1-2-4 Satan In The Thought Of Lactantius And Athanasius
In the third and fourth centuries, Lactantius and Athanasius appeared
as the leading Christian thinkers about the Devil. They continued the
struggle to justify belief in a personal, fallen angel Devil against the
obvious holes in the argument. In doing so they succeeded in accreting
yet more to the Devil idea, at times backtracking to or contradicting
the arguments of previous "fathers", as well as adding their
own variations on the theme.
Lactantius especially developed the idea of dualism towards its logical
conclusions. Dualism was the error picked up by the Jews in captivity
which influenced the first significant corruption of the Biblical concept
of the Devil and Satan. They had been influenced by the old Persian idea
that there is a god of evil who somehow mirrors and stands in independent
opposition to the God of love. This idea remained embedded in Judaism
and eventually crept into early Christianity (1). Lactantius really became
obsessed with the idea, and concluded that Christ and Lucifer were originally
both Angels, sharing the same nature, but Lucifer fell "for he was
jealous of his elder brother [Jesus]" (Divine Institutes
3.5) . This idea meshed in with the growing departure from the Biblical
position that Jesus was the begotten Son of God and as such had no personal
existence in Heaven before His birth. The whole of Hebrews 1 and 2 are
devoted to emphasizing the superiority of Christ over the Angels, and
how He had to be human in order to save us; and that He was a human and
not an Angel precisely because He came to save humans and not Angels.
But that was overlooked due to the pressing need to explain how Christ
and Lucifer were somehow parallel with each other. And of course Lactantius
created another problem for Christianity by claiming that Christ was of
the same nature with Lucifer- for if that nature was capable of sinning
and falling, then what guarantee is there that one day Christ may not
likewise fall, and the whole basis of our salvation come crashing down?
The Persians believed that the good god would always win out over the
evil god; but that was their assumption. If there are indeed these two
gods, why assume one is bound to win? Not only does the Bible insist this
theology is untrue (e.g. Is. 45:5-7); but if there are indeed two gods,
why make the a priori assumption that the good god has to win
out? What concrete evidence is there for that, beyond blind hope?
Struggling with the problem of explaining how Christ's death "destroyed"
the Devil, and yet he appears alive and active, Lactantius taught that
the fallen Devil had indeed been badly smitten by Christ's death, but
he and his angels were gathering their forces for another assault. That
runs directly against the finality with which New Testament Christianity
speaks of the victory of Christ and the 'destruction' of the Devil in
Heb. 2:14. The Greek katargeo translated "destroy"
there means strictly 'to render useless', and is elsewhere translated
in the New Testament as "make void", "abolish", "do
away", "make of no effect" etc. Thus Christ will "destroy"
the man of sin at His return (2 Thess. 2:8), death itself will be "destroyed"
at the second coming (1 Cor. 15:26), God will "destroy" the
wicked at that day (1 Cor. 6:13). Lactantius argued that the 'destruction'
of the Devil at Christ's death was a temporary wound, and that he would
be finally destroyed at Christ's second coming. And yet the Biblical evidence
is clear that "destroy" means to render powerless. Yet Lactantius
wanted to understand that when Christ 'destroyed' the Devil on the cross,
that was a temporary binding; whereas at His return, the Devil would be
permanently 'destroyed'. And yet the Bible uses the same Greek word to
describe both destructions! The destruction of the Devil is explained
by Paul, using that same Greek word katargeo, in Rom. 6:6 when
he speaks of how that in the crucifixion of Jesus, and in our sharing
in this by the 'death' of baptism, "the body of sin is destroyed".
Yet Lactantius was following a tradition which refused to budge from the
idea that the Devil exists as a personal being; and so he was forced to
Athanasius is best known for what became known as the Athanasian Creed,
a statement of the trinity. I've elsewhere argued for the deconstruction
of this idea, along similar lines as I am deconstructing the personal
Devil myth (2). Athanasius followed Lactantius' ideas of Jesus being in
Heaven with Lucifer at the creation as part of the huge dualism which
they felt existed in the cosmos- and so this meshed together with his
push towards the [unBiblical] idea of a personally pre-existent Jesus
who somehow became God. As with so many who've gone down blind alleys
theologically, Athanasius pushed logic to an inappropriate extent rather
than being guided by basic Biblical truths. He argued that the death of
Jesus cleansed the air where the demons / fallen angels now live, and
therefore physically opened up a way for [supposed] immortal souls to
find a way into Heaven (3). Not only was all this unBiblical, it reflects
a literalism which reduces God to a being hopelessly bound by physicality.
In short, this kind of thinking arose from a basic lack of faith in God
as the Almighty, who doesn't need to build bridges over problems which
men have created for Him in their own minds. It should be noted that the
idea of saying "Bless you!" when someone sneezes derives from
Athanasius' idea that demons can become so small that they enter a person
from the literal air. I consider Athanasius' misuse of Paul's reference
to "the prince on the power of the air" in section
5-23. It should be noted that in the 17th century, Isaac Newton rejected
the popular idea of the Devil and demons, and in his "Paradoxical
questions concerning Athanasius", Newton blames Athanasius as being
especially responsible for introducing this false idea into popular Christianity.
was led by his views on Satan to de-emphasize human sinfulness. He
placed the blame for Adam’s sin so fully upon Satan that he concluded
that we can live entirely sinlessly- he claims Jeremiah and John the
Baptist did so, even though they lived before the death of Christ (4).
So one error lead to another; by de-emphasizing the weight and
seriousness of human sin, he de-emphasized the meaning and crucial
achievement of the cross. Perfection was not possible for
those under the Old Covenant; if it had been, then there would have
been no need for the priesthood of Jesus- so reasons Heb. 7:11. In his
zeal to excuse human sin and blame it all on Satan, Athanasius missed
this point- and it just happens that this point is the very crux of
Christianity. And this de-emphasis of human sin continued in the
thinking of the later ‘church fathers’. Pelagius insisted that
Christians could become without sin: “A Christian is he who imitates
and follows Christ in everything, who is holy, innocent,
unsoiled, blameless, in whose heart there is no malice... he is a
Christian who can justly say ‘I have injured no one, I have lived
righteously with all’” (5). Whilst these are all Biblical ideals, this
sickening self-righteousness is a far cry from the desperation of Paul
in Romans 7, where perhaps the greatest of Christians admitted he
constantly did the things he hated doing. It was this de-emphasis upon
sin which resulted in the image of Christianity being developed as
white-faced, pious, hypocritical, self-righteous, self-commending etc.
And I submit this tragically deformed version of Christianity all began
with a de-emphasis of human sin, and the misunderstanding of the nature
of being human which goes with faulty belief about Satan.
(1) There is a wide literature on how Persian dualism influenced Judaism
and thence entered Christian thought. See, e.g., Abraham Malamat, History
Of The Jewish People (London: Weidenfeld, 1976) and John R. Hinnells,
Persian Mythology (New York: Bedrick Books, 1985).
(2) See my The Real Christ.
(3) This and other Athanasius references from Nathan K. Ng, The Spirituality
of Athanasius (Bern: Lang, 2001).
(4) Quotations in J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines (London: A. & C. Black, 1968) p. 348.
(5) Quotations in Kelly, ibid p. 360.