More on the "Justice" of God

refusing confession by RepinI will add an additional thought (related to the previous article) on the future “justice” of God. There are many who imagine theologically that at some later point, a final judgment, God’s justice will be manifest. In this manifestation of justice, the punishments of hell figure prominently. Of course, this is simply poor theology. Eternity in hell is not a matter of justice nor can it ever be. Justice involves equality. For what failure or crime is eternity in hell an equal payment? And, of course, such justice is unsatisfactory at best. There is nothing that can be done to the murderer of a child that in any way creates a balance. Nothing satisfies. This is the point of Ivan in the chapter “Rebellion” in the Brothers Karamazov. This chapter is a tour de force demonstrating not the bankruptcy of belief in God, but the bankruptcy of the concept of justice interjected into the theological mix.

I belong to a family that has lost two members by murder. I am familiar with the grief and anger that accompany those experiences. I have also, for a time, been involved in “victim’s rights” ministry and been deeply aware of the pain of those involved and the hunger for justice that often accompanies grief. It is certainly the case that no punishment inflicted by the state ever satisfies this hunger for “justice.” I know, I have been there.

The truth is that this hunger for “justice,” is, in fact, a hunger for the event never to have happened. The injustice is not created by the lack of punishment (for there are no truly “just” punishments). The injustice is created by the event itself – an event in which an innocent is made to suffer for no reason whatsoever. That innocence is not restored by any amount of punishment inflicted on the perpetrator. Hell is not a scheme of justice anymore than the American prison system is a scheme for justice. Any thought that either of them have anything to do with justice is a fiction and a dangerous fiction.

These deep wounds inflicted on us by the evil wills of others can only be healed by mercy and forgiveness. Such mercy and forgiveness is nothing less than miraculous and does not come easily or naturally to us. It is something which belongs to the character of God, and only by being transformed by the grace of God can we become people who are capable of such extraordinary love and mercy. 

I have seen such love and mercy. It is astounding and utterly without justification. To show mercy upon a murderer or someone who is guilty of inflicting deep injustice is an act of pure grace. It is a gift whose existence can only be explained by the love of God. It is the voice of Christ to the thief on the cross, “This day you will be with me in paradise.”

I wonder what the thoughts of those who had been the victims of this thief would have been had they heard the words of Christ? Would they have shouted that an injustice was being done? Would they have said that his death on the cross was insufficient punishment for all that he had put them through and that paradise was an unjust reward for the simple request, “Remember me  when you come into your kingdom?”

Of course, the victims have justice (as we humans understand it) on their side. Justice has a voracious appetite that can never be satisfied. For no matter how much the thief were to suffer, the crimes he committed would not be undone. The money would not be replaced. The fear and shame inflicted on the innocent would not be undone. Once the passion for justice is awakened it is insatiable.

There are many stories of political madness that have at their core the lust for justice. The insanity of the Bolsheviks was, in many ways, fed by the perversions of the human lust for justice. The crimes (real and imagined) of the Tsar and of those who held power in pre-revolutionary Russia, fed the imagination of those who were “setting things right.” There was no humiliation or crime that they themselves were forbidden to inflict in the name of a Marxist version of justice. By the time of Stalin this “justice” had murdered many more millions than had ever suffered in the entire history of Russia. Such is the insatiable appetite for justice.

On smaller scales, this same appetite has accompanied every revolution in the history of the world. Those who come to power feel compelled to administer justice. But no amount of blood-letting is ever truly sufficient. 

The one revolution that stands apart is the revolution of the love of God who answered injustice with mercy, who answered hatred with love. Love does no harm and does not add to the madness of the scales of justice. It relieves the burdens created by our own sense of entitlement that we call “justice.” 

The commandment to “love your enemies,” is frequently a painful commandment – for it asks us to forego our perceived rights. We renounce our claims to justice and give ourselves over to the hands of a merciful God. It is an act of faith which accepts that unless we become conformed to the image of Christ – unless we can love as He loves – we will never be free of the madness and the self-made hell that our lust for justice births in us. The Cross is the only form of freedom. Nothing less than its radical mercy will heal the human heart.

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a retired Archpriest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present: Christianity in a One-Storey Universe, and Face to Face: Knowing God Beyond Our Shame, as well as the Glory to God podcast series on Ancient Faith Radio.






134 responses to “More on the "Justice" of God”

  1. Sam Avatar

    You state that the idea of God’s justice is bad theology. But I believe the justice of God is interwoven in the very fabric of scripture, and without it, mercy becomes meaningless. Allow me to explain.

    1. First, you say no crime deserves an eternity in hell. I would disagree. The magnitude of a crime increases with the position and dignity of the one offended. God is infinitely high, and any offenses against him must be met with infinite justice.

    2. Theologically speaking, mercy means nothing without justice. It means nothing for Christ to show mercy to the thief on the cross if the thief did not deserve to be there. In fact, it was the thief’s acknowledgment of the justice of his punishment that led Jesus to show mercy. The other thief, who continued to mock Christ, received no mercy. The whole idea of mercy is undeserved kindness. Mercy is never deserved. Therefore, what is deserved must be justice. Justice must exist for there to be mercy.

    3. I don’t know if you believe in providing scriptural support for your arguments, but I will provide one verse that supports the idea of God’s justice. There are many.

    St. Paul says, “For after all it is only just for God to repay with affliction those who afflict you..” (2 Thess. 1:6).

    That sounds like remunerative justice to me.

    The point is, there are many, many such scriptures that explicitly say that God rewards men according to their deeds. But when men look to Him in faith, he is ready and willing to pardon and show mercy. The penalty was not erased, though– someone still paid, namely Jesus Christ. You would have to do a lot of interpretive gymnastics to read Romans and not see that the world is condemned under God’s justice, yet Christ paid the penalty so that God might be “just” and yet the “justifier” of the guilty.

    In short, it’s fine and good to say that God has no justice, but what you are in essence doing is removing any and all power from mercy in doing so. Mercy means absolutely nothing without justice in the picture. Second, if the Bible means anything, the idea of God’s justice is inescapable. It is not just a figment of the “Western” imagination. I digress.

  2. coffeezombie Avatar

    “Theologically speaking, mercy means nothing without justice. It means nothing for Christ to show mercy to the thief on the cross if the thief did not deserve to be there. In fact, it was the thief’s acknowledgment of the justice of his punishment that led Jesus to show mercy. The other thief, who continued to mock Christ, received no mercy. The whole idea of mercy is undeserved kindness. Mercy is never deserved. Therefore, what is deserved must be justice. Justice must exist for there to be mercy.”

    This is not, as I understand, how we view mercy. Here is what Fr. Thomas Hopko says about mercy (specifically talking about the prayer, “Lord, have mercy”) in his book The Lenten Spring (please forgive the length),

    While it is true that all people have sinned and require the forgiveness of God, the prayer “Lord, have mercy” is hardly a simple plea for pardon and acquittal. It is much more than that. In its literal meaning, it is not even that at all. The very fact that the Church sings “Lord, have mercy” as a response to all of her prayers and petitions, including those for peace, health, and good weather, as well as those of praise and thanksgiving, should demonstrate this quite clearly. The fact that the Church continues to sing, “Lord, have mercy” on the most joyous and gracious accasions, like after Holy Communion and on Easter night, should also tell us something about this prayer.

    It is the word “mercy” that leads to a wrong understanding of the Kyrie eleison. We tend today to think of mercy almost exclusively in terms of justice. The opposite of being justly judged and therefore condemned, is to receive mercy. So the “Lord, have mercy” gets interpreted as “Lord, grant us pardon!” Or, “Lord, let us off!” In the scriptures and tradition, however, mercy is not primarily the antonym of justice. It is rather a word for goodness, kindness, generosity and love. St. John the Merciful, for example, was not a just judge who showed mercy on criminals. He was a bishop who distinguished himself as a helper and servant of the poor, the lowly, the needy and the afflicted. The same man is sometimes called St. John the Almsgiver.

    The word “mercy” in the English translation of Kyrie eleison is from the Greek word eleos, which is most often, it is true, translated as mercy. This word, however, comes from the Hebrew word hesed which may be translated into English in many different ways. Some Bibles say mercy. Others say steadfast love. Still others say tenderness or loving-kindness, or simply love. The word also bears the connotation of graciousness, generosity, bounty and compassion. In the prayer itself, of course, the original word is a verb and not a noun. So it way as well be translated as “Lord, be merciful, gracious, kind, generous, compassionate, bountiful, loving.” According to His self-revelation, God is all of these things, whether we pray to Him or not. So when we pray, “Lord, have mercy,” we are simply saying to God: Lord, be to us as You are! Lord, act toward us as You do! Lord, we want You to be with us and to do with us as You Yourself are and actually do!

  3. Brantley Thomas Avatar
    Brantley Thomas


    Your post, while well-formed and no doubt theologically and scripturally consistent, seems to me to be wrong. I have tried to form several replies to your post, only to start over each time.

    The core issue with your comments are that it seems to perceive God as a puppet-master who seems to measure up the deeds of men against Himself and against other men. Those who don’t measure up get punished. In fact, none of us measure up and therefore he had to kill Himself in order to somehow balance the scales, because they (apparently) need to be balanced.

    God has no “need” of anything. God does not “need” mankind. If He needed anything, He would not be God.

    By His death, He took the curse upon himself in order to nullify it. This was done as an act of love, to allow His children a path back to the state that He originally intended for them. It was not an act of justice.

    You might read “River of Fire”. There’s a link on the right-hand side of Fr. Stephen’s blog. It can be a challenging read, be forewarned.

    Forgive me if I offend or have taken your thoughts out of context.

  4. mary Avatar

    thank-you fr. stephen.being a victim of a crime myself,i have always kept it buried.but your blog brought it to the surface,i believe to make me deal with it. but i must say the forgiveness is going to be a long and painful road for me. i’m a new convert in the orthodox friends were right it is not an easy faith.but every step is worth it. mary

  5. katia Avatar

    Father bless,

    What do you think?

    St John Chrysostom: Since man had shown great disobedience, God cast him forth from his life in paradise. God curbed man’s spirit for the future, so that he might not leap farther away. He condemned him to a life of toil and labor, speaking to him in some such fashion as this: “The ease and security that were yours in abundance led you to this great disobedience. They made you forget my commandments. You had nothing to do. That led you to think thoughts too haughty for your own nature…. Therefore, I condemn you to toil and labor, so that while tilling the earth, you may never forget your disobedience and the vileness of your nature.

    So, that was the punishment of the first sin in the beginning, and i wonder
    what is going to be in the end? OR there would not be any punishment for our trespasses of the Law of God?
    We will have the mercy of God,only if we weep daily for our sins and pray for mercy and then, we can only hope ,but if we do not, and do the demons work, we will be ‘cast out from the wedding’.

  6. katia Avatar

    Brantley Thomas,

    “By punishing us with death, the lawgiver cut off the spread of sin. And yet through that very punishment he also demonstrated his love for us. He bound sin and death together when he gave the law, placing the sinner under punishment of death. And yet he ordered things in such a way that the punishment might in itself serve the goal of salvation. For death brings about separation from this life and brings evil works to an end. It sets us free from labor, sweat and pain, and ends the suffering of the body. Thus the Judge mixes his love for us with punishment.”

    St. Theodoret of Cyr

  7. Brantley Thomas Avatar
    Brantley Thomas


    Can you tell me more about Theodoret of Cyr? I can’t find his feast day on any orthodox calendar. Weren’t some of his writings condemned at the fifth ecumenical council?

    I do see him venerated by the Roman Catholic Church, but not by any Orthodox church. I haven’t searched very long though.

  8. katia Avatar

    Brantley Thomas,

    Saint Theodoret, known as Theodoret of Cyrus or Cyrrhus, (c. 393 – c. 457) was an influential author, theologian, and Christian bishop of Cyrrhus, Syria (423-457). He played a pivotal role in many early Byzantine church controversies that led to various ecumenical acts and schisms.

  9. Lucian Avatar

    Fiat justitia periat mundum. Amen. +

  10. Brantley Thomas Avatar
    Brantley Thomas


    If such was your intent, it is not clear to me that the quote of a single person necessarily refutes what I’d posted (nor does it bolster the claims of the original poster, Sam). In any case, in the quote which you have posted, the word “punishment” could easily be seen as a metaphor, which (according my admittedly limited understanding) was the usual intent of juridical terms in the writings of the Eastern Fathers.

    The human concept of “punishment” and its corollary, “justice”, simply do not seem to square with the message “God so loved the world….”.

    Again, just my $0.02. And just so I have less to take to confession, this will be my last comment on the subject. 🙂

  11. fatherstephen Avatar


    There is always an interpretive framework required into which Scripture is read. The model of the atonement suggested by your reading of justice is not found in the fathers until in the West nearly a thousand years after the founding of the Church. The notion of retributive justice that you espouse is foreign to the Eastern Fathers. I disagree that “justice” is required for mercy to have meaning. When I show mercy on an injured man and bind up his wounds, am I overcoming justice? Sin is the great wound of mankind, healed in Christ by his mercy. You do not need an abstract theory of justice in order to give an account of mercy.

    I understand the argument but disagree.

  12. Karen Avatar

    Katia and Brantley,

    It seems to me in Katia’s quote “punishment” is more correctly understood as corrective chastisement (as spoken of in Hebrews 12). Katia, do you live in the west and have your roots been in western Christianity? I’m trying to figure out if you understand the popular western conceptions of the biblical teachings of hell and judgment which Fr. Stephen is trying to clarify? Obviously, hell and judgment are also Orthodox beliefs, but Orthodox beliefs about them are quite different in certain important respects than typical western ones (esp. evangalical, which is my background). Hope this is helpful.

  13. fatherstephen Avatar


    You have to read more largely in St. John Chrysostom to see how the language of “God cast him forth” is understood. I don’t have the passages close at hand, but it is a consensus in the Fathers that there is no retributive punishment in God. Whatever “punishment” we may receive is only for our healing and preservation. “God takes no delight in the death of a sinner.” This is the Orthodox faith.

  14. fatherstephen Avatar


    I’m sorry, but the Latin sentence is perverse. God would never say such a thing and a Christian who says it should repent. This love of justice is a sickness that has produced untold suffering at the hands of sinful men. I wonder why it is that it is only when I post an article that questions the West’s take on justice it stirs up such a commotion, while a similar commotion never seems to accompany a concern for mercy. I know that liberals destroy certain forms of justice, but they are from the same Western mold and create other, equally harsh versions of justice. They just want to roast a different set of sinners. I think the Orthodox stand alone in the world in their witness to the truth of God’s mercy. May God help us to practice what we teach.

  15. Sam Avatar

    Father Stephen,
    “When I show mercy on an injured man and bind up his wounds, am I overcoming justice?”

    Here’s where we get to the crux of the matter. Where we differ is in our definitions. You define sin as a sickness, I define sin as a crime. Hence our different definitions of justice.

    Yet, if this were the case, why would God use legal terms to describe sin? Why would there need to be a law? St. Paul makes it clear that the law was instituted by God to reveal our sinfulness, as the law on earth reveals criminal activity. I could go deeper into why I believe sin is not simply a sickness, but criminal, but I will leave it alone. I believe you know where I’m coming from.

    You’re right, we do have different frameworks of interpretation. I read the Bible as something that can be understood by the individual, albeit through careful study. You read it as something that must be understood only through the lens of church dogma. There we will always differ. And, yes, I am a “western” Christian, but geography makes little difference in matters of truth. If we are to mean anything when we speak, we must deal in propositions–statements of fact that must be supported. That’s why I think it’s important to point out our different definitions of sin.

  16. fatherstephen Avatar


    You are reading “legal” into the Scripture. The OT Law is not a “legal” matter in the sense that you mean it. It disfigures Scripture. I understand the Protestant thought about the individual’s ability to interpret, but how does that protect you from the blindness of your own culture and the doctrinal bias built into your protestantism. How can you read the Scriptures and come to a different reading than the Fathers to whom the Church was entrusted, who gave us the canon of Scripture, the Creed, and all of the authoritative doctrines of the faith, who brought the known world into the faith, and shed their blood century after century? I am not a Roman Catholic and I understand the protestant arguments against of the Reformation. But these arguments do not hold true when seen in the light of the Orthodox Church and faith.

    Read Scripture. But read some history as well. Protestantism is a modern invention, not something given to us by God. I understand where we disagree, I just do not see where an individual thinks they have received the authority which God has given to the Church (according to Scripture!).

    You are correct in our different definitions. But the legal definition requires ideas that are not Biblical (when read in their own time and context) but are rather developments from the Greco-Roman-Frankish period postdating Scripture by hundreds of years. It’s like putting a business suit on Jesus.

    By the way, how can a legal definition of OT law give account for Psalm 19:

    7 The law of the Lord is perfect, converting the soul;
    The testimony of the Lord is sure, making wise the simple;
    8 The statutes of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart;
    The commandment of the Lord is pure, enlightening the eyes;
    9 The fear of the Lord is clean, enduring forever;
    The judgments of the Lord are true and righteous altogether.
    10 More to be desired are they than gold,
    Yea, than much fine gold;
    Sweeter also than honey and the honeycomb.
    11 Moreover by them Your servant is warned,
    And in keeping them there is great reward.

  17. Adam Avatar


    With respect (for I agree with almost EVERYTHING you say), I am not sure I can agree with the statement that substitutionary views of the atonement are “not found in the fathers until in the West nearly a thousand years after the founding of the Church.” As an admittedly new convert, I do not see a rejection of a substitutionary view in the Fathers. For example:

    “But at the sixth hour the spotless Sacrifice, our Lord and Saviour, was offered up to the Father, and, ascending the cross for the salvation of the whole world, made atonement for the sins of mankind, and, despoiling principalities and powers, led them away openly; and all of us who were liable to death and bound by the debt of the handwriting that could not be paid, He freed, by taking it away out of the midst and affixing it to His cross for a trophy.” (St. John Cassian, Institutes, III.3)

    I have also noted similar statements in the writings of Athanasius, Chrysostom, St. Gregory of Nyssa, and many others. My primary concern is this…If we say that words like justice, debt, and wrath are metaphors, shouldn’t we say the same for words like love, peace, patience and charity? And at what point do we stop and say that even as words are symbols of realities, they are the best symbols we have to work with? I realize that God is not wrathful in the same way we experience a wrath that is tinged by the passions. It seems to me, though, that those are the best words we have to describe certain attributes about our Lord and that they have been used in manner throughout the whole history of the Orthodox faith that assume a substitutionary element to the atonement (though it is certainly not the only element).

    I remain open to correction on this, so please don’t assume I write in a spirit of debate or hostility. Your writings are a very great blessing to me, and I appreciate your Internet witness.

    In Christ,

  18. Don Bradley Avatar
    Don Bradley

    Let me pose the question more accurately that the Protestants ask:

    Could you please contrast your definition of justice with universalism…. or even St. Gregory of Nyssa’s apocatastasis?

    This may be worthy of its own article.

    silent daily reader

  19. fatherstephen Avatar


    Forgive me, but the example you gave does not contain a hint of substitutionary atonement. The habit of seeing it everywhere makes it appear where it is not. It is hard to undo these things.

    In the quote you give, of course atonement is present, but not substitutionary atonement. It is the conquering of death, the abolition of the handwriting against us, but not taking our place to accept a punishment. This substitutionary theory is not propounded in anything like the form we know it until Anselm around the year 1000.

    A good book on theories of the atonement and their history is Gustav Aulen’s (a Swedish Lutheran Scholar of great repute) Christus Victor.

    Gregory Nazianzus once put forward the suggestion of a payment to God and concluded that the very thought was repugnant and rejected it utterly. That’s how foreign the idea was to him (which is to say that it had no currency in the late 4th century). It also finds no place in the anaphora prayers of St. Basil or St. John where it would be natural if it had any acceptance.

    The Eastern fathers saw Christ’s atonement as “trampling down death, etc.” of delivering us from captivity, etc., and uses many images to say this, but they do not teach that the atonement in any way changed God (He cannot and does not change). The theory of a justice that must be paid, much less a justice which “God could not deny” is simply nowhere to be found in the first millennium.

    St. Anselm does not speak of a justice that is offended, but rather of God’s “honor” (he uses the feudal system of his century). But his theory is developed in the West and becomes the modern substitutionary atonement that plays such a large role in certain Protestant models. Read Kalomiros’ The River of Fire (it’s on my sidebar) article that I’ve referenced. It’s a very traditional Orthodox piece.

  20. fatherstephen Avatar


    Good to hear from you – hope all is well!

    Look at Kalomiros’ article and I’ll work on your suggestion.

  21. fatherstephen Avatar

    For interested Protestant readers – N.T. Wright’s latest work on St. Paul, I am told, is very supportive of the kind of treatment that you read in these articles. His God’s Plan and Paul’s Vision as well as A Fresh Look at St. Paul should be must-reads for modern Protestants (if you are interested in the meaning of the Biblical text).

  22. Athanasios Boeker Avatar
    Athanasios Boeker


    With all due respect, it is crystal clear that the Fathers of the Church taught a substitutionary aspect to Christ’s work of atonement, long before St. Augustine or Scholasticism. I will give just one example, and anyone of good will in this matter will have to agree it teaches Substitutution. Here it is:

    “We were enemies of God through sin, and God had appointed the sinner to die. There must therefore have happen one of two things; either that God, in His truth, should destroy all men, or that in His loving-kindness He should cancel the sentence. But behold the wisdom of God; He preserved both the truth of His sentence, and the exercise of His loving-kindness. Christ took our sins in His body on the tree, that we by His death might die to sin, and live unto righteousness.” (1 Peter 2:24)

    St. Cyril of Jerusalem {Catechetical Lectures: Lecture 13 no.33}

    Now if one wants to talk about what the Church Fathers taught on Atonement after the great schism of 1054 A.D., till the dawn of the 20th century, and if he wants to hold to the “God is nothing but Love” view, he will have to say that about all of the Fathers were in “Western Captivity.” This would be like saying the Church ceased to be able to teach the the True Faith from 1054 A.D. till the time of Khrapovitsky, Kalomiros and Romanides (the alleged liberators from “Western Captivity”) I do not think we want to go there.

    Athanasios Boeker

  23. Karl Edmond Avatar
    Karl Edmond

    Father, in light of what you have said about the justice of God and the justice system in the world it would seem that the orthodox church would take a stronger pacifist position akin to anabaptists but from what I understand this is not the case. Do you have any comments on this? Its something I have been curious about.

  24. Adam Avatar


    Thank you for your response and the book and article recommendations. I will re-read both when I have a chance. As I recall, upon initially reading them I saw both Christus Victor and Substitution in the early Church, if such a thing is possible. I’ve also read through a number of the quotes I’ve compiled on the subject to see if I’m somehow misguided. While you are giving consideration to Don’s question, would you also do me the very great favor of considering the following quote? Of all the quotes I’ve found, I believe this one by St. Cyril of Jerusalem could most be used to support a subsitutionary view. And, no, I do not intend to besiege you with quotes. This will be the last one:

    If Phinees, when he waxed zealous and slew the evil-doer, staved the wrath of God, shall not Jesus, who slew not another, but gave up Himself for a ransom, put away the wrath which is against mankind?…There must needs therefore have happened one of two things; either that God, in His truth, should destroy all men, or that in His loving-kindness He should cancel the sentence. But behold the wisdom of God; He preserved both the truth of His sentence, and the exercise of His loving-kindness. Christ took our sins in His body on the tree, that we by His death might die to sin, and live unto righteousness. (St. Cyril of Jerusalem, Catechetical Lectures, XIII)

    I truly don’t mean to belabor the point and I certainly don’t want to hijack your blog. This has become an issue that is a tremendous burden for me, though, for I seem to be at odds with so many Orthodox Christians on this issue. I want to remain humble and recognize that I may not have a clear view, but I just don’t know how to deal with phrases like “wrath which is against mankind,” “cancel the sentence,” and “took our sins in His body.”

    Again, I will re-read the book and the articles. I will not write again, as I don’t want to become a burden or roadblock to you or your readers. Thank you for your time, and may you have a safe and joyous trip to South Carolina!

    In Christ,

  25. Sam Avatar

    Amen to what Athanasios Boeker said. You say Western Christians view church history through the lens of our “modern” worldview, but it seems that the Orthodox can only interpret facts through your predetermined dogmas. Saying that no one wrote on the substitutionary atonement till 1100 a.d. doesn’t make it so. That’s a pretty difficult case to make, and would require ignoring or drastically re-interpreting (a dangerous thing to do) many of the church fathers. For those of you who would like to read a response to N.T. Wrights book “Justification”, I would encourage you to read “The Future of Justification” by John Piper.

    You encouraged me to read history. I have read many of the early church fathers (as early as 110 a.d.), Catholic writers, Orthodox writers, and Reformers. And I remain thoroughly protestant. To assume the being protestant is a result of lack of study is inaccurate.

    One more thought. You say that we are unable to interpret Scripture accurately due to our modern, western perspective. Therefore, we should read the early church fathers and let them interpret scripture for us. And who, may I ask, is to interpret the Fathers? If words are so dependent on context, how can I be sure I am reading the Fathers with their original intent? My life in 21st century life in America is quite different than the life of a monk in the first or second centuries. My point is, at some point, interpretation of someone is necessary. It’s just a matter of who we are interpreting. God has given us reason and understanding, and he expects us to use it. If I come to wrong conclusions, as many have, I will answer to God for it. But I believe the potential for misinterpretation is the lesser of two evils.

  26. Mrs. Mutton Avatar
    Mrs. Mutton

    Egad, what a collection of responses! If you worked in law enforcement, as I did a long time ago, you would see the inadequacies of the criminal justice system. Showing mercy doesn’t preclude restitution — I think it was Father Stephen himself who pointed that although Christ said to the thief, “This day shalt thou be with Me in paradise,” the thief still died on the cross, and had his legs broken to hasten his death. But an attitude of mercy and forgiveness allows us to move on with life, instead of staying stuck in the same dead-end place.

    I thank God every day for the breath of fresh air that Orthodoxy is.

  27. James Avatar

    With all due respect, what one sees as crystal clear is not always to all, krystal klear.

  28. Karen Avatar

    To all, check out the video of Bp. Kallistos Ware lecturing at Seattle Pacific U. that Fr. Stephen has at his site. It’s a great summary of Atonement theories from an Orthodox perspective, none of which I believe Fr. Stephen would disagree with. It shows in what sense Orthodox understand substitution. It’s long, but well worth the listen.

  29. fatherstephen Avatar

    I pray that I am not of bad will in this matter – but I do not read St. Cyril’s statement as a true substitutionary atonement doctrine. There is more than “he took our place.” Of course, Christ united himself to us and took on our humanity, and as the God/man He accomplished for humanity what we could not do for ourselves. I prefer to refer to this as participation rather than the later substitution with God punishing Him on our behalf. There certainly was a Western captivity to the church, though not at 1054 – anyone who has waded his way through Florovsky’s massive volumes on the history of Russian thought can clearly see the Western captivity (beginning slowly with Peter the Great) that began to break in places in the 19th century and more in the twentieth with the re-emergence of Hesychastic theology. That Romanides had to defend his dissertation in Athens against the charge that it disagreed with Aquinas seems a little bit like a captivity to me.

    I would simply contrast the theology found in the liturgical life of the Church with that of the Orthodox catechists and scholars under various yokes. There has been a 19th-20th century re-awakening within Orthodoxy that is simply undeniable.

    I think I’m comfortable with the positions I’ve described.

  30. fatherstephen Avatar

    Orthodox teaching holds that to take a human life is a sin (though differing in its seriousness depending on the circumstances) though how it deals with that sin in the economy of the Church varies much depending on the circumstances. But this is true of the Orthodox application of canon law across the board. Orthodoxy has a long tradition in which the death penalty has been seen as less than God’s will. St. Vladimir of Russia abolished it in his realm in 987. A barbarian. But the Orthodox Church is not strictly speaking a “pacifist Church” such as the anabaptists. We allow for self-defense and defense of one’s nation, even though such defense will involve you in sin. Such is the world we live in.

  31. fatherstephen Avatar

    You might see my response on Karl’s question about the quote. I think one of the ways that helped me in approaching the question, was to look first at larger contexts. I was a classics major and continued that education later. I was well aware of the cultural context and the wider pagan writings and ideas current to the NT. Certain ideas in the substitutionary atonement – as it comes to be stated – really don’t exist in that historical period. One of the questions is, “What does a word mean when it’s used at a certain place and time?”

    I would even gladly grant that someone among the fathers might use an illustration in the course of an argument that contains elements that, had they been developed could have become a substitionary theory. But the development does not occur. These “theories” do not become part of the prayer life and general understanding of the Church. The reason the development does not occur is because you have an isolated thought, not a formal teaching of the Church.

    Archimedes made a toy powered by steam, but it would be incorrect to say he invented the steam engine. The culture in which this event occurred was not a culture in which a steam engine would have been invented. There was no technological reason it could not have been. But it wasn’t.

    So what was the setting in which the substitutionary theory of the atonement becomes a full-blown theory and a dominant teaching? It occurs in the context of the feudal West where certain ideas drawing from Rome and Germanic culture merge. Anselm’s formal statement of the theory (in very feudalistic terms) seemed right. When the later arguments between Rome and Protestant arose, the arguments took the form of legal distinctions, indeed it was a virtual discussion among lawyers. It was the metaphor that had come to dominate in the West.

    In the early West (say in 5th century France) you begin to get some mention of “merit” which will come to play such a major role in the doctrine’s development in the West. Merit has never had a place in Orthodox thought (other than in some captivity). And it has no place now.

    But my own thought worked from a point I knew and moved forward to see how the thought evolved. I’ve worked on this and studied it for better than 30 years. It’s not recent. Indeed, I would have made (and did make) the same argument before I had ever read Kalomiros or Romanides, etc. I have an unpublished manuscript that dates back to 1985 (when I was an Anglican) that made this same point. I later read Orthodox theologians who made the point better.

    N.T. Wright (an Anglican) is making some of the same foundational points in his treatment of Paul. As an English Anglican bishop he’s a far cry from a reactionary Greek or revisionist Orthodox. I’m not a reactionary Greek, or revisionist Orthodox – but I think the historical case on this is simply clear (despite occasional anomalies).

    By the way to “take our sins in His body” is the language of koinonia or participation (which is very New Testament) but not at all substitutionary. He becomes what we are that we might become what He is. And so it is read in the Fathers.

  32. fatherstephen Avatar

    You read them and you pray as they prayed and you live the life (of faith) as they did (and do). It’s not just a matter of interpretation but a matter of a way of life. It is true, that being Orthodox in the modern world requires that we change many things in our lives. But that seems correct to me. Nonetheless, I’m glad you read. Keep doing it and praying and believing. Love God. I may disagree with you in this matter, but agree that Jesus is Lord. May He guard you and keep you.

  33. Mercy and Justice…

    Father Stephen Freeman wrote two fantastic interrelated posts today. Take a moment to read them both before reading my feeble thoughts on them.
    St. Isaac – Mercy and Justice
    More on the “Justice” of God
    I had read a fair amount of St. Isaac…

  34. Cody Avatar


    Thank you so much for this article. Your challenging words on justice in the past were a real catalyst for change in my life. So thank you so much, and keep up these articles even if they are often controversial.

    Regarding the controversial portion of this thread though I must say that I do not think the quote from Mr. Boeker from St. Cyril is dealing with substitution as I was taught it in protestant seminary. It seems to me to be no different than the teaching of St. Athanasios that the Orthodox faith has championed forever, namely, “God became man in order that man might become god.” St. Cyril, and maybe I am reading him improperly, seems to be saying that Christ in his incarnation fully indwells the whole of the human experience in such a way as to allow mankind to enjoy, by grace, the fullness of the divine life. Thereby he can say that he takes on our sin (collective mankind/humanity) in order that we can take on eternal life found in him. This does not hint at the appeasement of wrath or a human framework of justice, but simply and profoundly that Christ is risen from the dead trampling down death by death and upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

    But, perhaps this goes back to definitions and interpretational frameworks. We all have ’em.

  35. Adam Avatar

    Thank you for the explanation, Father. I will commence with the readings and prayers.

    Sam, if I could interject on a few points…

    “but it seems that the Orthodox can only interpret facts through your predetermined dogmas.”

    There is some truth to this, but I would add that one of the wonderful things about Orthodoxy is that we do not have a dogmatic view on every element of soteriology. We’re strongly dogmatic (as are the Ecumenical Councils and Fathers) on matters of the Trinity, ecclesiology, and the sacraments, but you will also find that there is a very wide and charitable swath that is extended on those matters that are deemed pious opinion.

    For example, Chrysostom and Augustine differed a great deal on matters of free will in salvation, but they recognized each other as brothers in the faith. Over the years the late Augustinian insistence on a lack of free will in salvation has been tested and sifted out, but the example still stands. This loving patience is common in Orthodoxy (or so I’ve experienced) and it is a much wider tent than I ever found in Confessional Lutheranism. In Reformation Era theology, the litmus test of faith is the degree to which one holds to certain axiomatic formulations of the faith. If you can’t make a quia confession of faith toward the Book of Concord, then you’re not a “true” Lutheran. Reject some things about the the Westminster Confession of Faith? You’re not truly reformed. In this light, what separates Protestantism from Orthodoxy is more a matter of what The Church is rather than how we individually understand SOME doctrines. On the dogmas we must agree, but we love and respect each other on those matters that the Church has left to pious opinion.

    Personally speaking, the seven authentic letters of St. Ignatius of Antioch were tremendously helpful in showing me how the early Church viewed apostolic succession and loyalty to one’s bishop as a necessary and primary means for unity. The thing that struck me was the lack of a polemical attitude about the matter. It just was, and as I began to see how the Fathers simply assumed the issue, I began to see it more and more in the Scriptures. It eventually bothered me very much that I was so far out of step on the matter as the early Church.

    Blessings to you,

  36. Scott Morizot Avatar

    I will note that part of the confusion about “substitution” is that the Fathers did write about the idea of ransom and the idea of standing as the second Adam, the true human being. The language used in those concepts does share some words with the later development of penal substitutionary atonement (and even with Anselm’s satisfaction theory that preceded and laid the groundwork for penal substitution). However, a few shared words mean relatively little. If you take the time to immerse yourself in the full writings of the Eastern Fathers rather than isolated bits, the concepts of ransom, recapitulation, and Christus Victor will be abundantly clear. And those are utterly different, and I would say incompatible, ideas about the atonement from the much later developing Western feudal honor or natural law based ideas.

  37. fatherstephen Avatar


    I agree. More than St. Cyril’s statement is St. Paul’s, “He made Him to be sin who knew no sin, that we might be made the righteousness of God.” This is the language of participation or the Divine solidarity as St. Athanasius calls it at one point. I would argue that this Divine Solidarity is, indeed, the dominant model of “atonement” in the Eastern Fathers, in the liturgies and prayers of the Church. It is easy to confuse certain parts of it and read substitution into it anachronistically. But it is not the later substitution but the primeval solidarity that is found throughout St. Paul and St. John most especially.

  38. fatherstephen Avatar

    You’re a good man Adam with a generous Spirit. Thank you for your kind and accurate words. Blessings. I actually wish I was not under time pressures today as I have been. I think I could have written more peaceably. Off to the monastery to repent!

  39. Athanasios Boeker Avatar
    Athanasios Boeker

    On the issue of the “substitutionary” aspects of Christ’s Atonement, I could not care less about what Anselm or the post-schism west contrived. The heart of the matter is how anyone can get around all the quotes from Orthodox saints, who used “substitutionary” language over and over again throughout their writings. No one will deny that the west emphasized substitution, along with the “legal” and “juridical,” more than the east. But what I see happening in some eastern circles is an out-and-out denial of just about all of these ideas. A Pseudo-Morphosis in the opposite direction.

    It seems to me that the real problem is that a great many of our Orthodox brethren want to deny all language of “substitution” because it smacks of Anselm, Aquinas and the heterodox west (an over reaction to say the least). It appears they are just looking for another axe to grind, another “stick” to beat the poor “impoverished” theological west.

    BTW. Although Aulen may not accept the “latin view.” Yet he states clearly in Christus Victor Chapter 3 section 4 that, “The debt is regarded as paid primarily to death; but he (Athanasius) can also say that a “debt of honour” is paid to God. The alternation of the phrase means that it was the judgment of God’s righteousness that subjected men to death. Athanasius is in no way forsaking the classic point of view; the payment of the debt is is God’s own act, carried out by the Logos while at the same time it is God who recieves the payment.”

    Athanasios Boeker

    Athanasios Boeker

  40. katia Avatar

    Father bless,

    please forgive me, i misunderstood you but i totally agree with you on this one:
    “…is a consensus in the Fathers that there is no retributive punishment in God. Whatever “punishment” we may receive is only for our healing and preservation. “God takes no delight in the death of a sinner.” This is the Orthodox faith.”

    Hi Karen,
    I am Bulgarian, and i believe in God’s mercy and love for all human-kinds and for the salvation of all, but will all of us be saved if misusing our free will and never turn to God for mercy?
    In this respect i believe in the Just Judge Jesus Christ, in mean time i can only pray for the salvation of all, Lord have mercy on us all!

  41. Angela Avatar

    Perhaps I am just too dense, but why is there such misunderstanding of atonement? I have many friends, protestants, that love to talk about the Temple and all the Jewish ceremonies, including the once a year act of atonement. They see it as the lamb being offered instead of a person in payment of a sin debt, like the pagans did with their human sacrifices. This couldn’t be farther from the Truth. Atonement was and is about purification, not about anything being substituted or paid. All you have to do is read the Old Testament to see that the sprinkling of the lamb’s blood was to purify, to cleanse, to make the people whole. It was a rehearsal for Christ’s death and the sprinkling of His purifying Blood on us! Why do people make this so hard? The Lamb didn’t die in our place, He died to purify us, to make us whole, to heal us.
    And think about it, if our God wanted a sacrifice for payment of sin, then he is no better than the pagans that sacrificed their children, to appease their gods. We all recoil in horror at the stories of the Aztec sacrifices. What a horrible, ungodly thing to say about our God! I am sure not any Christian would say that Jesus was crucified to appease a blood thirsty god. But that is what it boils down to when we say that God needed to have payment for our sins.
    I weep when I hear His sacrifice being spoken of in the same breath as substitutionary or as a payment for our sins. God doesn’t need a payment from us, He wants/desires/calls us to allow His son to cleanse us, to purify us, so that we can join Him in the Holy of Holies. He wants us to be made whole, to have Theosis. The seat in the Temple was called the Mercy seat, not the payment seat.
    Thank Father Stephen for your good and wise words about justice and mercy. Thank you for recalling to me the words of our Holy Fathers. Lord have mercy on me, a sinner.

  42. Athanasios Boeker Avatar
    Athanasios Boeker

    Concerning Christ’s Sacrifice:

    “And that thou mayest learn what thing it is, consider
    this which I say. If one that was Himself a king, beholding
    a robber and malefactor under PUNISHMENT, gave his well
    beloved Son, his only begotten and true, to be SLAIN and
    TRANSFERRED the death and Guilt as well, from him to his
    Son, (who was himself of no such character,) that he might both save the condemned man and CLEAR HIM of his evil reputation; and then if, having subsequently promoted him to great dignity, he had yet, after thus saving him and advancing him to that glory unspeakable, been outraged by the person that had received such treatment:”

    (St. John Chrysostom’s homily on Second Corinthians
    homily XI)

  43. Sea of Sin Avatar

    We will make St John a good modern yet. 🙂

    This topic strikes at the heart of so many important issues. What is the nature of sin and salvation? What is the nature of God? How do we determine we will know the answers to these questions? Whose authority, pray tell, will we accept to speak definitively on these matters? Or is any interpretation as good as any other?

    This issue is certainly not one of language, but rather an issue about the meaning ascribed to words and phrases.

    Whose meaning shall we use?

  44. fatherstephen Avatar

    I have agreed that you will find examples such as these – and it would be better for me to modify my description to say that it plays a minor role and does not become the primary metaphor within the Eastern world. When the question begins to center, however, on God Himself, and that He cannot forgive unless someone is punished, we have gone far beyond these homeletical images and into a theological theory of the atonement that does not find this form in the East. Debt, payment, (primarily payment to death), solidarity, etc., all are common, but nothing that would compare to the theory that would later arise.

    It is more than theory in some places of the Protestant world – there it is a hard and fixed dogma of equal value as the Creed – theory has passed to metaphysical necessity. This is an impoverishment. I do not hold that the East is without its problems, historically or otherwise. It’s another topic.

    I appreciate the examples and the substance you’re bringing.

    The theological history of the Eastern Church would have been quite different had the substitutionary theory taken full shape and become a dominant part of Orthodox theology. I point again to the main liturgical texts (particularly of the first millennium). It is not an image that plays much of a role at all and seems to have no place in the Eucharistic anaphoras, where it is so prominent in Reformation liturgies. The sacrifice is understood quite differently.

    I will concede that the image is not unknown – but is usually homiletical rather than theological – isolated rather than foundational. Is that overstating the case? I will modify my future references to acknowledge these uses. My failure to do so was homiletical. 🙂

  45. Damaris Avatar


    You make the point I’ve been thinking of as I read the responses. The aspect of legalistic, substitutionary atonement that becomes anathema is this: Who is the price paid TO? Are God and Jesus so divided that Jesus must die to appease a wrathful Father? How can we accept this notion when Jesus consistently says that He and the Father are one? And the notion that there is a justice above God, that constrains Him despite His desire for mercy, is almost a pagan idea, like the concept of Fate in the Iliad, for instance. There is no quality higher than God, or it would be God. The definition of justice or mercy or love or goodness is God Himself; He doesn’t measure up to an external standard.

    I think the key to understanding this whole issue is what Father Stephen says about participation instead of substitution. I’m still struggling with this concept, but it is a rich one and well supported in the Fathers, as far as I can see. Many people have a hard time with the emphasis on God’s mercy expounded here because they are afraid Christianity will be weakened into “niceness,” as it has been in many modern churches. But as Father Stephen has said, God’s mercy is overwhelming love or burning torment, depending on how you accept it; it is not “niceness,” and Orthodoxy hasn’t sold out the sternness and majesty of God.

    I hope I’ve said nothing wrong or offensive.


  46. Athanasios Boeker Avatar
    Athanasios Boeker

    According to the Orthodox Local Council of Blacernae in Constantinople (A.D. 1157) – …the sacrifice of His precious Body and Blood offered for our salvation by our Lord and God and Savior Jesus Christ at the time of His world-saving Passion was OFFERED UP by Him TO THE FATHER, and that He thus fulfilled the ministry of High Priest for us in His humanity (inasmuch as He is at the same time God and SACRIFICER AND VICTIM, according to St. Gregory the Theologian,” But thrice Anathema to those who say, “that He, the only-begotten, along with the Holy Spirit, did not Himself ACCEPT THE SACRIFICE as God together with the Father. -From the Synodicon of Orthodoxy

  47. fatherstephen Avatar

    Indeed. I agree.

  48. fatherstephen Avatar

    I remember the title of one of CS Lewis’ books: “A Severe Mercy.” The love and mercy of God are true and kind but not “nice” in our culture’s use of the word. His mercy is to heal me – and sometimes that is very hard on my sinful self. Ultimately, I have to die (St. Paul says, “I die daily.”). But I don’t know about His sternness. His majesty I know.

  49. Athanasios Boeker Avatar
    Athanasios Boeker

    “He (Christ) took on Himself death on our behalf, and He makes Himself an offering to the Father for our sakes, For we had sinned against Him, and it was right that he should recieve the ransom for us, and and that we should thus be delivered from the condemnation. -St. John Damascene, Exposition On The Orthodox Faith, chapter XXVII

  50. fatherstephen Avatar

    This last example is ambiguous. Death on our behalf can also include the idea of participation, even a federalism. And the ransom as well… but I have already conceded these matters. The image is present. The full-blown theory does not take root.

    In another work I speak about “root metaphors” the deep images that undergird most of theology or pattern of ideas. I do not see this image become a “root metaphor” of the East. It never comes to dominate.

    Again, thanks for the images. You make your point.

    I must turn my attention to packing and hitting the road for the monastery. I cannot moderate the conversation until this evening (if then). Thank you all for your patience. If I have caused any consternation forgive me. The case I have made could have been made more gently and some generalizations would have better not made at all. However, the general case against the misunderstanding of God’s justice and thus of God remains. Peace to all.

  51. Athanasios Boeker Avatar
    Athanasios Boeker


    You said, “and it would be better for me to modify my description to say that it plays a minor role and does not become the primary metaphor within the Eastern world. When the question begins to center, however, on God Himself, and that He cannot forgive unless someone is punished, we have gone far beyond these homeletical images and into a theological theory of the atonement that does not find this form in the East.”

    I agree with you at this point.

  52. fatherstephen Avatar


    God is good. Thank you and forgive me.

  53. Athanasios Boeker Avatar
    Athanasios Boeker

    Forgive me for my persistence, but I was just reacting to what I saw as a denial of the the language and concepts themselves. Which are undeniably in Scripture and the Holy Fathers. One has to admit that some would like to purge this language from the vocabulary of the Orthodox Church.

  54. Athanasios Boeker Avatar
    Athanasios Boeker

    May God forgive us all!


  55. Sbdn. Lucas Avatar
    Sbdn. Lucas

    On Substitution:

    Metr. +KALLISTOS mentions this in his talk, which Fr. Stephen has in his video sidebar. While the entire talk is highly recommended, the portion dealing specifically with Substitution may be found at the 44:50 mark.

    (the link to the video:

    the sinner,
    SubDn. Lucas

  56. DavidD Avatar

    Forgive me,

    It is difficult to address pericope’s of the Fathers’ writings without the encompassing context. Just as there is proof texting from the scriptures, there is “proof texting” from the writings of the Fathers. One must read them in totality and with understanding of the context in which they were written to get to the true meaning of what they are writing. English translations from Greek also often fail to accurately portray what was originally intended.

    Might I suggest that those interested in a more academically theological exploration of issues such as these seek out Energetic Procession – (I have no official connection with the blog other than a regular reader of it).

  57. Joseph Patterson Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,
    How do you understand Noah’s Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah and God striking dead Ananias and Sapphira in the book of Acts? Isn’t God actively punishing and carrying out His justice in these examples?I am trying to understand how what you have said in this post fits with these stories.

    Thank you,

  58. John Coolidge Avatar
    John Coolidge


    To clarify, the book of Acts does not say that “God struck them dead”. It says they “fell down dead”. To be sure, there is quite a difference to be made. The assumption that God struck them dead is added to the text or seen as the logical reason for their deaths but this inference is just that, an inference. Father Stephen even has a post regarding this particular point on his blog somewhere but admittedly, I do not know where. I’m sure someone else may know though.


  59. Athanasios Boeker Avatar
    Athanasios Boeker

    “I lament and weep whenever I see death and look upon our beauty, formed according to God’s image, lying in the grave disfigured and ingloriious, its outward form destroyed, O strange wonder! What mystery is this concerning us? How have we been yoked to death? All this, so it is written IS BY ORDINANCE OF GOD, who grants rest to the departed…”- Hymn of the Orthodox Church (John Damascene)

    God may not kill people, but he sets the parameters by which death and the devil may operate. I other words it is under His providential control, it is within His power, not outside of it. see Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev “The Mystery of Faith” page 48 to further the point.

  60. Karen Avatar

    Katia, thanks! Yes, as Orthodox we agree that because of free will we can resist God’s mercy and consign ourselves to the fires of Gehenna (which are the fires of God’s own Presence, which those who do not love God experience as torment). God never withdraws His mercy from anyone (which is what evangelicalism teaches about the damned) and His judgment is not predetermined, extrinsic, or arbitrary, but entirely based on the reality of what we are or become. In other words, to say God “judges” is to say that by His Presence and Light, He fully reveals all things as they truly are, but those who remain in their sin cannot stand to be in the Light (as in 1 John 1). It is for them a torment. In this we see that Sin is its own punishment. In Orthodoxy, Jesus is not the Victim of God’s retributive punishment (as in western theories of penal subsitution); He is not *God’s* Victim on the Cross. He is the Victim (if this can be said of a willing participant) of Sin and Death that He might overcome both, trampling down Death by death, pouring out His life in faith and love in perfect obedience to the Father.

  61. Meg Avatar


    I always think of Sodom and Gomorrah and the Great Flood as acts of *cleansing,* not punishing — in other words, things had gotten so out of hand that the only way for mankind to have any hope at all was for God to start with a completely clean slate. Remember that Lot asked God to spare Sodom and Gomorrah if there could be found ten righteous men in them? And there weren’t even that many.

    Reminds me of something that another Orthodox person always says about Adam and Eve, that God told them, “If you eat of the fruit of this tree, you will die,” not, “I will kill you.” So is it punishing your children to tell them, “If you eat these mushrooms, you will die”? Same thing with God.

  62. David Di Giacomo Avatar
    David Di Giacomo

    Father Stephen,

    As I have read the blog post and the ensuing conversation(s), I have begun to wonder how we are supposed to understand the Old Testament commandments “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth” and so forth. In my protestant evangelical background, I was taught to view these as God instituting “justice”, and when Christ later overturns these in the New Testament, he was bringing “mercy” into the picture. Thus, the showing of mercy is understood to depend on the existence of justice (in the retributive sense). However, you have pointed out by your example of binding up the wounds of an injured man, that mercy does not need to be understood this way, and indeed shouldn’t in an Orthodox framework. So, that leaves me with the question: if God wasn’t commanding retributive justice in the OT, how am I to interpret it?

  63. DavidD Avatar

    Athanasios Baker,

    I am not certain the point you are trying to make in your most recent comment, but for the Fathers, death is not a “punishment” for sin but a consequence of sin. Note that in Genesis, God does not declare “the day you eat of the tree I will kill you”, but “for in the day that thou eatest thereof thou shalt surely die.” The Fathers also see death as an expression of the mercy of God, for since we die, the amount of sin we can commit is limited. In fact, all of our physical limitations are seen as a mercy from God, pushing us, as it were, to seek Him and not be able to rely solely upon ourselves. so, yes, death is from “the ordinance of God” – but NOT as retribution or penalty for a crime committed.

  64. Joseph Patterson Avatar

    It does not say that literally but it is implied. St. Jerome says, “For having made a vow they offered their money to God as if it were their own and not his to whom they had vowed it; and keeping back for their own use a part of that which belonged to another, through fear of famine which true faith never fears, they drew down on themselves suddenly the avenging stroke, which was meant not in cruelty toward them but as a warning to others. In fact, the apostle Peter by no means called down death upon them, as Porphyry foolishly says. He merely announced God’s judgment by the Spirit of prophecy, that the doom of two persons might be a lesson to many.” (Letter 130.14)

  65. John Coolidge Avatar
    John Coolidge

    But we have to ask ourselves what “judgement” is in this case. When you apply your own assumed definition to the term (as many Western Christians do when reading the Bible, and thus misreading it) you get something different than the intent of Jerome.

    Quoting from Karen above, she made a good point:

    “In other words, to say God “judges” is to say that by His Presence and Light, He fully reveals all things as they truly are, but those who remain in their sin cannot stand to be in the Light (as in 1 John 1).”

    I have not read much from Jerome, but if his works are consistent with the writings of the Fathers then your definitions need to be reconsidered. Applying unbiblical, “Greco-Roman” ideas to words like “justice” and “righteousness” is perverting (albeit in ignorance) the writings of the Fathers.

    Forgive me if I sound a bit harsh but I think if you read what Father Stephen and others have written above about definitions and terminology in the Patristic writings then you can understand better that chapter in Acts and the writings of Saint Jerome.


  66. DavidD Avatar


    For the Orthodox, ALL the scriptures revolves around the Incarnation of Christ. All of the Fathers interpret the OT in light of Christ, not the other way around. “Now all these things happened unto them for ensamples: and they are written for our admonition, upon whom the ends of the world are come.” (1 cor. 10:11) But more to the point, it is not for individual Orthodox Christians to “interpret the scriptures”. We read the OT scriptures in light of the teaching and worship of the Church and find in them shadows and types of our own experiences and of Christ.

    Just as an aside, the commandments you mention were actually LIMITS placed on the retributive justice of the Hebrew culture and the greater, Semitic culture, out of which they arose. They were, again, expressions of God’s mercy in limiting vindictiveness and vengeance rather than commanding people who were otherwise disinclined to carry such things out.

    Forgive me…

  67. DavidD Avatar

    Just for some non-Orthodox out there. An article that helped shape my thoughts many years ago prior to my becoming Orthodox is by the late Robert Brow titled “Did Paul Teach Law Court Justification” – In it he discusses the use of the words dikaios and dikaiosune and discusses the impact of translating them using the Latin “justificatio”.

  68. Athanasios Boeker Avatar
    Athanasios Boeker

    I would say that according to the Fathers death is a loving punishment.

  69. Athanasios Boeker Avatar
    Athanasios Boeker

    I would like someone to tell me which Church Fathers explicitly said that death was “only” a consequence of sin, and not a punishment from God? In other words present to me True Theologians, and not todays “pop” theologians.

  70. David Di Giacomo Avatar
    David Di Giacomo

    Thanks David. I understand the Orthodox christological and incarnational hermeneutic principle and I fully endorse and agree with it. Indeed, it is one of the things which “clicked” for me in investigating Orthodoxy, compared to the emphasis on “authorial intent” in my previous context (another thing that clicked was the emphasis on the centrality of the resurrection in Orthodox theology… I had always felt it should be so).

    Perhaps I should not have used the word “interpret” and asked rather “How am I to understand it?”. That was the sense of my question to Father Stephen.

    As for the answer you provided, I have to chew on it a bit. Not because I disagree with it or because it necessitates a change in my understanding, but because I’m not entirely sure it covers the question. Part of me is going, “Yes, yes, I agree, but is there more to it than that?” Maybe there isn’t, but I have to think about it.

  71. fatherstephen Avatar


    Typologically, as did many of the Fathers.

  72. fatherstephen Avatar

    An eye for an eye “limits” retribution so that you can’t take more than an eye for an eye. It is God limiting a man-made practice rather than instituting a new one.

  73. DavidD Avatar


    Undoubtedly there is a great deal more, but I am not equipped to explicate it. I believe, however, that Fr. Stephen addresses some of these issues either here in this blog or in one of his podcasts. Forgive me that I cannot remember exactly where.

  74. fatherstephen Avatar

    Try St. Isaac of Syria.

  75. Athanasios Boeker Avatar
    Athanasios Boeker

    From the anaphora of St. Basil the great:

    “..becoming subject to death through his own transgressions. You, O God, in YOUR RIGHTEOUS JUDGEMENT, expelled him from paradise into this world, RETURNING HIM TO THE EARTH FROM WHICH HE WAS TAKEN, yet providing for him the salvation of regeneration in Your Christ. For You did not forever reject Your creature whom You made,…”

  76. Athanasios Boeker Avatar
    Athanasios Boeker

    Which one of St. Issac’s works?

  77. Darla Avatar

    [*Jumping in with a comment not related to the subject at hand, but related to the discussion all the same*]

    As I (and I’m sure many others) read these posts with differences of opinion being stated, I’m really thankful that the conversation here is so civil. What a relief and breath of fresh air all at once. I have been part of blog combox discussions (“Christian” ones!) where it gets really heated and pride-filled really fast, as people state their convictions with such passion and with their fingers in their ears as to the opinions and thoughts of others; in this situation there’s no conversation going on, so it’s nice to see humility in the midst of a true discussion here.

    Thank you.

  78. Athanasios Boeker Avatar
    Athanasios Boeker


    Is this the one you were referring to?

    “A man who is just and wise is like God because he never chastises a man IN REVENGE for wickedness, but only in order to correct him, or that others be afraid.” St. Isaac the Syrian, Homily 73

    I see that St. Isacc does not deny that men are punished. he just denies that they are punished IN REVENGE.

  79. Sea of Sin Avatar

    It is important to keep in mind that words fall short in describing God’s nature. God cannot be described. When we say “God is just” this must be immediately followed up by “God is not just”. It is another way of expressing that our understanding of justice is wholly inadequate to describe God. To take it a step further, the Fathers teach us that God is even beyond negation.

    We must thus always be careful not to make an idol out of our understanding of God. I touched on this in a recent piece at

  80. Sea of Sin Avatar

    I might add that in respect to my above comment, the distinction between the “essence” and “energy” of God becomes quite pivotal. It is telling that this distinction has been rejected (by & large) in non-Orthodox Christianity.

  81. Sea of Sin Avatar

    Yes Boeker!

    “I see that St. Isaac does not deny that men are punished. he just denies that they are punished IN REVENGE.”

    Punishment takes on a pedagogical, salvific meaning; anger, revenge, forensic justice and the like do not take part.

  82. Athanasios Boeker Avatar
    Athanasios Boeker

    Sea I agree. God is Just and compassionate in His Energies, how He is experienced. His Essence is beyond all Human concepts and attributes including compassion and mercy.

  83. fatherstephen Avatar


    There are many quotes in St. Isaac that would teach this. Another Father, not a “pop” theologian (I don’t think you should use this term for ordained Orthodox writers), is St. Basil the Great, which among the fathers would be authoritative (more than most):

    From his treatise, That God is not the Cause of Evil,

    ” Adam sinned because of his evil choice and died for his sin ‘for sin pays a wage, and the wage is death’ (Rom. 6:23). The more he was getting away from life the nearer he was coming to death. Because God is life and deprivation of life is death. So that Adam caused his death departing from God as it is written ‘They who are far from thee are lost ‘ (Psalm 73:27). Thus God did not create death but ourselves caused it by our evil will. But He did not prevent the dissolution that death brings for the prementioned causes, so that he does not preserve immortal the disease.

    Where from are diseases and the handicaps of the body? Because the disease is neither unborn nor the creation of God, but the creatures were created with the construction that was appropriate to them and they were brought to life perfect and whole and they got sick because they diverted from their natural condition. Because they lose their health either for a bad way of life or for any other disease producing cause. That is God created the body not the disease.”

    In the apocrypha (I am away from my Bible this evening) we are told that “God did not create death.” It is permitted to come on us. St. Gregory Nazianzus said that “God did not say that ‘in the day you eat of it I will kill you,’ but ‘in the day you eat of it you will surely die.’

    This is commonplace among the major fathers when they direct themselves specifically to this topic. As another has already noted, it’s in St. Basil’s Anaphora, which would be about as authoritative as is possible within the life of the Church.

    This is not a “pop” attack on the “West,” but a foundational part of Orthodox theology.

  84. fatherstephen Avatar

    I will not be able to monitor comments again until late tonight. I am grateful that the discussion has such quality and has remained kind. Please continue. I check in at the end of the day.

  85. John Coolidge Avatar
    John Coolidge

    In reference to Father Stephen’s quote from the Apocrypha, he is quoting from Wisdom chapter one, verses twelve through sixteen if anyone is interested in reading it.

  86. Athanasios Boeker Avatar
    Athanasios Boeker


    Please try to understand what I am saying here. I never said that “God created death.” What I am saying, and what I am firmly convinved that the Fathers are saying, is that death is within God’s providential control.

    As Aulen mentioned in Christus Victor, “There is a “Double aspect to the “Classic View” of Atonement that comes out with increasing clearness in the Later fathers. It is now taught that the devil and DEATH, over which Christ wins the triumph, are also, from another point of view, the executants of God’s judgment on sinful man.”chapter 3 section 4

    God did not create death. But we are not deists. Everything is worked for good, by God. Even the “Punishment of death”

    Here is a quote from St. John Chrysostom that demonstrates this providential control of death.

    “You see, even if they lived a long time, nevertheless FROM THE TIME THEY HEARD THE WORDS, “Dust you are, and to dust you are to return,” and RECIEVED THE SENTENCE OF DEATH, they became liable to death and you would say from that moment they were dead. So this is what Scripture is also implying when it says that “on the day you eat, you will truly die” that is to say, receive the sentence of being mortal from now on. just as in the case of human tribunals, when someone receives the sentence of beheading and is cast into prison, even if he stays there a long time his life is no better than that of dead people and corpses, being already dead by reason of his sentence, in just the same way they, too, from the day they received the sentence of mortality were dead by reason of their sentence, even if they lasted a long time. -St. John Chrysostom, Homilies on Genesis”

    And St. Athanasius.

    “As we have already noted, it was unthinkable that God the Father of Truth, should go back upon His word regarding death in order to ensure our continued existence. He could not falsify Himself, what then was God to do? Was He to demand repentance from men for their transgression? You might say that was worthy of God, and argue further that, as through the transgression they became subject to corruption (death), so through repentance they might return to incorruption again. But repentance would not guard the “Divine Consistency,” for, if death did not hold dominion over men, God would still remain untrue.”- On The Incarnation, chapter 2 section 7

    Nothing happens without God either willing it or purposely allowing it. Would you not agree?

  87. Athanasios Boeker Avatar
    Athanasios Boeker


    This portion from your St. Basil quote also demonstrates my point.

    “But He did not prevent the dissolution that death brings for the prementioned causes, so that he does not preserve immortal the disease.”

  88. Karen Avatar

    Dear Father, bless!

    Good discussion. Athanasios, I agree that death and the suffering that results from sin are within the providence of God and that He uses them toward His own good ends for those that love Him (as Romans 8:28 clearly states). I think we need to be careful here, though, because it is often a very short step to saying or implying that because of sin, God then creates or causes evil, death and suffering. David Bentley Hart addresses this mistaken notion and takes it sternly to task in his short book, The Doors of the Sea, and I recommend reading it for a truly Orthodox perspective of how to think about the problem of suffering and evil within the sovereignty of God. In answer to your various comments/questions about the judgment and “punishment” of God in the Fathers, I keep thinking “context is everything.” I think what Fr. Stephen is trying to point out, among other things, is that the overall context of the spiritual world view of the Fathers and of the Scriptures is quite different than that of our modern post-Reformation theologies, and so the meanings of many Scriptures and statements of the Fathers have been confused (and even turned on their head) by transporting them into this modern context (of Greco-Roman legal and juridical understandings of the nature of sin and salvation). His strong emphasis on the meaning and implications of the mercy of God are intended as a corrective to that.

    Hope this is helpful.

  89. Ron Jung Avatar
    Ron Jung

    Substitution is clearly an essential part of our understanding of atonement. The problem is when (primarily after Anselm) atonement is thought primarily as the propitiation of God’s wrath, as if it is God who needs to be changed in the atonement and not us.

    For example: the evangelical protestant informs his would-be convert that God is a holy God and cannot tolerate sin. All people sin and therefore all deserve the just penalty for that sin. Christ took our place on the cross- God’s holy wrath placed on Him, so that we can reconciled to God. Note though, that in this senario, it is God that has the problem that needed remedied, and so God is reconciled to us. But this is not how scripture portrays it. God is always seeking sinners out. The voice of God walks in the garden calling out for the sinners. It was Adam who hid. The atonement changes us, reconciles us, not God.

  90. Ben Avatar

    “These deep wounds inflicted on us by the evil wills of others can only be healed by mercy and forgiveness.”

    Yes, it is as if the true nature of justice was revealed to us in the Christ. All that the prophets and poets of the Old Testament could do is yearn for the justice of God to be revealed to the world with the lowly babe in a manger who is the savior of the world. When that babe did arrive we all found out that the true nature of justice is not juridical or penal at all! It is ontological. It seeks to save the transgressor.

    For only through forgiveness can injustice be made right. In every crime, God is ultimately the the one most hurt, because his perfect, “very good” creation has been tainted by

  91. Ben Avatar

    “These deep wounds inflicted on us by the evil wills of others can only be healed by mercy and forgiveness.”

    Yes, it is as if the true nature of justice was revealed to us in the Christ. All that the prophets and poets of the Old Testament could do is yearn for the justice of God to be revealed to the world with the lowly babe in a manger who is the savior of the world. When that babe did arrive we all found out that the true nature of justice is not juridical or penal at all! It is ontological. It seeks to save the transgressor.

    For only through forgiveness can injustice be made right. In every crime, God is ultimately the the one most hurt, because his perfect, “very good” creation has been tainted by our injustice upon it.

    Therefore, we find out in Jesus that “righteousness and peace have kissed.” In fact true justice is only found in mercy, forgiveness and love of the sinner. In this way, Eden is re-created in the creation that was first tainted and it spreads to all creation. “Aquire a peaceful spirit, and around you thousands will be saved.” Indeed.

  92. Sea of Sin Avatar

    Ben, one has to be careful though what this meant by this “true justice” – it can be understood in many different ways.

    The point of this post and conversation is that there is no such thing as justice, as least justice as it commonly understood to be.

    What justice is to be found in Christ’s incarnation, His death and resurrection?

  93. fatherstephen Avatar

    Indeed, I would agree that “all things work together for good…for those who love God” and God’s intent is that all things would work together for good for all (it’s our perversion that turns His love into “torture”). But yes, I would agree to your point. But, as you have done, it needs to be nuanced because it can easily be misunderstood, especially by those who think God hates them, etc.

  94. Sea of Sin Avatar


    “the overall context of the spiritual world view of the Fathers and of the Scriptures is quite different than that of our modern post-Reformation theologies, and so the meanings of many Scriptures and statements of the Fathers have been confused (and even turned on their head)”

    Yes precisely! Thank you.

    It is not all that difficult to quote Scripture (Satan did) or invoke the Fathers (heretics did). It all comes back to the interpretation, the meaning we ascribe.

  95. fatherstephen Avatar

    Obviously, there is a justice in Christ (but not as came to be defined – a human justice). Christ, I would say, is the wisdom, word, power, justice, etc. of God. He is all things to us for salvation.

  96. Ryan McNamara Avatar
    Ryan McNamara

    I just want to say that this is the most amazing conversation that I have ever read online – on religious blogs or otherwise. To hear such knowledgeable debate on an issue that though dear to me, I heretofore never realized was controversial!
    What comes up again and again, though, in topics such as this, is that our English language translations seem to do little justice to the language of the Old and New Testaments. I think that it’s no coincidence that the English speaking world has by far the most diversity of Christian denominations, and that places like Greece have very little at all.

  97. Ben Avatar

    Sea of Sin,

    What I meant to get across was that what we call justice, when we see it indwelt in the icon of God the Father, Christ, is in fact so much “un-justice-like” that it is not justice at all, but instead mercy. Needless to say, I was agreeing with Father Stephen and not disagreeing, though my flamboyant language did not adequately express such things. Forgive me a sinner.

  98. Athanasios Boeker Avatar
    Athanasios Boeker


    It is not just a problem for modern Rnglish readers. It was a problem for people that spoke the original languages as well. As St. John Chrysostom said: “When you hear the words ‘wrath’ and ‘anger’ in relation to God, do not understand anything human by them: this is a word of condescension. The Divinity is foreign to everything of the sort; but it is said like this in order to bring the matter closer to the understanding of people of the cruder sort. In the same way we, when we speak with barbarians, use their language; or when we speak with an infant, we lisp like him, even if we ourselves are wise men, in condescension to his youth. And what is it to be wondered at if we act in this way both in words and in deeds, biting our hands and giving the appearance of wrath, in order to correct the child? In exactly the same way God used similar expressions in order to act of people of the cruder sort. When He spoke He cared not for His dignity, but about the profit of those who listened to Him. In another place He indicated that wrath was not proper to God when He said: ‘Is it I Whom they provoke? Is it not themselves?’ (Jeremiah 7.19) Would you really want Him, when speaking with the Jews, to say that He was not angry with them and did not hate them, since hatred is a passion? Or that He does not look on the works of men, since sight is a property of bodies? Or that He does not hear, since hearing belongs to the flesh? But from this they would have extracted another dishonourable doctrine, as if everything takes place without the Providence of God. In avoiding such expressions about God, many would then have been completely ignorant of the fact that God exists; and if they had been ignorant of that, then everything would have perished. But when the teaching about God was introduced in such a way, the correction of it followed swiftly. He who is convinced that God exists, although he has an unfitting conception of God and puts something sensual into it, nevertheless with time he becomes convinced that there is nothing of the sort in God. But he who is convinced that God does not have providential oversight, that He does not care about that which exists, that He does not exist, what benefit will he gain from passionless expressions?”

  99. […] 2) More on the “Justice” of God […]

  100. fatherstephen Avatar


    It is indeed amazing that these things should have any controversy surrounding them – and yet, I find, the mercy of God as taught by Christ and held forth in the Fathers, is as disturbing today as it was when Christ was crucified. The religious leaders of His day did not want Him to extend mercy as He did. There’s no “control” behind such mercy. The same temptation, in a way, always faces the Church (particularly the Orthodox). For our communion, is ultimately a communion of love. The temptation is to find a way to make it a communion of control, like the other Churches. But, this is a temptation. It does not mean there is no discipline. But that even the discipline that guards the Cup is a discipline of love, not of punishment. Good to hear from you!

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