Athanasius as Evangelist: Is God Still Good Despite Evil? | The Anástasis Center for Christian Education & Ministry


This post is #2 in a series exploring who Athanasius is, and why he is still important.

This God is Healing Creation

In his introduction to Contra Gentes, Athanasius directs Macarius his reader to view Jesus and his crucifixion not as a shameful defeat, but as ‘the healing of creation.’[1]  And by ‘creation,’ Athanasius demonstrably means all creation, in such a way that involves all human beings without reservation, although human free choice will impact our experience of that healing.  Christian faith, to Athanasius, does not set forward the question of ‘how might God resolve a conflict of attributes between love/mercy and retributive justice/wrath’ or ‘how can sinners be justified before a holy God.’  It solves the problem of human evil, both in its intellectual coherence and practical application.  God in Christ solves the problem of evil, especially human evil, first by explaining why God’s good creation never required it in the first place and then by explaining what a good God is doing to defeat evil and heal humanity, all the while not becoming evil Himself.

After introducing his subject, Athanasius immediately says:

‘In the beginning wickedness did not exist. Nor indeed does it exist even now in those who are holy, nor does it in any way belong to their nature. But men later on began to contrive it and to elaborate it to their own hurt.’[2]

In chapters 2 – 5, he briefly summarizes the biblical account of creation and fall, and explains God’s goodness, humanity, free will, and the fall in such a way so as to defend the character of God from the accusation of being evil.  Then he steps back.  Having explained why evil is not part of the character of God, in chapter 6, Athanasius criticizes as illogical and impossible the Greek view that evil is a concrete thing apart from God:

‘Now certain of the Greeks, having erred from the right way, and not having known Christ, have ascribed to evil a substantive and independent existence. In this they make a double mistake: either in denying the Creator to be maker of all things, if evil had an independent subsistence and being of its own; or again, if they mean that He is maker of all things, they will of necessity admit Him to be maker of evil also. For evil, according to them, is included among existing things. But this must appear paradoxical and impossible. For evil does not come from good, nor is it in, or the result of, good, since in that case it would not be good, being mixed in its nature or a cause of evil.’[3]

In chapter 7, he refutes the dualistic view that there are two gods:  one good and one evil.  Then in chapter 8, he rejoins the biblical narrative and continues to explain the descent of humanity into error, idol-worship, and evil.  From that point, he criticizes idolatry from various standpoints, concluding Contra Gentes with the only logical conclusion:  that human beings must return to the Word of the Father in whose image we were made.  This sets Athanasius up for his companion volume:  De Incarnatione.

Athanasius wishes to defend the Christian God from every possible accusation of acting in an evil way, or being evil.  Athanasius is absolutely against any view which would make God into the ‘maker of evil also.’  For the bishop of Alexandria, God is only good.  Therefore all God’s creative works are good.  And all God’s intentions towards humanity are by definition good.  Athanasius would eschew any attempt to say that God needed, willed, or caused the fall.

Athanasius views himself as defending a truth he has received.  This strict separation of evil from the character of God was long taught by the church:

‘The truth of the Church’s theology must be manifest: that evil has not from the beginning been with God or in God, nor has any substantive existence; but that men, in default of the vision of good, began to devise and imagine for themselves what was not, after their own pleasure.’[4]

Which God Are You Talking About?

Considered as an evangelist, Athanasius’ strategy is to negate other conceptions of ‘god’ as tainted by evil.  They are therefore unworthy of worship, love, and devotion.  Only the God revealed in Christ by the Spirit can be called ‘good’ by nature, and comprehensively so.  If Athanasius was vague about which ‘god’ he was arguing for, he would have opened up false theologies in the hearts and minds of his audience, who were well acquainted with ‘gods’ who did evil or commanded evil.  Athanasius will call this idolatry and examine it thoroughly in Contra Gentes chapters 8 – 29.

Later evidence in Athanasius’ first work suggests that this concern is at the forefront of his mind.  In chapter 16, Athanasius considers how God’s nature impacts what we call activities of God playing out in the creation, and how we can identify them and name them.  In his criticism of the Greek pagan gods, Athanasius insists that activities flow out of attributes.  In his words, ‘their deeds must correspond to their natures.’  That is why Zeus and the other Greek gods are both good and evil.  That is, they have the character of ordinary men, and not sober ones at that:

‘For their deeds must correspond to their natures, so that at once the actor may be made known by his act, and the action may be ascertainable from his nature. So that just as a man discussing about water and fire, and declaring their action, would not say that water burned and fire cooled, nor, if a man were discoursing about the sun and the earth, would he say the earth gave light, while the sun was sown with herbs and fruits, but if he were to say so would exceed the utmost height of madness, so neither would their writers, and especially the most eminent poet of all, if they really knew that Zeus and the others were gods, invest them with such actions as show them to be not gods, but rather men, and not sober men.’[5]

If God is eternally Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then the short phrase ‘God is love’ from 1 John 4:8 takes on the status of declaring God’s essential, eternal, and intrinsic attribute and character, which is arguably what the apostle John perceived and intended to say.  Athanasius did not quote 1 John 4:8 in his surviving writings,[6] and seemed reluctant to put to writing many elaborations about the relations between the divine persons.  But he was nevertheless accustomed to identifying the Son by calling him the ‘beloved of the Father,’ for example, near the climactic conclusion of De Incarnatione.[7]  He is comfortable quoting Scriptures that identify Jesus as ‘the beloved’ or the equivalent.[8]

Hence, Athanasius is attesting to ‘love’ for humanity and ‘goodness’ towards humanity as fundamental to the Triune God because goodness and love are fundamental to God’s character and nature independently of humanity.  In Contra Gentes, Athanasius piles up a long string of statements where he says that God is intrinsically good.  Sometimes he notes how God shows His goodness through the creation, and continuing to uphold it.

‘God is good and exceeding noble’ (2.2), ‘For God, being good and loving to mankind, and caring for the souls made by Him’ (35.1), ‘His Word…proceeds in His goodness from the Father as from a good Fountain’ (41.1), ‘But the God of all is good and exceeding noble by nature, and therefore is kind; for one that is good can grudge nothing:  for which reason he does not even grudge existence, but desires all to exist, as objects for his loving-kindness’ (41.2), ‘Because He is good He guides and settles the whole Creation by His Word’ (41.3), ‘Seeing the power of the Word, we receive a knowledge also of a good Father’ (45.2), ‘Being the good Offspring of Him that is good, and true Son, He is the Father’s Power and Wisdom and Word, not being so by participation , nor as if these qualifies were imparted to Him from without… but He is the very Wisdom, very Word, and very own Power of the Father’ (46.8).

His tendency in De Incarnatione is to observe how God’s intrinsic goodness is manifested in both creation and redemption, but especially in redemption.  The mission of the Son of God to save all humanity from corruption and death reveals God’s goodness.

‘The good Father through Him orders all things’ (1.1), ‘what men deride as unseemly, this by His own goodness He clothes with seemliness’ (1.2), ‘He has yet of the loving-kindness and goodness of His own Father been manifested to us in a human body for our salvation’ (1.3), ‘For God is good, or rather is essentially the source of goodness: nor could one that is good be niggardly of anything’ (3.3), ‘for what is evil is not, but what is good is… [and] they derive their being from God who is’ (4.5), ‘For it were not worthy of God’s goodness that the things He had made should waste away… what was God in His goodness to do? … For neglect reveals weakness, and not goodness on God’s part… It was, then, out of the question to leave men to the current of corruption; because this would be unseemly, and unworthy of God’s goodness’ (6.5 – 10), ‘this great work was peculiarly suited to God’s goodness… much more did God the Word of the all-good Father not neglect the race of men’ (10.1), ‘inasmuch as He is good, He did not leave them destitute of the knowledge of Himself’ (11.1), ‘being good, He gives them a share in His own Image’ (11.3), ‘God’s goodness then and loving-kindness being so great’ (12.6), ‘since it were unworthy of the Divine Goodness to overlook so grave a matter’ (43.4), ‘by His guidance and goodness’ (43.7).

In addition, Athanasius invokes what would come to later be called the doctrine of divine simplicity:  ‘God is a whole and not a number of parts.’[9]  Then, as he considers God’s act of creation and the relationship God has with it, Athanasius says:  ‘God is good, or rather is essentially the source of goodness.’[10]  God’s being is His act, in the sense that all acts of God must be consistent with His being.  Or, as George Dion. Dragas, in his study of how Athanasius uses the terms ‘nature’ (physis) and ‘grace’ (charis) in the early two volume work, as well as his major dogmatic works Contra Arianos 1, 2, and 3, notes that already in Contra Gentes,

‘In general, God’s physis [nature] is good and surpasses all excellence… It could be argued that physis agrees not only with ousia, but also with act.’[11]

Most importantly, Athanasius taught that it is more true, accurate, and faithful to name the Father from the Son than to call God ‘Creator’ after the creation:

‘He who names God Maker and Framer and Unoriginate, regards and apprehends things created and made; and he who calls God Father, thereby conceives and contemplates the Son… If they had any concern at all for reverent speaking and the honour due to the Father, it became them rather, and this were better and higher, to acknowledge and call God Father, than to give Him this name. For, in calling God unoriginate, they are, as I said before, calling Him from His works, and as Maker only and Framer, supposing that hence they may signify that the Word is a work after their own pleasure. But that he who calls God Father, signifies Him from the Son being well aware that if there be a Son, of necessity through that Son all things originate were created. And they, when they call Him Unoriginate, name Him only from His works, and know not the Son any more than the Greeks; but he who calls God Father, names Him from the Word; and knowing the Word, he acknowledges Him to be Framer of all, and understands that through Him all things have been made.’[12]

Athanasius recognized that God is eternally and intrinsically Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  God is Creator as well, but only became Creator at the moment He created the creation.  He was not eternally Creator, since it is logically impossible to name God ‘Creator’ before the creation.  Thus, it is more functional to name God ‘Creator.’  It is, of course, a true statement from our vantage point as humans.  However, it is more personal, perceptive, reverent, and honoring to name God ‘Father’ after the Son.  Calling God thus, for Athanasius, means that we are perceiving and loving God for who He truly and eternally is, as He has revealed Himself to us.

Athanasius says that because God is ‘good,’ that God must be ‘good’ to humanity and ‘the lover of humanity.’[13]  Khaled Anatolios concurs:

‘Thus, in Athanasius, God’s goodness and love constitute as much of an ontological statement about God and a description of God’s nature (physis) as the apophatic statements that appear to indicate divine inaccessibility to the created realm: God is ‘good and exceedingly noble by nature. Therefore he is the lover of humanity. The fact that God is philanthropos by nature means that his actions are always characterized by that quality, since it is one of Athanasius’s principal maxims that actions must correspond to natures.’[14]

But Doesn’t God Have Other Attributes?

By comparison, we can consider the Protestant tendency to define ‘holiness’ or ‘wrath’ as fundamental attributes of God.  But are these qualities attributes of God?  Or are they derivative activities of God?  In Contra Gentes and De Incarnatione, Athanasius never attributes these particular qualities to God’s very nature or character.  Here I rely on Athanasius’ clarity in distinguishing between God as He is eternally in Himself, in contrast to God as Creator, and his maxim that deeds must correspond to natures.  Prior to bringing creation into being, God cannot be considered to be ‘holy’ or ‘wrathful.’  Holiness means ‘set apart from.’  Before God brought other things into existence, from what was God setting Himself apart?  Nothing.  So, holiness is logically impossible prior to creation.  By saying that, we are not implying a defect in God.  Rather, it is because holiness is a secondary quality of God, an activity of God towards the creation which flows from God’s love.  Holiness actually reflects God’s loving will to make ‘space’ for beings other than Himself.[15]

The same logic pertains to God’s wrath.  Prior to creation, towards what was God ‘wrathful?’  Nothing.  For was there something about which the Father was angry at the Son?  Certainly not.  So, wrath cannot be considered a fundamental, intrinsic attribute of God.[16]  Wrath is not even a secondary order activity directed at the pristine creation, but rather an activity of God directed at the disordered corruption of sin within fallen humanity (and fallen angels).  Even given the corruption into sin, God does not direct His wrath at creation or humanity per se.  It is astonishing that Athanasius never uses the terms ‘wrath’ and ‘anger’ in his two-volume magnum opus Contra Gentes and De Incarnatione.  Athanasius was quite capable of telling the biblical story and communicating what he believed to be the essential gospel message without referring to those attributes, qualities, or emotions in God.

Significantly, Athanasius did not believe that God required the fall of humanity to eventually draw human beings into eternal life:

‘For He brought them into His own garden, and gave them a law: so that, if they kept the grace and remained good, they might still keep the life in paradise without sorrow or pain or care besides having the promise of incorruption in heaven; but that if they transgressed and turned back, and became evil, they might know that they were incurring that corruption in death which was theirs by nature: no longer to live in paradise, but cast out of it from that time forth to die and to abide in death and in corruption.’[17]

For Athanasius, Adam and Eve and all human beings might not have fallen into corruption.  As with Irenaeus, he believed that God was somehow sacramentally present in the tree of life, and that all human beings prior to the fall were invited to partake of this life of God.  Athanasius’ emphasis in this passage fell on God’s desire for them that they ‘kept the grace and remained good… [that] they might still keep the life in paradise…’  Put differently, if God empowered His precious image-bearing human beings with freedom to perfect their freedom in love for Him, then God did not logically need the fall.

John Calvin, the Westminster Confession, and John Piper on Double Predestination

This consistent patristic theme stands in stark contrast with John Calvin’s view that God actively willed the fall, and then brought it about:

‘God not only foresaw the fall of the first man, and in him the ruin of his posterity; but also at his own pleasure arranged it.’[18]

This is because Calvin believed that God’s retributive justice was an eternal and intrinsic attribute in God, equal and opposite to His love.  If God has two fundamental characteristics, then He must arrange all creation and history and humanity in such a way that He can assuredly demonstrate both of those characteristics.  Hence, Calvin believed that God had to cause the fall of humanity, so that some human beings could be damned.  The Westminster Confession says that God’s glory is the revealing of both His mercy and His justice:

‘[Judgment] day is for the manifestation of the glory of His mercy, in the eternal salvation of the elect; and of His justice, in the damnation of the reprobate, who are wicked and disobedient… the wicked who know not God, and obey not the Gospel of Jesus Christ, shall be cast into eternal torments, and be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord, and from the glory of His power.’[19]

High federal Calvinist theologian and pastor John Piper also asserts this position.  When asked why God required a world in which He will send some people to hell, Piper answers:

‘His goal is that the full range of His perfections be known.  I think this is the ultimate goal of the universe.  God created the universe so that the full range of His perfections – including wrath and power and judgment and justice – will be displayed.’[20]

For Calvin and his heirs, God required the fall.  For Athanasius, God did not.  In fact, Athanasius would say that anyone who thought in that way was actually denying that God was a Trinity.  For there is simply no logical way the Triune God could have two faces like this.  Retributive justice cannot possibly be an equal and opposite attribute of God as His love is.  For prior to creation, God could not express retributive justice on anything or anyone, so retributive justice cannot be an eternal divine attribute.  More importantly, if God is a Trinity of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, then He has only one face:  that of love – a love which purifies and cleanses, to be sure, but love nonetheless.  Since justice must therefore be an activity of God – not an attribute – towards the creation, God’s justice must be an activity of His love, and thus God’s justice must be a restorative justice, not a retributive justice.

God’s wrath can only be an activity of His love, directed at that which opposes and resists Him.  God’s love and God’s wrath cannot be aimed at the same object.  God only expresses wrath towards the corruption of sin which His creatures (human and angelic) acquired of their own free will.  Therefore, Athanasius can serve as a corrective to the doctrine of penal substitution and its companions – the doctrines of double predestination, divine retributive justice, and limited atonement.

More to come on how Athanasius explains God’s goodness…

[1] Athanasius of Alexandria, Contra Gentes 1.4

[2] Ibid 2.1

[3] Ibid 6.1 – 2

[4] Ibid 7.3

[5] Ibid 16.4

[6] James D. Ernest, The Bible in Athanasius of Alexandria (Atlanta, GA: Society of Biblical Literature, 2004) does not find 1 John 4:8 in the corpus of Athanasius

[7] Athanasius of Alexandria, De Incarnatione 52.1

[8] For example, in quoting John 3:35, ‘The Father loves the Son’ in On Luke 10:22 and Matthew 11:27, 2.

[9] Ibid 28.3; in On Luke 10:22 and Matthew 11:27, 6, he asserts, ‘For the Triad, praised, reverenced, and adored, is one and indivisible and without degrees’

[10] Athanasius of Alexandria, De Incarnatione 3.3

[11] George Dion. Dragas, Saint Athanasius of Alexandria: Original Research and New Perspectives (Rollinsworth, NH: Orthodox Research Institute, 2005), p.29 emphasis mine

[12] Athanasius of Alexandria, Contra Arianos 1.33

[13] Athanasius of Alexandria, Contra Gentes 35.1; De Incarnatione 6.5 – 10; 12.6; 43.4

[14] Khaled Anatolios, Athanasius: The Coherence of His Thought (London: Routledge, 2005), p.41; and on p.47, ‘God’s love and goodness thus constitute the basis within God of all the divine initiatives, from the structure of creation to the event of the incarnation…’

[15] See Colin E. Gunton, The Promise of Trinitarian Theology (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1997 2nd edition), p.107 – 109

[16] So agrees Gerald F. Hawthorne, Ralph P. Martin and Daniel G. Reid, Dictionary of Paul and His Letters (Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press, 1993), in the entry ‘Wrath, Destruction’ on p.991:  ‘In the OT the wrath of God is not viewed as an essential attribute of God, but as an expression of his will as he deals with sinful and rebellious humankind in the context of history.’  See also the entry ‘Expiation, Propitiation, Mercy Seat’ on p.281

[17] Athanasius of Alexandria, De Incarnatione 3.4

[18] John Calvin, Institutes, book 3, ch.23, section 7.  I am aware of attempts to ‘nuance’ or ‘balance’ these statements, of course.  At the very least, however, the question is whether Christians should feel the need to defend these statements in any sense.  See also Institutes, book 1, ch.16, section 3; book 1, ch.17, section 5

[19] Westminster Confession of Faith, chapter 33, paragraph 2.  Although Calvin had studied the patristic emphasis on God’s empowerment of human free will and their exposition of the biblical texts, he nevertheless decided that God’s sovereignty was mutually incompatible with human free will.  In Institutes, book 2, chapter 2, section 4, Calvin writes, ‘Moreover although the Greek Fathers, above others, and especially Chrysostom, have exceeded due bounds in extolling the powers of the human will, yet all ancient theologians, with the exception of Augustine, are so confused, vacillating, and contradictory on this subject, that no certainty can be obtained from their writings.’

[20] John Piper, How Does it Glorify God to Predestine People to Hell?, March 21, 2013;

3 Comments Add yours

  1. The distinction between attributes and activities is so good!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. another great piece. I cannot imagine a more antibiblical view of God than the one portrayed by Piper and Calvin. Just gross.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s