“For God had made man thus (that is, as an embodied spirit), and had willed that he should remain in incorruption. But men, having turned from the contemplation of God to evil of their own devising, had come inevitably under the law of death. Instead of remaining in the state in which God had created them, they were in process of becoming corrupted entirely, and death had them completely under its dominion. For the transgression of the commandment was making them turn back again according to their nature; and as they had at the beginning come into being out of non-existence, so were they now on the way to returning, through corruption, to non-existence again. The presence and love of the Word had called them into being; inevitably, therefore when they lost the knowledge of God, they lost existence with it; for it is God alone Who exists, evil is non-being, the negation and antithesis of good.”
What is death? Death, as Athanasius is discussing it, is more than mere biological death. Death is non-existence, it is the absence of life. The phenomenon of non-life is what we are calling death. What is life? What we mean by life is more than biology and blood. Life is a gift to us from our Maker. We have life only through Him. Not only that, but our desire to fully live, to be alive in the purest sense, is also a gift. We, as a race, are imbued with the desire for real life. We actively seek it. Therefore, death, this absence of life, is not something that we would naturally choose for ourselves.
How, then, would any thinking person ever choose death? Under normal circumstances, I don’t think they would. If we say that we instinctively want to live and not die, then the only way that a person would willingly choose death over life is if they were deceived into thinking that death was life. And this is exactly what happens in the Garden. This story of the Fall is indicative of what continues to happen in mankind today. Deception is the trick that death uses to get its foot in the door. Once there, it begins to wreck havoc upon us.
If our sin nature can be described as imagining our existence apart from God, then sin begins to exert its control over us at the point where we choose death over life (or choosing life apart from God as opposed to Life with Him) because we mistakenly think that death is life. Once we do this, we begin to come under the dominion of death and we are powerless to stop it. This is the process of corruption of which Athanasius speaks.
This process begins to overtake us in many ways. Death’s corruption of us moves on unhindered to complete fruition unless acted upon by an outside force. It becomes easier and easier for us to choose death over life, because we become more and more blinded to the reality of our existence. Soon, we are lost, blind, and dying, yet, we have no idea that this is the case. We wrongly think we are smarter than ever, seeing clearly to the path of true living. There is no way out of this process of corruption of our own making. The vicious cycle folds back onto itself. This is the terrible domain of death. We are dying and we don’t even know it.
Consider the modes of living that the world would espouse to us as real life. It usually falls under one of these headings: Money, power, knowledge, and fame. That part of us that can imagine our lives without God would tell us that these things, or the pursuit of them, is life. Therefore, because we all want to live, we design our lives around these things and we order our relationships and time to give us the best of these things which we think lead to life. We try to take what we can from whom we can by any means we can, and we have the hubris to say that this is life! All the while, we are in actuality moving further and further away from Him who is life. As we continue along this process of complete corruption, we slip further and further from the truth.
And so this corruption eventually leads us back to the place where we were before Life was breathed into us, that is non-existence, for there is no existence apart from God. We truly become that which the world would tell us we are in the first place – insignificant animals, byproducts of the alleged master of the universe, scientific process; aware only of our most basic consciousness and ultimately relegated to the biological dung heap of the cosmos. At the end of our physical life, death takes off its mask to reveal its true nature and intention.
So, with the Apostle Paul, we cry out, “O wretched man that I am! Who will set me free from this body of death?”