One of the more challenging topics I’ve read, written, and talked about in the past few years is the atemporal fall. I get more and more questions about it, so I’m collecting a reading list here that I can build out over time and share easily in response to questions. This concept of an atemporal fall was widespread in the Hellenistic Jewish and early Christian context (the entire background of Jesus and Paul) but has not been prominent within the Latin tradition of theology for a long time. As the piece linked below by Alexander V. Khramov demonstrates, this is largely because Augustine moved over the course of his own lifetime away from the idea of an atemporal fall that he had first learned as a new Christian—rejecting what had been the standard idea in the Greek speaking theological world. Augustine did this for what were apparently theologically-motivated reasons related to his own unique readings of Paul on topics such as original sin (another way in which Augustine shaped theology in the West for long after his lifetime).
Put simply, the atemporal fall is the idea that humanity was created in a heavenly realm of time and space and that the human fall literally caused a reduced form of time and space to come into being. Humanity then also showed up within this fallen world but in a new and reduced form of themselves. Many early church fathers (including Augustine at least for the first part of his career) considered Genesis 1 to be about the eternal creation of God while Genesis 2 moved our cosmic story across the line into the fallen world that we now inhabit. This means that the fall of humanity took place outside of time as we now experience it—therefore “atemporal.”
Calling this concept the “atemporal fall” privileges the relationship of the fall to our present world in terms of time and does this at the expense of space. However, our current world is related to the world from which we fell in terms of both time and space. In fact, a Christian understanding of an atemporal fall must maintain both a spatial and a temporal participation between the fallen world and the eternal creation of God. Without this participation, the idea of an atemporal fall reduces easily to a full dualism or heterodox gnosticism rather than remaining simply a contingent dualism (with actual participation in the life of God throughout all of reality) as we see in the New Testament and the church fathers.
One other reason that it so difficult to speak now of an atemporal fall is that it is entirely incompatible with a physicalist or mechanistic metaphysics (which is really just the blindness or prejudice of refusing to have any metaphysics at all). Our modern secular world of inert material resources that exist only to be manipulated for the sake of progress or commodification (creating more stuff to awaken new consumer desires) cannot be understood as a reality that is ultimately dependent upon a more permanent, substantial and living world. Although modern humans still have an atrophied nous (“the single eye of the heart” that Jesus teaches about or the “intuitive mind” of the Greek philosophers) that can perceive the most substantial, free and alive realities, we only give any attention or respect to what we can see with our frail fleshly eyes and control with muscle or money. For all of these reasons, you are unlikely to hear much about the atemporal fall in our world today.
While on the topic of imponderables, any consideration of an atemporal fall must also posit some version of a corporate and heavenly Adam as well as Jesus Christ. As we read in Paul, Jesus is the second Adam and also the first human to be fully created (or to have displayed the fullness of the divine image for which purpose humans were created). Jesus is also called the head of the entire body of his people. Likewise, Adam is, of course, the source or head of the entire human race. Both figures relate to human history and to all other human persons, to some significant extent, from outside of history. There is much more to consider on these points, but it is beyond the scope of these notes.
Where I first heard of this concept was in fairytales or mythologies. We see this atemporal fall suggested in the bending of our world into its current reduced shape as this took place in Tolkien’s stories with the downfall of Númenor. It shows up in the myths of Atlantis and of the Temple-Garden of Eden sinking into the earth with the great flood. I’ve written about this in several places such as these:
- A Brief Christian History of the Cosmos (with Some Defense and Exposition)
- Dreaming with Mr. Raven [which draws largely on George MacDonald’s fantasy novel Lilith]
Few authors write about the idea of an atemporal fall outside of fiction and story. The first place that I saw any reference to it in a contemporary nonfiction source was in The Doors of the Sea by David Bentley Hart where he speaks explicitly of time as we know it now being “fallen” and reduced in its form. Even in this book, however, the concept is not developed but simply eluded to. Most other places where I have found this idea talked about are just recordings of conversations between authors and scholars as well as a few articles and blog posts. I’m hopeful that some books coming out in future years will give this more formal attention. If anyone reading these notes and this list has additional resources, please let me know.
Without further ado, here is the reading list:
- “Fitting Evolution into Christian Belief: An Eastern Orthodox Approach” by Alexander V. Khramov in the International Journal of Orthodox Theology (2017). Also found here from the publisher.
- “Paul’s Adam and Paul’s Christ” by David Armstrong on A Perennial Digression from 26 August 2021.
- “St Maximus the Confessor on the Cosmic Fall” by Jordan Daniel Wood at the Eclectic Orthodoxy blog on 14 November 2020.
- “Sergius Bulgakov on Evolution and the Fall: A Sophiological Solution” by Charles Andrew Gottshall at the Eclectic Orthodoxy blog on 1 May 2017.
- The Doors of the Sea by David Bentley Hart (2005).
- “The Devil’s March: Creatio ex nihilo, the Problem of Evil, and a Few Dostoyevskian Meditations” by David Bentley Hart. Published in Creation “ex nihilo”: Origins, Development, Contemporary Challenges (2017) and Theological Territories: A David Bentley Hart Digest (2020).
- Torstein Theodor Tollefsen in his chapter “Saint Maximus the Confessor on Creation and Incarnation” from the book Incarnation: On the Scope and Depth of Christology edited by Niels Henrik Gregersen.
- I am excited about a forthcoming book by Jordan Wood called The Whole Mystery of Christ: Creation as Incarnation in Maximus the Confessor (from the University of Notre Dame Press, publication date not yet finalized but within a year). It promises insight on many topics and possibly this one as well.
- The Fall and Hypertime by Hud Hudson (2014). [Recommended by Stephen R. L. Clark (as something he wants to read related to this).]
- Decreation: The Last Things of All Creatures by Paul J. Griffiths (2014). [Recommended and not yet read by me.]
- The Symbolism of Evil by Paul Ricoeur. [Recommended and not yet read by me.]
One final note regarding provenance with this topic:
- This claim is properly within the truth domaines of theology, anthropology, metaphysics, myth and poetry.
- As for the physical sciences: they do not conflict at all with the concept of an atemporal fall. At the same time, science cannot give us any evidence of it on its own terms.
- As for exegesis of scripture: it takes an atemporal fall for granted on every page. It, however, is not something we tend to see as modern readers. One example is Romans 8:19-23. “For the creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God; for the creation was subjected to futility, not of its own will but by the will of the one who subjected it, in hope that the creation itself will be set free from its bondage to decay and will obtain the freedom of the glory of the children of God. We know that the whole creation has been groaning in labor pains until now; and not only the creation, but we ourselves, who have the first fruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly while we wait for adoption, the redemption of our bodies.”
P.S. A few of my family members occasionally read and interact with my theological postings on my blog. Shortly after I posted the material above, one of my amazing sisters commented to me elsewhere about the atemporal fall being rather incomprehensible, so I gave this summary a shot:
Dear sister, a distinguished and much-loved Orthodox theologian of the last generation, Olivier Clément, wrote a book called Transfiguring Time: Understanding Time in the Light of the Orthodox Tradition that is probably the best start I could think of for talking about an atemporal fall.
One way to describe the atemporal fall is to say that all of cosmic history in this current fallen world of ours is the result of only one moment or event within the heavenly or eternal time of God’s kingdom life. When the heavenly Adam fell (who was created for the purpose of filling an un-fallen cosmos with life in God’s image and so that the incarnation might take place even without a fall) all of fallen human history unrolled instantly—from the Big Bang until the last moment of biological life anywhere in our cosmos. This means that every part of this contingent story that we are in right now is only incompletely in contact with the true history of humanity’s un-fallen relationship to God. Our fallen history did not destroy us and our world, because, at the instant of our fall, the eternal Son and Word of God joined himself to us even to the point of death. This incarnation shows up in the middle of our fallen time when Mary says yes to God—undoing the human fall in cooperation with God. However, this incarnation and death and resurrection of God are also the “lamb slain from the foundation of the cosmos” (as John says in his Apocalypse). Every moment of cosmic history is therefore the immediate result of two things: 1) Adam’s resistance to life with God and 2) Christ’s commitment to incarnation in the flesh even though humanity resisted life with God and brought death to themselves and their entire world.
Coming at the atemporal fall from another direction, my second best approach would be through the work of a living and also much-loved Orthodox theologian John Behr with a book called John the Theologian and his Paschal Gospel: A Prologue to Theology (now in a 2nd ed.). In this book, John Behr explains how all of the early church fathers understood John the Theologian to be teaching in his gospel that the work of creation by God was only accomplished upon the cross by Jesus Christ from the very foundation or middle of our contingent and fallen time.