Yesterday, I successfully placed the so-called “Creed of Saint Athanasius” or “Quicumque Vult” in its context. It has lived beyond its context, surviving in books and documents and liturgical use — traditionally, Anglicans recite this statement of faith every Trinity Sunday. I don’t think very many do, anymore, and not just because of the equation: length + liturgical laziness = cutting out bits of the liturgy.
I would venture to say that many people dislike this piece of theology because of its introduction and conclusion. The introductory paragraph of the Athanasian Creed runs:
Whoever wishes to be saved, it is necessary before all things, that he cling to the Catholic faith: unless someone will have held this [faith] whole and undefiled and away from falseness, he will perish eternally.
The offending clause is the closing one, “he will perish eternally.” No one wants to hear this sort of thing today. Isn’t this the sort of thing Fred Phelps is into? Isn’t this what a lot people are trying to get away from? Doesn’t this just prove that religion is an oppressive, divisive force?
What does it even mean, “perish eternally”? Most people are probably thinking, “Hellfire and brimstone! Hellfire and brimstone! HEAVEN! OR HELL!! HEAVEN!! OR HELL!!!” I don’t rightly know, actually. It seems that those who are not caught up into the great embrace of Christ in the great beyond, those who find themselves amongst the goats on Judgement Day, are described variously as being cast into the outer darkness where there is moaning and gnashing of teeth, or into Gehenna which is Jerusalem’s burning garbage heap, or into a lake of fire, or to suffer the second death, or simply to be sent away from the presence of Christ.
Whatever it is that happens to those who find themselves outside of Christ at the Resurrection, it is not something to look forward to. Perhaps it is simply the cessation of existence. St. Augustine seems to think it is eternal punishment. Madeleine L’Engle can’t imagine a good God punishing any of His creation for all time; neither can St. Gregory of Nyssa. Origen even imagined that the people who die the second death and go to Hades are raised up and perfected by Christ and reunited to the Monad at the end of all things (apocatastasis for those who care).
Whatever it is, though, we freely choose it. We pave our own road to Hell. We choose ourselves over others, the world over Christ, sin over righteousness every step of the way. And this road we pave is easily laid. It’s also nice and broad, smooth and pleasant. Until, of course, we reach the top of a hill and are tossed off the hill by demons into a pit of dragons (this description based on an icon I saw in a supermarket in Cyprus).
God offers the free gift of salvation to everyone. If we choose not to accept it, we are condemning ourselves to perish eternally.
Of course, protestations arise that that’s not what the Quicumque Vult says. It says that we must keep the Catholic faith whole and undefiled. We must also do good works, according to the conclusion of the text.
The Catholic faith is the means of accepting the gift of salvation. If God is offering us a gift, we must have faith in Him to accept it. If I did not have faith in my brother, I might not accept a gift given by him, expecting instead of something pleasant those springy snakes instead. So faith, as in trust, is essential for accepting the gift.
Part of accepting this gift is knowing the giver. God is not aloof from us. He offers us salvation, and if we truly trust* Him, we will come to know Him. We will learn of Who He is. And Who is He? Who is this God whom we trust, this God Who saves us from sin, death, the devil, eternal perishing?
Look at the Quicumque Vult. It will show you Who it is Whom you trust.
*Philological phun phact: these two words are cognate along with tree.