The doctrine of creation is extremely important in understanding human nature as it should be and as it has become. Once you consider that humans, like all of creation, are contingent, having been created out of no-thing, then their fall into sin and their helplessness to recover from it makes sense.
Creation from nothing says that humans are contingent and fundamentally unstable. Part of the definition for contingency given by the OED is “the condition of being liable to happen or not in the future; uncertainty of occurrence or incidence.” This is the condition that all creatures find themselves in by virtue of their created status. As Athanasius puts it, creatures made out of nothing do not have the capacity to sustain their own existence. All humans have needs that must be met by sources outside of themselves. We must eat, have shelter, and enter relationships that form and shape us because we are social animals. In all of these ways, we depend upon something outside of ourselves to stabilize our lives.
The instability of created life is present all around. It is there in the unexpected events that can literally take one’s breath away, like the sudden loss of a loved one, or a financial collapse. It is present in the way in which relationships crumble around us, or the way in which we must depend upon forces outside of ourselves (like Stock Markets, farmers in Kansas, etc.) that are themselves subject to other forces (farmers’ crops are subject to weather patterns just like the companies we work for are subject to economic patterns).
Soren Kierkegaard referred to the psychological effect of contingency as a state of anxiety in the soul. This state is not the effect of living in a fallen condition, but emerges from being a creature that cannot stabilize itself. What gives rise to this condition is the concern about the future and what will or will not happen; the trauma of decision with respect to that future; and the immense responsibility to shape our futures coupled with the recognition that so many other forces outside of us will shape them.
By anxiety is not meant that all humans are nervous or something to that effect. Rather it is the constant concern that comes from always having to look outside oneself for sources of stability and the risk this involves. Let’s face it, we cannot make it on our own, ever; and we were never designed to do so.
The fall into sin stems from the fundamental deception that humans can stabilize their own existence. Athanasius and Ireneaus of Lyons both read the story of Adam and Eve as meaning that humans require a ground of stability. What the serpent held out was the possibility of becoming a stable being like God. The lie was that any creature could possibly sustain itself. All creatures need God to sustain them because God is NOT created, but God sustains his own existence. The answer to “Who made God?” is that God always was, is, and will be. God never changes and does not require anything to be God because God is stability itself.
Once the original humans turned away from their only source of stability, the inevitable occurred. For Athanasius, they experienced death and corruption. We might put it this way, to turn away from God is to place oneself on a path of disintegration that leads one back to the nothingness out of which one was created. Corruption really is about a psychological disintegration that itself mimics the biological disintegration of death. Humans are not psychologically whole. Our emotions and desires work against us. We move from fear to anger and all other emotions and desire in between. This does not mean that emotions and desires are entirely bad. They have been given by God, and yet, in this “corrupted” condition, they are disordered, misdirected, and thus, as humans, we never experience wholeness/integrity.
All of this Athanasius thinks signals what it means to be enslaved to sin and in the grip of death. Slavery is about a destructive relationship. It is when something/someone exercises power or control over something/someone else. Since humans establish and maintain relationships through the life of emotion and desire, they can create enslaving bonds. By turning away from the triune God whose life is a communion of love, and whose love stabilizes, humans now reach out through emotion and desire for what can stabilize. They reach for that forbidden fruit as though any created reality can make them god-like; can stabilize them. Given a lack of psychological wholeness, disordered emotion and desire–the flesh–bind us to created objects in self-destructive ways. We are slaves to this internal corruption, which keeps us searching for something, anything, to stabilize us, or to keep us from returning to the abyss.
Humans have fallen and they cannot get up. As creatures, we could never stabilize our own existence. And now, as those who are fallen, we experience the life of a divided self that is disintegrating. We have lost integrity and wholeness because we could not keep it in the first place without God and God’s love. This is what the doctrine of creation tells us. It reminds us of contingency and instability.