Where Was God?


I have made reference to an interview with David Bentley Hart, an Orthodox theologian, in an appendix to the article on “What makes the world go ’round.” The more I have read his response the more important I think it is for others to read. I have always held his writing in a bit of “awe” – he is perhaps the most careful of modern Orthodox writers (well-chosen words that make careful points are a hallmark of his work.) I can think of no better statement on the problem of “natural evil” than his work on the subject. This short interview does an excellent job of encapsulating that argument. Thus I thought it worth making a more visible link to the article Where Was God?

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.





43 responses to “Where Was God?”

  1. Andrew Avatar

    I’m not convinced. The ancient view would have some weight were we ignorant of the world as modern science presents it to us. We know from science that the world was created as we see it today, that no change in the way the world is took place, and, unless one resorts to Young Earth Creationism-like ways, I don’t see how one can avoid God being the author of death and natural suffering.

    Even if we assume that everything is our, or Satan’s, fault, in the end, all this suffering remains without explanation, and God remains open to criticism.

  2. Carl Avatar


    1) Death is not tragic by itself. As Shakespeare said, Nothing is good or bad, but thinking makes it so. There was no problem of pain before there was a problem of consciousness. 4 billion years ago, the amoeba didn’t care if they died. “Eating the apple” of the knowledge of good and evil is what changed the world from morally neutral to positively injurious.

    2) We must not see time as a straight line. Human existence now has an effect on what the world was like before humans existed, because God has planned things out using His foresight.

  3. Matthew N. Petersen Avatar


    We really don’t know how creation was in the beginning. We can see the beginning, but we look the wrong direction if we peer back in time. We see the beginning (and the end) only when we see Golgatha.

    Moreover, we can’t even see the beginning of this world. Perhaps it was, as in the Silmarillion, created by God, but from the beginning disrupted by Satan. Good, and founded on God, but from its foundation, disrupted by a more ancient evil. Perhaps then, part of the reason for the creation of man was, even before the fall, the redemption of Creation. (Again, this seems to be Tolkien’s idea from the Silmirillion, and clearly is Lewis’ idea from The Problem of Pain.)

    But conjecture about evil’s origins aside, I think that the Christian answer is that God has not allowed sin to corrupt this world, for death is swallowed up in victory. As the old Lutheran hymn says:

    “It was a strange and dreadful strife
    When life and death contended;
    The victory remained with life,
    The reign of death was ended.
    Holy Scripture plainly saith
    That death is swallowed up by death,
    Its sting is lost forever. Alleluia!”

    God has not suffered his beloved to see corruption. God has acted to destroy sin, making it white as snow. But His action was not a Rockefellerian act of philanthropy. Nor was it some damned Leibnitzian nonsense about it all working out in the end. Rather, as Mother Theresa made Calcutta a better place by suffering its worst, so God has on Golgatha, trampled down death by death, by suffering with us death’s worst.

  4. rltjs Avatar

    The question more often asked is, I think, Where IS God. Many people believe that God has been pushed out of people’s homes, pushed into a tiny corner of this planet.

    To them I say: God Is very much around and lives. Update yourselves and evolve to God’s 21st century AD, folks!

  5. rltjs Avatar

    And modern day spirits appear to be roaming because most of those who are in the best position to lead had been left behind. What good is a strong magnet which is far separated from those to be magnetized. None, worthless.

  6. suddenlysimple Avatar

    Pleasure is not possible without pain, and therefore God creates suffering.

  7. Alice C. Linsley Avatar

    David B. Hart’s writing is indeed inspiring. His description of the Ethiopian girl surrounded by squalor is very touching. I’ve learned something from everything I’ve read by this critical Orthodox thinker and excellent writer. Thanks for calling this to our attention, Father.

  8. Hartmut Avatar

    I can’t open this link. can’t even get the start page of religion-online. Is this only my (or my pc’s) problem?

  9. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you for posting this interview.

  10. Andrew Avatar

    Not seeing time in a straight line would solve the problem (although in an unsatisfactory way!) only if man could get created ex nihilo in the first place. But we are the result of natural selection, death and pain are literally in our genes. So, while someone like Saint Maximus the Confessor could say that the Universe could have been created the way we see it today from the beginning, because God foreknew Adam’s sin, we can’t say that now, because we know that Adam wouldn’t exist in the first place in an “unfallen” Universe.

    And to say that Satan distorted God’s good creation, how’s that not making Satan the creator of mankind and the rest of the Universe? Because if mankind exists because death and pain exist, and this mankind we see and touch wouldn’t have existed if things were any differently, then isn’t the author of pain and death also the creator of mankind?

    In the end, all these explanations devalue our world greatly. This is not God’s authentic creation, but God is a real failure for creating something that went wrong from the beginning, and that will only get restored at the eschata, and in the mean time all of humanity happens to live in a flawed world that is not God’s authentic creation…

  11. fatherstephen Avatar

    Andrew, have you not read the interview? It would answer some of your questions, and more so if you were to read the book by David Hart.

  12. fatherstephen Avatar


    Orthodox Christianity is not American fundamentalism. Though we believe that God sustains the universe, it, too, is free. But it is an act of love that sustains it in its freedom, even if its freedom is sometimes destructive. God has created and sustained a universe in freedom through love that it might finally enter into a true union of love and freedom.

    The fundamentalist problems brought about by a too literal reading of the early Chapters of Genesis is not the theology of the Church fathers. What we live in is true God’s authentic creation, just as you and I are authentically creations of God and He sustains you and me, even when we do evil. Doing evil moves me away from the authenticity of my being, but God continues to sustain me in existence and loving me towards union with Him.

  13. Andrew Avatar

    Dear father Stephen

    From Gregory Sinatiticus’ Adam had no fluids, to John Chrysostom’s Adam had no sexual desire, to Saint Basil’s roses had no thorns, creation was very different than what we now see. Orthodox theology values man greatly, but the man Orthodox theology values is not the average man we see around us, but an imaginary man living in an imaginary world that was as flawless as our pious imagination could picture it.

    Perhaps I shouldn’t have expressed my reservation. Of course I read the interview, and of course I am aware of the theology of the church fathers. The parallel with Young Earth Creationists was drawn because some Orthodox think that to say it all happened in a world we cannot access through scientific methods is an explanation to the problem of evil. The traditional view does not stand judged against modern data, so some feel we have to bypass this problem by saying the data we have are what they are because we live this side of the Fall, and that we can’t access the world that existed before the Fall for whatever reasons.

    Anyway, perhaps I said too much.

  14. fatherstephen Avatar

    I think David Hart takes a more contemporary and helpful view. Many Orthodox have also been influenced by modern Protestant Fundamentalism and offer an impossible account. Hart is much better. And the Fathers are not infallible in an Orthodox view.

  15. Mark Krause Avatar

    We do not know that the world was created as we see it today. We might know that if we knew that the countless physical and metaphysical presuppositions of modern science were true…but we certainly do not know that.

    Just because modern science has given us a lot of cool stuff does not mean that it actually tells us true things about the nature of reality. Usefulness does not actually have a one-to-one correspondence with truthfullness. Modern science is not so different than pre-modern science. Phenomena are observed and someone tells a story to explain it. This is mythmaking. It’s the same thing the ancients did. It’s the same thing Plato did. The main differences are that the new myths operate under an assumption of naturalism, they are increasingly complex, and the obervation and cataloging of the phenomena is a lot more rigorous.

    Basically, my point comes down to noting the basic point that there are no facts that are not heavily theory laden. What one has to do to really adjudicate between all these systems of thought is to treat them as such and ask which has the most explanatory power. It really all comes down to abductive arguments in the end.

    Modern science has some pretty good explanations for various things. The problem is that we have to treat reality as a whole. The basic story presented by modern science is inherently naturalistic and empiracle and thus is inadequate in explaining existence in various ways. One is that naturalistic empiracism provides no grounding for basic morality. One cannot derive the ought from the is. To get an ought, we need teleology. Another, problem is that Hume has showed us that given empiracism we have no grounding for nondeductive reasoning. Needless to say, this is means that modern science can’t get off the ground. If we can’t even assume that the past will be like the future, than we have to throw modern science out the window.

    Thus, not only is the paradigm of modern science inadequate to explain the existence of basic morality, the phenomenon of conciousness, and various other things that appear a lot more certain to me than any of the deliverances of modern science, but this paradigm is ultimately self-defeating given how empiracism works itself out in Hume.

    You need to try to look beyond the prejudices of your culture to think about things rationally. You have to try to critically assess the foundations of your own paradigm. Most importantly, it looks as if you need a little bit of humility about your position. People who throw around the narrative of Chuck Darwin like it’s some unquestionable set of absolute truths are just sticking their heads in the intellectual sand.

    This is not to say that Orthodoxy is even right. That’s a hard thing to argue. I think that it’s the best explanation of the facts as I can see them. However, I’m not perfect, I can’t see things perfectly objectively, there’s no telling how deep my level of self-deception is, and I definately don’t have all the answers. But all you can do is the best you can.

  16. Andrew Avatar


    Well, we do have data, don’t we? When we discover the fossils of dinosaurs that date back way before mankind saw the face of the earth, and we discover inside those dinosaurs other animals that they ate, this means that death existed before man. And if we judge that against the traditional Orthodox understanding that death entered the world with Adam’s sin, then we cannot but see that the ancient understanding of our world misses the mark.

    We also have astronomical data that show that the same laws govern the Universe throughout its history… Which means that the Universe did not change dramatically with the Fall of the first couple.

    To hold the traditional understanding one needs to put into doubt what modern science says, and while a hard core of religious people might be willing to do that, I don’t think the majority of people are. At least, I am not.

    Moreover, at an epistemological level, there is a distinction between an explanation and an interpretation of that explanation. For example, quantum mechanics might be an explanation of how the Universe works, but there exist various interpretations of quantum mechanics. So, if Orthodoxy has something to offer, and I believe she has a lot to offer, that would be on the level of interpretation. I think the co-operation between modern physics and theology is possible, and I am aware of efforts towards that direction. But here we are arguing whether death was caused after the first human couple did something or this was always the way things were!

    Father Stephen

    I don’t know about the book, and the argument he makes to explain the existence of evil can’t be so hard for those that have read the book to share with us here, but in the interview I see a rejection of this world… He even says that the real world is something else, and that this world that we see, with its pain and suffering is fiction!

    What greater rejection of our world can there be than that? The real world is inaccessible to the vast majority of humans, and we are “condemned” to live in a fictional world between the true / real beginning and the true / real end!

  17. claire Avatar

    I think that Andrew has a really good point about the issue of data. I have wondered about this for a long time, and think about it often.

    This is how I have handled it over the years, and it works for me, though it leaves a lot of my questions unanswered: rather than starting with the idea of the fall and making that the foundation, I make Jesus the foundation and reason backward from Him. I think that there is good historical evidence for His life, death, resurrection, etc., so since He is real, there must be truth–metaphorical? literal?–in the account of the fall/the meaning of the fall. But I don’t have to know all the details in order to follow Jesus.

    Here’s something I ponder frequently, and I would truly love to hear what anyone would have to say about this: What kind of data *would* corroborate the ancient account of death/evil having entered the world (universe?) along with some kind of sin on the part of the earliest humans?


  18. claire Avatar

    P.S. Maybe fossilized angel wings?
    (just kidding…!)

  19. Margaret Avatar

    I like Claire’s question, what kind of data would corroborate this?

    And concerning data, we’ve learned an awful lot relatively lately, haven’t we? So does that make us so much “smarter” or does it even make us better informed? What about the data we don’t know about yet?

    As I said in another comment a couple of days ago. I am really not spiritually mature enough to enjoy alot of this discourse, so I routinely pray “Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy on me, a sinner” — something I should be doing anyway! Thereafter I usually find my heart filled with other, more immediate things.

  20. Victor Chiasson Avatar


    What I’ve found interesting in my own struggle with this is that the Genesis account does not say that animals were deathless before the fall. Nor even that humans were deathless. My sense is that Genesis narrates what happened with those who were the first choosers, not much of what came before them. That the fall brought death upon all of Adam’s line is clear, both from scripture and the empirical facts since then. Whether Adam might not have died at all had he refused the fruit, whether all of creation might have begun to behave differently in response to a right choosing at that time – these are the things I wonder about. Creation was, in some sense, incomplete and Adam was supposed to bring it to fruition. When we look at Christ as the fulfillment of Adam’s original vocation we see data surrounding Him that corresponds to this. His calming the waves on the sea, His crucifixion bringing forth many holy ones from the tombs to appear to the people in Jerusalem, the many incorrupt relics of saints etc. These are the data of the resurrection and they witness to us of the way things were meant to be in Adam and how they are and will ever be in Christ, the new Adam.

  21. claire Avatar


    You wrote, “Nor even that humans were deathless. My sense is that Genesis narrates what happened with those who were the first choosers, not much of what came before them.” I’m trying to understand this–so are you saying that there were humans, unfallen, before A. & E., or whomever A. and E. represent?

    Thank you,

  22. Mark Krause Avatar

    I think you’ve largely missed the point. First of all, we don’t know that dinosaurs existed before man. We also do not have astronomocial data that SHOW that the same laws have always governed the universe.

    What we have are a lot of pieces of data gathered and interpreted under a methodology that presupposes a lot of questionable things such as the denial of the metaphysical and the corresponding claim that the metaphysical can have no effect on the physical. Basically, modern science looks a small portion of data and interprets it according to rules in keeping with their committment about what kind of data counts as data.

    The difference is not between explanations and interpretations, the difference is between data and interpretations. Explanations are just a species of interpretation. Now, certainly there can be further interpretations of the interprations of the data, but they’re not a fundamentally different kind of thing than the explanations.

    Yeah, I would be willing to doubt much of the deliverances of modern science. Especially since the methodology of modern science is self-defeating. Anyone who has read Hume’s “Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding” should be able to see this. You can’t ground induction if you are an empiracist. If you can’t ground induction, you can’t do modern science. Considering Modern science presupposes empiracism, than it is self-defeating.

    The paradigm of modern science systematically denies the metaphysical. Thus, it can’t ground things like basic morality, aesthetics, personal identity, etc. This is, in my opinion, a devastating blow to a paradigm. I’m a lot more certain that rape is wrong than I am of any of the deliverances of modern science.

    We don’t know that the data supports your conclusions. Perhaps we do if we assume a naturalistic, empiracal methodology…but why the hell would we want to do a thing like that? Science can’t tell us how the metaphysical realm might affect the phsyical realm. Thus, we don’t know what the heck all this data actually means under the paradigm of modern science if the metaphysical realm acutally exists and can affect the physical.

    Think about the lungs of a smoker. If you didn’t know about smoking, or that smoking can affect lungs, you might think that this was just how lungs worked and that the smokers’ lungs had always worked like this and had been deteriorating at this rate her whole life.

    The only way that modern science avoids these considerations is that it buries its head in the intellectual sand. Modern science doesn’t realize that modernity is dead, and has been for quite some time. It ignores the problem of induction. It blindly asserts that there is some way to derive the ought from the is to ground morality. This is naive.

    As I said before: You need to be able to step back from your paradigm and consider whether its foundations are sound. Sure data gathered and interpreted under the rules of your framework yeilds stories in keeping with your paradigm. But I implore you to consider whether your paradigm itself is right. Does it best fit what we know? Because I sure as heck feel like I know a lot of metaphysyical truths that are more certain to me than the deliverances of my five senses or modern science. I think most would agree with me.

  23. William Avatar


    I think you hit upon a very key element in this argument, one that is largely overlooked when people discuss these things. It seems that Fr. John Behr, who is himself very influenced by St. Irenaeus, makes similar suggestions in his book, “The Mystery of Christ.” I can’t quote Behr right now to compare or contrast his thoughts with what you said because I don’t have the book handy. But thank you.

  24. Victor Chiasson Avatar


    Thanks for your question. Sorry, I realize I was unclear in my statement. While Adam and Eve were the first humans, I believe it likely that they had ancestors who lived and died. It seems to me that our First Parents, Adam and Eve were then given the possibility of not dying, had they been obedient and faithful with the work given them.


  25. claire Avatar


    If Adam and Eve were the first humans, who were their ancestors? Or are you saying that they evolved from non-human creatures?


  26. Victor Chiasson Avatar

    Exactly, evolution from non-human. Made human by God breathing humanity into them.

  27. claire Avatar

    So are you saying that it was something like this?:

    single-celled organisms
    all subject to death a sequence of intermediate creatures
    non-human primates

    had the possibility humans
    of not dying, but
    blew it

  28. claire Avatar

    Woops, that got messed up in the transmission. It was a kind of chart. I’ll rework it:

    Category 1–all subject to death
    a. single-celled organisms
    b. a bunch of intermediate creatures
    c. non-human primates

    Category 2–had the possibility of not dying, but blew it
    a. humans

    Category 3
    a. descendents of humans in Category 2 (all subject to death)

  29. Victor Chiasson Avatar

    That about sums it up.

  30. Mark Krause Avatar

    That seems pretty heterodox to me. I don’t see why a Christian would think such a thing. Why accept darwinism? Is there any evidence for your position in Scripture or the Fathers?

  31. Victor Chiasson Avatar


    It was common in the early Fathers to use the science of the day without being overly wedded to it. It is the same today. There are various opinions within the Church on the question of evolution.
    What in particular about my view strikes you as heterodox? Also, we might consider moving this discussion ‘off-line’ as it’s getting a bit far afield from the original blog posting. Not sure how Fr. Stephen prefers to moderate such things…


  32. Handmaid Anna Avatar
    Handmaid Anna

    I may be completely off base here but, didn’t the early fathers hash all this out long ago with the beginning of the Nicene Creed. I believe in one God, the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible.

  33. fatherstephen Avatar

    Good point Anna.

    Actually most of the discussion is off-base. There are a variety of views on the science question. But getting tied in knots trying to reconcile Genesis and present science is simply not an Orthodox problem. It comes from a purely historical reading from most Western protestants. Genesis is about Christ for us as Christians and reveals Christ to us. To ask it questions about evolution, etc., is simply asking the wrong questions.

  34. neochalcedonian Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    I do not see in what respect this discussion is “off-base” for it touches directly upon the substance of the referenced article. It concerns the relation of the claims of contemporary science & Orthodox dogma. The latter’s claim that God is the creator of everything and that death-evil (the corruption of the original created order) is the product of human free choice contradicts the scientific consensus that (contra Hart) death, evil & suffering *are* “part of the necessary fabric of God’s world” for the laws governing the cosmos before & after humanity’s emergence are identical rather than radically dissimilar as was thought in the past.

  35. fatherstephen Avatar

    Off base, was a poor choice of words – rather that we’d gone a bit afield – or rather I would like to lay down more of a basis for the discussion. It gets down various rabbit trails otherwise. Just a moderators input.

  36. neochalcedonian Avatar

    Either it is possible to deepen our understanding of divine-human relations such that it’s compatible with the modern idea that the laws governing the motions of creation have been consistent its history from its beginning to the present or it is not. In the former case, death could be understood as humanity’s loss & inability to use the divine power that would have allowed it to rise above itself and acquire dominion over the rest of created reality. Non-human creatures’ losses and gains in matter-energy before & after humanity’s fall from grace remained uniform, but human persons’ relationship to & experience of God, each other & the rest of creation fell short of what God has purposed for them.

  37. neochalcedonian Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Would you agree that the greatest temptation of theology is turn God into a really big creature or static intellectual conception rather than the uncreated supersensible, extra-rational reality experienced by the soul that has been given the eyes to see Him? It is possible (especially in this age) to attribute all life-events strictly to the self-sufficiency of nature rather than the providence of God as any claim to supernatural causation is by definition ambiguous, indefinable and subject to rational doubt, but I think that this approach taken to its end demonstrably leads one into a nihilistic subjectivism.

  38. Peter Avatar

    “Why do bad things happen?”

    Where was God in the tsunami? I don’t know. Why did the tectonic plates shift when they did? Well too much strain built up and the stress relieved itself resulting iin finally a tsunami. And killing over 200,000 men, women, and children. But this is not a satisfying answer. Where was God during the outbreaks of the bubonic plagues or any outbreak of infectious diseases? Or is God when the doctor tells a patient that he or she has cancer? I still don’t know. Where was God when the levees failed in New Oeleans? Why didn’t He stear the hurricane in another direction? I could go on and on with these questions. I doubt that there is really an intellectually and emotionally satisfying answer. But I hope and pray that He was there someplace, somehow. And yet tis is still not a satisfying answer.

    What sort of universe is this? God created this? Well I do believe that HE did create the universe; the physical and the spitritual. But the Bible is not a science text.

    It is very human to look for answers, to look for explanations. He who created the universe created our minds. We are very curious creatures. But there are limits to seeking answers. Now I am not saying that we stop all inquiry, but maybe we need just to stand before God and with humility and honesty and say,” I don’t understand.” And while we are totally in the dark we can be alleviating what suffering we can.

    Just my 2 cents.

  39. Carl Avatar

    I don’t see why dinosaurs being subject to death 65 million years ago cannot be caused by the choices of Adam and Eve millions of years later. Causality does not always work from earlier event to later event. As in the case of the Cross, the later event can cause earlier ones.

  40. William Avatar

    Amen, Carl

  41. fatherstephen Avatar

    Do read the new article. Your observations on causality are right on the money.

  42. Karen C Avatar
    Karen C

    Dear Father, I have just about finished reading Dr. Hart’s book, “Where Was God When the Tsumani Hit.” He articulates so very well (and I needed to read with a dictionary at hand–the man’s vocabulary far surpasses mine) my own intuitive convictions about and frustrations with the inadequacies of so much of what is said about suffering and evil in the name of biblical faith. So much of what I have heard and read from various “Christian” traditions essentially blasphemes the God revealed in Jesus Christ. (I want to make it clear here, though, when I put the word “Christian” in quotes I am calling into question *traditions* of biblical interpretation, not trying to make a comment on the relationship of those who hold them to the true God. I have no doubt that many who articulate sub-biblical theologies are in reality *in the totality of their lives* likely more rightly related to God than am I!) Thank you for tipping us off to his work. Everything you said about the man as a careful theologian was justified in my reading of him. Here is one more very worthy example (his argument in this context about what the NT gospel really is and means) of why I became an Orthodox Christian.

  43. Randy Avatar

    Christ is risen!

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