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Is God just?


The meaning of evil in Western theology

What is “evil”? Isn’t it one’s alienation from God Who is Life? Isn’t it Death?

What does Western theology teach on the topic of death? All Roman Catholics and most Protestant groups regard death as a form of punishment by God; that God has supposedly judged all of mankind as guilty for the sin committed by Adam and has therefore punished everyone with death – in other words, it was God who excised mankind from Himself and has purposely deprived mankind of His Life-giving energy, thus killing them spiritually at first (and afterwards physically), through some sort of spiritual famine.

It was precisely this idolatrous notion of God’s justice – a justice that demanded infinite sacrifices to placate Him – which has rendered God a proper enemy of ours, as well as the underlying cause of all our misfortunes. It is furthermore a justice that is not at all just, given that it punishes and demands satisfaction from persons who are not in the least responsible for the sins of their ancestors. In other words, the Westerners’ notion of “justice” should more correctly be called “vindictiveness and revenge of the worst kind.” Even the love and the sacrifice of Christ lose their meaning and their logic, with this schizophrenic concept of a God who kills a God in order to satisfy the so-called “justice of God”.

In Theology, this legalistic perception of God – this entirely perverted interpretation of God’s justice – was nothing more than a projection of human passions. It was a return to the idolatrous method of reducing God to a human being and deifying humans. But it is strictly a human trait to become angered and infuriated when not taken seriously, and this registers as humiliation which can only be flushed away by revenge – either in the form of a crime or by duelling. This was the secular, impassioned idea of “justice” that prevailed in the minds of a (supposedly) Christian society. The christians of the West had the same idea about God: God – that infinite Existence – had apparently been infinitely offended by Adam’s disobedience, therefore He decided that the guilt related to Adam’s disobedience had to necessarily be passed down to all of Adam’s descendants, and that all of them had to be condemned to death for the sin that Adam had committed, even though none of the descendants had committed it. In Western mentality, God’s justice functioned in the exact same manner as a vendetta: not only did the man who offended you have to die, but his entire family also. What was even more tragic for mankind – to the point of desperation – was that no person (in fact not even mankind overall) was able to placate God’s offended dignity, even if all of mankind were to sacrifice itself… Apparently, God’s dignity could be restored, only if He could punish someone with the same prestige as Himself. Thus, the only solution for God to regain His dignity and for mankind to be saved, was the Incarnation of His Son, so that by sacrificing a person with divine dignity, God’s honour would then be salvaged.

Westerners frequently speak of “the Good Lord”. And yet, neither Western Europe nor America have ever convinced themselves of the existence of such a Good Lord. On the contrary, they refer to God in the same manner that the ancient Hellenes used to label an infectious pestilence a “blessing”, in order to exorcise it in the hope of making it go away. It was for the same reason that the ancient Hellenes had named the Black Sea the “Efxeinos Pontos” (the Hospitable Sea), even though in reality it was a formidable and treacherous sea. Deep down, the Western soul perceived God as a bad judge, who never forgot even the slightest affront that was the result of our trespassing His commandments.

In the first volume of the “Philokalia” Patristic collection there is the following, exquisite text by Saint Anthony:

“God is benevolent and impassionate and unchanging. If one were to regard this as plausible and true, but also wonder how God can be “happy” for those who are good and “averse” to those who are evil, and how He becomes “angry” towards those who sin but is “merciful” towards those who serve Him and worship Him, we need to clarify that God neither “rejoices” nor is “angered”, because sorrow and joy are passions. Neither can He be attended to with gifts, for that would mean He can be swayed by pleasure. We must not judge God with human measures. He is benevolent and He only benefits us; He is never detrimental; He remains impassionate always. However we, by remaining good and likening ourselves to God, become joined to Him and when we become evil we become separated from God, as ones that are unlike Him. When we live virtuously we follow God, whereas when we become evil we make Him our enemy and He of course is not angry without reason, because sins do not allow God to illuminate us internally, but instead they join us to the punisher demons. If however through prayers and charity we do attain the absolution of our sins, this does not mean that we have flattered God and have altered Him, but merely that with our good deeds and our return to Him, we have cured our malice and are once again enjoying God’s benevolence. Thus, when asserting that “God is averse to those who are evil”, it is like saying that the sun is hiding its light from the blind.”

As you can see, the devil has succeeded in making people believe that God does not actually love us; that He essentially loves only Himself and accepts us only if we behave the way that He wants us to behave. He has convinced them that God hates us, if we don’t behave the way He commanded us to behave and becomes offended to such a degree by our disobedience, that we must pay for it with eternal tortures, which He has created for that purpose. But who could ever truly love a torturer? Even those who struggle hard to save themselves from the wrath of God cannot truly love Him. They love only themselves, and they merely strive to escape God’s revenge and acquire eternal bliss, by attempting to placate that terrible and exceptionally dangerous Creator. Can you see how Satan is slandering our all-merciful and all-charitable God? This is why the Greek language gave Satan the name devil (diavolos, from the verb dia-vallo, meaning to distort, warp, deceive).

So, is this notion of justice even remotely similar to the justice that God revealed to us? Does the term “justice of God” have the same meaning in the Old and the New Testaments?

Perhaps the initial misinterpretation of this word in the Old Testament of the Holy Bible was its translation into Greek, with the Greek word “δικαιοσύνη” (fairness). It is not that this interpretation is entirely incorrect; it is only because this word – having originated from the idolatrous, humanistic Hellenic civilization – was loaded with human inferences that could easily lead to misinterpretations.

First of all, the word “δικαιοσύνη” for justice brings to mind an equal distribution, which is why it is symbolized by the Balance. The good are rewarded and the evil are punished by human society with a method entailing fairness. That is human justice – the kind that is provided by the courts of law.

But is that indicative of God’s justice also? The Greek word “δικαιοσύνη” is the translation of the Hebrew word “tsedaka”, which signifies “the divine energy that secures the salvation of Man”. It is parallel and almost synonymous to the other Hebrew word, “hesed”, which means “mercy”, “sympathy”, “love”, and also with the word “emeth” which means “faith”, “truth”.

This, as you can see, gives an entirely different dimension to what we normally perceive as “justice”. This was the way that the Church comprehended God’s justice. This was how the Fathers of the Church taught it: “How can you call God fair” writes Saint Isaac the Syrian, “when you read in the Gospel about the wages He gave to the workers? ‘My friend’, He said, ‘I am not wronging you – I only wish to give this last worker whatever I gave to you; your eye may be wicked, but I am benevolent.’ How can one call God “fair”, when one reads in the Gospel about the prodigal son who had squandered the paternal inheritance in debaucheries and yet, by showing his contrition only, the father ran up to him and threw his arms around his son’s neck and gave him authority over all his riches? And all these were not said by someone else so that we might have doubts, but by His very Son. Where is God’s fairness, when we are sinners and yet Christ died for us?” [Homily 60]

Certain Protestant views assert that death is not a form of punishment, but that it is something natural. But, didn’t God create all natural things? Thus, in both cases, God to them is the actual cause of death. But death was NOT imposed on us by God; we brought it on, through our mutiny. God is Life and Life is God. We revolted against God, therefore we ourselves have shut the doors to His life-giving Grace. Saint Basil wrote: “The more he distanced himself from life, the closer he approached death; because God is Life, and the deprivation of life is death.” Saint Basil continues: “God did not create death; it was we who brought it upon ourselves. Nevertheless, He did not obstruct corruptibility,…in order to not make our disability immortal.” [ PG 31. 345 ]

As described by Saint Irenaeus: “Separation from God is death; separation from the light is darkness….and it is not the darkness that brings on the punishment of blindness”.[ Against heresies 27:2 ]

“Death” says Saint Maximus the Confessor “is mainly the separation from God, which was inevitably followed by the death of the body. Life is mainly Him, Who had said ‘I am Life’.” [ Philokalia, vol.2, p.18 ]

And why did death come to the entire human race? Why did those – who did not sin together with Adam – undergo death just as he did? Here is the answer that Saint Anastasios of Sinai gave: “We became the inheritors of Adam’s curse. We were not punished as though we had disobeyed that divine commandment, along with Adam. It was because Adam rendered himself mortal that his sin was transmitted to his descendants. We became mortals, given that we were born of a mortal.” [ J.N.Karmiris, “A Synopsis of Dogmatic Teaching of the Orthodox Catholic Church”, page 38 ].

Saint Gregory Palamas also observes: “God did not say to Adam: ‘Return to where you came from!’; what He said was: ‘You are earthen, and to the earth you will return’. He did not say: ‘On the day that you eat from it (the forbidden tree) you must suffer death!’ What He said was: ‘On the day that you eat from it, you will suffer death’. Nor did He afterwards add: ‘Return now, to the earth….’; What He said was: ‘You will return to the earth…..’, essentially warning Adam in this way, justly permitting what was to ensue, and not hindering it.” [PG 1157- 1160].

We can therefore see how death did not appear upon a command of God, but only as a consequence of Adam’s discontinuance of his association with the Source of Life, which was brought on by his disobedience. God in his kindness had warned him in advance about this outcome.

“The Tree of Knowledge itself”, says Theophilos of Antioch, “was good, and its fruit was pleasant. It was not the tree, as some believe, which contained death inside it, but the act of disobedience. For there was nothing else within the tree, except knowledge and knowledge is a good thing, if one uses it suitably. In his state, Adam was an infant, therefore was not able to handle knowledge according to its value.” [To Autolykos 2,25] Our Fathers teach us that the forbiddance to taste of the “Tree of Knowledge” was not absolute, but only a temporary measure. Adam was an infant spiritually; but not all foods are suitable for infants. Some foods can even kill infants – even though adults may find them beneficial. The “fruit of the Tree” was good and nutritious, but it was solid food, when Adam could only “digest” milk…

Hell and Paradise: the consequences of our freedom of choice

In the icon depicting the Second Coming, we see our Lord Jesus Christ seated on a throne. At His right, we see His friends – those blessed men and women who had lived their lives with His love. To His left, we see His enemies – all those who had hated their lives, even if they seemed pious and respectful of God. And there, between the two groups, we can see a fiery river that springs from Christ’s throne and flows towards us. What is that fiery river? Is it an instrument of torture? Is it an action of revenge that comes from God for the elimination of His enemies?

No, none of the above. That fiery river is God’s river of Grace, which has been refreshing God’s saints from the beginning. In short, it is the overflowing of God’s love for His creatures. Love is fire. Those who have loved, know that.

“Do not be deceived”, says saint Simeon the New Theologian. “God is fire, and when He came into the world and became a human, He set fire on earth, as He Himself says. That fire moves about, searching for (inflammable) matter – that is, a benevolent opinion and disposition – so that He can enter it and set it alight. And in those that the fire is lit, the flame will flare up and reach the sky…. (This fire) first cleanses us thoroughly from the pollution of passions, then it becomes food and drink and illumination and joy inside us, and turns us also into light by participation, for we are then partaking of that light.” (Homily 78).

“Paradise” and “Hell” are the one and the same river of God; i.e., a flame of love that embraces and enfolds everyone, with the same will to be beneficial, and without any difference or discrimination. The same, life-giving flow of water is eternal life for the faithful but eternal death for the faithless. For the former, it is an element of life, but for the latter it is an instrument of eternal suffocation. “Paradise” to the one, “Hell” to the other.

“And I furthermore say,” writes Saint Isaac the Syrian, “that those being punished in the Gehenna are punished by the plague of God’s love… it is entirely unfounded to believe that the sinners in Hell lack God’s love; because God’s love – which is sequential to knowing Him – is given without discrimination to everyone, but it is felt in two manners: as chastizement by the sinners, and as delight by the righteous.

During the future Judgment, each person’s condition will be revealed in an instant, and they will each head for where they should, by themselves. Each one of us will be seeing his own sorry state as though on TV, and likewise the others’ spiritual condition.

Saint John of Damascus writes:

“Let no-one believe that there will be no recognition, by each one, of one another, in that formidable congregation. Yes, indeed, each will recognize the one near him – not by the form of his body, but through the insightful eye of the soul” PG 95, 276A.

Our own condition will be mirrored on the others, and we will be bowing down our head and going to the place we deserve. For example, a woman who has been sitting indifferently cross-legged in the presence of her mother-in-law while her mother-in-law with a broken leg was looking after her grandchild cannot say: “Why, my Lord, are You putting my mother-in-law in Paradise, and not me?” because that scene will be appearing before her; she will remember her mother-in-law standing on that broken leg and tending to her grandchild. She would be ashamed to show her face in heaven and she would not be able to “fit in” in heaven. Likewise, monks will be seeing the trials and tribulations that secular people had to undergo and how they had confronted them, and, if those monks had not lived accordingly, they too will bow down their heads and head in the other direction. Monks and nuns who had not pleased God will be seeing the heroic mothers and fathers who had not taken any vows, nor had received the blessings and the opportunities that they had, and how they had struggled and to what spiritual heights they had reached – as opposed to what trivialities they, the monks and nuns, had preoccupied and tormented themselves with – and they will be filled with shame! In other words, Christ will not say to them: “You! Come here! What have you done?” or, “You will be going to Hell, and you to Paradise”. On the contrary, each one of us will be comparing himself to the other and will head towards the place that he will eventually be. Saint Simeon the New Theologian writes:

“..and quite simply, every sinful person on that dreaded day of Judgment will see opposite him – in eternity and in that ineffable light – his like, and will be judged by him.” [On Repentance, Speech 5, Sources Chretiennes 96 434 ]

Thus, we can comprehend that God is not “fair” in the humans’ sense of the term, but that His justice implies love and kindness which are not bestowed in a “fair” manner; in other words, God always gives, without getting anything in return, and He gives to people like us, who are not deserving. That is why Saint Isaac the Syrian had said: “Do not call God ‘fair’, for God’s justice is not made apparent in your works. David may have called Him ‘just and straightforward’, but His Son, Jesus Christ and our Saviour, revealed to us that rather, He is benevolent and honorable (Luke 6:35). He is benevolent -he says- towards the wicked and the irreverent ones.” [Homily 60]

by Thomas F.Dritsas