphro dilemma found in Plato’s dialogue. The com­pletely clueless Euthyphro wants to take his very own father to court for the murder of a servant. Socrates, on his own way to court, is puzzled by Euthyphro’s actions. Doesn’t pressing charges against your father violate a core value to love and respect your parents? But Euthyphro replies, I’m taking this particular action because it’s what God wants me to do. His loyalty to God’s command overrides his familial obligations. Or does it? The Euthyphro dilemma boils down to these questions: Is a particular action good because God commands it? Or does God command this action because it’s good?1

Here, as always, C.S. Lewis elegantly crystallizes the philosophical problem at hand. God’s righteous laws are neither capricious nor arbitrary. Mercy is a very good thing and murder is a very bad thing, not simply because God indiscriminately said so. God isn’t one day on a sudden whim going to say, “Listen up, people! I’ve changed my mind. Murder is now a very good thing and mercy is a very bad thing.” Lewis offers us solid wisdom to pay attention to. We know “that the Lord (not merely obedience to the Lord) is righteous and commands righteousness because He loves it. He enjoins what is good because it is good, because He is good. Hence His laws have emeth, truth, intrinsic validity, rock-bottom reality, being rooted in His own nature.”2 God is goodness Himself. Goodness is God.

But here’s the rub. God is also truthfulness Himself. Truthfulness is God. And so according to St Athanasius, God faces a moral dilemma of His own. Will God stand fast with His truthfulness and let sinful and corrupt humans die as the penalty for their sins? Or will His goodness prevail and He will indeed rescue all humans from annihilation?

As you’ll recall, the goodness of God created us ex nihilo into being. But the evils of our own invention have de-created us ad nihilum. At this critical juncture in human existence, God must do something. But what?

Let’s now unpack the precise nature of the Divine Dilemma.

For these reasons, then, with death holding greater sway and corruption remaining fast against human beings, the race of humans was perishing, and the human being, made rational and in the image, was disappearing, and the work made by God was being obliterated. For as I said earlier, by the law death thereafter prevailed against us, and it was impossible to escape the law, since this had been established by God on account of the transgression. And what happened was truly both absurd and improper. (De Inc. §6)

We are in a monstrous situation. St Athanasius piles up one horrific verb after another to describe the human condition. We are perishing, we are disappearing, and we are being obliterated. Could things get any worse for us? If we ponder the horror and damage caused by human sin, what should God do?

St Athanasius argues (quite rightly) there are two exceedingly wrong theological alterna­tives, although one alternative is arguably more wrong than the other. Does God perform the absurd or does God perform the improper?

  • The absurd alternative sacrifices God’s truthfulness to preserve His goodness. To prevent humans from dissolving into nothingness, God disregards His own law that He com­manded, that we would die if we disobeyed Him. But that’s preposterous. A God who is not truthful is exceedingly absurd.
  • The improper alternative surrenders God’s goodness in order to conserve His truthful­ness. The law is the law is the law. God’s hands are tied. God simply lets death tyran­nize human beings and He lets corruption run rampant. But a God who does not love what He created is not goodness Himself. Such a God is improper indeed.

The Catch-22 pits God’s truthfulness against His goodness.3 We are threatened to be impaled on the horns of a nasty dilemma. And neither horn of the dilemma looks especially promising.

It was absurd, on the one hand, that, having spoken, God should prove to be lying: that is, having legislated that the human being would die by death if he were to transgress the commandment, yet after the transgression he were not to die but rather this sentence dissolved. For God would not be true if, after saying that we would die, the human being did not die. (§6)

Here is the absurd horn of the dilemma. God could dismiss the law entirely so humans wouldn’t die if they sinned.

If we grab hold of this horn and God terminates the law He enacted, we end up saying God is not truthful to His own Word. God didn’t really mean it when He told us that we would die if we spurned His commandments.

St Athanasius says thinking about God this way is absurd. God is not a liar. God did not lie, because God is truth Himself.

It truly is absurd that God would renege on His commitments and promises. Rowan Williams’ description of Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia surely applies here to God the Word: “Aslan cannot break his laws. He is not bound by anything except what and who he is, but that is a real and unbreakable bond. He cannot be other than truth.”4

God declared with no equivocation that if humans disobeyed His commandment, they would surely die by death. I don’t want to belabor the following point. But death is a natural consequence when you disobey God. This cause-effect relationship is written into the very fabric of the universe. This is the Deep Magic of Aslan if you will. Or we can state even more basically: “Death and corruption are not punishments imposed on sin from without. They are internal to sin itself; they are the very embodiment of sin.”5

St Athanasius states God’s decree with apodictic certainty. It is impossible to run away from God. Just ask Jonah. The intent of the law was not to threaten us but to protect us. God wanted us to guard the grace of our gift. He gifted us with responsibility for our own existence (described in §3 and §4). We cannot elude or dissolve God’s commandments. We cannot escape the law of God.

St Athanasius’ next move is a bit unusual. He doesn’t so much frame God’s edict in terms of God’s justice, but rather God’s truthfulness. We are not weighed on the balances of justice and found wanting. Instead, Fr Patrick Reardon once again sums up the issue quite nicely:

The death of Christ in the flesh, in the eyes of Athanasius, was directed, then, not at God’s offended justice, but at man’s bondage to corruption. God had not told Adam, “In the day that you eat of it, you will upset the just order of the universe,” but “In the day that you eat of it, you will die.” Sin entered into man. It did not affect God. For sin to be defeated, then, something in man had to change.6

God cannot violate His own character. God is “true to His creative word.”7 The Creator of all things visible and invisible cannot deny Himself and He cannot negate His own being. He cannot lie. For if God lied, He would negate His own truthful being. If God said that human beings would die because they sinned, then human beings would die when they sinned. God cannot make a promise (albeit a harsh negative promise) and then simply break it. For then God would be a liar.

And so we died. We cannot escape the consequences of our actions.

On the other hand, it was improper that what had once been made rational and partakers of his Word should perish, and once again return to non-being through corruption. It was not worthy of the goodness of God that those created by him should be corrupted through the deceit wrought by the devil upon human beings. And it was supremely  that the workmanship of God in human beings should disappear either through their own negligence or through the deceit of the demons. (§6)

Here is the improper horn of the dilemma. God could simply let human beings vanish into the nada, into the nothing. St Athanasius finds this alternative simply repulsive. God in His goodness had ex-nihil-ated the entire cosmos into existence because He did not begrudge our existence at all (§3). Certainly it was not fitting, proper, or worthy of the Goodness of God to let His beloved creation perish back into the nihil.

If we grab hold of this horn and God lets creation squander her glorious inheritance into utter oblivion, we end up saying God’s goodness is a cosmic charade.

It would be supremely improper that God’s good creation disappear up in smoke simply because humans didn’t care about their own gift. It would also be supremely unworthy if we disappeared simply because demons deceived us. Neither deceit nor negligence are sufficient reasons to let us disintegrate back into nothingness.

God takes our self-destructive de-creation as a direct challenge to His goodness as the Creator of all things.

Therefore, since the rational creatures were being corrupted and such works were perishing, what should God, being good, do? Permit the corrup­tion prevailing against them and death to seize them? (§6)

What should God, being good, do? That really is the question, isn’t it?

In what follows, I don’t have a textual syllable to stand on. I don’t hear any particular echo of Epicurus or Lucretius in St Athanasius. 8 But having read recently how much Lucretius heartily detests the gods and religion, I can’t help but think that St Athanasius is engaging in a silent argument with Epicurus and his school. In this intense, quiet debate, we ponder what is proper to God and what is improper to God. Lucretius summarizes the problem as he understands it. What is worthy of the gods?

And unless you spew out all this from your mind and banish far away thoughts unworthy of the gods and alien to their peace, the holy powers of the gods, degraded by thy thought, will often do thee harm; not that the high majesty of the gods can be polluted by thee, so that in wrath they should yearn to seek sharp retribution, but because you yourself will imagine that those tranquil beings in their placid peace set tossing the great billows of wrath, nor with quiet breast will you approach the shrines of the gods, nor have strength to drink in with tranquil peace of mind the images which are borne from their holy body to herald their divine form to the minds of men. And therefore what manner of life will follow, you may perceive. (De Rerum Natura 6.68-79)

For Lucretius, the gods don’t care about us one bit and we shouldn’t care about them. Every human religion is a cruel delusion. Human beings created the gods in our own image, and not vice-versa. The gods reflect the deepest fears, anxieties, and terrors of humans in an uncertain and perilous universe. Of course the gods are a mixture of good and evil. Because we are a mixture of good and evil.

And in this silent (perhaps imaginary) debate between St Athanasius and the Epicureans, Athanasius quite rightly insists that our own thinking about God must be truly worthy of God. Lucretius has completely misunderstood God and His goodness. Does He smite us because we invent one evil after another? No, our dire situation moved God to act in goodness and love. God doesn’t reign in heavenly bliss, unmoved by human corruption and death. God Himself took the initiative to un-do our descent into the Nihil and to re-create us.9

What need was there for their coming into being 10 at the beginning? It was proper not to have come into being rather than to have come into being to be neglected and destroyed. The weakness, rather than the goodness, of God is made known by neglect, if, after creating, he abandoned his own work to be corrupted, rather than if he had not created the human being in the beginning. (§6)

The God who is goodness Himself would not allow Himself to be defeated by corruption and death. What is the point of bringing human beings created in the image of God into existence in the first place if you’re going to neglect these glorious creatures? Why let them be des­troyed? Why abandon them? It would indeed be better if God had not created human beings at all. But as we already know, God loves to lavish gifts upon His creation. It all comes back to God’s goodness. Blessing and goodness is what a good God does.

A good God does not neglect His creation. If God simply let His creation degenerate into nothingness out of a false sense of lèse-majesté, now that would be completely unbecoming for God!

If God let corruption and death win, St Athanasius concedes it would be better off if God didn’t create us at all. What possible sense does creation make if humankind is ruined?

All this sounds like the nightmare scenario described by David Hume. The cosmic designer is grossly incompetent or, even worse, indifferent. Humanity created in God’s image becomes like a science experiment that’s gone awry.

But in theological fact human beings are not an Etch-a-Sketch drawing that fickle deities draw, erase, and then start all over again. Human beings are not a sloppy sketch drawn up by a Silicon Valley entrepreneur on a napkin in Buck’s of Woodside and then discarded when the vision didn’t pan out. Human beings are not demo software that didn’t meet customer expectations and then quietly shelved.

For us to sink into nothingness and decay would demonstrate God’s weakness, not His Goodness. Creation and Salvation link together as integral pieces of the same divine mystery. God’s goodness was demonstrated in His creation of us out of nothing. And God’s goodness is once again demonstrated by preventing us from “relapsing into nothingness.”11

And St Athanasius assures us repeatedly that, if nothing else, God is Goodness itself.

For not making him, there would have been no one considering the weakness, but once he made him and created him into being (εἰς τὸ εἶναι/eis to einai), it was most absurd that his works should be destroyed, and especially before the sight of the maker. It was therefore right not to permit human beings to be carried away by corruption, because this would be improper to and unworthy of the goodness of God. (§6)

It’s not just absurd to consider that God is capable of lying. It is the height of absurdity that God’s work be destroyed.

St Athanasius circles back to the conclusion of this section. God’s goodness doesn’t allow Him to act in improper and absurd ways.

But maybe there are some other options open to the Almighty. We will explore them next in De Incarnatione Verbi Dei §7.



[1] To be more precise, ‘Is the holy holy because it is loved by the gods, or do they love it because it is holy?’ (Euthyphro, 10a)

[2] If your Hebrew skills are rusty, emeth means truth, faithfulness, stability, or firmness. Lewis’s discussion is found in his Reflections on the Psalms.

[3] This raises famous questions in philosophy of religion. Is the very notion of God coherent? When we ponder God, does the bundle of attributes we typically attribute to God yield logical sense? The famous Oxford philosopher Richard Swinburne makes the case for the coherence of theism as well as anyone.

[4] Rowan Williams, The Lion’s World: A Journey Into the Heart of Narnia, p. 64.

[5] Patrick Henry Reardon, Reclaiming the Atonement: An Orthodox Theology of Redemption, p. 125.

[6] Reardon, p. 126.

[7] Here is the entire quote by Khaled Anatolios: “In the context of the entire framework of his ontology of creaturely giftedness, the point is not merely that it is inappropriate for God to go back on His word, as if God’s original word was simply an arbitrary whim to which He was subsequently bound for the sake of maintaining His own consistency. Rather the word of God’s law is true precisely in the sense that it is true to His creative word, true to the most fundamental and ineluctable and radically gracious terms of the relation between God and creation.” From “Creation and Salvation in St Athanasius of Alexandria,” in On the Tree of the Cross.

[8] §2 is not an echo of Epicurus. St Athanasius faces the Epicureans head-on.

[9] Now you might be asking yourself, “Wait a minute, John! Doesn’t God do more than His fair share of smiting sinners with His mighty wrath in the Old Testament?” It’s a fair question, one I can’t answer right now in this blog piece. But in the meantime, read and digest David Steinmetz’s “The Superiority of Pre-Critical Exegesis.”

[10] Not “out of nothing.”

[11] Anatolios,  p. 132.

(Go to “The God We Didn’t Invent”)

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7 Responses to Slowly Reading St Athanasius: The Divine Dilemma

  1. horizon74 says:

    Truly a brilliant piece of writing and thinking and scholarship

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Oh, no. John’s head is already pretty big as it is. Your words are going to make him absolutely insufferable. 🙂


    • John A Stamps says:

      Thank you so much for your kind comment!!! I’ve really enjoyed working through St Athanasius.


  2. Iain Lovejoy says:

    Does Athanasius deal with the issue of *why* God would promise mankind death if we sin?Hasn’t God created his own dilemma by foolishly declaring that man will die if they sin and now landing himself with a self-created problem? Isn’t an apparent lack of foresight by God in declaring such a thing in the first place on the face of it equally improper or absurd?


    • johnstamps2020 says:

      Hi Iain,
      De Incarnatione §3 is the one place where St Athanasius more or less answers your question. All living creatures are created mortal. That is our nature.
      Athanasius doesn’t really deal with the question whether or not animals died before the Fall. But I get the impression that since they are mortal, they quite naturally would have died. Their very nature is corruptible and subject to death.
      But we humans were given extra gifts to preserve us from mortality and death – we are gifted (well, we are graced) with incorruption and we are gifted (we are graced) with the law and we are gifted (graced) with being made in God’s image.
      But if we disobey God, we return to our mortal nature. We have cut themselves off from immortality and incorruption.
      If we disobey God, we don’t merely die. We remain or abide in the corruption of death. Unlike God, our nature is not immortality. So we really are like the vine and the branches in the parables of Jesus. Cut us off from the branch – the source of our life and immortality – and we die just like any mortal animal would die.
      But theosis – living God’s live unto ages of ages amen – has always been the destiny of human beings made in the image of God. It just took the crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus to get us there, which is admittedly more than a minor detour. Maybe that’s why Revelation of St John talks about the Lamb slain from the foundation of the world. This path of cruciform theosis is not God’s after-thought, a back-up Plan B after Plan A failed so miserably.
      Does that sort of sound right to you? It sort of sounds right to me. Those are my theological instincts. Your mileage of course may differ.


      • Iain Lovejoy says:

        That has answered my question. I understood that to be the case and the general consensus of a lot of the church fathers – it just seemed odd that Athanasius was leading with “Well God said we had to die and couldn’t go back on his word” rather than this, in setting out the problem God faced.


  3. johnstamps2020 says:

    St Athanasius doesn’t think in linear patterns, like you and I do (well, I try to anyway). He thinks in concentric patterns. According to Fr George Bebawi, a Coptic theologian and priest, like St Athanasius himself:
    “For in Athanasios we find a writer who constantly repeats himself, and even apologise for doing so. When we read his writings we realise that he has his own method, which is particularly clear in the three books known by their Latin titles as Contra Gentes, De Incarnatione Verbi and Contra Arianos. His method is first to trace a circle of ideas in reply to a question or in defence of a particular point of doctrine. Then he enlarges the circle, possibly repeating what he has already said, but adding new points, and he may go on to construct a third circle where the early ideas recur once more. We might call it a concentric style of writing, and the result is that Athanasios’ writings are far from systematic in the Western sense of the word, and always lack a single central point. To discover his essential meaning we need to study the circles, not to search for the centre, and this is true above all in De Incarnatione Verbi.”


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