I wanted to deal with this low hanging fruit long ago, but to me it should seem obvious to a normal reader that Athanasius was not a annihilationist/conditionalist. As always, you have to examine the context of any writing. Not only the surrounding text, but other variables like, historical timeframe, audience, speaker, culture, location, semantics, or in this case, other literary works that place the gems of history in their proper setting upon the crown of context. All that to say that if one were to just take the time to pick up two of Athanasius’ most popular and interrelated works, they would quickly pull the rug under those that believe he was a conditionalist. The evidence will be easy to reference.
Who said it?
Glenn Peoples made a video about which early church fathers believed in conditonalism. You can see the part where he mentions Athanasius here. Aside from the clipped and edited quotes that clearly do not represent Athanasius’ position in context, Glenn is using his own interpretation of Athanasius’ words and reading them into words like “non-existence” and “destruction.” As you will see in part 9b in this series, these words were used with nuance by Athanasius. You will also notice that the majority of the time, conditionalists tend to quote from Anthanasius’ work entitled On The Incarnation. But they neglect to mention that this work was part II of his previous work Against the Heathen. Unfortunately, because of videos like this, men like Preston Sprinkle, Chris Date, and others, are stuck in the proverbial echo chamber of conditonalist propaganda. And time and time again, they continue to purposefully or neglectfully spread false information like this out of context whenever the subject of church fathers are brought up. Let’s put this particular father to rest.
Note: As I mentioned before in my previous articles, the views of the church fathers pale in comparison to God’s word which testifies to the veracity of eternal conscious torment. I seek to address this only as a matter of exposing the varying avenues conditonalist leaders will take to push this view. So believe me when I say, God’s word is clear that the wicked will be tormented forever. And Athanasius believed that.
A Tale of Two Books
As I alluded to already, Athanasius had two books which were were essentially his thesis on the human condition and the necessity of Christ’s incarnation to save us from that condition. But conditionalists love to quote from the second book On The Incarnation, while neglecting to read it through the foundation laid down in the first book Against the Heathen. To be brief, The main purpose of Against the Heathen in Athanasius’ own words is to “[vindicate] Christian doctrine, and especially the cross, against the scoffing objection of Gentiles” (Introduction). It is divided into three main parts through which he argues:
- Against the (non)existence of evil as a substance and its relationship to the worship of idols and how this affects our degeneration into immorality.
- The immortality of the soul and its relationship to God by worshiping Him who is eternal rather than idols.
- The divine, monotheistic, and sovereign presence of Christ the Word in creation and the necessity of our corrupt nature to be restored to Him.
These, of course, are my summaries. You can read all the contemporary issues that he goes into yourself, but our goal here is to make a quick work by focusing on Part I where Athanasius explicitly affirms his belief of the immortality of the soul. And if you know anything about conditonalism, this doctrine is one of the first things they challenge.
The Immortality of the Soul
In case you didn’t watch the video, here is the popular quote from Incarnation that Glenn Peoples used in the video above, and that many annihilationists use:
For transgression of the commandment was turning them back to their natural state, so that just as they have had their being out of nothing, so also, as might be expected, they might look for corruption into nothing in the course of time. 5. For if, out of a former normal state of non-existence, they were called into being by the Presence and loving-kindness of the Word, it followed naturally that when men were bereft of the knowledge of God and were turned back yto what was not (for what is evil is not, but what is good is), they should, since they derive their being from God who IS, be everlastingly bereft even of being; in other words, that they should be disintegrated and abide in death and corruption (Section 4, para. 4b thru 5, emphasis mine).
There are different translations to this work of course. And I fully intend to deal with Athanasius’ philosophical and natural nuance of “non-existence” and going back into “nothing” in the future. However, we must first deal with this fundamental question. Did Athanasius really believe that those outside of Christ are eventually annihilated? Since this can be a bit loaded, let’s shave that question down a bit. Because annihilation can refer to just the first death only. A linguistic nuance that conditionalists often manipulate to their advantage. So let’s make it more specific. Does Athanasius believe that the soul will also eventually be annihilated after the first death? This question is answered in his own words.
In Against the Heathen, Athanasius first discusses how the soul is rational and distinct from the body (Part II, Sections 30 thru 31). Then, in Sect. 32, he expounds a little more on the rationality and eternality of the soul because it thinks of and imagines things that are immaterial and eternal. He further remarks that the mortal body of itself does not have this capability to ponder such things, and that this is one proof of a rational and immortal soul ruling the body. But it is in Sect. 33 where Athanasius drops the bomb on conditionalist conspirators by saying, “But that the soul is made immortal is a further point in the Church’s teaching which you must know, to show how idols are to be overthrown.” He also states, “For if our argument has proved it (the soul) to be distinct from the body, while the body is by nature mortal, it follows that the soul is immortal, because it is not like the body.” But if we really want to receive a full blown, in context, demonstration of what Athanasius’ believed about the immortality of the soul, read this excerpt from sect. 33, and pay attention to the emphasis:
“2. And again, if as we have shown, the soul moves the body and is not moved by other things, it follows that the movement of the soul is spontaneous, and that this spontaneous movement goes on after the body is laid aside in the earth. If then the soul were moved by the body, it would follow that the severance of its motor would involve its death. But if the soul moves the body also, it follows all the more that it moves itself. But if moved by itself , it follows that it outlives the body. 3. For the movement of the soul is the same thing as its life, just as, of course, we call the body alive when it moves, and say that its death takes place when it ceases moving. But this can be made clearer once for all from the action of the soul in the body. For if even when united and coupled with the body it is not shut in or commensurate with the small dimensions of the body, but often , when the body lies in bed, not moving, but in death-like sleep, the soul keeps awake by virtue of its own power, and transcends the natural power of the body, and as though travelling away from the body while remaining in it, imagines and beholds things above the earth, and often even holds converse with the saints and angels who are above earthly and bodily existence, and approaches them in the confidence of the purity of its intelligence; shall it not all the more, when separated from the body at the time appointed by God Who coupled them together, have its knowledge of immortality more clear? For if even when coupled with the body it lived a life outside the body, much more shall its life continue after the death of the body, and live without ceasing by reason of God Who made it thus by His own Word, our Lord Jesus Christ. 4. For this is the reason why the soul thinks of and bears in mind things immortal and eternal, namely, because it is itself immortal. And just as, the body being mortal, its senses also have mortal things as their objects, so, since the soul contemplates and beholds immortal things, it follows that it is immortal and lives forever. For ideas and thoughts about immortality never desert the soul, but abide in it, and are as it were the fuel in it which ensures its immortality. This then is why the soul has the capacity for beholding God, and is its own way thereto, receiving not from without but from herself the knowledge and apprehension of the Word of God.”
Now, let it be known that I don’t agree with the logic in his argumentation. But let it also be known that if we are going to read Athanasius through an historically honest filter, we must take all of his work into consideration. Unless there is a flat out denial, or a confessional change of belief that can be argued, we have no choice but to assume that Athanasius believed in the immortality of the soul, and not in annihilationism as Glenn Peoples and those who parrot would have it. And anything written afterwards should be understood in relation to what was written here. Because to understand his Part II (Incarnation), you must keep in mind Part I, which Athanasius also reminds us to do. Which leads me to my final point.
Change of Mind?
Just in case this is brought up, is it possible that Athanasius could have had a change of mind? Could he have changed his understanding of eternal torment and the immortality of the soul when writing Part II of his work, On The Incarnation? Sure. Anything is possible. But this is really hard to believe when at least three times he purposefully references back to what was formerly written in order to make some of his points in the Incarnation (see 1. Introduction, & Sect. 4 and 11). In light of this, we must interpret any passage quoted by conditionalists through the lens of what we know of Athanasius’ position on the immorality of the soul. They should now read very differently. And in case you are a bit skeptical still, consider what he wrote toward the conclusion of Incarnation:
“He (Jesus) is to come, no more to suffer, but thenceforth to render to all the fruit of His own Cross, that is, the resurrection and incorruption; and no longer to be judged, but to judge all, by what each has done in the body, whether good or evil; where there is laid up for the good the kingdom of heaven, but for them that have done evil everlasting fire and outer darkness.“
And also in Against the Heathen:
“For just as for them who walk after His example, the prize is life everlasting, so for those who walk the opposite way, and not that of virtue, there is great shame, and peril without pardon in the day of judgment, because although they knew the way of truth their acts were contrary to their knowledge.”
Couple these quotes together with his affirmation of the immortality of the soul, we can draw some good educated conclusions about what he believed. And no, he wasn’t just using biblical language, giving us no indication whether he really believed in conscious torment like some conditionalist would have us believe.
But I still sense a bit of skepticism, even in the face of these above. So in a second, I will show one more of Athanasius’ writings that will hopefully push you further away from believing this annihilationistic conspiracy. But before I do, I really have to ask, what is it about the above writings that conditionalists leaders fail to understand? Why do we always have to play these linguistic games where conditionalists say, “Well, he was just using biblical language.” Or that “He mentions everlasting fire and peril without pardon, but that still doesn’t mean that he meant unending torment.” Two can play that game though. Because it doesn’t imply that the torment will cease either! And it certainly doesn’t imply annihilation! I might grant “peril without pardon” if one feels like it isn’t explicit enough. But in light of what Athanasius believes about the immortality of the soul, if he truly believed that the lost will ultimately be annihilated (as is proposed by Rethinking hell and their followers) why not mention that ultimate end in these two passages? Was he really just using biblical language, or just affirming an already established truth concerning the eternal torment of the wicked?
Now let’s look at a portion of Festal Letter #7 written circa 335 AD, approximately 10-20 years after Incarnation and Against the Heathen, and see if perhaps Athanasius changed his mind over time. And in light of what we have read concerning his position on the immortality of the soul, which was never contradicted or recanted as far as I have researched, ask yourself what do you think he means in light of what he said he believes.
“But it is the soul which they bury in sins and follies, drawing near to the dead, and satisfying it with dead nourishment; like young eagles which, from high places, fly upon the carcasses of the dead, and which the law prohibited, commanding figuratively, ‘You shall not eat the eagle, nor any other bird that feeds on a dead carcass Leviticus 11:13;’ and it pronounced unclean whatsoever eats the dead. But these kill the soul with lusts, and say nothing but, ‘let us eat and drink, for to morrow we die Isaiah 22:13.’ And the kind of fruit those have who thus love pleasures, he immediately describes, adding, ‘And these things are revealed in the ears of the Lord of Hosts, that this sin shall not be forgiven you until you die.’ Yea, even while they live they shall be ashamed, because they consider their belly their lord; and when dead, they shall be tormented, because they have made a boast of such a death. To this effect also Paul bears witness, saying, ‘Meats for the belly, and the belly for meats; but God shall destroy both it and them 1 Corinthians 6:13.’ And the divine word declared before concerning them; ‘The death of sinners is evil, and those who hate the righteous commit sin.’ For bitter is the worm, and grievous the darkness, which wicked men inherit” (Section. 2)
In this Letter, Athanasius is encouraging the saints to live a life of virtue in Christ, and in some sense, exposing those who come to eat but are not saved. In this portion, as you can see, he makes mention of how the wicked kill the soul with sins, and are drawing nearer to death (the first one). And then, when they have had their fill of sin and death, when they die the first, natural death, their spiritual end is to be tormented. Not only that, he mentions the “grievous” darkness they will experience along with the “bitter” worm that they will inherit. Now, if he had annihilation in mind, surely…SURELY he would have mentioned it. But he didn’t. I mean, he already used “non-existence” before, and going back into “nothing,” right? Why not just say it more plainly, or at least reaffirm it? Yet, what we do read is a contrast between the death you die the first time, and the torment you experience afterwards. If there was to be a cessation of such a torment, and the ultimate punishment is “destruction,” even of the soul (how conditionalists believe), it doesn’t seem like Athanasius got that memo.
This article was not written to be the sole unraveling concerning the whole of the conditonalist/annihilationist position. But only to expose, once again, the deceit, half-truths, and linguistics nuances that are constantly propagated to gain a theological influence in the minds of the unsuspecting. And because my overall goal was to be as brief as I possibly could be, I ask that you, reader, to pick up and read any work that a preacher uses (Athanasius included), and seek to understand that person, their timeframe, their whole theology, etc. Especially when heretical, or even heretically leaning positions like conditionalism are being proposed. Because all too often, we take for granted that everyone is on the same page of meaning. And when it comes to Rethinking Hell and other conditionalists leaders, we ought to be extra suspicious. So let’s be faithful to the language of the Scriptures, and history.
-Until we go home