Athanasius: Standing for truth

Do you feel courageous? Are you willing to stand up for the truth even when everyone hates you for it? Come and get to know Athanasius.

We have spent a bit of time getting into the mind of Athanasius. We are going to spend a bit of time looking at his life. Many Christians think he was a bit of a hero, here is what CS Lewis writes:

His epitaph is Athanasius contra mundum, “Athanasius against the world.” We are proud that our own country has more than once stood against the world. Athanasius did the same. He stood for the Trinitarian doctrine, “whole and undefiled,” when it looked as if all the civilised world was slipping back from Christianity into the religion of Arius—into one of those “sensible” synthetic religions which are so strongly recommended today and which, then as now, included among their devotees many highly cultivated clergymen. It is his glory that he did not move with the times; it is his reward that he now remains when those times, as all times do, have moved away.                     CS Lewis preface to on the incarnation by Athanasius

Athanasius was born in 296 AD. As he grew up, Christians were being persecuted in the empire. Under Diocletian (302) cities were killing Christians so they could pay a reduced tax bill, the more Christians you killed the less tax you paid. Being a Christian back then meant literally putting your neck on the line. The next 20 years dramatically changed everything.

In 306 Constantine “converted” to Christianity (how genuine this was is debated). In 313 Constantine the Emperor passes the edict of Milan legalising Christianity. Constantine then conquers the eastern half of the Empire in 324 and in 325 calls the council of Nicea. Athanasius attends the council and assist his bishop. In 328 the Bishop of Alexandria dies and Athanasius replaces him aged 32.

Athanasius was the Bishop of Alexandria for 46 years. On the face of it this sounds like an easy job, Christianity was legal now. The reality was he had a hard life. Athanasius refused to compromise on the truth so he had a really tough time. He was exiled from the city 5 times. He spent over 17 years in exile.

He, like us, lived in a time and place where it was legal to be a Christian, but where standing on what the Bible teaches was hated.

Here are a couple of examples of how standing up for the truth made life very costly for him.

Soon after becoming bishop Arius and his followers (people who denied Jesus was God but said they were Christians) wanted to get rid of him. They made up all sorts of false accusations against him to get him kicked out. He was taken to court.

One of the popular allegations was that Athanasius organised the capture and murder of a different bishop and had chopped off his hand. The story became popular and gained momentum because the Arians kept on pulling out a dead mans hand and waving it about! “Look what he has done!” At his trial the Arians were making their case and waving the disembodied hand around, when some monks snuck in with someone under a cloak. At the right time the unveiled the alleged bishop alive and well with both hands intact. Athanasius was not guilty but there were so many allegations that the Arians got their way. Athanasius was forced to leave and go into exile. He was not guilty, people knew that, yet he was still forced out of the work place.

Another time things got worse for him. He had returned back to his city and was leading the church service. All of a sudden the church was stormed by 356 army Troops. There was a new emperor and he didn’t like the things Athanasius was teaching, they seemed so illogical and offensive, so he sent his men to get rid of him. Fortunately for Athanasius some monks with cloaks came to the rescue again. The monks hid Athanasius under their cloaks and snuck him out a side entrance. The monks then kept him hidden in the Egyptian dessert for 6 years, making sure he was not found and killed.

Standing for the truth is often a costly thing. But Athanasius says don’t cave in, stand up.

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