The School of Alexandria and Athanasius
Athanasius of Alexandria (c. 296–298 to 373 A.D.), also known as Athanasius the Great and Saint Athanasius, is one of the most highly regarded early church fathers. As Wikipedia accurately documents, “all major Christian denominations which officially recognize saints venerate Athanasius.” He is considered to be one the four pre-eminent doctors of the Eastern Church, a title given to certain ecclesiastical writers “on account of the great advantage the whole Church has derived from their doctrine” (Doctors of the Church, Catholic Encyclopedia). He is also referred to as the “Father of the Canon” because of his highly significant role in defining the books that make up our current Bibles in his 39th Festal Letter, identifying the books that comprise all modern New Testaments as well as practically all of the Old Testament (Bediako, Quarshie, Asamoah-Gyadu, & Bediako 2014).
Gregory Nazianzen (who is also considered one of the four pre-eminent doctors of the Eastern church), says the following about him:
“In praising Athanasius, I shall be praising virtue. To speak of him and to praise virtue are identical, because he had, or, to speak more truly, has embraced virtue in its entirety… To speak of and admire him fully, would perhaps be too long a task for the present purpose of my discourse, and would take the form of a history rather than of a panegyric… Such was Athanasius to us, when present, the pillar of the Church … his life and habits form the ideal of an Episcopate, and his teaching the law of orthodoxy” (Oration 21: On the Great Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria).
He was not only deeply respected by his contemporaries, but also has retained a reputation as a champion of the Christian faith in modern times. As one source states, “Athanasius was the greatest champion of Catholic belief on the subject of the Incarnation that the Church has ever known and in his lifetime earned the characteristic title of "Father of Orthodoxy", by which he has been distinguished ever since” (Clifford 1907).
To clarify for Protestants, “Catholic belief” here means the Trinitarian concept of the incarnation, which is identical to the views of not only Protestants but also Eastern Orthodox and any other Trinitarian church bodies; it is not exclusive to the Roman Catholic Church. Indeed, at the time of Athanasius, the church was considered “universal” (which is what the word “catholic” actually means), and there were no Protestants, Roman Catholics, or Eastern Orthodox since he lived prior to any of the schisms that formed these distinct groups.
Given his high reputation as the “Father of Orthodoxy,” and the fact that he natively spoke the Greek language of the New Testament, it is quite worthwhile to examine his words on the subject of universal salvation. He undoubtedly held to this belief (contrary to the uninformed claims of many), as we will now proceed to show with abundant evidence from his own works. Since we have already learned that he is renowned as the greatest champion of the church on the subject of the incarnation, we will begin with his work, On the Incarnation of the Word.
Athanasius’ Views in On the Incarnation of the Word
In On the Incarnation of the Word, Athanasius states his views on universal restoration in such clear terms that it is a wonder that men pretend that he held to the doctrine of endless torments. Such a view is absolutely untenable. He clearly held to the salvation of all. Consider his words:
He it is that was crucified before the sun and all creation as witnesses, and before those who put Him to death: and by His death has salvation come to all, and all creation been ransomed. He is the Life of all, and He it is that as a sheep yielded His body to death as a substitute, for the salvation of all, even though the Jews believe it not"(On the Incarnation of the Word, Section 37).
It is readily apparent from this quote alone that Athanasius believed in complete, universal salvation. He says that this is the case even though some do not believe it yet (in this case, the Jewish people, since this chapter of the book is focused on refuting their arguments specifically). Nevertheless, in spite of current unbelief, Jesus is the Life of all, and his work on the cross resulted in the salvation of all and the ransoming of all of creation. This ransoming of all of creation certainly includes all human beings. Athanasius makes this point very clearly himself:
He has been manifested in a human body for this reason only, out of the love and goodness of His Father, for the salvation of us men. We will begin, then, with the creation of the world and with God its Maker, for the first fact that you must grasp is this: the renewal of creation has been wrought by the Self-same Word Who made it in the beginning. There is thus no inconsistency between creation and salvation for the One Father has employed the same Agent for both works, effecting the salvation of the world through the same Word Who made it in the beginning. (On the Incarnation of the Word, Chapter 1/ Section 1)
The only reason for the incarnation of Christ, according to Athanasius, was to save mankind. This was motivated purely by God’s love and goodness, and not by some perverse desire to make a point about how most humans deserve to be damned and only a few would receive mercy (as claimed by Augustinian/ Calvinist theology). God’s love and goodness applies to all. Just as the Word of God created all, He renews all. Athanasius makes this connection between the acts of creation and salvation quite explicit. They are inextricably tied together. The same Agent who made all of creation in the beginning, renews all of creation through his death and resurrection. This is why Athanasius states that there is “no inconsistency between creation and salvation.” The Lord who made the world in its entirety causes the salvation of the world in its entirety. This is undeniably the thrust of Athanasius’ argument.
It is absurd to assert that this somehow refers to the rest of creation besides humanity, since Athanasius distinctly states in context that the only reason for the incarnation of Christ was to save people. He thus explicitly claims the restoration and renewal of all people created by God (i.e. everyone). This purpose of the incarnation is central to On the Incarnation of the Word and permeates the entire work such that it cannot be denied without throwing out the whole book. He refers to Christ as “the common Savior and true Life of all” (Chapter 5) and repeats such terminology regularly, saying that Jesus is the “life of all” at least five times and the “Saviour of all” at least seven times. He discusses the purpose of the incarnation as the “salvation of all” at least eight times and speaking of Christ’s death he states that “He suffers it not for His own sake, but for the immortality and salvation of all” and the “healing of all” (On the Incarnation of the Word).
Nevertheless, in spite of all of this evidence, there are those who have attempted to claim that Athanasius viewed the salvation of all as a heresy (see for example, the Mark Driscoll quote cited here). This is an obviously false claim since as we have just seen, Athanasius spoke quite explicitly of the salvation of all as the very purpose of Christ’s incarnation. Regardless, such claims tend to have a certain inertia to them. People refuse to accept that the father and pillar of orthodoxy accepted and taught universal salvation, since this does not fit their biases. To deny the facts presented above, people like to carelessly and inaccurately claim that such quotes were taken out of context. This sort of claim is a smoke screen that can deceive those who are not willing to spend the time to verify whether it is accurate. So, in order to cut through the thick cloud of error and silence the mouths of those who speak without knowledge, let’s examine Athanasius’ reasoning in detail. We shall see that his view of the incarnation is utterly dependent on the actual salvation of the world.
Athanasius’ Argument in On the Incarnation of the Word
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. 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. (On the Incarnation of the Word, Chapter 2/ Section 6)
After explaining the sad state of humanity as being universally enslaved to death, corruption and destruction, Athanasius states that it would be unthinkable for God to allow people, whom He made in His image, to perish eternally. All human beings are made in God’s image and are of supreme intrinsic value. To allow any person to perish for any reason, whether “through their own negligence or through the deceit of evil spirits,” is unworthy of God’s goodness. In fact, to have created people at all and then neglect them and allow them to perish would be an evil act, that would suggest that God is not good, but instead limited in power and limited in love. In short, to let people perish permanently is a totally unacceptable outcome that is “unfitting and unworthy” of God according to Athanasius.
Now, I imagine that some people might attempt to interject that it is only necessary to save some members of humanity in order for God to be good, but this is definitely not what Athanasius is saying. It is apparent that he is referring to all members of humanity, saying that it would be “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” for any reason. Notice that he is talking not just about humanity corporately, but also about each human creature individually. It is unworthy of God for individual humans to perish. Saving just a small portion from the masses is obviously not an acceptable solution to Athanasius, nor should we pretend that it is for us.
This can be illustrated by analogy. Imagine I make the following statement: “It is evil to abuse children because children are made in the image of God.” Do I mean that abusing any individual child is wrong? Or do I mean that it is OK to abuse children as long as you do not abuse every single child on earth? It defies all reason to assert that I mean that it is acceptable to abuse some children as long as you do not abuse all of them. This is obviously not what I mean. Each individual child has innate intrinsic value and therefore abusing even one is evil. It is not acceptable to abuse 90% as long as you treat 10% with kindness. In the same way, it is clear that Athanasius is not saying that it is OK to damn 90% of humanity as long as God saves 10%. He is arguing from the intrinsic worth of each human individual made in God’s image. To lose any one is unworthy of His goodness and power and is therefore “impossible.”
Having thus illustrated the necessity of a universal saving work, Athanasius continues his argument as follows:
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. (Ibid, Chapter 2/ Section 7)
The same One who made all out of nothing, recreates all, suffers on behalf of all and acts as an ambassador for all with the Father. By bringing the corruptible (which includes everyone) to incorruption, he shows the consistency of God’s loving character for all people. It would, of course be wildly inconsistent with God’s loving character to hate most people and devise the cruelest possible never-ending torments for their souls (which is what many preachers and writers claim, as we shall soon see). Athanasius is saying that God’s consistent character demands a grace that extends to all of humanity and recalls us all from the state of sin, death, and corruption to which we are naturally subject. His language is undeniably universal in scope. The work of Christ resulted in the redemption and justification of all of humanity who stood condemned in Adam, for “just as one trespass resulted in condemnation for all people, so also one righteous act resulted in justification and life for all people” (Romans 5:18). This universal recall of humanity to righteousness is the purpose of the incarnation, according to Athanasius, who continues his argument as follows:
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. 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. 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. (Ibid, Chapter 2/ Section 8)
After reiterating the universally corrupt condition of the entire human race and the unseemliness of the perpetuation of this condition for human beings made in God’s image, Athanasius proceeds to explain the purpose of the incarnation again. Jesus Christ, “pitying our race” (which he already explicitly defined as the entire human race), was “moved with compassion”, and refused to allow death to triumph over His most prized creatures (human beings). This is why Christ took on flesh, surrendering “His body to death instead of all.” This gracious sacrifice, motivated by “sheer love” for humanity, resulted in the utter and complete abolition of the law of death for everyone. His death counted as everyone’s death, following the Apostle Paul’s reasoning that “one died for all, and therefore all died” (2 Corinthians 5:14). For this reason, death has lost its power over all men, the penalty has been paid, and the corrupt are made alive, such that death has disappeared from humanity as completely as straw would disappear when burned in a raging fire. This is the spiritual reality of what was accomplished at the cross. Although we do not yet see this reality in its fullness from our perspective yet, Athanasius asserts this to be the actual metaphysical state of humanity that we will see perfectly in the fullness of time.
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. 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.
This great work was, indeed, supremely worthy of the goodness of God. (Ibid, Chapter 2/ Section 9 and 10)
The same Lord who is “above all” was “a sufficient exchange for all,” and a “substitute for the life of all.” He therefore “put an end to corruption for all others as well, by the grace of the resurrection.” Jesus “fulfilled in death all that was required” and as a result “all men were clothed with incorruption in the promise of the resurrection.” This undeniably applies to everyone, as Athanasius makes abundantly clear: “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.” It is apparent from this statement that Athanasius views the destiny of all of humanity as one and the same. As God’s image-bearers, we are so inextricably linked to one another that Christ’s incarnation fundamentally changed the fate of us all. All of “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 everyone. This is true for mankind (the entire human race) for the “Lord and Savior of all, the Son of God” has effectively “put an end to death.” Such a remarkable work of love and redemption is indeed “supremely worthy of the goodness of God.” It is hard to imagine that the much smaller gospel of nearly universal damnation and very limited salvation that so many preach today could be worthy of God’s goodness. Athanasius evidently had a grander view of the good news, and it is this grander view that he unapologetically reiterates throughout On the Incarnation of the Word:
But beyond all this, there was a debt owing which must needs be paid; for, as I said before, all men were due to die. Here, then, is the second reason why the Word dwelt among us, namely that having proved His Godhead by His works, He might offer the sacrifice on behalf of all, surrendering His own temple to death in place of all, to settle man's account with death and free him from the primal transgression. In the same act also He showed Himself mightier than death, displaying His own body incorruptible as the first-fruits of the resurrection.
You must not be surprised if we repeat ourselves in dealing with this subject. We are speaking of the good pleasure of God and of the things which He in His loving wisdom thought fit to do, and it is better to put the same thing in several ways than to run the risk of leaving something out. The body of the Word, then, being a real human body, in spite of its having been uniquely formed from a virgin, was of itself mortal and, like other bodies, liable to death. But the indwelling of the Word loosed it from this natural liability, so that corruption could not touch it. Thus it happened that two opposite marvels took place at once: the death of all was consummated in the Lord's body; yet, because the Word was in it, death and corruption were in the same act utterly abolished. Death there had to be, and death for all, so that the due of all might be paid. Wherefore, the Word, as I said, being Himself incapable of death, assumed a mortal body, that He might offer it as His own in place of all, and suffering for the sake of all through His union with it, "might bring to nought Him that had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might deliver them who all their lifetime were enslaved by the fear of death." (Ibid, Chapter 4/ Section 20)
Again, it must be noted that Athanasius is plainly discussing “all men” in these passages for “all men were due to die.” Therefore, when he says that Jesus' atoning sacrifice was “on behalf of all” and “in place of all” and “for the sake of all,” and that it was accomplished so that “the due of all might be paid,” the only good interpretation is that he meant what he said. Athanasius definitely did not believe in limited atonement. Instead, he agreed with Jesus’ final statement on the cross: “It is finished” (John 19:30), for the “death of all was consummated in the Lord's body” and death and corruption were utterly abolished then. This is the metaphysical reality of the cross: complete, total victory over sin and death for all people, the turning point in the history of all of mankind, the event that changes everything for everyone. Rendering the devil powerless, it brought him to nothing and freed all those who “were enslaved by the fear of death" (Hebrews 2:14-15). The crucifixion is no small event that only serves a few; it is the earth-shattering interjection of God’s unfailing love into human history that decisively crushed all death and all evil.
It is highly significant that Athanasius is arguing these points from a foundational conviction in God’s total goodness and unfailing love. He says we “must not be surprised” at his repetition since he is speaking of the “good pleasure of God and of the things which He in His loving wisdom thought fit to do.” This begs the question: what does God, in his loving wisdom desire? What pleases Him? We know from scripture that he “desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Timothy 2:4) and that He is “not willing that any should perish, but that all should come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). We also know that “The LORD does whatever pleases him, in the heavens and on the earth, in the seas and all their depths” (Psalm 135:6) and that He accomplishes all that He desires (Isaiah 46:10, Isaiah 55:11, etc.). In His loving wisdom, He accomplishes what pleases Him, the decisive salvation of all people such that no one is doomed any longer to corruption.
Because Athanasius is arguing this point using the foundational premises of God’s goodness and love, it is absurd to entertain the notion that this freedom from corruption could refer to an immortal existence in abject misery. In what possible way could a resurrection to endless torment demonstrate God’s goodness and love toward people? It obviously cannot. Athanasius is claiming that all people are freed from the corruption of sin and death, and freed to live the abundant life of knowing and worshipping God in Spirit and in truth. The fact that all people have not yet consciously appropriated that reality does not alter its truth.
You might at this point be thinking that Athanasius and I are repeating ourselves. Since, however, we are dealing with an issue that strikes at the very character of God, I agree with Athanasius that it is “better to put the same thing in several ways than to run the risk of leaving something out.” My focus here is not to be concise or eloquent, but rather to present the evidence from Athanasius’ writings regarding his views on the restoration of all. Therefore, you must forgive me for repeating his claims. I feel compelled to do so since there are those who claim that Athanasius viewed the salvation of all as “heresy” without any evidence to back up such claims. Instead, they directly contradict the evidence and claim that such faith in God’s inexorable goodness and endless love have always been considered “heterodox” and only held to by “fringe” groups. Hopefully by now you see these claims for what they really are. But just in case you don't, let’s consider some more words from “the father of orthodoxy”:
Similarly, though He died to ransom all, He did not see corruption. His body rose in perfect soundness, for it was the body of none other than the Life Himself.
Someone else might say, perhaps, that it would have been better for the Lord to have avoided the designs of the Jews against Him, and so to have guarded His body from death altogether. But see how unfitting this also would have been for Him. Just as it would not have been fitting for Him to give His body to death by His own hand, being Word and being Life, so also it was not consonant with Himself that He should avoid the death inflicted by others. Rather, He pursued it to the uttermost, and in pursuance of His nature neither laid aside His body of His own accord nor escaped the plotting Jews. And this action showed no limitation or weakness in the Word; for He both waited for death in order to make an end of it, and hastened to accomplish it as an offering on behalf of all. Moreover, as it was the death of all mankind that the Savior came to accomplish, not His own, He did not lay aside His body by an individual act of dying, for to Him, as Life, this simply did not belong; but He accepted death at the hands of men, thereby completely to destroy it in His own body.
There are some further considerations which enable one to understand why the Lord's body had such an end. The supreme object of His coming was to bring about the resurrection of the body. This was to be the monument to His victory over death, the assurance to all that He had Himself conquered corruption and that their own bodies also would eventually be incorrupt; and it was in token of that and as a pledge of the future resurrection that He kept His body incorrupt. (Ibid, Chapter 4/ Section 21 and 22)
Notice that the Savior came to accomplish “the death of all mankind” through his own death, thereby completely destroying death and corruption for all. This is the purpose for which He came and is why He did not avoid the murderous plot of the religious leaders, but rather pursued it “to the uttermost.” His death and resurrection declare this complete victory and assure all mankind that we too will be incorruptible eventually. This victory over sin and death is utterly decisive for all people. Nevertheless, it is clear that the consummation of this victory is not yet fully seen. Instead, there is a continuing, active process of salvation that has begun and that will continue until all people experience its reality fully.
The Son of God, "living and effective," is active every day and effects the salvation of all; but death is daily proved to be stripped of all its strength, and it is the idols and the evil spirits who are dead, not He. No room for doubt remains, therefore, concerning the resurrection of His body…Mortal and offered to death on behalf of all as it was, it could not but die; indeed, it was for that very purpose that the Savior had prepared it for Himself. But on the other hand it could not remain dead, because it had become the very temple of Life. (Ibid, Chapter 5/ Section 31)
Referencing Hebrews 4:12, which states that “the word of God is living and active,” Athanasius makes it clear that he perceives that Jesus Christ, the Word of God, is the One who is living and active every day. For what purpose? He states this very clearly: it is to cause (effect) the salvation of all. The Savior continues to save. Since His death was on behalf of all, it is only fitting that He continues his work until it is completed with the salvation of all. He is no lazy Savior, content with mediocre success. No, as the Word of God, He will tirelessly work to fully complete the purpose for which He was sent (Isaiah 55:11), the salvation of the whole world.
These thoughts on universal salvation completely permeate On the Incarnation of the Word and apply to believer and unbelievers alike. After explaining why unbelievers should not doubt, he says:
…it is manifest, then, and let none presume to doubt it, that the Savior has raised His own body, and that He is very Son of God, having His being from God as from a Father, Whose Word and Wisdom and Whose Power He is. He it is Who in these latter days assumed a body for the salvation of us all, and taught the world concerning the Father. He it is Who has destroyed death and freely graced us all with incorruption through the promise of the resurrection, having raised His own body as its first-fruits, and displayed it by the sign of the cross as the monument to His victory over death and its corruption. (Ibid, Chapter 5/ Section 32)
Again, the total victory of Christ is proclaimed. Lumping all of humanity together, Athanasius expresses solidarity with everyone (including unbelievers) when he states that Jesus “assumed a body for the salvation of us all” and “graced us all with incorruption.” On these grounds he is appealing to those who doubt to doubt no longer. Jesus’ death and resurrection were accomplished to save everyone, including doubters, and His victory is complete.
As Athanasius notes, this complete salvation of all by the “common Savior of all” was repeatedly prophesied to occur by the Jewish prophets:
Who is there so great that even the prophets foretell of Him such mighty things? There is indeed no one in the Scriptures at all, save the common Savior of all, the Word of God, our Lord Jesus Christ… On His account only they prophesied continually, until such time as Essential Righteousness has come, Who was made the Ransom for the sins of all.” (Ibid, Chapter 6/ Section 40)
There are many prophecies that Athanasius is alluding to here. Here is just a small sampling:
…All the earth shall be devoured
With the fire of My jealousy.
“For then I will restore to the peoples a pure language,
That they all may call on the name of the Lord,
To serve Him with one accord.
…And there is no other God besides Me,
A righteous God and a Savior;
There is none except Me.
“Turn to Me and be saved, all the ends of the earth;
For I am God, and there is no other.
“I have sworn by Myself,
The word has gone forth from My mouth in righteousness
And will not turn back,
That to Me every knee will bow, every tongue will swear allegiance.
“They will say of Me, ‘Only in the Lord are righteousness and strength.’…
I kept looking in the night visions,
And behold, with the clouds of heaven
One like a Son of Man was coming,
And He came up to the Ancient of Days
And was presented before Him.
“And to Him was given dominion,
Glory and a kingdom,
That all the peoples, nations and men of every language
Might serve Him.
His dominion is an everlasting dominion
Which will not pass away;
And His kingdom is one
Which will not be destroyed.”
All the ends of the earth will remember and turn to the Lord,
And all the families of the nations will worship before You.
For the kingdom is the Lord’s
And He rules over the nations.
All the prosperous of the earth will eat and worship,
All those who go down to the dust will bow before Him,
Even he who cannot keep his soul alive.
Surely our griefs He Himself bore,
And our sorrows He carried;
Yet we ourselves esteemed Him stricken,
Smitten of God, and afflicted.
But He was pierced through for our transgressions,
He was crushed for our iniquities;
The chastening for our well-being fell upon Him,
And by His scourging we are healed.
All of us like sheep have gone astray,
Each of us has turned to his own way;
But the Lord has caused the iniquity of us all
To fall on Him.
These passages are just a few of the prophetic writings that describe the effects of the “common Savior of all” on all of humanity as “the Ransom for the sins of all.” All people will bow in worship and adoration and all will remember and call on the name of the LORD to serve Him. The common Savior of all took the iniquity of all of us who have gone astray (everyone) upon Himself to make this universal reconciliation of everyone to God possible.
One final passage from On the Incarnation of the Word plainly shows that Athanasius viewed the intent of God to be a universal revelation of Himself to everyone everywhere. The purpose of this revelation is for all people to come to know Him.
The Word of God thus acted consistently in assuming a body and using a human instrument to vitalize the body. He was consistent in working through man to reveal Himself everywhere, as well as through the other parts of His creation, so that nothing was left void of His Divinity and knowledge. For I take up now the point I made before, namely that the Savior did this in order that He might fill all things everywhere with the knowledge of Himself, just as they are already filled with His presence, even as the Divine Scripture says, "The whole universe was filled with the knowledge of the Lord." If a man looks up to heaven he sees there His ordering; but if he cannot look so high as heaven, but only so far as men, through His works he sees His power, incomparable with human might, and learns from them that He alone among men is God the Word. Or, if a man has gone astray among demons and is in fear of them, he may see this Man drive them out and judge therefrom that He is indeed their Master. Again, if a man has been immersed in the element of water and thinks that it is God—as indeed the Egyptians do worship water—he may see its very nature changed by Him and learn that the Lord is Creator of all. And if a man has gone down even to Hades, and stands awestruck before the heroes who have descended thither, regarding them as gods, still he may see the fact of Christ's resurrection and His victory over death, and reason from it that, of all these, He alone is very Lord and God.
For the Lord touched all parts of creation, and freed and undeceived them all from every deceit. As St. Paul says, "Having put off from Himself the principalities and the powers, He triumphed on the cross," so that no one could possibly be any longer deceived, but everywhere might find the very Word of God. For thus man, enclosed on every side by the works of creation and everywhere—in heaven, in Hades, in men and on the earth, beholding the unfolded Godhead of the Word, is no longer deceived concerning God, but worships Christ alone, and through Him rightly knows the Father. (Ibid, Chapter 7/ Section 45)
Athanasius is clear that the incarnation of the Word was done in order “to reveal Himself everywhere… so that nothing was left void of His Divinity and knowledge” and that “the Savior did this in order that He might fill all things everywhere with the knowledge of Himself.” There is absolutely nothing that is left untouched or unredeemed by Christ, for “the Lord touched all parts of creation, and freed and undeceived them all from every deceit…so that no one could possibly be any longer deceived.” It is difficult to imagine more direct language on the matter: it is completely impossible for deception to succeed any longer. All of creation is being filled with the knowledge of God because of Christ.
It is undeniable that Athanasius is referring to all people everywhere and leaving no one out. He even explicitly includes those in Hades (those who are dead) twice. Referring to an idolatrous dead man (who did not know Christ but instead regarded others in Hades as gods), Athanasius states that “still he may see the fact of Christ's resurrection and His victory over death, and reason from it that, of all these, He alone is very Lord and God.” Notice that this man who has died and is now in Hades was not a believer in Christ while alive on earth. But his discovery of Christ’s deity and lordship is not a lamentable one where he discovers too late that he is doomed forever. No, even in Hades, he is able to come to a saving knowledge of God, worshipping Christ alone and through Him rightly knowing the Father. He experiences the very definition of eternal life according to Jesus Himself: “This is eternal life, that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3).
Other Works by Athanasius
On the Incarnation of the Word by itself makes Athanasius’ views on the salvation of all people indisputable, but it is not the only work in which he makes such claims. Consider the following from his commentary, On Luke 10:22 and Matthew 11:27:
He 'delivered' to Him man, that the Word Himself might be made Flesh, and by taking the Flesh, restore it wholly. For to Him, as to a physician, man 'was delivered' to heal the bite of the serpent; as to life, to raise what was dead; as to light, to illumine the darkness; and, because He was Word, to renew the rational nature (τὸ λογικόν). Since then all things 'were delivered' to Him, and He is made Man, straightway all things were set right and perfected. Earth receives blessing instead of a curse, Paradise was opened to the robber, Hades cowered, the tombs were opened and the dead raised, the gates of Heaven were lifted up to await Him…Why, the Saviour Himself expressly signifies in what sense'all things were delivered' to Him, when He continues, as Matthew tells us: 'Come unto Me all you that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest' (Matthew 11:28). Yes, you 'were delivered' to Me to give rest to those who had laboured, and life to the dead. And what is written in John's Gospel harmonises with this: 'The Father loves the Son, and has given all things into His hand' (John 3:35). Given, in order that, just as all things were made by Him, so in Him all things might be renewed. For they were not 'delivered' unto Him, that being poor, He might be made rich, nor did He receive all things that He might receive power which before He lacked: far be the thought: but in order that as Saviour He might rather set all things right. For it was fitting that while 'through Him' all things came into being at the beginning, 'in Him' (note the change of phrase) all things should be set right (cf. John 1:3, Ephesians 1:10). For at the beginning they came into being 'through' Him; but afterwards, all having fallen, the Word has been made Flesh, and put it on, in order that 'in Him' all should be set right. Suffering Himself, He gave us rest, hungering Himself, He nourished us, and going down into Hades He brought us back thence. For example, at the time of the creation of all things, their creation consisted in a fiat, such as 'let [the earth] bring forth,' 'let there be' (Genesis 1:3, 11), but at the restoration it was fitting that all things should be 'delivered' to Him, in order that He might be made man, and all things be renewed in Him. For man, being in Him, was quickened: for this was why the Word was united to man, namely, that against man the curse might no longer prevail. This is the reason why they record the request made on behalf of mankind in the seventy-first Psalm: 'Give the King Your judgment, O God?' (Psalm 72:1): asking that both the judgment of death which hung over us may be delivered to the Son, and that He may then, by dying for us, abolish it for us in Himself. (Section 2)
There are several important observations to make in this passage.
- All mankind was delivered to Christ for the purpose of restoring us wholly. Athanasius does not say that “some men” were delivered but rather mankind entirely. This is the deliverance of “all things” to Christ. In context, it is obvious that “all things” includes all mankind since they are practically regarded as synonymous, being delivered to Christ. Everything and everyone delivered to Him is “renewed in Him.”
- There are several complementary purposes of this deliverance of all to Christ:
- To heal
- To bring the dead to life
- To bring light to the darkness
- To renew the rational creature (humankind)
- To set everything and everyone right
- To renew everything and everyone
- To give rest to the weary
- Athanasius once again makes it clear that everything and everyone created by God is included in the restoration of all things (apokatastaseōs pantōn) described in Acts 3:21. Notice that he directly connects the creation of all things to the restoration of all things, for “all things came into being at the beginning” through Him, and in Him “all things should be set right.” All are “in Him” now because he took on our nature to restore it wholly. He is not distantly creating by decree, but rather intimately partaking in our humanity and thereby renewing all of humanity in Him. This is a repetition of the idea expressed by Athanasius in On the Incarnation of the Word where he states: “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.” This certainly denotes the universal reconciliation of everyone, an idea that is further clarified by Athanasius when he says that “all having fallen” will “be set right” and that “on behalf of mankind” death was abolished. Every fallen person is clearly delineated, so everyone will be restored, renewed, set right and made perfect in Christ.
- The curse no longer prevails against mankind not even in Hades. We once again see that death is no obstacle for Christ, who is able to reach into the depths of Hades (the realm of the dead) and bring us back from it.
On the “Unpardonable Sin”
In this same commentary on Luke 10:22 and Matthew 11:27, Athanasius also addresses the so-called “unpardonable sin.” After arguing that the Trinity is “one and indivisible and without degrees” and “united without confusion,” he explains that even blasphemers can be set right:
They then that depreciate the Only-begotten Son of God blaspheme God, defaming His perfection and accusing Him of imperfection, and render themselves liable to the severest chastisement. For he that blasphemes any one of the Subsistences [Persons of the Trinity] shall have remission neither in this world nor in that which is to come. But God is able to open the eyes of their heart to contemplate the Sun of Righteousness, in order that coming to know Him whom they formerly set at nought, they may with unswerving piety of mind together with us glorify Him, because to Him belongs the kingdom, even to the Father Son and Holy Spirit, now and forever. Amen. (Section 6)
Referencing the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit texts in Matthew 12:32 and Mark 3:29, Athanasius interprets the blasphemy of any member of the Trinity to be equivalent due to the perfect unity of the Godhead. It is therefore a sin that merits the “severest chastisement.” It is critical, however, to notice that the most severe punishment does not last forever. Though the blasphemer may not have forgiveness in this age or the one to come, “God is able to open the eyes of their heart to contemplate the Sun of Righteousness, in order that coming to know Him whom they formerly set at nought, they may with unswerving piety of mind together with us glorify Him.” So we see that God can open the eyes of even those who merit the worst punishment so that they will worship Him with unwavering devotion and whole-hearted commitment, and glorify God together with the faithful. The “unpardonable sin” is pardoned and those who blasphemed God are freed from their blindness and made righteous.
Incidentally, this is further evidence that the Greek words used in the biblical texts (en toutō tō aiōni oute en tō mellonti in Matthew 12:32 and eis ton aiōna in Mark 3:29) did not denote eternity to native speakers like Athanasius. If the blasphemer “shall have remission neither in this world nor in that which is to come” but then is set right by God and forgiven, it is obvious that Athanasius did not consider the gospel writers to mean that the blasphemer would “never” be forgiven as many English versions wrongly render it (see Mark 3:29). By the way, “age” and “age to come” would also be good translations of Athanasius’ original words that are translated in our text as "world" and "world to come" respectively. The biblical text in Matthew 12:32 from which he is quoting uses an inflection of the Greek word aión (which means “age” but is sometimes translated as "world"). So, the biblical expressions that blasphemers would not be forgiven “in this age or the coming one” or “to the age” did not mean that they would “never be forgiven” or spend eternity in hell to the native Greek-speaking Athanasius. How odd it is then, that English-speaking people so many centuries later insist that it must and then proceed to re-write the biblical text in our translations to reflect this bias.
The Devil Alone
Yet further confirmation that Athanasius taught universal restoration of all people can be seen in his assertions that the devil remains alone because of the work of the cross:
“While the devil thought to kill one he is deprived of all cast out of Hades, and sitting by the gates, sees all the fettered beings led forth by the courage of the Savior.” (Beauchemin, p. 203, citing the homily De Passione et Cruce Domini)
Here we see the complete defeat of the devil and the emancipation of all his prisoners in Hades. Nobody remains enslaved in death, but all are led out of Hades by the Savior of all, Jesus Christ. The image painted here is of a dejected Satan helplessly losing all of the souls that he thought he had won through deception and corruption. He is an utter, complete failure.
Interestingly, some have suggested De Passione et Cruce Domini was not actually written by Athanasius, while others assert that it was. In some respects, this debate does not matter. Athanasius said something practically identical in meaning in On the Incarnation of the Word:
But that devil who of old wickedly exulted in death, now that the pains of death are loosed, he alone it is who remains truly dead. (On the Incarnation of the Word, Chapter 5/ Section 27)
So, Athanasius said that the devil is the only one who remains truly dead in a work that is surely by him. So even if he did not write De Passione et Cruce Domini, it plainly has the same ideas that he taught elsewhere. This similarity in thinking, however, seems to suggest that it is reasonable to think that Athanasius wrote it. There is also other evidence that suggests De Passione et Cruce Domini is his work, such as the following:
- According to Dr. Alan Suciu of the Göttingen Academy of Sciences and Humanities, the surviving ancient manuscripts of De Passione et Cruce Domini credit Athanasius of Alexandria as author.
- Yet another recently discovered ancient fragment of the work “ends with a subscriptio which indicates the authorship: “Athanasius, the patriarch of Alexandria”” (Suciu 2012).
The fact that the ancient manuscripts that we have state that Athanasius wrote them, and the fact that yet another ancient manuscript confirms his authorship, makes me wonder why some modern scholars doubt it belongs to him. This, however, is a question for another day. The fact remains that Athanasius taught and held to the same belief espoused in De Passione et Cruce Domini that it is the devil alone who remains truly dead, but all others are freed to life.
In addition, the work was well received and “had a great reputation in the Christian Orient,” indicating that the idea that the devil was left alone in death was affirmed by the early church. Therefore, if Athanasius wrote the work, we simply have another text that reiterates the idea that absolutely no one is left in a state of death besides the devil himself. And if he did not, we know that there is yet another unidentified early church father who believed the same thing. We also know that this idea was not seen as heretical but instead had a “great reputation,” so much so that it was translated into many languages. In addition to the original Greek there are also ancient Syriac, Armenian, Arabic, and Sahidic (Coptic) translations that have survived the ravages of time (Suciu 2012). This was not some fringe work that people deemed heretical, but rather a work that was highly respected, copied, and shared amongst Christians throughout much of the church.
Athanasius’ Statement of Faith
Although we already have abundant (perhaps some might even say excessive) evidence that Athanasius held to the salvation of all people, we will proceed to mention one more of his works, his Statement of Faith. This is worthy of mention since it is a detailed discussion of the Christian faith that Athanasius adhered to, but there is no mention whatsoever of eternal punishment. There is, however, the clear claim that Jesus bore a human body “for the salvation of the whole world” (Section 2).
We also see once again the solidarity of all mankind expressed. As part of his description of Christ’s deeds, Athanasius says, “when on earth He showed us light from out of darkness, salvation from error, life from the dead, an entrance to paradise, from which Adam was cast out, and into which he again entered by means of the thief, as the Lord said, 'This day shall you be with Me in paradise'” (Section 1).
As Adam represented all mankind and fell from paradise, Adam (still representing all mankind) enters into paradise by means of the thief due to their solidarity, “For as in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive” (1 Corinthians 15:22). All are in Christ because Christ Himself made this so by becoming human, taking on our nature and thereby redeeming it completely. As Athanasius stated in On the Incarnation of the Word, it was “the death of all mankind that the Savior came to accomplish” so that death and corruption could be completely abolished for all. The destiny of all mankind is the same, according to Athanasius’ reasoning, for God’s ultimate purpose is “to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ” (Ephesians 1:10).
The So-Called “Athanasian” Creed
All of this evidence makes a person wonder why some have the audacity to claim that Athanasius viewed the salvation of all (which he clearly and repeatedly taught) as heretical. It is, of course, blatantly obvious that he did not, so where is this claim coming from? I think the answer lies in the so-called “Athanasian” Creed and the faulty assumption that Athanasius wrote it, which he definitely did not. In this creed there is language about damnation for anyone who does not hold to a particular set of beliefs, stating that anyone who does not “hold to the catholic faith” and “keep it whole and unbroken will doubtless perish eternally.”
There are several reasons why it is widely accepted by scholars that this document was not written by Athanasius:
- It was written at least one hundred years after his death by most estimates, with some scholars suggesting dates as late as the 7th century, although the 5th or 6th centuries seem more likely. For comparison, Athanasius died in 373 AD. In addition, some of the theological controversies addressed in the document arose after Athanasius' death.
- It was composed in Latin. Athanasius composed in his native Greek.
- It was likely composed in Southern Gaul (France).
- Neither Athanasius nor any of his contemporaries mention this “creed” at all.
- It was much more widely circulated in the West than in the East, being unknown in the East until the 12th century. This would not be expected (and indeed would be rather absurd) for a work of Athanasius of Alexandria (Egypt).
- It was first attributed to Athanasius during the dark ages (which is widely known as a time period of profound ignorance), well after Athanasius’ death.
- The Athanasian Creed by R.C. Sproul
- Encyclopaedia Britannica Article on the Athanasian Creed
- Historical Introductions to the Symbolical Books of the Evangelical Lutheran Church by Friedrich Bente, section 16
- Norris, Frederick (1997), "Athanasian Creed", in Ferguson, Everett, Encyclopedia of Early Christianity (2nd ed.), New York: Garland
So, to summarize, it appears that the assertion that Athanasius viewed the salvation of all people as a heresy is based on a document that every informed person knows was not written by Athanasius. In primary source documents written by Athanasius, however, we see that he consistently and repeatedly affirms the universal, complete restoration of all people to a right relationship with God through Christ.
Athanasius clearly taught universal salvation as the purpose of Christ’s coming to earth in the flesh. He asserted complete victory over the devil, the total abolition of corruption and death, forgiveness of the “unpardonable” sin, the salvation of all of humanity, and the filling of everyone, everywhere with the knowledge and worship of God. He argues these points from scripture and from the goodness and power of God proclaimed therein.
Additionally, it is worth remembering that Athanasius was no “fringe” theologian, but rather deeply respected as the “Father of Orthodoxy,” a “pillar of the church” and the “Father of the Canon.” He is a man to whom we owe, at least in part, our current Bibles! It is therefore completely ludicrous to continue to assert, as so many do today, that the salvation of all has always been held as heretical by the church. As we will continue to prove, nothing could be further from the truth.Previous Chapter Next Chapter
Notes and Citations
Athanasius of Alexandria. Letter 39. Translated by R. Payne-Smith. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 4. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1892.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2806039.htm
“Athanasius the Great of Alexandria - Homilia De Passione Et Cruce Domini.” Scribd, www.scribd.com/doc/62637119/Athanasius-the-Great-of-Alexandria-Homilia-de-Passione-Et-Cruce-Domini. (Note: Greek only)
Note: I used two translations of On the Incarnation of the Word, as seen below:
Athanasius of Alexandria. On the Incarnation of the Word. Translated by Archibald Robertson. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 4. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1892.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2802.htm.
Athanasius of Alexandria. “On the Incarnation of the Word.” Christian Classics Ethereal Library, www.ccel.org/ccel/athanasius/incarnation.iii.html.
Athanasius of Alexandria. On Luke 10:22 and Matthew 11:27. Translated by Archibald Robertson. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 4. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1892.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2805.htm
Athanasius of Alexandria. Statement of Faith. Translated by Archibald Robertson. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 4. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1892.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/2821.htm.
Beauchemin, Gerry. Hope Beyond Hell. Malista Press, www.tentmaker.org/books/hope_beyond_hell.pdf.
Bediako, Gillian Mary, et al. Seeing New Facets of the Diamond: Christianity as a Universal Faith - Essays in Honour of Kwame Bediako. Wipf & Stock, 2014.
Clifford, Cornelius. "St. Athanasius." The Catholic Encyclopedia. Vol. 2. New York: Robert Appleton Company, 1907. 25 Nov. 2018. http://www.newadvent.org/cathen/02035a.htm.
Gregory Nazianzen. Oration 21: On the Great Athanasius, Bishop of Alexandria. Translated by Charles Gordon Browne and James Edward Swallow. From Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers, Second Series, Vol. 7. Edited by Philip Schaff and Henry Wace. (Buffalo, NY: Christian Literature Publishing Co., 1894.) Revised and edited for New Advent by Kevin Knight. http://www.newadvent.org/fathers/310221.htm.
Suciu, Alin. “The Discovery of an Extract from ‘De Passione Et Cruce’ by Pseudo-Athanasius of Alexandria in a Coptic Patristic Florilegium.” Alin Suciu, 28 Jan. 2012, https://alinsuciu.com/2011/09/05/the-discovery-of-an-extract-from-de-passione-et-cruce-by-pseudo-athanasius-of-alexandria-in-a-coptic-patristic-florilegium/