A question was put several days back about what would be said about “evil in a one-storey universe?” Of course, as I’ve thought about the question, my simplest conclusion is to wonder how one would give an account of evil in a two-storey universe. For it seems that those who have imagined the universe as a two-storey affair have largely confined evil here and proposed that the second-floor has been swept clean. Heaven above and earth below, and a basement yet to come where the evil will at least be confined in everlasting flames. Of course the multi-storey version of good and evil do nothing to solve the problem and do much to create a secular no-man’s land, increasingly populated with those who cannot believe in either a second-storey nor a basement and frequently see believers among the evil in this world (if only to complicate matters).
Of course, the two Biblical books that treat the imagery of spiritual warfare with the evil one in the most literal fashion, have Satan standing before God and holding converse about the long-suffering Job (in the book of the same name) and engaged in a “war in heaven” with St. Michael and the angels in the other (the Revelation of St. John). In neither account is the location of great significance, for the center of action in both books in not “heaven” but rather earth – with St. Job’s sufferings in the one, and the various plagues and misfortunes befalling the earth in the other. Indeed, if the drama of either book is examined, the “heavenly” scenes, are rather more like ante-rooms than an upper-storey.
But the question remains – what account do we give of evil if we speak of the universe in the language of a single storey? I am a believer and as such generally find the source of evil in the abuse of free will, whether of human beings or on the part of heavenly beings (the demonic). Nor do I see that account as different than the theological account to be found in the Fathers. What I bear witness to as a believer, however, is less an account of the origin of evil than to my faith that our universe, though caught in the throes of death and decay, has nevertheless been entered by its Creator, who having taken flesh of the Virgin, has entered into the very depths of death and decay – themselves the result of evil – and defeated them. And thus I see this one-storey world in which I live as the active stage upon which that same victory is being manifest. I cannot say in the least that I see that victory increasingly manifest – for the Christian account of the world is not an account of progress towards the Kingdom of God, but a witness to the fact that the Kingdom of God has entered our world and there is nothing we can do about it. We can, of course, repent, believe the Gospel, and by God’s grace come to know that Kingdom within our selves and within the world in which we live (all of which is the gift of God) but we will also know that Kingdom in the midst of this same storey, which continues to lie in darkness and to endure the presence and work of evil.
Of course, there is much conversation about the metaphysics of evil and the nature of hell and eternal punishment – and though I have recommended articles on the same that I find of value – I think that a large amount of Christian energy is wasted on such matters. For it is not the mastery of the metaphysics of the universe that makes any difference, but rather the embrace of the Gospel of Christ and obedience to His commandments. Those who point to the plenitude of evil around us will get little argument from me, other than to say that what appears to be a plenitude is a “kingdom” that cannot stand, and that it’s end will come. I received a post that got lost in the spam yesterday complaining of the evil within the world, and wondering how I could speak of “heaven on earth.” I cannot think of anywhere else to speak of it, since all I know of heaven its what came forth from the tomb at Pascha. That same resurrected Christ is now Head of His body, the Church, and I cannot know of how to speak of that Body if it is not heaven on earth (despite all that we sinners may drag within her) but all the sickness that enters the doors of a hospital do not make it less a place a healing – I cannot do other with the Body of Christ but bear witness to the very fact that it exists for nothing other than healing. The only weakness within the Church is when we “patients” forget why we came in its doors in the first place, and begin to imagine either that we are already healed, or worse, that someone has turned us into the medical staff.
But though the one-storey world as we know it is itself a cosmic war zone, I cannot lose hope when I know that the end of the battle has already been accomplished in the coming of Christ. I wait for its manifestation – but having known the risen Lord – I wait with hope and run the race with patience. What else are we supposed to do?
Perhaps delete and repost this, with corrected spelling of “window” in the title?
I’m enjoying your musings, as always.
I am a frequent reader of this blog. Thank you for your work. I’m enjoying this series very much.
I have a friend who believes there is a God (“something greater than us” is how he puts it), but who is blocked from going any further by his focusing on the senselessness of evil in the world. Evil as a result of our misuse of free will does not make much sense to him, and he has great anger toward a God who would allow such things to happen. I don’t think there is much I can say to him that would not alienate him further, though it pains me to hear his anger. All I try to do is demonstrate to him through my words and actions the results of having faith, small and wavering as mine is.
I should note I became Orthodox several years ago.
What would happen to the world if everyone realized that everything has already been suffered, and that we are never alone no matter what happens to us?
Haste shows up in such little mistakes.
Evil is indeed senseless. God allows but not in an act of utter freedom, but in an act of love, in which He unites Himself with us and endures everything, that He might redeem us. I understand the philosophical pain that people endure when thinking about the problem of evil – but many times it is a philosophical pain, not the pain of entering into love and suffering with others. Philosophical pain can also be a way of keep the other at bay and refusing to commit to the suffering of belief. To be a Christian means to embrace the Cross – and to embrace it ever more deeply. The greatest saints know the pain and sin of the world more deeply than any other human being. But they rush into it to embrace it in the love of God – rather than being repelled from God. Indeed if we knew God, we would know that we will find Him most truly and completely in the heart of the suffering – not somewhere else removed from it. In such a world, where else would Love be?
Thank you, Father.
but many times it is a philosophical pain, not the pain of entering into love and suffering with others.
I’m reading through “The Way of the Fathers” and find that much of what you write here (“it is not the mastery of the metaphysics of the universe that makes any difference, but rather the embrace of the Gospel of Christ and obedience to His commandments”) echoed there (“The teaching of a charismatic elder in the fifth century desert … is never outdated insofar as that person lived and loved as Christ.”)
Thank you for your insight.
Thank you, Fr. Stephen, these words are a blessing upon my soul. How kind of you to consistently remind that the kingdom is here and that we are to hope and to run the race with patience. God be praised!
May God bless, thank you all!
Philosophical pain. yes. In my experience of myself and others, the rejection of God because evil exists is a self-imposed conundrum that is founded upon two false ideas: that evil is somewhere else than in me, and the belief that we are not free.
Most people are profoundly uncomfortable with freedom because if we are free, we have the responsibility to live and strive and fail. In our culture the idea that one should actually be responsible for one’s own failure has almost reached the level of blasphemy.
However, the fallen world exists because we have assumed the possiblity of genuine failure and the reality of the consequences of genuine failure. The reality of Christian freedom is that we know it most fully only in obedience, i.e., willingly allowing God to draw our hearts and minds into harmony with Him.
Thank you once again for some marvelous reflections, and timely for me and my fellow parishioners as well.
I have known dozens of people who struggle with the problem of evil and also believe in free will. I think you deal with it no matter how you construct the human will. Because God is always greater so it always comes back to the question of God and evil co-existing, and co-existing forevermore. The view of hell in the River of Fire is becoming part of the puzzle for me. But I also think that a metaphysical understanding of evil as not a thing or being with any true existance of its own, rather a collection of individual instances of lack or perversion of good, is necessary for the role of free will to fall into place in the mind. I think it is also necessary to understand why God continues to love people. Because they are never totally evil, such a thing would be nothingness and is impossible. Also because God cannot love evil. So what he loves is the good in us, which is our existance, coming from him, and what is left of our nature, which is his image. This could be misunderstood as selfishness on God’s part but I believe that is a misunderstanding, because the love within the Trinity is prior to any creation and is therefore ground for explanations of creation and God’s relation to it.
All that to say that I am becoming far more able to live with my faith as a result of this blog and other Orthodox resources but part of that effect is bringing together a lot of different thoughts. And I don’t believe free-will alone (especially if it’s not carefully defined) is the answer.
Thank you, very interesting & helpful post.