(2:9) The King Who Indwells

•September 3, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Naturally also, through this union of the immortal Son of God with our human nature, all men were clothed with incorruption in the promise of the resurrection. For the solidarity of mankind is such that, by virtue of the Word’s indwelling in a single human body, the corruption which goes with death has lost its power over all. You know how it is when some great king enters a large city and dwells in one of its houses; because of his dwelling in that single house, the whole city is honored, and enemies and robbers cease to molest it. Even so is it with the King of all; He has come into our country and dwelt in one body amidst the many, and in consequence the designs of the enemy against mankind have been foiled and the corruption of death, which formerly held them in its power, has simply ceased to be. For the human race would have perished utterly had not the Lord and Savior of all, the Son of God, come among us to put an end to death.

“Light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it.” – John 1:5

Athanasius is touching upon something here that theologians call “common grace.” God has not left us to our own devices. He will not yet leave us to stew in our own juices. No human being has ever experienced the absence of God. There is a common grace given to all mankind – the beauty of creation, the joy of loyal friendship, the bittersweet longing that the arts can draw out, the itch to explore and discover, the wholesome pleasure that comes with experiencing goodness, etc. God has not left us alone in our wretched state. In Colossians, Paul tells us that in Him all things are held together. If He were to let go for a moment, everything would disconnect and fall apart instantly. The fact that we all have a sense of right and wrong innate within us is a common grace. The longing we all have to love and be loved is a common grace. The deep desire for fullness of life is common grace. The fact that we all somehow know that freedom is inherently better than tyranny is a common grace. The fact that fruit is sweet is a common grace. The fact that babies are cute is a common grace. The fact that procreation is highly enjoyable = common grace. When we deliberately think about the simple pleasures of existence, we see that God has loaded planet Earth with grace after grace, gift after gift. Yes, there are some dark elements in this fallen world, but they do not outnumber the ways creation evokes the splendors of eternity. If the darkness overpowered the light, there would be no hope at all. Thankfully, by making His abode with us, He has ruled out the possibility of that ever happening.

The Incarnation of God as a human is the sweetest common grace there is. Everybody benefits from it whether they know it or not. The life of that Galilean carpenter has permeated all of human history. The poor and obscure have found reason to hold their heads high and invincible rulers of empires have been reduced to utter irrelevance by the life of this dusty rabbi. His life, words, actions, death and resurrection have so reverberated throughout every square inch of human history, it is nearly impossible to imagine a world in which these events never took place. Such a world is too dark to imagine. In Romans 1, Paul draws up a pencil sketch of common grace; God has revealed Himself to every human to such an extent that none can feign ignorance of Him. The sharp edge of this sweet reality is that we all know much more than we claim to. We each hold deep within us an ache for Eden. We carry this around with us and long for our home. This 2,000 year old Galilean carpenter-rabbi has irrevocably thrown open the possibility of our heart’s true home being infinitely available. Augustine said that our hearts are restless unless they find their rest in Him. It might also be said that our hearts find our home in Him. What a blessed state to live after His coming! I cannot imagine the darkness we would be drowning in had He not appeared.

On The Incarnation (2:9) Christ the Conqueror

•August 24, 2012 • Leave a Comment

The Word perceived that corruption could not be got rid of otherwise than through death; yet He Himself, as the Word, being immortal and the Father’s Son, was such as could not die. For this reason, therefore, He assumed a body capable of death, in order that it, through belonging to the Word Who is above all, might become in dying a sufficient exchange for all, and, itself remaining incorruptible through His indwelling, might thereafter put an end to corruption for all others as well, by the grace of the resurrection. It was by surrendering to death the body which He had taken, as an offering and sacrifice free from every stain, that He forthwith abolished death for His human brethren by the offering of the equivalent. For naturally, since the Word of God was above all, when He offered His own temple and bodily instrument as a substitute for the life of all, He fulfilled in death all that was required.

Ours is a despairing age. In the last century, which began with such lofty dreams of progress, we have seen more carnage and bloodshed than all of the previous centuries combined. As we have advanced in technological capacities, our moral capacities have not inched forward at all. To look back at our world wars and not despair of our species progressing is impossible. The more we advance intellectually, the more we seem to regress spiritually. Now that we live in a comfortable age of cars, coffee makers, microwaves, fast food and the internet, we find ourselves becoming lazier. Where our sires may have spent their evenings reading, thinking and conversing around a roaring flame, we stare absentmindedly into a flickering screen that thinks and dreams for us. Apart from our screens, we are mindless. Our skittering thoughts flit from surface to surface, unable to penetrate into deeper spaces. For all our advances in communication, we find we have nothing to say. For all our advances in creature-comforts, we find ourselves enslaved in velvet cages. However we advance, we also go backwards. This is our corruption. We have only to look at congress to see that when we come together, we get nothing accomplished. To put our faith in humanity is madness. But now we have a choice, to lose faith entirely or to put our faith in something higher and truer.

The Story that Christ has revealed is a story in which despair is defeated by the defeater despairing. When Jesus cried out from the cross “My God, why have you forsaken me” He was not play-acting. In that moment, he took our death and despair upon Himself and (dare I say it?) felt the full weight of it. God experienced God-forsakenness so no one else would ever have to. Athanasius tells us that the Word perceived that the only way His creation could be ridded of its corruption was through death. Death is the hub of our sinful state; our unchecked corruption prods us to utter destruction. In our current state of things, death is natural to humans. We who were created to bear the Image of the Eternal God now flounder in self-inflicted mortality. As we age, we wane. The more we hear the clock tick, the more we fade into oblivion. We are less than we were yesterday. This is the law of sin and death, which we are exiled under. So the Giver of Life has seen our wretched state and has had pity on us, because of His infinite love and goodness. God becoming human was a covert rescue operation. The Giver of Life becomes the Taker of Death by becoming killable. Killing the Giver of Life is like blowing on a dandelion, something was released into the very fabric of reality that turned death around on itself. The Eternal One has wrestled with the serpent and now the serpent is eating its own tail, instead of us. Because He was above all things, the very act of becoming the least of all things has rearranged all things. Now death is but an appearance, and life has swallowed it. We may not see it, since we are living in the interim between the turn of the tide and the coming deluge. Ours is to live in the good story that God is telling, even though it looks to be foolishness to the naked eye. One day our eyes will see that which cannot now be believed. He will be inescapable and those who have bought into the corrupt disorder will have nowhere to hide from His fiery stare. The elements will melt away and there will be no hiding. In His mercy, He offers us an interim in which to gradually learn to endure and later to delight in that fiery gaze of His.

Coming as a human was an act of mercy; we could not endure the fierceness of His presence otherwise. We would not have been able to endure His piercing glare of utter reality; we who are weaned on pixelated screens and addicted to unreality. We are racing toward our own destruction and act as if all will turn out well without the slightest effort of making a conscious turn from non-reality. When He thundered from Sinai, we cowered in fear. Now He comes as one of us, speaking truth into our fabricated fancying. Every moment He was living in the likeness of fallen flesh, He was committing Himself to death in some way. From that first forlorn cry in the stench of the manger, He took on our corruptness and despair. He wielded it like a flaming brand and tamed it like a manic stallion. Under the watchful eyes of those who look back into history, He wrestles the hydra that has terrorized us for ages. In doing this, God becomes our hero. The God of Christians is not some moody tyrant who barks orders from a safe distance, He is the conquering hero who has entered the arena on our behalf and vanquished our spiritual foes to such an extent that they are now a spectacle to be mocked and jeered at. Those dark powers that once took advantage of our innocence and wrought unnatural dark delights in us without our consent are now pinned to the ground in wrathful agony as our champion avenges our enslavement. This is epic stuff. Unfortunately, we usually describe His work for us in cold, calculated, mechanical phrases as if He merely came to fulfill an obligation. No, He came thundering out of Heaven with fire in His eyes scattering the forces of darkness that had drained the joy out of our existence and turned this planet into a brutal place. When the light is turned on, the cockroaches scuttle. He is the conquering hero who has personally wrested our hope from the jaws of death itself. Until that becomes dazzlingly real to us, all the carefully-crafted, overly-technical theological phrases in the world won’t do anything good for us.

A Toast to J.R.R. Tolkien on his 120th Birthday!

•January 3, 2012 • Leave a Comment

Happy Birthday to the man who wrote the first book that ever completely captivated me. Through his writing, I was able to see life itself as a summons to a great adventure. They say that evil characters are always more interesting than good characters, but Tolkien proved them wrong and made his good characters the fascinating ones. He showed that the good, the true and the beautiful are many-splendored and worth fighting for. People say Lord Of The Rings is not literature and is a glorified comic-book. I would beg to differ and contend that it rests alongside The Odyssey, The Divine Comedy, The Iliad, Paradise Lost, and the like. The dangerous beauty that Tolkien so masterfully describes pierces the heart and feeds the soul. To read Tolkien is to literally travel to some of the most breath-taking places while not escaping reality in the slightest. Tolkien’s fantasy is not escapist; it faces the darkness of the world and defeats it. We come back to our world with eyes that see things with a deeper clarity and hearts strengthened to fight the good fight. It’s been decades since Tolkien stepped into the Great Adventure beyond this mortal coil and so I raise my glass of Starbucks Christmas Blend in his memory and celebrate him turning 120. May we all live to be so forever young. To Tolkien!

On The Incarnation (2:8) Heaven Invades Earth

•December 23, 2011 • Leave a Comment

For this purpose, then, the incorporeal and incorruptible and immaterial Word of God entered our world. In one sense, indeed, He was not far from it before, for no part of creation had ever been without Him Who, while ever abiding in union with the Father, yet fills all things that are. But now He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us.

Athanasius gives us an astounding vision of mysterious scope; using words like incorporeal, incorruptible and immaterial is supposed to mess with our minds. We can’t picture the incorporeal and immaterial. We can only let our images and metaphors be shattered and our minds be humbled. We have NO conception of what the Word was before He became one of us. It is beyond our abilities to grasp; we can only use negative descriptors to enforce intellectual humility.

It is with very cautious language here that A. explains this. “In one sense” the Word was not far from the world before the incarnation. This is truth and the Bible validates this claim. Jesus was present in every page of the Old Testament, if we have eyes to see. However, we can only see this in hindsight, BECAUSE of the incarnation.

Athanasius carefully words this: “No part of creation had ever been without Him Who, while ever abiding in union with the Father, yet fills all things that are.” In Him we live and move and have our being, as Paul said in Acts 17. In Colossians 1, he also says that ALL THINGS are held together by Christ. This is cosmic and universal in scope and yet how would we have known if God did not REVEAL it? Our philosophers still try to formulate reality and haven’t come anywhere close to what we can know only through revelation. This is a “God-drenched” world, no square inch of creation is God-forsaken. Yet we are unable to see it without Him revealing Himself to us.

“But now He entered the world in a new way, stooping to our level in His love and Self-revealing to us.” Only love can motivate someone to “stoop” to another’s level to communicate something for their sake. Since Christ is the Word of God, this means He is the Communication of God. Some of what God has revealed has been revealed in the crudeness of human language, but God becoming human is also a communication. What did God want to reveal to us that could only be communicated in the ACT of becoming one of us? The answer can only be His great love for us, since one can very easily communicate contempt and disdain without making oneself available and vulnerable to the offending party.

He saw the reasonable race, the race of men that, like Himself, expressed the Father’s Mind, wasting out of existence, and death reigning over all in corruption. He saw that corruption held us all the closer, because it was the penalty for the Transgression; He saw, too, how unthinkable it would be for the law to be repealed before it was fulfilled. He saw how unseemly it was that the very things of which He Himself was the Artificer should be disappearing. He saw how the surpassing wickedness of men was mounting up against them; He saw also their universal liability to death. All this He saw and, pitying our race, moved with compassion for our limitation, unable to endure that death should have the mastery, rather than that His creatures should perish and the work of His Father for us men come to nought, He took to Himself a body, a human body even as our own. Nor did He will merely to become embodied or merely to appear; had that been so, He could have revealed His divine majesty in some other and better way. No, He took our body, and not only so, but He took it directly from a spotless, stainless virgin, without the agency of human father—a pure body, untainted by intercourse with man.

This is already familiar territory, God was moved (and it would be unthinkable that God wouldn’t be moved) by our predicament. It was out of compassion for our sakes, but it was also for His sake. That the work of His hands should fall under the power of death was unacceptable to Him. He was “unable to endure” that death should have mastery over us. It is important to use this language of passion and emotion in this context because God is passionate and displays plenty of emotion in the Bible. Read the prophets and you will find God angry and grieved and at times exasperated with His beloved Israel. He doesn’t simply use legal language cleanly and evenly as in “you have transgressed my law therefore I must punish you” but He also uses language like, “you have played the whore!” This is language of jealousy and intense passion. The legal language is Biblical but it isn’t the only language God uses. He is not an impartial judge, He is a father, lover and warrior for His beloved. And this is how we should think of God becoming human. Not out of a bland sense of “well, I suppose I must” but out of an inability NOT to. “How could I NOT?!” He was unable to endure the alternative, Athanasius says.

Also, it is important to note that it wasn’t enough to simply “become embodied.” He had done that before, in numerous stories in the Old Testament. This was to be different. He would not only APPEAR as one of us, but actually BECOME one of us. He would be born as a baby and grow up human. He would experience human existence authentically; this was no divine trickery. We need to remind ourselves of this…He EMPTIED Himself and did not count equality with God something to be self-servingly clutched. This act of being born as a human baby was a divine act of self-emptying. So many Christians want to dismiss Christmas as sentimental bosh and move straight to the cross, even on Christmas (!) but they are misguided. The manger was an equal act of self-sacrifice for God as the cross. You don’t have the cross without the manger. God has to make himself nothing before He can even have the possibility of being nailed to a piece of wood. The manger speaks its own profound word on the sacrifice Christ made. We don’t need to rush right to Golgotha to get a picture of His sacrifice; there is an abundance of Christ’s self-emptying to be found in Bethlehem.

He, the Mighty One, the Artificer of all, Himself prepared this body in the virgin as a temple for Himself, and took it for His very own, as the instrument through which He was known and in which He dwelt. Thus, taking a body like our own, because all our bodies were liable to the corruption of death, He surrendered His body to death instead of all, and offered it to the Father. This He did out of sheer love for us, so that in His death all might die, and the law of death thereby be abolished because, having fulfilled in His body that for which it was appointed, it was thereafter voided of its power for men. This He did that He might turn again to incorruption men who had turned back to corruption, and make them alive through death by the appropriation of His body and by the grace of His resurrection. Thus He would make death to disappear from them as utterly as straw from fire.

This is a deep mystery. God prepared His own body in the womb as “a temple for Himself.” As with the Temple which He filled in a special way, the fetus of Jesus would be a much more potent temple. He would fill it in a way He had never filled the temple: this would be His DEFINITIVE revelation to humanity. He took a body liable to the corruption of death. He didn’t have to, since He never sinned, but He took on our corruptible nature. He experienced every temptation any other human did without succumbing to any. This is why the manger is such an act of self-sacrifice. He could have taken on an incorruptible human body (of the kind He had after the resurrection) but He willingly chose a body of the kind WE have. He was pulled from the womb screaming and crying like the rest of us. In a sense every human is still dealing with the trauma of being pulled from that safe little sanctuary into this turbulent existence. Yet when we outgrow the womb, we are brought out of it. God Himself experienced this when He was born. Out of the safety of the womb into the dangerous adventure of human existence. Only He entered our shared existence and utterly transformed it into a place of hope and longing, rather than death and despair.

“He did this out of sheer love.” Again, Athanasius seems to feel like he can’t stress this enough. The baby in the manger is the way God irrevocably broke into the world. The light has punctured the darkness and the darkness will never recover. The love of God now has a tangible expression: Christmas, Good Friday, Easter. We celebrate these momentous events in human history because they were done definitively by God FOR us. We no longer have to wonder what or who is responsible for life, the universe and everything because the Creator has revealed Himself. And not only that, but there is a participatory element to this event: none of us are able to be neutral. What about this person Jesus – born in a manger, crucified on a Roman cross and seen alive after He died? We can ignore it or look into it, but however we react we cannot feign ignorance. We either find ourselves captivated by this person or we can try to avoid Him but it is impossible. His influence has completely changed the world and all things lead back to Him. In Him we live and move and have our being – in Him all things are held together. God has invaded Earth in this child and we are all faced with a choice: swear allegiance or remain in darkness. There is no neutral soil in this battle between Heaven and the Abyss. None but this child can cross over into both and this child has defeated the Abyss FOR each and every one of us. This is the Christmas proclamation. The Birth of the Eternal One into Time; the Author of Life submits to Death and blows up Death from the inside. The defeat of Death and the Abyss (Hades) was already sure when this child came screaming from the womb of Mary. Our hope and victory were born when He was, and that is what we celebrate on Christmas.

On The Incarnation (2:7) The Unnamed Desire

•December 18, 2011 • Leave a Comment

Yet, true though this is, it is not the whole matter. As we have already noted, it was unthinkable that God, the Father of Truth, should go back upon His word regarding death in order to ensure our continued existence. He could not falsify Himself; what, then, was God to do? Was He to demand repentance from men for their transgression? You might say that that was worthy of God, and argue further that, as through the Transgression they became subject to corruption, so through repentance they might return to incorruption again. But repentance would not guard the Divine consistency, for, if death did not hold dominion over men, God would still remain untrue. Nor does repentance recall men from what is according to their nature; all that it does is to make them cease from sinning.

Adam and Eve hide, deep in the rainforests of Eden. The world is now a frightening place. Every noise, every change in the wind, and every shift in the atmosphere carries a sense of foreboding. They have hidden themselves from each other and whatever other dangers may be lurking. Suddenly, and with no warning save that which was given explicitly by God, the beautiful delights of Eden have become sinister and numinous. There is a feeling of terror rising up inside of them. So this is how things are, in the real world. We were fools to believe in the illusion of Eden. “All things in their right place and all for our joy!” Ha! So we thought in our innocence and naivety. We know better now. All things are no more in order than we are, and the illusion of order and delight were all to keep us enslaved. Now we know that God is a strange being that knows more than we do and uses His secrets to trap us. Eden was a cage anyway.

On and on their thoughts may have spun. Their nature was changing and they began to form their thought patterns around the serpent’s lies. This lone act of defiance sparked in them thoughts of fear and sorrow. Those who are disenchanted usually console themselves by making themselves believe that they are somehow more advanced and can see through all illusions. Life may be pure misery, they tell themselves, but at least I know what things are really like. This is the nature of the serpent’s lie – it spreads out within us in a million different directions and changes our natures from childlike wonder to jaded and cynical.

Athanasius asks if it would have simply been enough for God to simply demand a change of heart from humanity. Why not just command them to “repent”? Because we are unable to repent. The serpent’s venom has seeped so deeply into each of our hearts, the bite is fatal. Our thoughts poison our spirits which weakens our bodies. We fear God and do not trust Him. Our religion (even, sadly much that calls itself Christianity) is mostly about appeasing an angry judge and brutal taskmaster. Our loving companion in the garden has been slandered by the serpent and we run from Him. He must now REVEAL Himself and DO something that will make it possible to change our hearts and redeem us from the nightmare. Our actions are not the problem; the hearts from which our actions stem: THEY are the problem.

Had it been a case of a trespass only, and not of a subsequent corruption, repentance would have been well enough; but when once transgression had begun men came under the power of the corruption proper to their nature and were bereft of the grace which belonged to them as creatures in the Image of God. No, repentance could not meet the case. What—or rather Who was it that was needed for such grace and such recall as we required? Who, save the Word of God Himself, Who also in the beginning had made all things out of nothing? His part it was, and His alone, both to bring again the corruptible to incorruption and to maintain for the Father His consistency of character with all. For He alone, being Word of the Father and above all, was in consequence both able to recreate all, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be an ambassador for all with the Father.

The “subsequent corruption” is the main issue. When we fell, our hearts and minds began to lie to themselves. We made believe that the act of eating forbidden fruit was “liberating” and “brave.” We consigned ourselves to an existence of silent fear and angst. We let ourselves become isolated from the source of life and our hearts began to die within us. We carry with us that deep longing for reconciliation with God but do not know where it comes from. There is a deep sorrow in every human that longs for a return to Eden but we do not have the words to express it. There are times we may glimpse Paradise in our earthly lives and reach out to touch it, only to find it disappears. Moments of bittersweet joy and yearning that come at the least expected times. What is this deep memory of something we cannot name? Eden. In this present age of human-created chaos, the dream of Eden is alive and well, yet we never seem to be able to realize it. It is beyond our power to return; something must be done FOR us.

About our self-inflicted exile from the garden, Frederick Buechner writes, “To say that God drove Adam and Eve out of Eden is apparently a euphemism for saying that Adam and Eve like the rest of us made a break for it as soon as God happened to look the other way. If God really wanted to get rid of us, the chances are he wouldn’t have kept hounding us every step of the way ever since.” And it is important to remember who came looking for who. God sought Adam and Eve out, punished them, but then gave them a promise. That promise was that one day a man would be born of the woman (God is careful to single out the woman) and He would crush the head of the serpent.

And out they went, Eden closed behind them – but not closed forever. Their hope was in the future, toward One who would win the battle they lost. Until then, they were to hold on to the promise. This was the only promise strong enough: that the Word Himself would come to save them and all of us who recognize Him and believe the promise.

On The Incarnation (2:6) The Divine Dilemma

•December 16, 2011 • Leave a Comment

We saw in the last chapter that, because death and corruption were gaining ever firmer hold on them, the human race was in process of destruction. Man, who was created in God’s image and in his possession of reason reflected the very Word Himself, was disappearing, and the work of God was being undone. The law of death, which followed from the Transgression, prevailed upon us, and from it there was no escape. The thing that was happening was in truth both monstrous and unfitting. It would, of course, have been unthinkable that God should go back upon His word and that man, having transgressed, should not die; but it was equally monstrous that beings which once had shared the nature of the Word should perish and turn back again into non-existence through corruption. It was unworthy of the goodness of God that creatures made by Him should be brought to nothing through the deceit wrought upon man by the devil; and it was supremely unfitting that the work of God in mankind should disappear, either through their own negligence or through the deceit of evil spirits.

This section of “On The Incarnation” is on “The Divine Dilemma and it’s Solution in the Incarnation.” Too often we can see God’s justice as His real nature and His love and goodness as an eccentric quality in the Divine Character. Athanasius does not. He sees God’s “goodness” as equally binding as His holy justness. In this passage we see a divine Catch-22. God has created humans a certain way: we bear His image and are intended to reflect His image through loving communion with Him. As we saw in the last chapter, this is where our very existence comes from. We were not made to live apart from His life in us. Without it, we fade and eventually die, spiritually and physically (although A. seems to think physical death was a reality before the Fall, since creation is temporal).

When we distrusted God and acted on that distrust, something irrevocable reverberated through space and time. In some sense, creation itself was impoverished due to our negligence and bad stewardship. It wasn’t God’s intention for us, but God couldn’t just pretend it didn’t happen. One, because we were not created to be puppets, over-rided by His will against our own. And two, because this world has a reality in itself that God gave it, so that events in this world cannot be erased. This happened and there is no undoing it. On top of this, our ability to reason, A. says, began to fade, since it was a major part of His Image in us. The “law of death prevailed” over us. There were real consequences to mistrusting God and misrepresenting His intentions and promises toward us expressed in the act of eating forbidden fruit.

Here we see that A. considers the goodness of God as an equal counterbalance to the holy justice of God. When we wade into this territory, words are notoriously unreliable. We can’t simply speak of God’s mercy, love, goodness, holiness and justice as if they are warring factions in the divine nature. They are distinct characteristics that God has revealed, but they are in harmony with each other. And John tells us that God is Love, which is an important statement. John didn’t say God is partially Love, and nowhere in scripture is any other attribute given such a place in God’s character. It is said that God is holy, but not that God is holiness. God is merciful, but nowhere in the pages of scripture is God revealed to BE mercy. Yet in John’s epistle, we are given this golden key to unlock a deeper understanding of who God is: God is Love. So if God is holy, He is lovingly holy. If God is just, He is lovingly just. Apply “lovingly” to any of God’s attributes and you will see God accurately, if we believe in the inspiration of John’s epistle.

Athanasius gets this which is why he would see God letting humanity self-destruct as equally unthinkable as God simply sweeping the whole incident under the rug and leaving Adam and Eve in Eden. Athanasius points out a divine dilemma; He can’t do either and stay true to His character. He cannot let Adam and Eve off scot-free nor can He bear to leave them to their own devices. We will see how the Incarnation is God’s brilliant solution to this dilemma.

As, then, the creatures whom He had created reasonable, like the Word, were in fact perishing, and such noble works were on the road to ruin, what then was God, being Good, to do? Was He to let corruption and death have their way with them? In that case, what was the use of having made them in the beginning? Surely it would have been better never to have been created at all than, having been created, to be neglected and perish; and, besides that, such indifference to the ruin of His own work before His very eyes would argue not goodness in God but limitation, and that far more than if He had never created men at all. It was impossible, therefore, that God should leave man to be carried off by corruption, because it would be unfitting and unworthy of Himself.

Athanasius is making an amazing statement here: any God who would create humanity and then be indifferent as humanity destroyed itself would be no God worthy of the name. Some today would say that since God is perfectly good and we are not very good at all, we have no place to evaluate the goodness of God in any meaningful way. Many things we might call evil could very well be good and vice versa. But this is a horrible thought and denies that we have any moral knowledge whatsoever. We do, for the most part know right from wrong. It is our will that fails to act on what we know, but our knowledge of good and evil is somewhat universal. The moral component (apart from the covenantal component) of the Ten Commandments have found expression in every civilization known to humanity. There may be secluded tribes in rainforests that subvert some of them, but they would be the exception that proves the rule. To make the words “good” and “evil” be so subjective in relation to God renders both words meaningless, and that leads straight to relativism.

We know goodness when we experience it, and even we know that for God to be indifferent to the self-destruction and suffering of humans would disprove His goodness. That is not to say that we don’t deserve His absence, but since God is good, loving and merciful, He does not abandon us, because that “would be unfitting and unworthy of Himself.”

On The Incarnation (1:5) Cancer of the Soul

•December 7, 2011 • Leave a Comment

This, then, was the plight of men. God had not only made them out of nothing, but had also graciously bestowed on them His own life by the grace of the Word. Then, turning from eternal things to things corruptible, by counsel of the devil, they had become the cause of their own corruption in death; for, as I said before, though they were by nature subject to corruption, the grace of their union with the Word made them capable of escaping from the natural law, provided that they retained the beauty of innocence with which they were created. That is to say, the presence of the Word with them shielded them even from natural corruption, as also Wisdom says: “God created man for incorruption and as an image of His own eternity; but by envy of the devil death entered into the world.” (Wisdom ii. 23) When this happened, men began to die, and corruption ran riot among them and held sway over them to an even more than natural degree, because it was the penalty of which God had forewarned them for transgressing the commandment.

Here we find Athanasius addressing the interlocked doctrines of Sin, the Fall of Man and Human Depravity. These are touchy subjects today and many Christians shy away from openly preaching or discussing them. The Biblical word “sin” is replaced with less offensive words like “mistakes” or “imperfections” in an attempt to be less harsh and dogmatic. This is based on a misapprehension of these doctrines and a misguided assumption that the reality of sin is a negative and pessimistic view of humanity. After all, isn’t it better to simply call people to their higher, more spiritual natures without mucking about with sin and judgment?

There are good intentions behind this approach, because the doctrine of sin and human depravity has been misused by self-righteous religionists and now the subject is fundamentally misunderstood. When people hear the word “sin” today, they generally think we are talking about “being naughty” or just breaking rules. This assumes that God’s highest goal for us is to be good little rule-followers. No, God created us for abundant life and intimate relationship with Himself. Of course there are moral implications, but that morality is intricately linked with relational experience with God. Without that relational experience, the keeping of morality for its own sake is pointless and potentially harmful as it can lead very easily into spiritual pride and self-righteousness; the law-keeping religion of Pharisees. Unfortunately Pharisee-Religion is as prevalent today as it ever was, and it is practiced often in the name of One who definitively denounced it as devilish. So when we treat the topic of sin in a Pharisaical manner in the name of Jesus, we are teaching falsely.

Eve ate the forbidden fruit and that act was breaking a rule God gave them. That’s true. But what happened in the heart of Eve as she was deluded by the serpent is where the real damage was done. Eve was made to mistrust the heart God and the act of eating the fruit was an act of self-glorification. Eve felt she could no longer trust God to do what was best for them, even after He had put them in such a lush and extravagant garden with a rich variety of fruits for their pleasure. God’s generosity was called into question and Eve began to see God as miserly and withholding. When she believed this untruth and acted upon it, the fabric of reality was forever changed. It was an act that could not be undone. Adam and Eve were suddenly thrust into the cruel, harsh godless world of their own making. They were deeply wounded by their misapprehension of God, hiding from Him and from each other. From now on, fear and shame would be the prime motivators in their lives.

Tim Keller, in his excellent book “The Reason for God” gives what is probably the best treatment on the subject of sin for today’s ears. Keller knows that the term has been misused to manipulate and control, but realizes the problem is an all-too superficial view of sin as rule-breaking and general naughtiness. Keller’s definition of sin is, “the despairing refusal to find your deepest identity in your relationship and service to God. Sin is seeking to become oneself, to get an identity, apart from Him.” This shows both sides of the mirror-maze: sin is all-out rebellion against God through self-destructive behavior and apathy toward the good of others, BUT sin is also attempting to find an identity in being seen as religious or spiritual. Jesus spent more time angrily denouncing the latter, because it’s much more devious and duplicitous than the former. The former is mere carnality which one can be shocked awake from; but self-righteous religious pride is almost a perfectly air-tight hiding place from the very God that one is pretending to know and worship. This is a glimpse of how depraved humanity is. We really have no hope apart from a savior. We will either choose one of these two extremes or settle down somewhere in the middle in which we can alternate between them.

Sin is, at its core, an identity issue. It is seeking to create our own identity with whatever raw materials we can manufacture on our own. Whatever we are good at or gravitate towards, we can make sinful by hiding behind. Or whatever group we want to be accepted by (sadly Christianity included) all one has to do is learn the lingo and fit in. When we find our identity in what we do or who we mingle with, we are attempting to create an identity that is bound to be revealed as a hollow mask, sooner or later. We cannot create an identity, we can only be given an identity; and there is only One qualified to give that gift. So here we see, as A. describes, “the plight of man.” We were created to bear God’s Image and this is a high calling. Yet we fell into corruption and are now under the power of death. Athanasius sees God’s Image as His presence literally. We were given a share of “His own life by the grace of His Word.” When we fell, we lost that share of His own life in us and now our core is empty. Sin is the attempt to fill that emptiness with anything other than God Himself. Yes, there are certain acts that are sinful acts, but our condition is much worse than bad behavior; we are hopelessly self-destructive. We don’t need candles, crystals, self-help books or red rock vortexes: we need a savior – each and every one of us.

Indeed, they had in their sinning surpassed all limits; for, having invented wickedness in the beginning and so involved themselves in death and corruption, they had gone on gradually from bad to worse, not stopping at any one kind of evil, but continually, as with insatiable appetite, devising new kinds of sins. Adulteries and thefts were everywhere, murder and raping filled the earth, law was disregarded in corruption and injustice, all kinds of iniquities were perpetrated by all, both singly and in common. Cities were warring with cities, nations were rising against nations, and the whole earth was rent with factions and battles, while each strove to outdo the other in wickedness. Even crimes contrary to nature were not unknown, but as the martyr-apostle of Christ says: “Their women changed the natural use into that which is against nature; and the men also, leaving the natural use of the woman, flamed out in lust towards each other, perpetrating shameless acts with their own sex, and receiving in their own persons the due recompense of their pervertedness.” (Rom. i. 26)

Sin is not static. It progresses like a cancer. If we read the first third of Genesis, we will see that which began with the plucking of a fruit ended with cold-blooded murder. What began with cold-blooded murder progressed into endless variations of depravity and perversion.

This is completely against God’s heart for us. This is to go backwards, into hiding. This is to fall more and more into a self-centered life focused around mere survival and immediate pleasures at the cost of long-term peace and joy. God did not create us for a miserable existence, He created us to be citizens of Paradise and agents of Paradise in His creation. He created us to journey through life with Him as our Father, Shepherd and Companion. He wants us to discover our true identities in Christ (our share in His own life by the grace of His word). God did not put us here to eke out a dull existence of tedious rule-keeping nor did he put us here to implode on ourselves spiritually and take in everything without a filter. He created us to truly live and to know His love experientially. More than anything, it is that lack of experiencing His love that leads us out into strange directions in an attempt to find the love we were created for.

Yes, Athanasius ends this passage by quoting Paul’s condemnation of homosexuality in Romans 1. The Bible teaches in various places that homosexuality is against our God-given nature, and I also believe that. However, it is a sin and a temptation I have never struggled with. We need to read Romans 1 realizing that Paul is springing a trap on the self-righteous (it’s amazing how often this passage is quoted without reference to that). At the beginning of Romans 2, Paul reminds the reader that he or she is no better than anyone who has been referenced in Romans 1. Paul opens Romans 2 by saying: “Therefore you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.” He lists some obvious carnal sins in Romans 1 to get the spiritually prideful all riled up and then he turns the entire thing around on the self-righteous. “For in passing judgment on another, you condemn yourself…” Yes, we need to take sin seriously, but if we pass judgment on other humans (ascribe worth or worthlessness based on performance, while communicating those judgments in our actions and behavior) we condemn ourselves, because this goes against the very grace of God we are hopefully growing in. The way we judge certain sins is also quite telling. It is easy to condemn homosexuals in our churches because they are an outsider group. It is more difficult to use equally condemning tones when speaking of divorce and remarriage since that strikes closer to home, even though Jesus speaks definitively about divorce in the gospels and never once mentions homosexuality personally. I believe we must show grace to both homosexuals and divorcees and humbly (not condescendingly) serve them, leading them to Christ. I believe it is possible to be truthful about what the Bible teaches and patient at the same time, realizing that it is a real person in front of you who needs to be healed by God. We need to speak truth without making the person God loves feel hopeless and condemned. God wants us to repent, but repentance isn’t a mere shift in performance; it is quite literally a change of heart. And if we pretend it was easy for us to repent, we are hypocrites. We recieved grace when it was hard for us to repent; God was patient, and we need to pass that grace on.

So sin is a major theme in the Bible and it needs to be addressed. There are two ditches we can fall into on this (and many) subjects. One is failing to address it altogether and to pretend that all humanity needs is improvement, not redemption. The other ditch is judgmental condemnation. Sin is a common wound we all share. Sin is a cancer of the soul, eating us alive. We need to be loving and patient when confronting those in obvious patterns of sin and offer hope whenever we preach or teach on sin in general. Paul says as much, in Galatians 6:1, “Brethren, even if someone is caught in any trespass, you who are spiritual, restore such a one in a spirit of gentleness; each one looking to yourself, so that you too will not be tempted.” Confronting sin is for the spiritually mature, who are able to do it gently with caution, the spiritually mature know they are not immune from falling themselves. Confronting sin should never be undertaken in a harsh, judgmental manner by someone who acts as if they are above it. I’ve tried to convey the spirit of Galatians 6:1 in my treatment on sin so far, and in real life situations when I’ve had to confront someone. Gentle, humble and loving is always the way to go.

Yes, sin is bad news, but its better news than any other explanation for the human condition. It’s better news than saying we are merely evolved animals acting on instinct. If we are mere evolved animals, this is as good as it gets. If we are sinners, than this isn’t what we were meant to be; there is a possibility of a better existence, which thankfully, we will move on to in subsequent passages.