After Athanasius diagnoses the disorder of human sin in Contra Gentes chapters 2 – 7, he examines idolatry as the outcome of the disorder in the human soul. Idolatry is his focus in chapters 8 – 29.
Arguing With Idolatry
Human beings, through the faculty of the unstable soul, devise idol-worship as a more entangling form of corruption (8). Human understanding, turning further and further from God, sinks lower, dragging down motivations and behavior (9). The originators of Greek paganism, in particular, from Theseus who commanded that the gods be worshiped, to the artisans who sculpted the gods in the image of men and women, trafficked in lies (10). The supposed deeds of the gods, especially Zeus, are so immoral that even Roman laws forbid the same behavior in human beings (11). We laugh at the volatility, adulteries, drunkenness, and other morally worthless behavior of virtually the entire pantheon of gods (12). Worshiping images made from wood or stone is logically ridiculous (13). The Scriptures rightly condemn the physical manufacturing of idols (14). But again, the behavior of these false gods in the stories told about them, is what turns human beings away from proper piety (15). Appealing to the poets’ craft of exaggeration and entertainment to excuse the gods’ behavior does not make sense, because the poets do not have license to both condemn the gods for their immoral behavior but also praise them; that is contradictory and ‘mutually inconsistent’ (16). These tales reflect immoral men, originally, not gods; so attributing to them divine attributes like immortality is false and wrong-headed (17).
Athanasius then explores some of the underlying failures of logic connected to idol-worship. He is thinking about some of his contemporaries who do worship the idols of the pagan Greek gods. How would they defend their beliefs? The argument that the gods should be honored for the arts that they supposedly bestowed upon humanity is applied without consistency, since other inventors and patrons of other useful arts are not so honored, rendering the argument moot (18). The argument that divine things can and should be represented, and made manifest, through material objects like carved idols is senseless (19). For the earth is full of valuable materials like stone and gold, thus what added value does carving impart? The earth is full of animals, thus what added value does animal likeness in stone impart? The talent to sculpt resides in men, yet it makes no sense to worship the works of their hands rather than the talent per se (20). The argument that angels come to cluster around the idol makes no sense, because once again the sculptor’s talent is the greater and the idol the lesser, and the sculptor is not venerated in this way (21). The material upkeep of idols shows corruptibility, which cannot be true of the divine (22). The ethnic-cultural specificity (non-universality) of idols shows that they are mere creations of men (23). In fact, the so-called gods of one people are used as ceremonial victims in the practices of another people (24). Human sacrifice is the most troubling inversion of greater and lesser to which idol-worship sinks; it has been practiced by the Scythian Taurians, the Greek worshipers of Ares, the Egyptian worshipers of Hera, the Phoenician and Cretan worshipers of Cronos, and the ancient Roman worshipers of Jupiter Latiarius (25). Human beings learned immorality from pagan idol-worship (26).
Arguing With “The Universe as God” Theory
Athanasius then addresses the Stoic pantheist who views the entire universe as one body, and who would similarly mock the more primitive idol-worship. Still, the pantheist’s admission that the universe is made up of complementary or contrasting parts would have to be projected onto the divine. The idea that the divine is made up of parts is nonsense (27, 28). The pantheist’s uneven regard for and treatment of natural phenomenon is incompatible with the idea that God is inherent to and identical with nature (29). To which the modern critic of pantheism can ask, ‘When the universe eventually cools off and dies, does ‘god’ die, too?’
Athanasius’ Style of Argument
Athanasius shows that he has considered idol-worship at length and with considerable patience. He quotes the Scriptures, but since his pagan audience would not share his conviction that Scripture speaks with an authoritative voice, Athanasius brings in logic to punctuate his own critique of idolatry. Additionally, perhaps he is mindful of his Jewish audience and is hoping that their commitment against idol-worship will dispose them favorably towards his argument. In any case, he mounts a challenge to pagan idol-worship from within, on its own terms. He questions the moral lessons they teach. He deconstructs them as creations of human history, not as truth-bearing tales of prehistory. And his primary logical device is to expose the self-contradictory elements in every version of idolatry. How can the gods be worthy of worship if human laws exist which ban for us behaviors that they apparently encourage? This critique is impressive. He has certainly deepened the problem of sin for his non-Christian audience. By showing more of the magnitude of human folly, he has not only made a case against idol-worship, he has rendered biblical concerns about human origins and human idol-worship into intelligible, defensible positions.
What About Modern Idolatries?
One wonders what Athanasius would make of such modern concepts as ‘progress,’ ‘freedom,’ ‘American exceptionalism,’ ‘the market,’ ‘the corporation,’ ‘the state,’ ‘race,’ and ‘retributive justice.’ These man-made institutions are accorded incredible weight and power over human behavior. For example, why do we believe in this or that? ‘Because we’re Americans.’ Or, ‘Because it’s the 21st century. We can’t turn back on progress.’ But Robert F. Kennedy, in a speech in 1968, gave a devastating critique of ‘economic progress’:
‘Too much and too long, we seem to have surrendered community excellence and community values in the mere accumulation of material things. Our gross national product … if we should judge America by that – counts air pollution and cigarette advertising, and ambulances to clear our highways of carnage. It counts special locks for our doors and the jails for those who break them. It counts the destruction of our redwoods and the loss of our natural wonder in chaotic sprawl. It counts napalm and the cost of a nuclear warhead, and armored cars for police who fight riots in our streets. It counts Whitman’s rifle and Speck’s knife, and the television programs which glorify violence in order to sell toys to our children. Yet the gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education, or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry or the strength of our marriages; the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage; neither our wisdom nor our learning; neither our compassion nor our devotion to our country; it measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile. And it tells us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans.’
‘Progress’ and ‘freedom’ are only human experiences. If our desire for these experiences is not submitted to, grounded in, and shaped by God, the One who is the beautiful, the loving, the good, and the true, then we will wind up serving these concepts and worshiping our own experiences. They are false gods and cruel masters. And when we hold up these experiences as first-order priorities, we, too, become filled with inner self-contradictions because they are human creations, after all. Their power over us comes, as with idol-worship, in providing a cloak of legitimation and justification for human tribalism, greed, self-indulgence, and resentment against their fellow human beings. Sin is terrible, and terrifying.
Athanasius shows that he is able to summon the tools of history, logic, and literature to deconstruct idolatry, the extension of human sin. I have very little doubt he would do the same today with these ‘gods’ we worship. For as Athanasius demonstrates, we are not only spiritual and intellectual beings, but social and relational beings as well, and the choices we make in our souls become manifested in our bodies and in relationships.
Sin is Terrible, God is Not
Athanasius aims to produce in his audience the conviction that sin, not God, is terrible and terrifying. This stands in direct contrast with evangelism done in some traditions springing especially from Lutheran and Calvinist traditions. Those strategies involve producing in the audience either personal anxiety about God, owing perhaps from Luther’s personal anxieties, or guilt in the impending and infinite divine retributive punishment, stemming from Calvin’s interest in Latin law, merit, and punishment. In either case, or in the combination of both, what the evangelist seeks is to produce the conviction that God is terrible and terrifying.
But Isn’t God Terrifying? What About Hebrews?
So in response to Athanasius, no doubt someone would object, based on this statement from Hebrews, below. Doesn’t this passage tell us that God is more terrifying than sin, and that we should portray Him that way?
26 For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, 27 but a terrifying expectation of judgment and ‘the fury of a fire which will consume the adversaries.’ 28 Anyone who has set aside the Law of Moses dies without mercy on the testimony of two or three witnesses. 29 How much severer punishment do you think he will deserve who has trampled under foot the Son of God, and has regarded as unclean the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and has insulted the Spirit of grace? 30 For we know Him who said, ‘Vengeance is Mine, I will repay.’ And again, ‘The Lord will judge His people.’ 31 It is a terrifying thing to fall into the hands of the living God. (Hebrews 10:26 – 31)
That is certainly a stern warning. But it is describing the divine fire of purification. Jesus ‘made purification of sins’ (Heb.1:3). That is, he was the one who burned the corruption of sin out of his own humanity through his own obedience, and ‘became perfect’ as far as humans go (Heb.5:7 – 10; 12:1 – 2). That’s why Hebrews insists that its readers not turn back to the Old Testament sacrifices at the Temple: God once symbolized Himself acting like a dialysis machine, taking into Himself the people’s impurity and giving back His purity. But God is now acting in and through Jesus Christ to be a spiritual kidney donor of sorts. God, in Christ, has provided the ultimate sacrifice for us: He’s conquered our fatal disease in and through the humanness of Jesus. God has an unquenchable desire to burn everything selfish and sinful out of us. He will never relent, which is why He calls everyone to receive life from Jesus. That is also why Hebrews returns to the event when God descended in fire at Mount Sinai (Heb.12:18 – 21; cf. Ex.19). God is now, even in and through Jesus, known as ‘a consuming fire’ (Heb.12:29). God is only terrifying for someone who wants to hold onto the very thing He wants to burn away. That’s why Hebrews 10:26 begins, ‘For if we go on sinning willfully…’ But that still means that sin is more terrifying than God, from an objective standpoint. So, if we read all of Hebrews in context, we can see it: Sin is terrifying, because it makes us experience God’s love as terrifying when it should not be so. Read Athanasius’ Third Festal Letter chapters 3 – 4 to see how he preaches on the theme of divine fire.
What About Fearing the One Who Can Destroy the Soul?
How about this objection: Doesn’t Jesus say that we should fear God, because he can destroy the soul as well as the body (Mt.10:28; Lk.12:4 – 5)? So we should do evangelism by making God out to be more terrible and terrifying than sin, shouldn’t we? Actually, no. Jesus was referring to the devil in those passages, not God. Because the devil can insinuate our minds with lies that people might choose to believe: lies obscuring the fact that Jesus’ power really came from God’s Spirit (Mt.10:25; Lk.11:14 – 27), and lies obscuring the truth about your own internal uncleanness and need for cleansing (Mt.10:26 – 27; Lk.11:28 – 12:3). God wants to purify the soul and resurrect the body into immortality. It is the devil who can trick us into believing that God’s purification is actually unfair torment. The devil can trick us into becoming accusers of God, as if His endless insistence that we surrender to His healing were pointless because we are absolutely fine. Hell is fundamentally a state of being in which we experience the truth and love of God as unfair torment, based on our own self-deception. The devil has ‘authority to cast into hell’ in that sense. But that still means that sin is terrifying, objectively, not God. A counselor is only terrifying if we want to hold on to our addiction. A doctor or surgeon is only terrifying if we want to hold on to our disease.
Needless to say, Athanasius’ evangelistic strategy is strikingly different than the technique employed by some who make God out to be the supremely terrifying one. To Athanasius, this long expose of idolatry as the inevitable outgrowth of the soul’s disorder is meant to produce the conviction that sin is its own punishment. And if the non-Christian person reading this can have any compassion on her/his fellow human beings, Athanasius seeks to enlist that shred of what is genuine in the service of his Christian argument. The disorder in, and damage to, the human soul produces disorder in, and damage to, human relationships. God is neither terrifying nor terrible. Sin is.