The Good That Lies Within

The line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained.

Solzhenitsyn’s statement that “even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained,” is, I think, the single most hopeful statement regarding humanity that I have ever encountered. It is, first, an axiom of Orthodox Christian belief. A notion of total depravity, of human evil so thorough that nothing good remains, is alien to Orthodoxy. Whether it is Dostoevsky’s story of the old woman saved by a rotten onion (or “potentially saved” by that single miserable act of generosity), or the last-minute salvation of the thief on the Cross, the faith celebrates the extreme mercy found in such stories.

C.S. Lewis, in The Great Divorce, offers an interesting take on the presence of this tiny bridgehead of goodness. People from what might become hell take a bus-ride to the edge of heaven, and may stay. It is an offer that reveals the innermost heart – the in’s and out’s of how someone might walk away from heaven itself. There is a woman in the story who seems to have nothing wrong with her other than the habit of grumbling about everything. Lewis wonders what is so wrong with her. He is told:

The question is whether she is a grumbler, or only a grumble. If there is a real woman—even the least trace of one—still there inside the grumbling, it can be brought to life again. If there’s one wee spark under all those ashes, we’ll blow it till the whole pile is red and clear. But if there’s nothing but ashes we’ll not go on blowing them in our own eyes forever. They must be swept up.’

‘But how can there be a grumble without a grumbler?’

‘The whole difficulty of understanding Hell is that the thing to be understood is so nearly Nothing.

I wrestle with questions of “anthropology” when I think of such matters. By that, I mean the question of exactly what it means to exist as a human being. I have written numerous times about the “ontological” versus a “juridical” approach in theology. We are not legal objects, nor is our relationship with God rightly to be understood in juridical terms. We are beings and what we have with God and from God must be understood in terms of being. Being alone is real. There are no other categories of real. If it doesn’t have being – it doesn’t exist. This is the ground on which all of the doctrines of the Church were founded. The language of the Trinity, of Christology, of sacrament and icon were (and are) propounded in terms of being.

If Solzhenitsyn is right, and, there remains, even in hearts overwhelmed by evil, a bridgehead of good, then there are realities that follow. I believe that Solzhenitsyn is correct. Accepting this means thinking carefully about what we mean when we say “good” and “evil” in the human context. The Fathers of the East generally conflated goodness, truth, and beauty as aspects of authentic and true being. Evil, on the other hand, is only ever a perversion of what is good, true and beautiful – it has no existence (being) in itself.

Lewis’ suggestion of Hell as being “so nearly Nothing” conforms to this understanding. However, when “non-being” is described  in the Fathers’ writings, it is always “relative” non-being, using the negative particle μή (me) rather than οὐ (ou). “Me” indicates a direction and movement rather than an accomplished fact. This same distinction, however, clearly leaves room (and tacitly acknowledges) the “bridgehead of good.” Nothing that we describe as evil is ever utterly and completely evil (as troubling as that thought might be). They exist. We cannot say, even of a demon, that there is nothing “good” that is present. As mysterious as it remains, they exist, because it is the gift of a good God, and their existence itself remains a good thing.

St. Paul uses the image of a race to describe the Christian life. It has much to recommend it, particularly because it describes something in motion. We are not a set of categories or static entities. We are alive and moving. Our proper direction is to move towards union with God. This is the very definition of “good.” To use the examples of the demons again, we can say that their “motion” is towards non-being, and is thus “evil.” Christ says that Satan is the “father of lies,” and a “murderer from the beginning,” both rooted in aspects of non-being (lies, murder).

So, when I consider that there is possibly some movement towards God (a bridgehead) in even the most “evil” of persons, then I maintain a hope for that small “coal” (to use Lewis’ image) to be fanned into a flame. I am very doubtful about many of the things predicated of the human will, primarily because it seems to be as much in motion as the cells in our bodies. Is the will to be measured at some moment – say, the last moment? Is it taken as an average of all moments? Or do we often die as a collection of conflicted moments, tossed about by everything around us?

The Russian theologian, Fr. Sergius Bulgakov, who was known for holding opinions that sometimes conflicted with the faith of the Church, had a very interesting take on the parable of the Sheep and the Goats. He treated those images as two things within each person rather than a distinction between different kinds of people. As such, the judgment described would be a winnowing and a purification, a saving of the Sheep, however feeble and muted its movement towards God.

That manner of reading the parable is not unlike many treatments of parables in the Fathers (internal and mystical rather than external and historical/moral). My “take-away” from these thoughts has to do with the nature of the struggle that surrounds us and is within us at all times. In the darkest of moments, even when our will is in its greatest rebellion, there remains a “bridgehead” to the good, some portion that represents a foundation for repentance. The “noise” of our sin is the fury of nothingness, raging against the reality that dwells at the bridgehead.

I’ve counseled with parents across the years who are baffled by the behavior of a teen or a young adult who is lost in the noise of sin. It is a common thing for them to speak about the essential goodness of their child and their own inability to understand what has happened. “Nothing” has no explanation. I’ve always heard in those thoughts an echo of the heart of the Father in the story of the Prodigal Son. He sees his son from far off, indicating that he had always been watching and waiting. His son returns “alive” and not “dead.” The “dead son” remained behind with the swine. “This my son was dead and now he is alive.”

The repentance of sins is never anything less than resurrection from the dead. There is not a “reform” of that which is dead. It is a “new creation” in the words of St. Paul. It is the brushing away of the ashes that are so nearly Nothing.

I have found these ideas helpful in dealing with other people (and myself). That bridgehead of goodness is often held captive, trapped in the web of near-nothingness that we call sin. When we pray for others, we pray for the truth of their being, and its triumph (in Christ) over all opposition. Most importantly, it is vital that we recognize, even in the darkest of souls, that something remains of the good. In the work of salvation, it is the discovery and nurture of that very thing that is essential. We must fan the coal and pray for the flame of God to consume us.




  1. Thanks, Father. This is one of the best things I’ve read in awhile. Just yesterday I was thinking about St. Paisios and that we are all both bee and fly. A need reminder of Simul iustus te peccator.

  2. “When we pray for others, we pray for the truth of their being, and its triumph
    (in Christ) over all opposition.”
    I have seen police photos of young people in before and after shots, after having been on meth for a while. The difference is startling.
    In the former, we see what we would think of as a “normal” face. After the meth it is a face shrunken, haggard, a shell of what it was. I imagine that the soul has gone through a similar transformation through the ravages of ” the noise of sin.” Yet the truth of their being is still within. It is good to hear again that evil is a movement toward nothingness, that it has no ontological reality of its own, but that evil will finally be ( in the human heart and cosmically) vanquished in Christ.
    Thank you for this helpful/hopeful article.

  3. The repentance of sins never anything less than resurrection from the dead. There is not a “reform” of that which is dead. It is a “new creation” in the words of St. Paul. It is the brushing away of the ashes that are so nearly Nothing.

    I like this illustration of repentance but I’m not sure what to make of it. I have some fear that the ashes will eventually be brushed away and nothing left. It is harder to see “one small bridgehead of good” in myself than it is in others. I think it is often harder to accept grace for oneself than for others (at least for me). God is good.

  4. Byron,
    I think that the bridgehead of good is something that has to be shown to us by God Himself. Thus, it’s something to pray for. When it comes, it is a great gift, somewhat fleeting, in my experience, but always there.

  5. I think that one thing Orthodoxy would benefit from is to wrestle more deeply with the notion that all intentionality is ultimately oriented toward the Good (or more broadly the Transcendentals). Once you grasp this fact, the notion and nature of the Good as a teleological end for every rational and fully informed choice gives a very different perspective on our condition as humans. There’s an interesting elaboration of this in several of David Bentley Hart’s books, esp. The Experience of God and That All Shall Be Saved, but I don’t see it discussed broadly.

    I believe Gregory of Nyssa also taught that sheeps and goats represent a division of the person, though I can’t recall in what work, so perhaps my memory is playing tricks on me.

  6. My favorite passage amongst the stories about Fr. Arseny, a very saintly priest condemned to the 20th century Gulags, is the one where he was granted a vision of the light filled hearts of the hardened criminals with whom he was imprisoned. Despite being a priest and knowing that they weren’t in theory depraved he was astounded by this light and by how brightly it shone.

    Thank you Fr. Stephen for all your work.

  7. dear Father Stephen

    my only comment is not so much about your post, but the featured image. today in the late morning, on the way to meet a dear friend for a cup of coffee, there was a car driving in front of me with a license plate that referenced Isaiah 6:6

    I always look up the verses of license plates that have a Scripture reference, and why I am sharing it is because of the image to this article – which the verse had etched in the front of my mind – and then I just read your article, and photo you chose – it made a profound impact.

    Here is the verse from Isaiah

    “Then one of the serapheim was sent to me, He had a live coal in his hand, which he took with tongs from the altar.”

  8. Father,

    Please forgive my very “foolish” question. I’ve been in the church long years and still am not sure how does repentance looks like? Not sinning anymore? Or just becoming ever more aware of our own sinfulness? Is there any repentance in habitual sins? Can we say that we repent and than keep doing the same old things…….out of habit, weakness of will or just for the pleasure that is associated with it (i.e gluttony…..). I’ve always been confused, to say the least, reading the lives of the saints. It seems to me that for most of them there was a clear definitive moment of turning to God in repentance and than they just continued going “from one victory to the other”…….always struggling, being tempted, but apparently never sinning. Or at least nobody has ever recorded their failings……only the extraordinary ascetic feats – and he/she went on one month without eating at all…….and so on.

    Thank you and God bless your wonderful ministry!

  9. Father, this is one of my very favorite things you’ve written.
    While I was scrubbing the bathroom today, I was thinking about viruses and how, by scientific definition, they are not living organisms. They are close to nothing, yet what they do exceptionally well is create chaos (illness) and reproduce.

  10. Sofia,
    I’ve been hearing confessions and paying attention to souls for about 40 years now. Repentance, for too many people, means trying not to do something. It can leave us very much on the surface, I think, living a frustrated life of attempting “moral” sinlessness. Repentance is, at its best, a matter of the deep heart, a turning towards God – paying attention to God – allowing ourselves to belong to Him. I think of my marriage. I certainly loved my wife when we married (43 years ago) – but not anything like how I love her now. I still mess up and disappoint her, forget things, etc. But that’s not at all the same thing as ignoring her, or turning my heart away from her and towards something (or God forbid, someone) else. Loving her makes working on the faults not a hard thing. But she’s not trying to measure my performance. The love is what matters.

    I think it is the same with God. The little things we do wrong might be signs of a cold heart – but – I think of confession again – it may just be signs of someone thinking about “should’s” and “oughts.” Sometimes when I’m hearing confession, I see someone walking towards me with tears running down their cheeks. I think to myself, it doesn’t matter what they have to confess, their heart has already made the confession and the forgiveness of God is running down their cheek. The Fathers say that tears are a “second baptism.”

    So, for you and I, how do we find that place in the soul where the tears come from and how do we bring that into the presence of God? That is where we will find the deepest repentance. For crusty old men like myself – that is a difficult thing indeed. May God make it easy for you!

  11. Fr. Stephen, Thank you for this article. I have always liked Bulgakov’s interpretation. I think we all have a bit of goatish behavior, attitudes, or thoughts in us. When I think about the goat, the main characteristic is stubbornness. Growing up in the deep South it was common to hear someone describe someone else (often a relative!), as “He is as stubborn as an old goat!” Indeed, that characteristic is one of the first to surface in a toddler. Trying to pull a goat in one direction is almost impossible. I have never met someone who is not stubborn on some issue. Maybe that is where I should begin with confession. I believe with all my heart that there is a bridgehead of goodness in each heart. Thank you!

  12. Thank You Father!

    Your response is comforting and challenging at the same time. It is so deeply rooted in me the moralistic view of repentance. Maybe I should start my repentance exactly at this issue……..:-))

    God bless!

  13. I think that what repentance ‘looks like’, might potentially have two rather distinctive answers:
    One answer is the kind of momentary (yet life-changing rather than transitory), ‘wedding’ of God’s visitation to man’s voluntary God-wards turn.
    Understandably, one can rightfully argue that how this ultimately pans out over a long stretch of time (the stability of the ‘marriage’ resulting from this ‘wedding’) is what counts: otherwise we just have (as the song ‘Who wants to live forever’ goes), just the “thing that builds our dreams, yet slips away from us”… or even, “only one, sweet moment set aside for us”.
    The second answer, is that repentance is our internal re- orientation, expressed as our devotional stability, manifested through the language of ascesis (not for ourselves, but for God) over time.
    Verifications of genuine, humble repentance, practically more than one’s tears, are such things one’s distaste for the causes of the pleasures that once held complete sway over them; also such things as the instinctual disinclination to judge any sinner.

  14. Just discovered this beautiful album and this song reminded me SO much of this specific article. Theologically it doesn’t make sense unless you’re able to distinguish, like that inner reading of the sheep and goats parable, between what’s real inside you and what’s not. I love how this song unabashedly speaks right to that good inside.

    “Hey there beautiful one, you there shining with glory
    Would you let your heart hear, if I sang about you
    Did you know that every fairy tale you love
    They have borrowed your story
    Of a maiden so lovely, and a hero so true

    It’s just that this world is hollow
    And it wants to swallow
    Any memory of who you really are

    Always remember to never forget
    When you look in the mirror, the answer is yes
    Yes you are pure as gold, yes you are beautiful
    So always remember to never forget
    Always remember to never forget

    Like a treasure in the deep, your heart is a diamond
    And your hero will do what it takes to find it
    So he can hold it tenderly, and become your defender
    Even lay down his life, to make your heart heal…”

  15. “Sometimes when I’m hearing confession, I see someone walking towards me with tears running down their cheeks. I think to myself, it doesn’t matter what they have to confess, their heart has already made the confession and the forgiveness of God is running down their cheek.”

    What a beautiful image, Fr. Stephen. Thank you. Now I understand why so many of the great saints valued tears…

  16. Thanks for your discussion on the will of man. Lord knows have I so often felt shame because my will had a will of its own. I would look at others and marvel that they seemed to have an iron will. Lately my will fits the description you mentioned “even when our will in its greatest rebellion”. Following your idea that the will flits about like the cells in our body offers a view that because we have a will that ebbs and flows does not mean that we have lost communion with God. This past couple of weeks, I have felt so defeated, helpless because my will for some reason decided to fight with God again. Forgive me Lord.

  17. Dennis,
    Our culture, for various reasons, teaches a very “libertarian” view of the will: we are individuals who choose. We think that our choices determine our lives, etc. It is an account that is used to undergird our culture of consumption. We imagine that we’ve been buying all this stuff because we “chose” it. But those who sell it know that it is not a matter of choice. They sell us stuff based on our passions – our distorted desires. They do not want us to actually choose – that might involve reason and thought. Reason and thought are the last thing those who market things to us want us to do. Reason and thought are unreliable. The passions are easily manipulated. Why are we so angry about politics? It’s because all of our political messaging is aimed to our passions – not reason.

    So – we are deeply disordered. Most people only experience the disordered passions, thinking it’s their will.

    Much more to say, but I’ve got to run.

  18. Look forward to feedback on reordering passion that is God’s will. Read somewhere (Barth?) that the old man -flesh- is hard to kill. Like misunderstanding will, it is easy to believe your thoughts are who you are.

  19. Dennis,
    There’s a great deal that we mistake for ourselves that is nothing of the sort. I sometimes think of it in terms of personality versus personhood. Personality is often a collection of neuroses and the like – a sort of mask that hides what it is to be person. Orthodoxy teaches that personhood is something we are moving towards (perhaps even recovering). St. Paul says, “you are hid with Christ in God.” I think that many of the things (neuroses) that comprise the personality are, in fact, distortions of the real and true things that belong to the person.

    The “will” is actually something that is exceedingly foundational – something closer to “inclination” – it is the very desire of our nature. What we experience as “will” is described as the “gnomic” will (the “choosing will”) that is involved in ignorance, deliberation, etc. This, according to St. Maximus, is a result of the fall – not the cause of the fall. Regaining a kind of union of person, in which the natural will is the very heart of our life, would be something we call “theosis” (divinization). Rare indeed.

  20. Father,

    Regarding the juridical vs ontological approach, I might suggest something.
    My problem with this is that precisely that you always put a “vs” between them. In my opinion, both can be clearly found in the Fathers- of the East as well as of the West. St Athanasius uses the juridical approach in On the Incarnation too.

    What we have, in my opinion, is always an image, an approximation of the real thing. There is a hierarchy of symbols and images and the ontological approach is clearly much nearer to the Original than the juridical is (this latter can be called quite “a further cry”). However, it is still part of the hierarchy and has a legitimate place in a our faith, although it shouldn’t become central, nor predominant, nor conflated with the Real. Yet, even in our daily struggle when all else fail and we are mired in passions, it is quite useful to be reminded that there is a God in Heaven who will bring punishment if we keep it going like this-as a sort of last resort at a wake-up call.

    What I’m trying to say is that we should keep a balance and not extirpate images in our tradition that do have a right to exist, even though at a lower level.

    As regarding the parables, I think all of them can be understood both inner and outer, microcosmically as well as macrocosmically.
    I’ve been thinking about the parable of the seeds lately and that the four types of soil spoken about in them are all present in all of us- 4 different disposition co-existing in us, some predominating at times over the others.

  21. Mihai,
    I understand your point – and have thought a lot about it over the years. It’s certainly the case, for example, that the language of wrath and punishment are replete in the Scriptures and are not absent in the tradition. I’m less certain about the juridical, if I can expound on that.

    The juridical “view” is more than a metaphor or an image – it is used particularly to explain “what is actually going on.” It purports to be an explanation of reality. In settings such as the penal substitutionary atonement theory – it is even pressing its way into the very inner life of God.

    I note in your comment that you make a distinction between the juridical as a lesser, or more distant, image. I would agree. Indeed, I would suggest that it generally serves as a “moral” image – a sort of “whip” for the wayward – threatening, etc.

    As such, it has echoes of a time in which capital punishment and corporal discipline were common. Heck, St. Benedict called for beating monks as part of the work of their formation! The image (symbol) exists and has its place – though, in our time, it has taken on a reification for many that needs to be deconstructed and dismantled.

    No doubt, I come on a bit strong in my critique of the juridical. On the other hand, St. Paul came on a bit strong in his critique of circumcision and the works of the Law – though they had been instituted by God. I do not draw this parallel very strongly – on to say that there is a pedological reasoning in drawing the lines as strongly as I do.

    The ontological understanding is an attempt to speak of reality itself. It is the language of the Creed, of Christology, of all the doctrinal statements of the Great Councils. The juridical seems to have its place within the canons – though, even there, as in Canon 102 of the Quinisext Council says, all of these canons (in their juridical character) are to be understood and applied as medicine (which would be ontological).

    I would say that what I have tried to do is in line with that canon. Take the juridical language – but move past its crude imagery and push to what is underneath – for the sake of understanding what is real and true.

    And, of course, the other side of the issue is the great damage done to souls by the long abuse associated with the misuse of the juridical imagery when it has been used to bury and ignore the ontological tradition of the Church. If you are well-grounded in the ontological understanding, it’s possible to discuss the juridical images. If you’ve never even thought about the ontological understanding – it’s pretty much necessary to kill the juridical in order to get there. Once there, the conversation can begin.

  22. Scott, in Father Arseny (Priest, Prisoner, Spiritual Father) , there was just one person who would not repent – he confessed but would not repent. Father Arseny not only looked constantly for even a little glimmer of light, but also always thanked God for having granted him the chance to be imprisoned and to see the goodness in his fellow prisoners! Remarkable! Yet there was this one criminal – out of thousands. It’s a mystery.

  23. I think the reason the juridical metaphor has to be subsumed under the medical metaphor is that the juridical by itself has no healthy limit.

    In the medical view, the patient is the end. God cuts the patient to save him.

    In the juridical view, abstract Justice is the end. If the offender’s complete destruction serves as a mere means to realize Justice, so be it.

  24. Xenia, thanks for tying together stubborn and goat. Of course I’ve heard the expression a million times, but you gave me an image of being stuck, a refusal to go forward, to change. Perfect for the analogy of paralysis, being stuck, refusing movement, metanoia.

  25. Father,
    The image of the Prodigal Son that you spoke of… ” the dead son being left behind with the swine” is an image I will hold on to. So many times we confess our sin, and never actually allow ourselves to be free of them. There is no movement towards real repentance this way. I think the web of sin just keeps weaving itself in a more complex, twisted way. Judgement, I think gets tangled in this. Dying to ourselves has much more meaning when I reflect on the Prodigal this way, as does Gods grace.

  26. ” Is the will to be measured at some moment – say, the last moment? Is it taken as an average of all moments? Or do we often die as a collection of conflicted moments, tossed about by everything around us?”

    This statement, Dino’s point about repentance and its character through time, as well as the rest of the discussion in the comments around the relationship of ontology and juridical has me thinking of J. P. Manoussakis’s work on Time and Personhood. Are you familiar with this work Fr. Stephen? I am just beginning to read through his recent work. I find his critique of the Orgenistic/Platonic leaning thinkers of today (e.g. Hart, Zizioulas, etc.) and yesterday (e.g. Nyssa) helpful.

    I lean (it’s an open question for me) towards disagreeing with Mihai because when I read St Athanasius “On the Incarnation” I don’t get any sense that his use of the juridical is “lesser” than the ontological, or even hierarchical. If anything, it fills in the gap of ontology (as it were) by giving us a picture of restoration, salvation, through *time*. In other words, it “explains” the relationship of movement *in time*, so that movement (to and away from sin, etc.) is contextualized.

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