In the 26th verse of Genesis, God declares ‘Let us make humankind in our image…’ The first person plural is not peripheral for Athanasius. If the ‘us’ is a referent to the Trinity, then you and I do not on our own constitute the divine image. If God is only God as a community of fellowship and love between Father, Son and Spirit, then what it means for humankind to be made in the image of God is for the human community to be a fellowship of love in, with and under the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.
The imago dei is plural because God is triune.
Which means you’re more you when you’re in loving friendship with the ‘we.’
Moreover, because God created from nothing, God is literally the Source of all that is. God is Life. The opposite of such a God is privation. Death. Nothingness.
This is key to how Athanasius and the other Church Fathers construed the Fall. By seeking life independent of God, humanity incurs not sin and wrath but death. Adam and Eve do not provoke a long story of humanity offending God’s honor or holiness, as Calvin et al later held. No, as the Genesis text makes abundantly clear, Adam and Eve’s choice leads to death- not as a punishment but as a logical, do-that-and-you’re-gonnna-die, consequence.
The Fall for Athanasius simply induces a return to our ‘natural’ state. If God is the Source of everything than turning our backs on God leads to nothingness.
If God is the Source of Life, then the Fall leads to Death and, ultimately, to our disintegration.
Disintegration is the closest Athanasius comes to speaking of Hell but already therein you have a wide departure from the popular notion of Hell as a place of eternal, conscious torment. Implicit in the latter view, is that the things in Hell remain things. Hell is a place that has a population.
For Athanasius, if God creates from nothing and holds everything in existence then there is no ‘hell,’ for hell, or the ‘people’ in it, are no-thing.
So there could be no more discordant concept to force upon On the Incarnation than the popular notion that God predestined sin in order to display God’s holiness in Christ’s Cross. Only the categories of guilt and punishment require such logic. Instead, for Athanasius, sin is better understood as an illness to be healed not an infraction to be punished.
The Fall leads to death.
Sin is illness.
Nothing could be more important to understand how Athanasius understands the incarnation.
The Word comes in the flesh because the flesh is sick.
The triune God who is the Source of Life created us in his image; therefore, sin is like a deprivation of what makes for life and a disintegration of the community for which we’re made.
So the incarnation is for our healing and reincorporation.
As sinners, we’re not reprobates worthy of wrath.
We’re sick. We’re broken.
And we’re alienated.
Most pop renderings of the incarnation and atonement stress how, as a result of sin, we’re alienated (‘separated’ is the preferred term) from God. I was only a youth director for little more than a year but even I resorted to the terrible, Romans Road illustration of Christ’s cross bridging chasm between God and you.
Athanasius hints at a different sort of alienation.
If the God who made us is community, then the Fall names a fracture of community. Because of sin, we’re alienated.
Not from God.
God is the One who sustains us at every moment of our existence; we’ll never be so great that we could alienate God from us- that’s idolatrous.
No, because of sin we’re alienated from one another:
“ Cities were at war with cities, and nations were rising up against nations; and the whole earth was rent with civil commotions…”
Athanasius’ On the Incarnation isn’t as archaic as you might think, not nearly as irrelevant as you’re tempted to suppose.
Take Ferguson. And Michael Brown.
Take Staten Island and Eric Garner.
Take ‘Hands Up. Don’t Shoot’ and ‘I Can’t Breathe.’
Take those police and the (not so?) grand juries.
Some on one side call it sin. Others, maybe on the same side, call it injustice.
Others on the other side call it tragic necessity. Or duty.
Whichever side, those on one side see those on the other side as ‘other.’
Whatever else you can or would like to say about Michael Brown or Eric Garner, what you can say without debate- what even the grand juries would have to concede- is that they are exhibits A and B for how alienated we are from one another in America.
Black and white.
Poor and not nearly as hard-up as you like to think.
Athanasius looks at Ferguson and Staten Island and the eventual forgetfulness among whites that will settle in and he says that the Fall begat not God’s wrath but disintegration.
A loss of the communal fellowship we call Trinity and in whose image we were made.
Sin then, for Athanasius (like Flannery O’ Connor 1.5 centuries after him) isn’t something we do. It’s something we’re in.
All of us.