Three questions face the theologian as they confront atonement: ‘ how does Christ’s death effect human salvation?,’ ‘ what does humanity need salvation from?,’ and ‘ why would a good God bother saving a recalcitrant and corrupted species?’ Human self-regard normally narrows focus onto the first question; theories of atonement (especially as presented from the pulpit) often brush over more fundamental issues regarding the human condition, assuming that ‘sin,’ ‘guilt’ and ‘divine love’ are satisfying answers to the latter problems. Much can be gained, however, by carefully considering human corruption and divine love, not only because our view of human depravity and status before God determine our view of atonement, but because our self-conception gives substantial clues about the future salvation of non-human creation.
That creation will be renewed and delivered from corruption is uncontroversial; (1) what it means for creation to be renewed and delivered is, strangely, a heated topic. (2)
Here, I briefly explicate the views of St. Athanasius (approx. 296-373AD) regarding human corruption ( what God saves from) and divine mercy (why God saves) as developed in On the Incarnation of the Word (OIW from here ), with an eye towards adapting his central argument to the salvation of non-human creatures.
Ultimately, I suggest that the reasons given by Athanasius for divine mercy towards mankind apply equally well to the entire creation, providing us with good reason to think that God will bodily resurrect at least some non-human animals despite the metaphysical difficulties surrounding animal immortality.
Athanasius on the Human Condition
God, Athanasius presumes, is perfect, and lacks nothing in power, knowledge or goodness; out of goodness and love, God creates a species of animals (humans), gifting to them rationality (the image of God, a reflection of His Word), and intending for this species to (3) live eternally in
“true life” ( OIW, 3.3) and in “correspondence with God” (which I take to be a state of moral perfection, where the faculties are calibrated and activities in line with the will of God) ( OIW,5.1). However, mankind, being from the beginning naturally mortal, is at risk of non-existence without God’s direct intervention (i.e. God causes the immortal component of humans to survive
death, and without this direct intervention, death is truly the end of our being).(4 )Through its own freedom, humanity has taken on a moral rot which destroys (disintegrates) the individual.(5)
Additionally, God, to prevent human character from festering, has affirmed and promised that the natural consequences of sin will be upheld–immorality (beyond “mere misdemeanors,” ( OIW, 7.4)) will result in death unto non-being. Mankind then faces two problems: disintegrating moral rot and God’s legally-binding promise that those who have festered will disintegrate into nothing.(6)
The stage is set: all of mankind, upon death, will perish without both overcoming God’s decree and taking on significant moral repair (a change in character which ontically prevents self-inflicted disintegration). These are the conditions from which humanity must be rescued, and for which the Word becomes incarnate as Christ
Athanasius on Divine Mercy
Why, though, would God save us from ourselves, and why would He help His rotten children escape a law binding them for their own good? Athanasius’ explanation is simple: it is a moral stain on a creator to neglect their creation, and to allow their creation to perish, especially if perishing would be worse than having never been made ( OIW, 6.7-6.10).
There are, of course, many kinds of imperfections which a neglectful creator might possess, and so a variety of reasons why God cannot (given His absolute perfection and total power) fail to offer salvation to humanity. Athanasius recognizes at least the following:
(1) perishing by neglect would be less than perfectly loving ( OIW, 8.2); (2) perishing by neglect would blasphemy or insult the nature of God Himself (since humanity is an image and representation of God, as a painting is to its subject) ( OIW, 6.4, 14.1); (3) humanity perishing by neglect would imply a weakness in God or constitute a failure of God to succeed in making functional creatures after He intended to do so ( OIW, 6.8-6.9, 8.2); (4) perishing would make the world worse overall than if humans had never been made, implying that God, by making and then neglecting humanity, has made the world worse through creation ( OIW, 6.7-6.9). At least these four reasons, taken together, explain why God saves mankind. Granted the assumption that the intended function of humanity involves a bodily existence, Athanasius can then easily infer the bodily resurrection from the human condition and perfection of God (albeit by filling in the gaps with some tacit premises).
Athanasius’ explanation of divine mercy can be turned into a straightforward argument, as I have done below, emphasizing especially the proper functioning of human creatures:
P1. God is perfect (or perfectly loving) and the creator of humanity.
P2. It is an imperfection in (or unloving of) a creator to refrain from doing what is necessary to ensure the proper functioning of their creations, unless doing so would be outside their power or involve taking on a worse imperfection.
P3. All humans are meant to be (have the proper function of being) beautiful instances of their species, free from unnecessary suffering, regularly exercising their noetic powers in co-creation with God, and in a state of constant adoration of both God and His works.
P4. In order for any human to be a beautiful instance of its species, free from unnecessary suffering, regularly exercising their noetic powers in co-creation with God, and in a state of constant adoration of both God and His works, it is necessary that they be given both a bodily resurrection and at least an opportunity to repair the dysfunction (7) which prevents
satisfactory co-creation with and adoration of God and His works.
P4a. It would be an imperfection (or unloving of) the creator of humanity to refrain from giving all humans a bodily resurrection and at least an opportunity to repair the dysfunction which prevents satisfactory co-creation with and adoration of God and His works, unless doing so would be outside the creator’s power or involve taking on a worse imperfection. (P2, P3, P4)
P5. It is neither an imperfection in God, nor beyond His power, to give all humans both a bodily resurrection and at least an opportunity to repair the dysfunction which prevents satisfactory co-creation with and adoration of God and His works.
______________________________________________________________________________∴ God will give all humans a bodily resurrection and at least an opportunity to repair the dysfunction which prevents satisfactory co-creation with and adoration of God and His works. (P1, P4a, P5)
Note that (P2) involves a qualification of any creator’s duty to their creation. Athanasius, in line with the mainstream Christian tradition, still affirms that some will be damned, though not that they will perish ( OIW, 56.3). To avoid making damnation an imperfection in God, I have tried to be charitable towards Athanasius’ argument, treating neglect as an imperfection only when that neglect is not the lesser of two evils or beyond a creator’s power. This leaves room for the possibility that overriding human autonomy in order to save would involve a worse imperfection
than allowing some to perish or live eternally in a state of dysfunction.
Adapting Athanasius’ Argument
This argument can be easily adapted to the conclusion that God will resurrect some non-human animals. For all that must be assumed is the existence of some non-human creatures which God could (without taking on worse imperfections) resurrect and repair, and that these creatures
have not fulfilled their function prior to death. If this assumption is granted, then we have good reason to believe that some non-human animals will be resurrected, so as to have full opportunity to fulfill their proper functions, regardless of the metaphysical difficulties involved. A
general form of the argument might run as follows.
P1. God is perfect (or perfectly loving) and the creator of all non-human animals. P2. It is an imperfection in (or unloving of) a creator to refrain from doing what is necessary to ensure the proper functioning of their creations, unless doing so would be outside their power or involve taking on a worse imperfection.
P3. There are some non-human animals x with proper function f which have died without fulfilling f . P4. In order for these non-human animals x to fulfill f after having died without fulfilling f , they must be bodily resurrected and repaired in such a way as to give x opportunity to fulfill f.
P5. It is neither an imperfection in God, nor beyond His power, to bodily resurrect and repair these non-human animals x in such a way as to give x opportunity to fulfill f. ______________________________________________________________________________ ∴ God will bodily resurrect and repair these non-human animals x in such a way as to give x opportunity to fulfill f. (P1, P4a, P5)
(P3) is not a mere assumption. Consider domestic animals, such as dogs: dogs have been brought into being by purposive and intentional acts of humans over the course of tens of thousands of years. Modern dogs, because they have been quite literally designed (8) by humans, plausibly have proper functions, perhaps varying by breed. At least some are meant for human companionship and partnership in work and life. Since an artificer likely has the power to infuse a proper function into an artifact (as God has such an ability in creating humanity and humanity in creating tools), it seems plausible that dogs have such a function simply given the fact that humans formed them with such a function in mind. Dogs are not wild animals, but are, for better or worse, unable to be fully themselves without membership in human life. (This is evident in the ease with which abused dogs form human bonds while struggling, for the rest of theirs lives, to interact properly with members of their own species.) How horrible, then, is the great suffering we have inflicted on domestic dogs. Countless numbers die from starvation, abuse, neglect, and abandonment, and in their deaths they are deprived of human love, affection, and partnership.
Despite being our own creations, and inseperable from human influence, we torture and destroy them, stripping them of their ability to be what they are, and thereby showing our own depravity.
And what of the countless other domesticated and captured creatures? What of entire species driven to extinction by anthropogenic destruction of habitat and environment? Surely many of these animals have (as does every being just in virtue of being) the (9) proper function of being beautiful, wonderful beings in their own right, deserving of lives in which they can exist as fully themselves (though, of course, the life and happiness of some animals can simultaneously be beautifully and functionally subordinated to the life and happiness of others, as the breath of a field mouse is snuffed out by a corn snake without violation of function or beauty).(10) Surely humanity is not the sole, intrinsically valuable artwork of God (OIW, 14), but also the totality of the created order, as its gorgeous components form a functional, self-propelling whole through vast and incomprehensible relations of dependence.
Athanasius’ argument as it is applied to animals can be made even stronger by the suggestion that animals who have perished in this age without fulfilling their function have done so through no fault of their own. There is, in other words, no divine decree of death which non-human animals must be delivered from, thereby strengthening (P5*). How, then, can we assume that the burden of proof lies with those who would affirm the
bodily resurrection of non-human creatures? How can we, on the grounds of speculation, presume ourselves to know the proper functions of each component-animal we have destroyed, much less the entire creaturely economy? At the very least, a hopeful skepticism is warranted.
1 Isaiah 2:4, 65:17-25; Romans 8:19-23; 2 Peter 3:13; Revelation 21:1
2 I have, many times, witnessed indignant anger towards those suggesting a resurrection of non-human animals. “They have no immortal soul!,” some, like Fr. Trenham, declare, as though the nature of mind and animal consciousness is a settled matter. Many fear, it seems to me, that resurrection of non-human animals would somehow cheapen the uniqueness of humanity, and react defensively to such a
suggestion (Fr. Josiah Trenham, “Pets.”). 3 “He gave them a further gift, and He did not barely create man, as He did all the irrational creatures on the earth, but made them after His own image, giving them a portion even of the power of His own Word; so that having as it were a kind of reflexion of the Word, and being made rational, they might be able to abide ever in blessedness, living the truth life which belongs to the saints in paradise” (Athanasius. On the Incarnation, 3.3).
4 NT Wright, in The Resurrection of the Son of God , surveys a wide spectrum of Jewish and Christian views on the afterlife. Particularly interesting for our purposes is that Athanasius, by affirming humanity’s
natural mortality, seems to be tapping into a line of thought developed very early on, perhaps in the text of Genesis itself, which claimed that the human being would cease to be without direct, divine intervention, not due to their possessing some immortal component capable of surviving death on its own (Wright, N.T. The Resurrection of the Son of God, pgs. 92, 104, 107-108).
5 “..in other words, that they should be disintegrated and abide in death and corruption” (Athanasius. On the Incarnation , 4.5-4.6, also 5.1).
6 Both Athanasius and Augustine interpret Eden in this way, reading the commandment which forbids eating from the tree as a symbol of man’s choices and the law given to man to make these consequences clear. “But knowing once more how the will of man could sway to either side, in anticipation He secured the grace given them by a law…if they kept the grace and remained good, they might still keep the life in paradise without sorrow or pain or care besides having the promise of incorruption in heaven; but if they transgressed and turned back, and became evil, they might know that they were incurring that corruption in death which was theirs by nature …” (Athanasius. On the Incarnation, 3.4). “The reason for the prohibition was to show that the rational soul is not in its own power but ought to be subject to God, and must guard the order of its salvation by obedience, or by disobedience be corrupted. Hence God called the tree which he had forbidden to be touched the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, because anyone who had touched it contrary to the prohibition would discover the penalty of sin, and so would be able to distinguish between the good of obedience and the evil of disobedience” (Augustine. The Nature of the Good , XXXV). That is, man is free to live in accordance with beauty and goodness, with a plethora of possible expressions of this beauty, and, upon death, to be kept from perishing (“of every tree that is in
the garden, eating thou shalt eat”), or to live in the ways which lead to self-disintegration and non-existence (“but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, ye shall not eat of it, but on the day that ye eat, dying ye shall die”) (Athanasius. On the Incarnation, 3.5). God gives the law, as symbolized by
commandment and the trees, to show humanity the natural consequences of their sin. 7 By ‘beautiful animal of its species,’ I mean that a human being has the function of being truly human, a sort of animal with certain essential characteristics. In my view, being a human is to be bodily; that is, a
human being is a composite being, a sort of organism. The immaterial, perhaps immortal component of human beings (whatever this may be, I am not sure) which continues on after death is not fully or truly a human being, put part of a human being. 8 Though there is disagreement on the history of canine domestication, the domestic dog is estimated to have originated between 33,000 and 10,000 years ago. Though I myself take the findings of geneticists on their own authority, my more scientifically literate readers may be interested in the following: (Wang et al. “Out of Southern East Asia: The Natural History of Domestic Dogs across the World.”) 9 This doctrine of the goodness of all beings is, I am tempted to say, foundational to Christian thought, and should, if it is not already explicitly, be considered an essential article of faith. For a technical, philosophical introduction to the doctrine, see: (Macdonald, Scott (ed.). Being and Goodness ). Augustine’s work stands out as one of the most clear, non-technical expressions of the goodness of all created beings. Augustine writes, “Every natural being, so far as it is such, is good. There can be no
being which does not derive its existence from the most high and true God,” and “Even the thorns and thistles which the earth produces according to the will of God in judgement, in order to afflict the sinner by making him labour, are not rightly to be found fault with” (Augustine. On the Nature of the Good, I; XXXVI.). See also: (Augustine. Confessions, Bk. 7). See also my explication of Thomas Aquinas’ views on the correlation between being and goodness: (Marks, Pierce. “Aquinas’ Metaethic: The Link Between Being and Goodness in Aquinas’ Thought.”). To be clear, neither Agustine nor Aquinas would be very sympathetic to animal resurrection, and I mention them as clear expounders of the convertibility of being and goodness. 10 “When things pass away and others succeed them there is a specific beauty in the temporal order, so that those things which die or cease to be what they were, do not defile or disturb the measure, form or order of the created universe. A well-prepared speech is beautiful even though all its syllables and sounds pass in succession as if they are born to die” (Augustine. The Nature of the Good, VIII).
Athanasius of Alexandria, “On the Incarnation of the Word,” in Nicene and Post-Nicene Fathers (V2-04), ed. Philip Schaff and Henry Wace (Grand Rapids, MI: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1891).
Augustine of Hippo, Confessions , ed. Mark Vessey, trans. Albert Outler (New York: Barnes & Noble Books, 2007).
Augustine of Hippo, “The Nature of the Good,” in Augustine: Earlier Writings, trans. John Burleigh (The Westminster Press, 1953), 326–248.
Scott MacDonald, ed., Being and Goodness : The Concept of the Good in Metaphysics and Philosophical Theology (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1991).
Pierce Marks, “Aquinas’ Metaethic: The Link Between Being and Goodness in Aquinas’ Thought,” (2020 Newberry Library Center for Renaissance Studies Multidisciplinary Graduate Conference, n.d.),
N.T. Wright, The Resurrection of the Son of God (Fortress press, 2017).
RefeGuo-Dong Wang, Weiwei Zhai, He-Chuan Yang, Lu Wang, Li Zhong, Yan-Hu Liu, Ruo-Xi Fan, Ting-Ting Yin, Chun-Ling Zhu, Andrei D Poyarkov, David M Irwin, Marjo K Hytönen, Hannes Lohi, Chung-I Wu, Peter Savolainen, and Ya-Ping Zhang. “Out of Southern East Asia: The Natural History of Domestic Dogs across the World.” Cell Research 26, no. 1
Fr. Josiah Trenham, “Pets,” YouTube Video, Patristic Nectar Films, November 1, 2019,
THIS ARTICLE IS BY: Pierce Alexander Marks
June 23rd, 2020. USED WITH PERMISSION.