The Icon of Unfallen Suffering

The so-called “problem of evil” garners enduring attention in our culture. I recall in my freshman philosophy class the conundrum was used as the “coup de grace” in the logical assault on God’s existence. “Not only does God not exist, He’s not even good.” Poor God. All of this is made even more poignant in our comfortable world of modern prosperity where minor setbacks are seen to unravel the universe. The fathers of the Church were no strangers to suffering. More than a few were the victims of torture and persecution. They lived in a world of high infant mortality where 50 years of age was “old,” and where even minor illness (by today’s standards) could prove fatal. Life was indeed “brutish and short.”

Evil has always been a serious business, and was carefully discussed within the course of the Church’s teaching. It is often poorly understood in modern conversations, as are some of the most important aspects of classical Christian foundations. One of those foundations that remains utterly essential is the Christian affirmation of the goodness of creation. I offer here a short summary of the classical teaching, as well as a suggestion for thinking about those things we call “evil” in the world. Perhaps most striking in my suggestions is what I call “unfallen suffering.”

God created all that exists – out of nothing. Thus, everything that has being is utterly dependent upon God for its initial existence and continued existence. He not only brings into existence, He also sustains. All that God created was/is good. Nothing, simply by virtue of its existence, is evil.

Evil is not a “thing,” an “existence.” Evil is a direction, in fact, a misdirection. Everything created has, as part of its being, its purpose and direction. This is its telos, it’s end-point. Evil is nothing other than the deviation from the telos or end-point of our being.

In looking at this, the Fathers say that evil has no existence. It is not anything. Neither is it “nothing.” “Being” is not a category that applies to evil. Evil is only a direction, a movement. It is the movement of good things in the wrong direction.

Bearing this in mind, it is possible to look at anything within our world, and consider its proper direction and the goodness of its existence. This is sometimes a painful exercise, given the wounds we bear from our own suffering and that of others.

For example, there is nothing “evil” about a bacterium. Indeed, there are more bacteria in the human gut than there are cells in the human body. Digestion and any number of other processes necessary to human existence would be impossible without the continued, healthy existence of certain bacteria in our digestive tract. We have a symbiotic relationship with such bacteria. Their “goodness” is easy to contemplate.

On the other hand, there are bacteria that are deadly for us. Bacterial pneumonia is a killer. But the life and nature of bacterial pneumonia is no different from that of the beneficial bacteria in our gut. All that differs is the distorted direction or movement in pneumonia. The bacteria in that disease do the same things the bacteria do in your gut, but they do it in the wrong way, at the wrong time, in the wrong direction. And they kill you.

There is nothing inherently wrong with human freedom. It is a gift from God. And yet, we use that freedom in actions of violence and murder and any number of evil things. The freedom is not evil (though many would restrict freedom in order to have less violence). What is evil is not the freedom, but the direction in which it moves.

I will reach for something even greater.  I suggest that we may think of such a thing as “unfallen suffering.” Because the suffering we endure in this world is often the result of evil actions and distorted directions, it is possible to simply conclude that suffering is inherently evil. Understood in a certain manner, this is true. If, by “suffering,” we mean only to describe a movement that is a deviation from the proper telos of a thing, then it is synonymous with that movement we call “evil.” However, suffering seems to have a meaning other than this. St. Paul, for example, prays:

…that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the communion of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. (Phi 3:10-11)

St. Paul is not asking to experience evil, even though he specifically asks for the communion of Christ’s suffering.

The suffering and death of Christ is something that we may call a “two-sided” icon. On the one hand, seen from the perspective of the Roman soldiers and the leaders who called for His torture and execution, His death appears to be the very image of evil, the wicked torture and murder of the innocent. But this icon always was a misreading of His suffering and death. That fact reveals something about the true nature of suffering, and the reality that I am describing as “unfallen suffering.”

However, we speak wisdom among those who are mature, yet not the wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (1Co 2:6-8)

The “rulers of this age” (the demonic powers) see only the wrong side of the icon. They perceive Christ’s suffering and death as His defeat. They see it as the triumph of evil. But it is the “hidden” wisdom of God. The suffering of Christ is not defeat, nor can it be seen as the work of evil. St. John Chrysostom is careful to say: “On the night in which He was given up, or rather when He gave Himself up to death…” St. Basil joins in the same emphasis:

For when He was about to go forth to His voluntary, ever-memorable and life-creating death, 

This is a “life-creating” death, a description that can in no way be attributed to evil. The suffering of Christ is not a misdirection nor a deviation from its telos. And that, of course, is quite puzzling.

The heart of this puzzle, I think, lies within the nature of love itself. Christ says, “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). We are told by St. John that “God is love.” We understand within the teaching of the Church that there is indeed a “laying down of life” within the very Godhead. This is the mutual self-emptying of the Persons of the Trinity. We hear bits and pieces of this in various statements of Christ. He speaks of the hiddenness of the Father who can only be known through the Son. The Father delights in Him and has given all things into His hands. Christ Himself does not do His own will but only the will of the Father. The Spirit does not speak of the things concerning Himself, but only of Christ, and so on. One contemporary theologian has said, “The Father only knows Himself as He sees Himself in His Son.” I think this is profoundly true.

Our human experience would judge such self-emptying actions to be a form of suffering. If we can say that the preference of the other over the self is a form of suffering, then we must also say that it is “unfallen” suffering, for it is a reflection of the very love of God. Consider this saying:

Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father. (John 10:17-18)

Christ is not “killed” on the Cross: He lays down His life on the Cross. This is a very different thing.

This image of Christ’s self-offering is also the perfect icon of love, the most sublime example of the very heart of His commandments. We are commanded to take up our Cross as well. We are not commanded to do evil.

Modern thought has largely come to equate evil with pain. The relief of pain seems to be its definition for “doing good.” Of course, in great irony, this understanding has given rise to various reasonings to justify killing: of the unborn, of the sick, etc. Suffering in this model has lost its significance and meaning. Only pleasure and self-fulfillment have value. This is the ultimate outcome of a consumer ethic.

Christ’s teaching is wholly opposed to Mammon as God. It does not teach acquisitiveness, but generosity. It is self-giving in every instance.

There was an ancient heresy called “Theopaschism,” one that said “God suffered on the Cross.” Chalcedonian Orthodoxy would say more precisely, God, according to His human nature, suffered on the Cross. This can be misunderstood in a manner that utterly isolates God from His creation. However, we must say that Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, is the subject of the Cross, and not a mere observer of His human nature. Much of this conundrum can be better understood if we see that Christ’s death and resurrection are themselves a revelation of God rather than simply an event that happens to God. God is not changed in the death and resurrection of Christ. Rather, He is made known and the mystery of His love is revealed.

This reality is hinted at when we are told that Christ is the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). Equally, St. John makes it clear in His gospel that the “glory” of God and the crucifixion of Christ are synonymous. The crucifixion is not a mere remedy of sin, but a revelation of the glory of God.

Consider this statement (from The Art of Seeing: Paradox and Perception in Orthodox Iconography, Kindle, 1369)

The contours marked out by the “form of the slave” encompass fully the person and work of Christ, for his whole life was an ongoing sacrifice, a ceaseless self-offering. “All his life, while he was with us, had been nothing but unceasing suffering. Golgotha is only the concluding act, in which everything came together in a climactic point.”1 Christ’s death on the cross was neither an isolated event nor a tragic derailment of his mission, but rather the revelation of the very form of his being. In this way, the self-emptying described by St. Paul is the realization in time of Christ’s eternal, self-sacrificing love, for he is the “Lamb of God” (John 1: 29, 36), who was “slain before the foundation of the world” (Rev 13: 8), and who “will continue to suffer, until the end of time.” 2 The mystery through all time and space, of God’s presence and participation in the suffering of all living things, makes the sign of the cross an affirmation of all that is, ever was, or shall ever be. In this way, the divine self-emptying becomes a foundational, indeed universal, principle, so that “whoever has understood the mystery of the cross has understood the essential content of all things.” 3

This is the image revealed to us in Christ’s death and resurrection. I have termed it “unfallen suffering,” for it does not destroy nor divert nor damage, but renews, makes whole, indeed, it makes us divine.

_________________

Footnotes for this article

Footnotes for this article

  1. Elder Sophrony, We Shall See Him as He Is (Essex, 1992), 381.
  2. Maximos the Confessor, Mystagogy 24 (PG 91: 713B); cf. Dionysios the Areopagite, Letter 8 (1100D).
  3. Maximos the Confessor, First Century on Theology 66 (PG 91: 1108B).

77 comments:

  1. Fr. Stephen, I’m a little confused. Is the Chalcedonian Orthodox belief correct or is also considered heretical? I love what you’ve written. The loving self sacrifice that is Jesus Christ. Thank you.

  2. Thank you Fr Stephen for this image of redemptive suffering. This would seem to be in accord with the concept of punishment put forth by some Church Fathers as restorative and redemptive in nature – the only type of suffering and punishment which befits the Christian understanding of God as infinite love and goodness. This is why it seems a telos of punish and annihilation in the form of unending subjection to punishment is so utterly incongruent to redemptive ‘unfallen’ suffering as demonstrated by the good news of Christian Gospel. Christ opened the way to ‘unfallen’ suffering for all. Romans 11:32 ‘For God has bound everyone over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all.’

  3. Father, thank you. This posting brings a whole new light to the events at Golgotha and their true meaning. I particularly took note of your comment that the events at His Passion were the culmination/ last act of suffering. Poignantly, Sunday’s Gospel reading from Mark 9, especially verse 19 seems o bear your point. Some translations use the word suffer instead of bear with even though the Greek is more in line with the patient bearing with that the Lord was speaking of.

  4. More sophisticated treatments of the problem of evil (the problem of evil is just that) do not merely point out that evil and suffering are realities; they go deeper, asking how it is that certain evils and sufferings might contribute to God’s plan or why human beings exist in such a way that they experience suffering to crippling degrees. For example, one could imagine a world in which evil and suffering exist as a result of our choices, and one could even see such sufferings as necessary, but it is more difficult to see why brain eating amoebas and other natural calamities are necessary. One might also ask why God didn’t create us so that our suffering is limited, so that it communicates something important to us, but doesn’t psychologically cripple us in our lives. If I recall correctly, this is what the philosopher William Rowe was on about. He didn’t argue that evil in general undermined arguments for the existence of God, but that certain kinds of evils, horrendous, purposeless evils, do just that.

    However, the deeper issue for many people I talk to about the topic of evil is that, even if the problem of evil does not undermine the existence of God, theodicy arguments seem like elaborate ways of arguing around the reality that the world seems godless, unenchanted. In other words, more and more people seem more concerned by God’s absence and the ever increasing capacity of science to explain the world without appealing to God, or even to the metaphysical.

  5. The one thing that always somehow bothers me, Father, is the suffering of children (and I hope I am not Ivan Karamazov when I say this). How do I explain the death of a 2 years old because of cancer? I do not know whether I can say something about “unfallen suffering” in this case. To some extent, I think there is nothing to say about these things, no explanation to be given, precisely because giving justification to a child’s suffering would introduce, I believe, evil within being.

    Be that as it may, I remember a story a priest once told us (I was not alone, this is why I say “us”). His granddaughter had been killed by a drunk driver. At the funeral, a woman comes to him and tells him, “it’s okay, father, God has taken for himself another angel.” I will not enter into details, but I remember how this man, the priest, confessed to us that he felt like strangling her. How could she justify the death of his granddaughter? In what kind of way?

    Do not understand me wrongly. I am not saying that the problem of evil stands. I just cannot say that it does not stand _because_ of something. I would say it rather this way: suffering is present. The only way in which one can respond to it is from the cross. So out of love. Which means that there is no dialog with the problem of evil, but rather that there are only answers to suffering: embraces from the cross.

    Forgive me.

  6. Dorotheos,
    Actually, pure naturalism is harder to prove than the existence of God. Indeed, it is said to be impossible to prove. Most people have such a shallow understanding of God that they’re trying to prove something of which they know nothing. That’s the actual problem.

  7. Tavi,
    The suffering of a child is a terrible thing…although I will say that children bear suffering far better than adults. But, God has made all suffering into His own suffering. Christ unites the suffering of the child into His own suffering. This is not a “reason” for the suffering – but is its redemption. It is a “re-writing” of the icon. But none of this can be known without union with Christ. And we will only “know” it by pressing deeper into the union.

  8. I am Christian, in part, because it is not only the body or philosophy that adequately explains evil but, as Father points out, the only one that explains goodness.

    A brilliant introduction to a more correct understanding is a little play by the Romanian playwrite, Eugene Ionesco: Exit the King.

    It is so simple an exposition of the Orthodox understanding of the human experience that it was part of the “theater of the absurd” when it was first presented in 1962. It is massively misunderstood by the modern mind so it is produced little. It is neither a diversion nor an entertainment. At the time it was widely thought to be akin to Brecht’s “Waiting for Godot”. In fact, just the opposite is true.

    Like most plays it can be quite a challenge to read without it actually being “played”. I would love to mount a production of it myself. It takes little set and only five players.

    I read it and saw it performed in the early 1970’s. Directed by a Greek Orthodox playwrite who had been exiled from Greece when the King of Greece was overthrown. It was quite a personal play for him.

    I did not understand it really until I had been in the Church for some time about 20 years after. It came to mind with a mental Ooooh! At the time , I was intrigued by the exposition of suffering and death in human experience that is the core of the play. So different than anything else I had seen. It embodies exactly what Fr. Stephen is saying about direction and the lack of being evil has.

    Ionesco came to maturity in Communist Romania but in his later life returned to the practice of the Orthodox Church he knew when he was young.

    My involvement with that play was part of my journey to the Church.

    It is really easy to fall prey to the mind of the world when we contemplate evil. We are taught incorrectly. It a assumed to be the dark, moldy basement f the two storey universe when it actually has no more substance than a spider web blowing in the wind. Less actually.

    It is also far simpler than we take it to be.

  9. Dorotheus,
    I will reiterate what I have previously written quite a few times in comments here, as I find it a key notion, namely, that ‘man’s problem is not so much suffering but the lack of meaning in suffering’.
    And what you stated vis-à-vis God’s seeming absence is occasionally tied to this. However, most times it is ourselves that are faraway absent (usually in our ludicrous self-absorption) from the One who is mystically, yet truly present within us.
    But ‘meaning’ (the ‘meaning’, bereft of which, suffering turns out to be hell), is forever provided by our closer union with the eternal Logos (the Greek word Logos, […I believe not] coincidentally, also means “meaning”).

  10. ‘It is also far simpler than we take it to be.’

    How does one reconcile God’s omnipotent benevolence with His permission of evil?

  11. Tavi, the only way we can hope to encompass the suffering of a child is to embrace the Cross. The person who spoke to the grieving priest was trying to avoid the Cross.

    When I lost my wife of 24 years, I had a similar experience though not as intense. I vowed after that to never ask of someone who lost a loved one “How are you doing?” nor to minimize the person’s grief. When I see them I always make it a point to tell them how much I love them and hug them. It is the simplest way I have of sharing their burden in the hope of the Ressurection. If the moment is right, they have the opportunity to share what they are feeling. In any case, they know they are valued and not alone.

    **I always wanted to say, “How do you think you moron, I just had half of my soul ripped out!”. Just this side of active strangling. I didn’t do that but I did reach a point where I absented myself from the community because it was so icky. Wish I could have found a better way. One remarkable women who I did not know well had recently lost her own husband of many more years. She carried on with no hint of how she felt. She came up to me after Liturgy on day, took my hand, looked me in the eye and let me see a little of her suffering and simply said, “Keep coming to the Church”

  12. Robert,
    I suspect we have a very poor understanding of goodness and benevolence for one thing. I think that the creation of human beings with all that we are, and all that we are meant to become always entailed our free decision of evil. I believe that the goodness God is working for us (and all creation) not only justify what was entailed but, will have been seen to be wonderful beyond comprehension when all is revealed. I know that much that is mine now (in Christ) could not have been mine in any other way.

    It is as St. Maximos told us, if we comprehend the Cross, we will comprehend all things. However, many want to start with the “all things” so they can think about it, and get back to us later. It is inside the Cross that we will find the answers.

  13. Michael, thank you.
    I think the priest who told us that story was suggesting something similar. I would always emphasize, though, that this is not a “solution” to the problem of suffering, but rather the affirmation of our own humanity. We are human when we embrace another, and this is done only from the cross.

    If I may, let me mention something about the other comment, concerning Ionesco. It’s just a minor detail, and perhaps unimportant. Ionescu never experienced communist Romania, as far as I know. I think he left for France during the war, in 1942. Communist Romania was not faithless, but rather persecuted faith. People were still practicing the faith, even if often in hiding.

  14. “Evil … is the movement of good things in the wrong direction.”

    This is the most refined and clear definition of evil I’ve heard, and entirely unburdened by jargon. I plan to use it. Thank you!

  15. You are right I had forgotten that point. It has been a long time since I revisited that part of my journey. It is quite amazing to me how thourghly he assimilated the Orthodox understanding of such things.

    But the real point was to give an illustration of how absurd and incomprehensible the reality is to the modern mind. I was quite blessed to encounter the play at the time and in the manner I did.

    I do not think there is a solution to the problem in the kind of logical cause-effect matrix that my mind thinks of as a solution. The modern approach that seeks to wipe out suffering so that it does not exist ends up causing untold suffering and grief.

    As you suggest, it is not “solved” so much as transformed by Christ’s blood and our own too, I think.

    Over the 12 years since my late wife’s repose I have come to the point where I can give God glory for the whole kit and caboodle, yet I still grieve while rejoicing in the Ressurection (my late wife’s and my own and in general) at the same time. It is quite odd.

    It is too simplistic to describe it any other way. Real, but odd.

  16. I think the cross reveals a suffering God. In whatever ways we are His image and likeness, we also suffer, probably also for some of the same reasons. There’s an added reason of course –unlike Christ– as some of our suffering is our own doing.

    I take comfort knowing that love suffers all things. Long ago I stopped trying to figure out reasons or to understand “why?” Now I try to trust Him for all pains because I believe that’s better theology.

    If I pray sincerely, long and well, I can sometimes bear more than myself in His presence. I can bear dear ones and sometimes even pray for others I don’t really know. If it is painful sometimes it’s probably because I’m privileged to share His life by grace. He didn’t say it was easy. Love costs dearly.

    I believe God will receive each pain like a gift if brought into the presence. He suffered all for all and this is where real peace and relief can be found, though not always quickly. Suffering isn’t due to a mistake, or if it is, that is His business. Suffering for us is to be like God who suffered for the love of sinners, like me, who He yet mysteriously loves. If you pray like Him, I have surely added to your suffering.

    Please forgive me for taking so many good things He’s given in the wrong direction.

  17. Beautiful and profound reflections. Thank you. How suffering can be good and beautiful is a mystery that I’ve encountered in several ways while trying to read the Fathers. Maximus the Confessor talks about Jesus turning death toward a good purpose. He says that Jesus Christ “turned death from a weapon to destroy human nature into a weapon to destroy sin” and that “the baptized acquires the use of death to condemn sin.”

  18. Quotes by Maximus in previous comment are from Ad Thalassium 61 “On the Legacy of Adam’s Transgression.”

  19. Michael Patrick, et al
    One of the interesting points for me, particularly in the material from Maximos, is that when I’ve written on this topic in a similar manner before (the suffering God), what I got was some feedback that it was shades of Moltmann (whom I’ve not read in particular). But this is simply the faith of the Church. It’s all right there, all the time, staring us in the face. I think that we often become tone deaf to the song of the fathers.

  20. Evil is the movement of good [things] in the wrong direction.

    How can evil and good be of the same essence? Doesn’t evil have an essence of its own? Doesn’t good have any essence of its own?

  21. St. Longinus,
    As far as I know, the unanimous teaching of the Fathers, East and West, is that evil has no essence. It is not anything. It is, as I said, a movement, an action in a wrong direction, but not a thing. All that God created is good – the “essence” of all things is good, because “essence” is “being,” and “being” or existence is an inherently good thing, a gift of God.

    Basic metaphysics 101. Worth reading more about it.

  22. Ok, then evil can only exist because good existed before it?
    Do you recommend St. Augustine?

  23. “As long as what you are afraid of is something evil, you may still hope that the good may come to your rescue. But suppose you struggle through to the good and find that it is also dreadful? How if food itself turns out to be the very thing you can’t eat and home the very place you can’t live, and your very comforter the person who makes you uncomfortable. Then, indeed, there is no rescue possible: the last card has been played.”
    ― C.S. Lewis, Perelandra

    And to Jesse,
    I think it was G.K. Chesterton, in The Everlasting Man who addressed the paradox of life (Jn 10:10) in the twist towards confusion where Manichaeus rose from the dead so that humanity might have death and have it “more abundantly.” Indeed, C.S. Lewis used this very contradiction in Perelandra:
    “And will you teach us Death?” said the Lady to Weston’s shape, where it stood above her.
    “Yes,” it said. “It is for this that I come here, that you may have Death in abundance.”

    And then:
    “Bad…(is) one who rejects the fruit he is given for the sake of the fruit he expected or the fruit he found last time.” What is that “fruit” expected out of life? What if I expect to have no questions?
    Some would say there is no suffering, only death.
    I am requitted. Perhaps Alexander Pope said it best: “die of a rose in aromatic pain” from his Essay on Man.
    As a retired medic, I witnessed countless “emergents” of brief rest only to be brought back to writhing pain. We insist on bringing them back to us. We must try! For every body we “saved” there was relief. For every soul we “lost” there was no remedy–just stuffed down exhaustion. And here, Christ groaned for those who wept for Lazarus and the pain he knew his friend would be brought back to.
    Maybe Milton was correct in “sober certainty of waking bliss.”
    Every prayer, I struggle to robe up in black, a reminder of the death to this world and it’s “fruits” for which I will only know to ask, “Have Mercy on Us.”

  24. I can’t help but relate the Scriptural Greek word amartias (“sin”) to this definition of evil. It’s an archery term, meaning “to miss the bull’s eye.” To this day, the ring around the bull’s eye is still called the “sin.” Sin, as another way of saying ‘evil,’ is a misdirection, a missing the telos.

  25. “will continue to suffer, until the end of time.”

    Father, forgive me, but does this mean until the Eschaton or unto the ages of the ages?
    I can’t wrap my head about it because I figure, even after the Eschaton, God will still suffer for those eternally damned, who have (willingly?) parted ways with Him. It is like a cosmic unfairness towards God Himself.

  26. St. Longinus,
    Yes, evil can only “exist” because good existed before it. St. Augustine is not my recommendation. I tend to prefer the Cappadocians in these things. They’re more deeply connected to the thought of the Holy Councils.

  27. Sasha,
    The Elder Sophrony once said that as long as a single soul remains in hell, Christ will remain with him. Love will not turn its back or forget those who suffer, including those who suffer in hell. Were they to be forgotten, they would not exist. What parent would forget his/her child, even if the child willingly chose to part ways? Cosmic unfairness, perhaps, but it is what love looks like.

    Hell is possible because we do not love God. God’s continued suffering is possible because He will not stop loving us.

    As to Eschaton or unto ages of ages. So long as anyone suffers. However long that is.

  28. Father (or others),
    How might we discern in our own lives between the suffering of love, which is Christ like and so life giving for us, and suffering which damages, which we would do well to extricate ourselves from if possible?

  29. Jane, how much can you offer up to God that He might redirect, heal and reorder? How much patience, repentance and mercy is in your soul?

    Do we suffer and just suffer or do we reach for God in humility?

    If I do not reach for God and re-offer Him my life in thanksgiving, how is it possible to escape suffering.

    Even considering specific exestential circumstances such as spousal abuse, simply putting oneself out of harm’s way does not end the suffering. It is certainly prudent but it doesn’t end the suffering.

  30. Jane,
    I think that it is impossible to set a fixed rule. But the key, as in Christ’s suffering, is “voluntary.” It is according as we are willing and able (by grace). There are examples that stagger the imagination (Mother Theresa, or St. Maria of Paris come to mind). But there remains freedom. So the answer comes down to wisdom. When the suffering is damaging to the soul, and it is possible to escape, then escape. Often we need help and counsel. We can rarely see these things clearly by ourselves.

  31. Father,

    Thank you for this. I have often felt that my particular upbringing not only allowed me to develop God into an image of my own liking, it also allowed me to shape the definition of evil to suit my own needs. Often this has manifested in the form of creating evil as a kind of archenemy that was responsible for all sorts of mischief from losing my keys to the death of a loved one. This has often led to the struggle with an imagined enemy to become my god. The subsequent justification of conflict with the “evil” others became a vicious cycle. Learning to accept “the Christian affirmation of the goodness of creation” is slowly becoming the reality that allows me to deconstruct the synthetic essence of evil that so populates the modern Christian landscape and my own theology. It is alien, yet liberating to realize that I don’t have to manufacture an enemy to explain suffering, loss, etc. It is equally liberating to accept that the absence of internal (or external) conflict is not a sign of spiritual weakness, but perhaps a sign of true grace. From this flows acceptance of reality and the possibility to forgive enemies. It truly is the path to peace.

  32. Father,
    I hadn’t thought of these words in a while, but your article brought them to mind. ” Must I be carried to the skies on flowerly beds of ease, while others fought to win the prize, and sailed through bloody seas?” Isaac Watts

  33. If evil is a movement rather than a thing, what is it a movement towards? I guess this is another way of asking how the Fall came about. If the object of attraction was not itself evil, then there must have been some spiritual distortion in Adam + Eve, e.g., taking without thanksgiving, or taking out of pride. But whence the distortion? Or is it simply inexplicable?

  34. Fr Stephen,
    I’m very grateful to this essay and how it depicts the icon of unfallen suffering, death, and resurrection in its integral wholeness. I’m going to print it and keep it for continued reflections. Thank you so much.

    In my own reflections, it seems that our capacity to “see”, understand and experience this icon is often deeply affected, even inhibited, by our (western) culture that would describe experience as if it should present a “logical” order such as ’cause and effect’. Such a perception would shackle us to a deductive framing of our own experience. In Tradition, all aspects of Christ’s incarnation, His human life and human nature is not separable from His God nature (and if I remember and understand correctly, these natures are not homogenized but remain together as the integral whole). By comparison, in this culture, His human life is depicted as though it is somehow separated into discrete components, where the essence of “God the Father” remains in a place separated from the incarnated Christ (in the two story universe) and then Christ’s human experiences of love, self emptying, suffering, crucifixion, death and resurrection are not infused into a wholeness as it is depicted in the icon. As we are saturated in the deductive reasoning approach, the western culture looks for the “cause” of it all and would rather find it in culturally derived apparitions of sin and evil. And from those depictions, then draw a conclusion that a “good” God must not exist.

    Forgive me for what may be a digression and bringing this up so much. Sometimes I reflect on my own experiences in science and realize that had I not had those experiences, I might not be where I am now, in the Orthodox faith.

    I think this culture uses ‘science’ to justify an approach to our experience that uses a deductive framing alone. But science, in its fundamental form (i.e. not constrained to how it has been shackled in this culture) also involves an inductive approach, where exploring, and observing with as little hubris as possible, helps us to see “what is” (where ‘seeing’ is not act of explaining or defining but a realization of the limits of our understanding). Seeing “what is” is seeing nature and the icon you describe with noetic eyes. Without such hubris, a hubris that is encouraged in our culture, what we ‘see’ if we use science as a means of exploration, can enable us to observe that our prior understandings fail to encompass all ‘that is’. All “that is” lies outside of our didactic understandings and definitions. Our explorations in science are not able to reach the limits of ‘what is’, but our understandings and explanations will always be limited. Without such openness, we cannot reach out, or to begin ‘see’ what we haven’t seen before.

    But here again, I am reminded of my own infancy. Not yet one year in the faith. And I know that I carry a world view into these conversations which can be off. This is why I’m going to print and re-read this essay again and again.

  35. I think the best image of this is in Gethsemane (is there an icon?) where Jesus began to suffer visibly unto death. It is significant that he invited his apostles to “stay here and watch with me.” After praying with a soul “extremely sorrowful, even unto death,” He said to them “could you not watch with me for one hour?” When He returned again and found them sleeping He said “sleep on” and “take your rest. Behold, the hour is at hand.”

    I believe the mystery of suffering is precisely in this “watching”. We can watch and weep with Him or we can weep in regret for sleeping. Either way He is gracious to share His cup – sharing it with those who merely watch and those who by grace become like Him in that garden where suffering became joy through union with the Father’s loving good will for all sinners.

  36. Father Stephen,

    But ‘poor understanding’ cannot be used to equivocate goodness to denote evil, as I am sure you will agree. And the Gospels show us the true nature of God’s goodness – ‘for God so loved the world.’ He died for all so that He may be all in all.

    With notions of hell as eternal suffering of a punishment permitted by God, and without telos (infinitely unending!) the meaning of divine benevolence completely breaks apart. Such infliction of suffering is not restorative, not to speak of the absurd dualistic notion (thoroughly unbiblical) of God’s omnipotence infinitely frustrated by infinitely persisting existence of evil.

  37. I’m not sure I understand your comments Robert.

    In the first comment you ask “how does one reconcile God’s omnipotent benevolence with the persistence of evil”?

    What I’m not sure whether you are equating evil with suffering. If I understand Fr Stephen, correctly (and that is a big IF because I’m still learning an Orthodox perspective), evil is not the same as suffering. We may suffer from an evil act, but we may also suffer in the “unfallen” sense that Fr Stephen describes.

    God’s omnipotent benevolence might be easily reconciled with the ‘unfallen’ sense of suffering that Fr Stephen describes, which might be described in another way as a process of self-emptying.

    As long as we ascribe to the word, evil, a function of verb or adverb, not as a noun, the persistence of evil is an act of the human being limited to the material world in which we humans, have chosen our own path, in a kind of hubris, to control what we consider “our world”. Freedom to select our direction, allows us a process directed toward the telos of our Person. But the freedom of choice, simultaneously enables us to choose a direction apart from God and toward ourself. I could be wrong, but I believe such freedom also ends with our death. The notion about suffering after death that is attributed to a place like “hell” is speculative, but I believe is likely a process involving a drawing to God. The distance from God may making the suffering of the drawing to God that much more intense.

    In this perspective that I describe above, I do not see the presence of evil as a logical impossibility with the omnipotent benevolence of God. But perhaps you might find this perspective illogical or inappropriate, or speculative. Even so, it is not equivocating to say that the ending of evil, or the eschaton, might be beyond our application of logical inferences. When we encounter the world in physics for example, in its most fundamental sense, there is a reality that is revealed to the degree that we have the capacity to observe it and yet remains outside of our capacity to ascribe to it a logical reference to our daily experiences.

    Admittedly I’m a real novice when it comes to this kind of discourse.

  38. Sorry about those typos in my comments/questions to Robert.

    Third paragraph: What I’m not sure *about is* whether you are equating evil with suffering.

    Fifth paragraph: The distance from God may *make* the suffering of the drawing to God that much more intense.

  39. In case this comment goes through before the others I submitted, one of the many reflections I find most profound in this essay is St Paul’s asking for communion with Christs suffering. This is a very profound meaning of taking up the Cross. And at the same time to recognize that we are not asking for the purpectuation of evil acts to come upon us.

  40. Robert, and yet the notion of eternal Hell persists, century after century in all types of Christianity. Why do you suppose that is? That notion does not fit at all with the neo-Epicurean modern mind but that does not make it untrue.

    The only way to deal with it that I have found for myself is that some how the “Behold, I make all things new!” and the statements in Matthew and elsewhere are an antinomical reality. Each a part of the whole truth.

    In any case it is a great mystery. “We do pray for mercy and that same prayer teaches us to render the deads of mercy.” Yet what of those that will have the law?

    I think any attempt to resolve the tension logically leads to a dark place.

  41. Robert

    God is love as written by St John. He is also just and the parable of the rich man and Lazarus reveals the great chasm that exists in eternity between those who lived in accordance to God’s will and those who did not. This does not detract from God’s benevolence Who gave His only begotten Son for us to gain everlasting life.

    Tavi

    The loss of innocent people, especially children, is very hard to come to terms with. We often speak in terms of God taking someone early. I am not sure if the Orthodox perceive God as someone intervening in this way in people’s lives. After all He created us in an act of love and gave us free will, the greatest present. In our fallen world we are responsible for everything that happens.

    Having said that, I think the Orthodox also perceive God as allowing certain events to take place, rather than causing them. How does divine providence work alongside our free will is a mystery. Perhaps Fr Stephen can comment on the patristic understanding of this.

    Saint Paisios of Mount Athos has talked about the death of children and his words might ease the suffering of the parents :

    http://full-of-grace-and-truth.blogspot.co.uk/2012/07/elder-paisios-on-death-of-children.html

  42. Father Bless!
    Another gem of a post. Thanks so much.
    I have a question about a statement you recently made regarding the creation and the fall as a simultaneous event. If you would explain that concept it would be a great help in understanding the contents of this post. Certain comments cause me to think about that event. For example:
    “the creation of human beings … *always entailed our free decision of evil*.

    Christ… is *the subject* of the Cross… Christ’s death and resurrection are themselves *a revelation of God* rather than simply an event that happens to God..”
    (There is no separating Christ and the Cross. It is eternal. )

    And especially:
    Christ’s *eternal, self-sacrificing love, for he is the “Lamb of God”*… who was **“slain before the foundation of the world”** … and who “will continue to suffer, until the end of time”.
    Father, would you put into words what I simply can not? There is a connection here in a suggestion of a simultaneous event and I am having trouble verbalizing it.

    Sorry, one more thing…in the post “The Problem of Goodness” you make an excellent point….
    “Of course Ivan pushes the case with the innocent suffering of children – though in the book – his heart is revealed **not as being concerned with the suffering of children – but being concerned with rejecting God.**”
    Ivan makes a case to justify rejecting God. Also, we who have trouble coming to terms with suffering children may be struggling with the uncomfortable thought of a God who rejects. (no award winning self revelation here! just thankful for the opportunity to think on these things)

  43. Jordan,
    The tradition holds (and we observe) that evil has a hatred of being (and Being). Being, well-being, and eternal-being are God’s gift and intention for us. St. Gregory of Nyssa says that we are created with being, with the purpose of growing in well-being, towards the telos of eternal being. Evil hates existence. It even hates its own existence. As Scripture says of our adversary, “He was a murderer from the beginning.” So the movement is not a movement towards anything other than non-existence.

    Now being and existence are a gift of God and it is not within our power to not exist. We are. Death is a movement away from existence, but is not non-existence. It is “corruption” (phthora) in the words of St. Paul. It is rather described by the Fathers as “me-ontos” rather than “ouk-ontos” (to badly use the Greek). That is, all it can be is a relative non-being, a movement towards non-being, rather than actual non-being. Thus it is corruption, chaos, disintegration, etc. Nothing more.

  44. Robert,
    I understand that you’re pressing the logic of the apokatastasis and I don’t denigrate that. But I cannot say it because it hasn’t been given us to say. I hope for it, and that is all that can be said.

  45. Paula,
    St. Maximos the Confessor says they are “near simultaneous,” which is an important distinction. By saying that our creation “always entailed” our free decision for evil, I mean that it was always foreknown. It is useless to speak of “what if we didn’t fall.” That world does not exist nor was it ever seen to exist in God’s foreknowledge. But, despite that foreknowledge, He creates us. Obviously, we were created according to His foreknowledge in which He always saw our fall, but also our salvation.

    For this reason the Cross was already present before our creation, for we were created with our salvation already in mind. I also think that the Cross is not a provisional thing, something forced on God by our evil choices. It is, rather, a revelation of the love of God, the very character of who God is – but how that character would and had to be revealed in a historical world that had chosen evil.

  46. To Jesse, you said far above:
    “Maximus the Confessor talks about Jesus turning death toward a good purpose. He says that Jesus Christ “turned death from a weapon to destroy human nature into a weapon to destroy sin” and that “the baptized acquires the use of death to condemn sin.””

    May I propose:
    The context of this quote suggests that the person project is eternal and that death is abundantly diminished to the here and now. It is not final or even permitted beyond the present. In baptism, we are “in death” brought to the illumination of “life” becoming. St. Maximus is careful to clarify that “sin’s” destruction does not end suffering but is “limited” to…death. It is death’s limiting that destroys it to time’s coffin. Death is not later for us, since being “destroyed,” but is right now and only now. Even if you insist on unforgiveness and self-condemnation, as reiterated by Fr. Stephen via Fr. Sophrony, Christ suffers with you while you remain “stuck in death.” Death died and went with Christ.

    So, my point with the aid of C.S. Lewis far above is this constant nag of contradiction between life and death–the first and the last. It is much “easier” to see where I’ve “missed the mark” as referenced by Justin above, but it is close to impossible when I never seem to hit the “bull’s eye.” And as stated by Larry Jones, I might much rather “manufacture” carrying the Cross than embrace it’s “goodness.” Indeed, Christ could not carry the Cross alone, He implored the Father’s will. Christ stumbled under the very weight of “death’s” Cross so that a bystander could carry it for Him. How then shall I carry the Cross, but in truth, in death to my self, simply embrace it now as “life”? Why then is it so hard for us to call “sin” for what it is? Death.

    But we are not done with death. Only death is done with death. And wait for it…for all of death’s abundance, there is still more…life (Jn 10:10). To argue any side of this without the other is completely in vain: it is hypocratic and synthetically absurd. Grace is not in absence of conflict, it is because of and in the very midst of strain, stress and tension that the Holy Spirit comes. If you live a life of bliss now, as if all were on a neat and straight line, you do not know grace. It is a fact of embracing the Cross that we find it unbearable to carry. Grace is not the line that joins, but the lines that radiate.

  47. Nikolaos,

    Thank you.

    I will just say a few words. I am reluctant to accept anything as an explanation for evil. I think that the only way to answer to the problem of evil is by being silent. But even this is problematic if I am silent as a solution to the problem of evil. I would rather put it this way: when I am faced with the problem of evil, I am in the impossibility to respond in any other way than being silent. Of course, this should not preclude me from attempting to respond, to the best of my capacities, to the manifestation of evil. But still not as choice, but rather as the only way in which I can manifest my own humanity.

    Every time I perceive any sort of explanation for evil (and I acknowledge that the fault may be in me, in the sense that I may interpret something that is not an explanation for evil as an explanation), I am tempted to say, “but what about the children?” As bad as it may sound, what Elder Paisios says seems to fall into that category, of explaining the unexplainable. But let me repeat this: I do not try to explain the suffering or the death of children. I raise it as a problem when there is an attempt to “solve” the problem of evil.

    I do think that the cross (or love as cross) is the answer to the problem of evil, but me saying it does not make it an answer. What makes it an answer, I believe, is “me loving from the cross,” and this is done in silence.

    I would actually say that if there is an explanation for evil, the explanation is my own life–my inability to bring all people (and I emphasize, ALL people) to Christ in me. I wrote once about this once–so apparently I do not follow my own advice :).

    Forgive me–I wanted to write a couple of lines only…

  48. Tavi,
    While I concur that “loving from the Cross” is the real answer towards those aggrieved by evil and suffering, I think that –with discernment and at very specific requests [which could be unspoken though] for this from the sufferers– there is a certain place for “explanations.” As I stated earlier, man’s chief problem is not so much with ‘suffering per se’, but with the ‘lack of meaning in suffering’. Saint Paisios’ reaffirmation of the mystery of the time of death (regarding the death of children) and how God takes each person in the best instant of his life, seems to escape our modern sensibilities which have unfailingly marginalized the inevitability of the only sure thing: our death. Yet death is “the ticket” to where we want to go –if we believe and desire Christ that is.

    The whirlpool of darkness that can try to devour mourners is sometimes that can be destroyed by ‘explanations’. Not always of course… but sometimes.
    Saint Panagis Basias in Kefalonia – a recent clairvoyant saint that also had suffered from depression – once used the ‘technique of explanations’ (similar to St Paisios) by actually forcing it upon a sufferer…
    It was a case of a widowed-mother who had lost both her sons in the space of a few weeks and had turned against the Church and its ‘explanations’ of suffering in her extreme grief. He miraculously entered her gloomy living room and showed her in a vision what would have been if God hadn’t intervened by taking them at the time He did. After seeing that they are now saved after their deaths and that they would have killed each other and perished if they had stayed alive a little more –because, unbeknown to her, they had fallen in love for the same woman- she completely changed all her grief into praises of God’s unfathomable providence.

    Saint Porphyrios’ counsel is even more helpful –to me at least- and it is merely an advise to those who are suffering to sing internally the Paschal: “We celebrate death’s demise, the downfall of hades, the inauguration of another life-eternal, and leaping for joy, we hymn the Cause.” Of course this saint was someone who clearly knew that everything that is not God, whether it is sinful or virtuous, is “part of the same pot”, and was singularly focused on how to get to his beloved one – without ever forgetting that this route to permanent union with Christ necessarily includes death -as birth into the Kingdom.
    We desperately need the [secularly scandalous] phronema exemplified in St Ignatius’ letter to Romans as Christians [the quintessence of authentic Christianity to keep our lantern ablaze] in these lukewarm times.
    He, along with many children, were devoured by beasts while glorifying God and astounding their spectators with the “unshakeability” of their joy in Christ. Yet his ‘logic seems “inverted”:

    It is good to set from the world unto God, that I may rise unto Him. […] pray that I may have power within and without, so that I may not only say it but also desire it; that I may not only be called a Christian, but also be found one. For if I shall be found so, then can I also be called one, and be faithful then, when I am no more visible to the world. […]
    I write to all the churches, and I bid all men know, that of my own free will I die for God, unless ye should hinder me. I exhort you, be ye not an unseasonable kindness to me. Let me be given to the wild beasts, for through them I can attain unto God. I am God’s wheat, and I am ground by the teeth of wild beasts that I may be found pure bread [of Christ]. Rather entice the wild beasts, that they may become my sepulchre and may leave no part of my body behind, so that I may not, when I am fallen asleep, be burdensome to any one. Then shall I be truly a disciple of Jesus Christ, when the world shall not so much as see my body. […] if I shall suffer, then am I a freed-man of Jesus Christ, and I shall rise free in Him. […] Come fire and cross and grapplings with wild beasts, [cuttings and manglings,] wrenching of bones, hacking of limbs, crushings of my whole body, come cruel tortures of the devil to assail me. Only be it mine to attain unto Jesus Christ. The farthest bounds of the universe shall profit me nothing, neither the kingdoms of this world. It is good for me to die for Jesus Christ rather than to reign over the farthest bounds of the earth. Him I seek, who died on our behalf; Him I desire, who rose again [for our sake]. The pangs of a new birth are upon me. Bear with me, brethren. Do not hinder me from living [i.e.: living here means ‘dying a martyr’s death’]; do not desire my death [death here means remaining alive rather than being martyred]. Bestow not on the world one who desireth to be God’s, neither allure him with material things. Suffer me to receive the pure light. When I am come thither, then shall I be a man [the saint considers only a killed/martyred human as a ‘completed man’ (!)]. Permit me to be an imitator of the passion of my God. If any man hath Him within himself, let him understand what I desire, and let him have fellow- feeling with me, for he knoweth the things which straiten me.[…] [For] I write to you in the midst of life, yet lusting after death. My [heavenly] lust hath been crucified, and there is no fire of material longing in me, but only water, living and speaking in me, saying within me, Come to the Father.

    Even if Saint Ignatius’ sentiments are light years away from ours, that does not mean to say we must give up! On the contrary, man has the ability – in Christ- to become like the greatest of saints in a mere instant if he truly decided to desire only that. This has been proven and verified against much antagonistic argumentation by the very lives and deaths –the strongest argument in existence– of many last-minute-joyous-martyrs.
    We all want this joy that is not moved by anything, especially by the experience of death/suffering/Hell, as we instinctively suspect that any other form of joy is still fragile… And God wants to bestow this on all too, but only when we truly believe that He will do this does it come to us: The sun is right there in front of me, but I must want to keep my eyes open to it.

  49. Father, thank you for you response. I think that I see what you are saying. We pile rationality upon rationality upon evil because we can not bear it’s utter nothingness.
    What I do not understand is how such a disintegration could have been introduced into an integrated creation in the first place unless God had created some principle of disintegration. I can sometimes see small glimpses of why I hate the light, but why did Adam and Eve born into a good garden hate the light? Was it simply a momentary lapse of concentration (they turned away for a moment from the source of their being)? Was it just random chance (this seems distasteful if not untenable)?

  50. Jordan,
    “Eve was deceived.” That is the tradition. That origin of evil is placed among the angels and is largely hidden in secrecy, both its beginning and its end. We were introduced into a story that was already being written. I think that we are meant to play a role that is only hinted at, for we are told “we shall judge the angels.” I think that it’s a part of the story that we’re not meant to know yet, regardless of how much we might speculate.

    There are mysteries within mysteries here. The understanding lies within Christ (and the Cross). But we cannot stand outside them and see the answer. The answer is only found inside them – farther up and higher.

  51. Jordon, for myself the best anology is what Tolkien wrote in The Silmilarion that Satan willfully and intentionally started singing in disharmony.

    Logic is too ridgid a tool to apply to the things of God. The Holy Spirit blows where He will buy is never out of harmony. Created beings, even the best of them have a will and can choose to go the wrong direction.

  52. Dino, my wife lost her previous husband not long before we met. He had struggled for decades with severe PTSD and rejected God. The day before he went in for the surgery after which he died, he confessed God to Merry.

    When it became obvious that his brain damage was irreversible, my wife gave him a believers baptism. He came back to consciousness at that moment very briefly. He died hard though which is a torture to my wife still but it seems to me that he actually had a choice.

    One of his relatives told Merry later that Sean had died in the best moment of his life and that Merry had helped create that.

    Mark Twain’s story, The Mysterious Stranger, has a hint of that same thing.

    Death is a horrible thing for the living to endure. Yet, God has trampled it down for He is Risen!

  53. Yes, “it is a mystery” came to me this morning on my way to work. The utter tragedy of sin is its senselessness, it has no purpose of its own, no movement toward any thing in particular. And the deception just reveals our vulnerability and fragility as beings. Really I don’t think I know anything of “why I hate the light,” that seems to be the only path into the mystery.

  54. Dear Father,

    Thank you for your reply, and apologies for returning to the conversation so late. You state:

    “Actually, pure naturalism is harder to prove than the existence of God. Indeed, it is said to be impossible to prove. Most people have such a shallow understanding of God that they’re trying to prove something of which they know nothing. That’s the actual problem.”

    It would indeed be difficult to provide irrefutable proof of naturalism, but this is seldom the objective or the daily approach of self-identifying naturalists. Naturalists do not hold their views due to an irrefutable proof, but because it seems more probable than alternatives. The same is true of many agnostics/atheists. They aren’t necessarily concerned with proving that there is no God; rather, they believe the evidence in favor of God’s existence is outweighed by evidence against. Are there things that exist beyond what is observable in the material realm? Perhaps, but how can we know, and what difference would it make if such entities or forces don’t have any influence or impact on our daily lives?

    I also want to highlight that God (let alone the Judeo-Christian God as perceived in classical theism) or naturalism aren’t the only options. For instance, only a minority of academic philosophers are firm-footed naturalists, yet the vast majority are agnostic/atheist. One such example is the philosopher Thomas Nagel who has criticized the neo-darwinian, materialist account of the universe, but self-identifies as an atheist. Rejecting naturalism and being an atheist are, of course, not contradictory because it does not logically follow from contra-materialism that God exists.

    On top of this, there exist other conceptions of God and the transcendent that one might arguably see as more amenable to the world and universe in which we live than is the Judeo-Christian conception. Many critics of Christianity have rightly pointed out, in my opinion, that the chaotic and violent nature of the universe is hard to reconcile with a God who loves us. However, if one were to posit a god or creator who is indifferent to creation as a whole, or at least to the human species, a creator who fashioned humanity through a brutal and unforgiving process of evolution seems far less problematic. It is here where I understand why fundamentalist Christians are so eager to discredit modern evolutionary theories. It doesn’t bode well for the God who “… so loved the world..”

  55. Dee of St Herman,

    I am equating suffering with evil in the sense that suffering is a consequence of evil. The possibility of a redemptive aspect of suffering does not diminish suffering as a consequence of the fall towards non-being, a retreat away from life, away from God. The suffering of a child by the deeds of a sexual predator is evil. The suggestion is made that this suffering (and by extension she who commits the evil act, and I suppose even the evil itself) can become ‘unfallen’ and redemptive. But suffering qua suffering remains as an experience (a subjection to) evil.

    The point being is that redemptive suffering constitutes neither a justification nor an explanation of evil – the conundrum remains. We maintain that God is good and that His will is the only limit to His power.

    The problem becomes especially acute (and absurd) with the various constructions of suffering understood as persisting ad infinitum into the future, and with no purpose, without the possibility of ‘unfallen’ redemption of evil. This ontologically raises the irrational non-being of evil (which, to remind ourselves, the Church insists does not have its own hypostatic subsistence) to the being of God – an incoherent eternal dualism in which God and evil (in the form of the creature’s free will which persists in its rebellion against its Good) are placed side by side. In these monstrous construals of infinite hell, God is made to kneel at the altar of free-will, which turns out to be the real god who triumphs. My suggestion is that this is not the Gospel. The Evangel is that evil (and pain, and suffering, and death itself) will be utterly annihilated – it will come to an end, it has been conquered by the suffering Servant. Evil will no longer have a place for its parasitic subsistence, as creatures’ free-will will have found its end in God, who will be All in all.

  56. Father and all,
    That the origin of evil is hidden in mystery is the very reason we search for answers. I wonder why God chose to keep this hidden. Is it because our finite minds could not comprehend these things of God? Is this something related to His essence that we are unable to grasp? If He did reveal the answer would we, because of lack of understanding, fall further into the abyss? There is a reason why St. Paul would not reveal what he experienced in the third heaven. And God allowed that thorn in his flesh to keep him humble. Could we bare that thorn?
    Another thing…if we did know the answer, especially those who use the question to justify rejecting God…what good would it do? Would that enlarge the Church? Would it bring even more people to Christ? (I think not.) Do these questions border on inquisitiveness? (God forgive!)
    Nevertheless, we talk about it…ponder…contemplate…we share our thoughts, look at what the Fathers say (some come even to silence)…I am thankful for that. It is a means to coming to terms with these unanswered questions.

  57. Michael Bauman,

    Notions of eternal Hell persist, as you say century after century, because we are not prepared to believe the Gospel, the power of unfallen suffering, nor are we ready to accept the inherent conflict between (our need for) justice and the coming Kingdom. There’s no justice in ‘unfallen suffering’, in forgiveness, in mercy, in love.

    I believe the tension of which you speak is resolved by God; but it is not dark, it is Life itself. The end of death.

  58. Dorotheos,
    I do not think that a Christian apologetic can begin with categories such as material/spiritual, good/evil, etc. The Christian account begins with the death and resurrection of Jesus. That event (apart from any mystical affirmation) has some very serious historical evidence. I recommend Gary Habermas’s youtube videos on the topic. But we proceed from there. I am a Christian because I believe that Christ was raised from the dead. Everything else is what follows from that, and is only understood in the context of His death and resurrection. I haven’t got a clue about God apart from that event.

  59. Robert,
    I do not, in the course of my writing, invoke the threat of hell. Neither, however, do I dismiss its reality in a manner that contradicts the teaching of the Church. I am an Orthodox priest and I do not have the authority to correct the teaching of the Church. I believe that we may hope. I will agree that a full apokatastasis makes more sense to me than not. But, what makes sense to me is not the basis of my writing or teaching, in the last analysis. I’m not a Protestant doing systematic theology on a basis other than the revealed tradition. I write in obedience.

  60. Father Stephen

    Was the full apokatastasis anathematised in the 5th ecumenical council ? Is the Orthodox Church clear on this ?

    In my view ( for what it’s worth) a full apokatastasis does not make sense in the context of free will. God does not coerce us to love Him and we are free to reject him eternally, are we not ?

  61. Nikolaos, there is some debate about the anathema, apparently not resolved. I do not know any Orthodox who hold to a full apokatastasis who do not see that ultimately as a result of free will. That is certainly the case in Nyssa and Isaac the Syrian. I remain agnostic on the point, though I hold strongly to the hope.

  62. Thank you for this blog post and thank you for all your comments and responses here, Fr. Stephen! I am re-reading “Becoming Human” by Fr. John Behr and it continues to give comfort to me as it contemplates the mystery of Our Lord and God who is the Lover of Mankind. Glory to God for All Things

  63. Father Stephen,

    The concept of unfallen suffering seems strangely counterintuitive and even oxymoronic; a truly self-contradictory phrase, indeed! Yet the heart of the Christian Gospel is nothing less scandalous than the very sanctification of suffering through Christ’s Pascha. Would it also be permissible theologically to speak of unfallen death and even unfallen Hell in the context of Christ’s death and resurrection? Through His Pascha, Christ does indeed trample down death by death and transforms the ancient curse into an unfallen blessing. And through His descent into the Hell of Godforsaken-ness Christ transmogrifies the sufferings of Hell into the purgatorial fires of absolution and redemption. Indeed, as Origen noted, Christ will remain on the Cross so long as one unrepentant sinner remains in Hell. In sum, Christ’s Pascha is nothing less than the transmogrification of suffering into joy, death into eternal life and Hell into Purgatory, and, ultimately Heaven.

  64. I’m an infant in the Orthodox faith. To the best of my limited knowledge, I haven’t heard my spiritual teachers and spiritual father mention anything about purgatory.

    However I’m always open to be taught what I haven’t yet learned.

  65. An Orthodox counterpart to the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory indeed does not exist – however the understanding of a purgative period after death is a common feature in Orthodox theology and praxis, with deep roots in the shared faith of the early church.

  66. In the above comment it was not my intention to allude to the Catholic doctrine of purgatory. Gregory of Nyssa’s view of after death Hell/purgation being akin to purification of dross from gold was more the idea. Gregory was convinced that all post mortem suffering is in the final analysis purgative and redemptive. God, as the Good as such, would never inflict purely retributive punishment.
    I believe that Gregory’s view of Hell, while not orthodox doctrine, is nonetheless a permissible theologoumenon.

  67. 1Cor 3. Gives me great comfort. I still pray for mercy in repentance occasionally with tears.

  68. I also think that in those passages St. Paul gives the lie to PSA.

    I also have an inkling that had the Bishop of Rome had the humility in the Council of Florence to offer Purgatory for actual consideration rather than demanding a rubber stamp many things might be different.

  69. Thank you Fr Stephen, Robert, John H, and Michael for your responses which help to provide a rich understanding of the Resurrection and the life in the world to come.

  70. Hello Father, hello all,

    I have followed this blog with delight for some time, but not read any more recent post since this one, so forgive me for any anachronisms in joining the conversation. (and for bringing up an older thread)

    There is one train of thought which, in this conversation on shame and suffering and the fall, does not seem to have come up hardly at all, which I wanted to suggest. It was introduced to me in a guest lecture by Fr. John Behr. It holds that the incarnation, the cross, and the resurrection (and ascension) are actually the consummate act of Creation. The ‘fiat’ – it is finished – spoken by Christ on the cross echos and completing that spoken ‘in the beginning’ in Genesis. In other-words, the cross was not an afterthought, but, as it were, the 6th day of creation. Thus, suffering, even death, is in some sense tied to the primordial, kenotic, creative identity of Christ in the Godhead.

    This narrative can be extended (I graduated from a Christian university in which most of the science faculty are protestant, evangelical evolutionists–go figure) to say that, along with the absence of any evidence for a historical adam and eve, there was no ‘historical’ event we could call the fall. Rather, fallenness is inherent in our state as creatures still being created.

    Our nihilistic modern account of consciousness as computation, a by-product of evolution, and of free-will as hence either a myth or the end-all be-all of self, has left us unaware of what it truly means to make a free, thinking creature. I do not think all the omnipotence in heaven can teach a child to talk without being incoherent now and then, or to walk without stumbling a few times. I have a hunch that in order to produce truly free, truly conscious beings, it takes a ‘growing’ process which is inherently both very kenotic, and fraught with momentary lapses towards non-being. Creatures start without experience, without knowledge, with a very limited faculty for perception, Yet this is not to say that evolution or progress is the key; science itself tells us that we are headed towards entropy. Thus it is the cross which truly creates, lifts us out of death and non-being. And yet, while as per St. Paul the Creation groans (for thousands of years) for the sons of God to be revealed, for the eternal Sabbath when our wills are truly free from limitations and revel ever deeper in God’s will, when we no longer see through a glass dimly…a thousand years are to God but a day, as St. Peter writes, a day in the week of creation. For in Christ, and on the cross, it is already finished.

    As to the Genesis account:
    Speaking of our oft-cited friend David Bentley Hart, this would all be in line with lecture he gives on the fact that, read apart from a christological reading, the ‘literal’ Genesis account is actually quite ‘un-christian.’ The serpent is portrayed as the hero who tries to save the primordial couple from the jealous gods who fear their gaining divine knowledge, ‘lest,’ as the text actually records the divinity saying, ‘they become like us,’ i.e. a threat to the gods’ power. (It takes quite a lot of removing of the hermeneutics we’ve been fed all our lives, regardless of denomination, to see this, but i think it comes close to the truth of the text.) In other words, our reading of Genesis 1-3 as anything more pious than this is always already a cross-centered, christological reading. (I have been somewhat surprised not to have found the ‘creative’ reading of the cross which Fr. Behr proposes in DBH so far, however.) Moreover, the archetypes–if a Christian is allowed to use such a generalizing word–of what i am proposing today are all there in the Genesis story.

    I grant that this ‘creative cross, creative suffering’ narrative can sound like a) some sort of cosmic progress narrative, and b) like God willed sin as some kind of divine tutor intentionally using painful exercises on his pupils. But i don’t think that such criticisms can hold, because: a) I offer this narrative as totally dependent on what Fr. Stephen has been saying about bearing a little shame, about the suffering of the cross as being the key to our very existence…I’m trying to say that ‘trampling down death by death’ and ‘called you from nothingness into being’ are almost the same thing in creation. b) To say God willed sin is nonsensical; he cannot will us to choose evil in order to learn to be good; but at the same time, How could a newly-created man and woman know to choose obedience, trust, and kenosis over sin and corruption without experiencing the pain and suffering that the latter cause? I do not think it makes sense to say “God made us free” and then to say “but he implanted a knowledge of pain and evil in our minds first so we would never actively come to choose them ourselves.” This would neither be free, nor allow for a true union of humanity to God kenotically uniting our wills to his; and on the other hand, God precisely is teaching us that sin and evil cause death and corruption by allowing us to go through them, and entering them with us. Indeed, even the knowledge of pain is, in some sense painful, and here again the mystery of ‘unfallen, eternal’ suffering of Christ, as a member of the Godhead, is somehow present.

    I would love some feedback on this, and at the same time, hope it helps. Also, I’m still learning myself; this ‘atonement as creation’ narrative is one i have seen in a couple of orthodox (and a perhaps a few non-orthodox) settings, and if anyone has more leads on it, I would be grateful. I am not trying to say evil is necessary, but perhaps it is at the same time inevitable. That is pretty much what Fr. Stephen has said above in saying that “our creation “always entailed” our free decision for evil.” I’m not saying anything new about evil, nor does this model ‘explain’ the horror and irrationality of evil. But this model might make the origin of evil easier to understand, because evil becomes a sort of unnecessary-yet-inevitable part of the creative-learning-growing process. It would clear up some of the confusion that our temporality, and our cause-effect-proneness seem to cause when talking of these things. I also like to hope it’s scriptural.

  71. Ben,
    There is so much to “chew” on. I am certain, however, that a straight-line, linear, purely-historical, cause-and-effect narrative or reading of Scripture/Creation/Redemption etc., simply doesn’t work. It has become a hybrid form of Christianity, created in the relatively modern era, mostly by Protestants, and has been picked up by others. No doubt, something like that has often been believed by those of simple understanding, and without harm. However, when it becomes an actual governing narrative for theology, it does great harm and changes the faith.

    The eschatological nature of our salvation certainly blows space and time apart. But, since we are people who eat and drink the Body and Blood of God, we should not be surprised that stories have layers of meaning that don’t fit a secularized view of history. Where I think we struggle a great deal, is to actually live in an eschatological present, rather than the flatness and emptiness of a secularized world.

    Thanks for the thoughts. Very useful.

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