Athanasius as Evangelist: Why Human Evil is Even Possible, and Why Sin is Addictive | The Anástasis Center for Christian Education & Ministry


Made for Pleasure with God

In Contra Gentes chapters 2 – 7, Athanasius defends God from any accusation of evil or caprice on account of humanity’s wickedness.  He does this by explaining God’s intention for the creation.  After defending God as ‘good and exceeding[ly] noble,’ he defends God’s creation of the world and humanity as originally unstained and called into deeper knowledge of and communion with God.  Human beings were made in the image of the Word of the Father to have power in ourselves to freely ascend in love for God, receiving joy and pleasure and renewal by desiring Him.[1]

Athanasius says that the mind, the uppermost part of the soul, was created by God to perceive, via the creation, the Word by which the Father made all things.  The mind, through contemplation, was how the human being was to transcend itself, and this was to pour ‘pleasure’ into the rest of the soul:  ‘taking pleasure in contemplating Him, and gaining renewal by its desire toward Him.’[2]

Sin as Disordered Loves

In chapter 3, Athanasius accounts for human sin as a ‘holding back’ from that which God intended.  Instead, human beings began to prioritize themselves and their own bodies higher than the knowledge of God which was accessible through the mind and the soul.  Sin, therefore, is fundamentally a disordering of loves.  Nothing is evil in itself, appreciated in the correct order.  But we human beings betrayed our own vocation.[3]

‘They wholly forgot the power they originally had from God… For having departed from the consideration of the one and the true, namely, God, and from desire of Him, they had thenceforward embarked in diverse lusts and in those of the several bodily senses… They began to be habituated to these desires, so that they were even afraid to leave them: whence the soul became subject to cowardice and alarms, and pleasures and thoughts of mortality.’[4]

In chapter 3, Athanasius explains that human beings fixed their minds’ attention on the body and its senses, instead of outward and upward on God the Word.  This decision ‘entangled their soul with bodily pleasures, vexed and turbid with all kind of lusts, while they wholly forgot the power they originally had from God.’[5]  Athanasius makes an important and subtle remark here.  ‘The power they originally had from God’ is the power to contemplate God via the mind, to orient the emotions and the rest of the soul to delight in the knowledge of God, and thereby to direct the body in service to God.  Although he has not yet explicitly brought up the Holy Spirit as the cause of this power, he states that human ‘free will’ is experienced in the person’s soul.

In chapter 4, Athanasius describes the impact of the fall and sin’s addictive quality, from the vantage point of the human soul.  The soul, which is ‘mobile,’ has ‘power over herself,’[6] and in fact comes from God, abuses that power.  The soul can still discern what is good – that is, God.  Yet the soul, because of the pleasure it finds in lusts, abuses its mobility to pursue what is evil.  In chapter 5, Athanasius explains evils like murder, adultery, and slander as the result of disorder in the human soul that manifests itself as a misuse of the body.  He uses the illustration of a charioteer driving a fine chariot in a race, not towards the goal, but simply for the experience of racing at high speeds, even recklessly:

‘All of which things are a vice and sin of the soul: neither is there any cause of them at all, but only the rejection of better things.’[7]

Sin as Addictive

In chapters 6 and 7, Athanasius declares that God is innocent of wrongdoing, despite humanity being guilty of it.  And once again, he explains sin as a decision made by the human person located in the soul, which then boomerangs back upon the human soul and within it, to become a pattern of decisions:

‘…the soul of man, shutting fast her eyes, by which she is able to see God, has imagined evil for herself, and moving therein, knows not that, thinking she is doing something, she is doing nothing. For she is imagining what is not, nor is she abiding in her original nature; but what she is is evidently the product of her own disorder. For she is made to see God, and to be enlightened by Him; but of her own accord in God’s stead she has sought corruptible things and darkness, as the Spirit says somewhere in writing, ‘God made man upright, but they have sought out many inventions’ [Ecclesiastes 7:29].’[8]

Athanasius then describes the human soul behaving in ways that Athanasius called habituation, and what we today would call addiction:

‘Now the soul of mankind, not satisfied with the devising of evil, began by degrees to venture upon what is worse still. For having experience of diversities of pleasures, and girt about with oblivion of things divine; being pleased moreover and having in view the passions of the body, and nothing but things present and opinions about them, ceased to think that anything existed beyond what is seen, or that anything was good save things temporal and bodily; so turning away and forgetting that she was in the image of the good God, she no longer, by the power which is in her, sees God the Word after whose likeness she is made; but having departed from herself, imagines and feigns what is not. For hiding, by the complications of bodily lusts, the mirror which, as it were, is in her, by which alone she had the power of seeing the Image of the Father, she no longer sees what a soul ought to behold, but is carried about by everything, and only sees the things which come under the senses. Hence, weighted with all fleshly desire, and distracted among the impressions of these things, she imagines that the God Whom her understanding has forgotten is to be found in bodily and sensible things, giving to things seen the name of God, and glorifying only those things which she desires and which are pleasant to her eyes.’[9]

This is both the substance and the symptom of the soul’s self-imposed ‘disorder,’ the word Athanasius used in 7.4 – 5.  Speaking of the human soul, Athanasius makes a summary statement:

‘For she is made to see God, and to be enlightened by Him; but of her own accord in God’s stead she has sought corruptible things and darkness, as the Spirit says somewhere in writing, ‘God made man upright, but they have sought out many inventions’ [Ecclesiastes 7:29]. Thus it has been then that men from the first discovered and contrived and imagined evil for themselves. But it is now time to say how they came down to the madness of idolatry, that you may know that the invention of idols is wholly due, not to good but to evil. But what has its origin in evil can never be pronounced good in any point—being evil altogether.’[10]

Through the contemplation of the mind, and in the worship of God by the soul, we are meant to ‘ascend’ in some sense to the Father by the Word and Spirit, in love and in constant growth.  This seems logical, since a finite being experiencing the infinite being means constant growth for the finite party.  Sadly, in contrast to the objective contemplation of the Logos, humans turn to subjective ‘inventions’ and ‘imaginations.’

Athanasius is summarizing and synthesizing many biblical passages.  He reads Genesis 2 and finds that human beings were meant to grow and develop in creation as we grew and developed the creation itself.  We were meant to contemplate the goodness of God as we enjoyed the variety of good things in the garden, and spread the garden and further diversified it along the four rivers flowing from Eden (Gen.2:10 – 14).  But we internalized into ourselves the desire to define good and evil from the standpoint of ourselves, as opposed to leaving that prerogative with God, and so we corrupted our human nature and our desires (Gen.3:1 – 7).  Cain even further corrupted his human nature, as shown by the fact that he was unable to produce life from the ground (Gen.4:11 – 12).  This becomes the problem that must be solved by God.

Biblically, this insight should guide all subsequent interpretations about what is happening within the human nature of every single person.  After all, we take as a guiding principle that we are made in the image of God, from Genesis 1:26 – 28, as the Bible does not need to repeat that at every moment.  We also take the paradigm of marriage from Genesis 2:18 – 25 as the guiding principle for interpreting marital and sexual relations, as the Bible does not need to repeat that at every moment either.  The same principle is true about human nature.  This leads us to be concerned primarily about the internal impact of sin and redemption on human nature within each person.  We must interpret all external consequences on people for their sin – whether God’s judgments on people in the flood (say), or God’s judgments on Israel in the Sinai covenant (especially), or the everyday relational consequences we suffer because of sin, like alienation from each other – as external markers that point to the internal impact of our own sin upon ourselves.

Jesus and the apostles return to this focus on what happens within each person.  Jesus said that our actions can further corrupt ourselves, from within (Mt.15:18 – 20; Mk.7:21 – 23).  Paul points out that when we sin, we fall into a downward spiral where our desires become more and more corrupted (Rom.1:21 – 32; Eph.4:17 – 19).  So Athanasius is absolutely correct, from a pastoral and evangelistic perspective, for calling attention to what happens within us because of sin.

Why is God Good Despite Human Decline?

How does Athanasius help us answer the question of God’s goodness despite human evil?  Does human evil impugn God’s goodness?  Not at all.  Human evil is possible – though never necessary – because of three characteristics we share.  First, we are capable of experiencing ourselves and our existence as good.  Second, we are capable of growth.  Third, we are capable of joy.  And those three experiences intertwine with each other and mutually reinforce each other in a direction towards God, or away from Him.  All our choices are ultimately relational choices.

Athanasius does not say this in his writings yet, but it is easy to see how those three interrelated characteristics of our human experience are rooted in three interrelated characteristics of God.  First, God is good.  So God must create us in such a way that we are also good (‘God saw that it was good’), we know our existence to be good, and we experience the habitat in which we find ourselves as reflecting God’s goodness.  We are conscious of ourselves and of God.  Second, God is infinite.  That means that we are finite beings relating to the infinite.  So the human being is a human becoming, and the two phrases – being and becoming – are inseparable for us.  In fact, we owe to patristic Christianity as a whole – especially with Irenaeus and Athanasius – not an individualistic notion of human personhood, but a relational one, and not a static view, but a developmental one.  Third, our experience of God as infinitely good means that God must create us as capable of joy and of growing in joy.  God desires that we begin our journeys of knowing and loving Him with genuine human experience and consciousness, including the consciousness of making a genuine choice (freedom).  Our human experience is a reflection of God’s goodness and God’s infiniteness and, presumably, the joy that is within God as a Triune, relational being, but mapped into space and time and personality.  Therefore, all our choices are habit-forming, as Athanasius observes.

Why do we assert that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit revealed by Jesus is good, despite human evil?  Because by necessity of God’s infinite, goodness, and joy, the human being is always a human becoming:  that is, growing in a direction.  Hopefully, that direction is towards greater knowledge of God and love for God, which leads to appropriate knowledge of and love for others.  But the other direction is possible as well:  away from God towards self-enclosure and a fixation on whatever relative goodness is located in the created world or other created beings.  Athanasius will explore the fall in particular in De Incarnatione, but his preliminary answers in Contra Gentes are more general.

Athanasius’ primary language for sin is ‘disorder’ and ‘corruption’ because he has a healthy doctrine of creation.  Placing the secondary good of one’s self, or the affections of someone else (say), above the primary good who is God Himself – that is a disorder.  So too is placing the relative good of objects in the created world – like food or resources or beauty or such – above the primary good who is God.  Human evil is possible not because human beings are genuinely capable of depriving themselves of all goodness.  Human evil is possible because of the superabundance of goodness.  The deprivation theory of evil has its own accuracy when we consider the relative moral status of certain actions or ideas.  But even a lie, while evil in a relative sense compared with the truth, is parasitic upon that which is good, and therefore still contains in itself something good:  rational language, our capacity to communicate with one another, and the impulse to build trust between people.  In a framework where all created objects are good, because the good creator God can only bestow goodness in structured form, human evil is possible because we, in our affections, minds, and experience, are capable of disordering the original order of goodness which God created.  Human evil is our disordering of the good, as Athanasius says.  In Christ, he asserts, we find this good God healing the disorder.



[1] Athanasius of Alexandria, Contra Gentes 2.3

[2] Ibid 2.4

[3] Ibid 3.4

[4] Ibid 3.4

[5] Ibid 3.2

[6] Ibid 4.2; cf. 44.3, ‘For as by His own providence bodies grow and the rational soul moves, and possesses life and thought…’

[7] Ibid 5.2

[8] Ibid 7.4 – 5

[9] Ibid 8.1 – 2

[10] Ibid 7.5

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