The Mystery of Goodness

Beloved, follow not that which is evil, but that which is good. He that doeth good is of God: but he that doeth evil hath not seen God (3John 1:11).

One of the most common affirmations in Orthodox services is the goodness of God. Many services conclude with the blessing: “For He is a good God and loves mankind.” The goodness of God is utterly foundational to our faith – and yet that goodness is itself a mystery: it is not always apparent and remains a conundrum to those who are outside of the faith. The so-called “problem of evil” with which non-believers frequently assault belief in the existence of a good God points to the problematic character of goodness.

God is good – but not in a way that is obvious. The goodness of God can be known – as God can be known. Neither, however, are readily apparent.

In some of the early patristic writings, particularly those that can be described as “apophatic” (“unable to be spoken”) God is not only affirmed as good but as “hyper-good,” that is, His goodness is beyond anything we know – it is a transcendent goodness. The God made known in the Incarnation of Christ is indeed “unknowable.” It is the Incarnation of Christ that has made Him known.

No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him (John 1:18).

All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him (Matt. 11:27).

We come to know the attributes of God in the same manner. The goodness of God is the goodness we see in the Incarnation of Christ; the power of God is the power we see in Christ; the kindness of God is the kindness we see in Christ; the love of God is precisely revealed in Christ.

St. Paul writes of the “attributes” of God being clearly seen through the things He created – but the passage is not necessarily the grounds for a “natural” theology (a knowledge of God derived from contemplating nature).

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. (Romans 1:18-23).

St. Paul, I believe, is here describing the “fall” of man and the ignorance of God which it brought. The passage is consistently placed in the past tense. “Although they knew God,” etc. This is much different than saying that “knowing God” they are not thankful, etc. Instead he describes the long history of mankind before Christ as people who have become “futile” in their thoughts, and having their “foolish hearts darkened.”

However, it does seem to suggest that this knowledge can be restored as our hearts are enlightened – which is an inherent part of our living communion with Christ. But this knowledge is one that is seen only through an enlightened heart, again made possible only in the Incarnation of Christ.

It is important to approach the mystery of goodness in such a manner. The goodness of God is a goodness made known in Christ and not an intellectual category or philosophical concept that can be described apart from Christ. Such a separate concept is the secularization of goodness – ultimately a blasphemous approach (“There is none good but One, that is, God” – Luke 18:19).

The mystery of God’s goodness is most especially to be found in the mystery of the Cross. In the gospels Christ is described as “going about doing good” as well as healing the diseases of people. But the depth of that mystery is found in His death and resurrection.

The mystery of the Cross is the triumph of foolishness over man-made wisdom; the triumph of weakness of man’s perceived power; the ultimate victory of good over evil. The most common image of the death and resurrection of Christ in the Eastern Church is the icon of Christ’s Descent into Hell – for it is this icon that carries the fullest expression of the theological content and reality of His death and resurrection. It not only depicts his victory over death and evil (shown as the devil bound in chains), but also show the cosmic and timeless element of His victory as He grasps the hands of Adam and Eve to lead them out of the bondage of sin and death.

The Christian definition of good is the goodness of God. In the world in which we live we do not see that goodness in abstraction but in the fullness of its conflict with evil and its ultimate triumph. The Gospel presumes and acknowledges the presence of evil while at the same time affirming that goodness, in Christ, overcomes that evil.

In the classical teaching of the Fathers, evil is not a something, a force or a presence: it is an action driven by a distorted will. It is an opposition to God, but without meaning or substance except as an opposition. Evil is thus not a presence, but a tragic movement towards absence. It is not communion with God but a self-ward movement towards non-being.

The great struggle within our world, as presently constituted, is not between ourselves and the forces of a blind and rudderless nature, but a struggle with the consequences of that relentless challenge. The Cross is not an image that excludes the brutal forces of wicked powers – it is the triumph of love and forgiveness in the very heart of those struggles.

Goodness cannot be abstracted from the human tragedy – it is known and experienced within the very context of that tragedy in the fullness of the Cross of Christ. This is a radical departure from the philosophical discussion of the problem of evil. Christianity is not a set of ideas that compete on the playing field of philosophical systems. It is event and relationship neither imaginary nor abstract. This occasionally leaves classical Christianity at a disadvantage – unwilling to grant the givens of an alien philosophy – and thus seeming silent or weak in the face of a serious intellectual challenge. But Christianity is a language that is spoken in the tongue of the Logos, whose incarnation, death and resurrection speak with the eloquence of the true and living God.

St. Paul recognized that his preaching of the Cross of Christ would either make him seem weak or foolish. It is a weakness and a foolishness that modern Christians should not disdain. For the weakness of God is stronger than death. The foolishness of God is wiser than all men.

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.





26 responses to “The Mystery of Goodness”

  1. Mrs. Mutton Avatar
    Mrs. Mutton

    This has to be the best refutation of the “problem of evil” argument that I have ever read. Thanks, Father!

    The whole problem witht he “problem” of evil is that it imposes *our* standards of good on God. Orthodox theology, and the little apocryphal stories that go along with it, is what helped me to see that (as one such tale puts it) “things are not always what they seem.” God’s mercy and utter goodness *are* unfathomable — this side of the Great Divide. But that He is always good — on that we can place all our trust.

  2. Seraphim Avatar

    Father Stephen’s description of evil is both apophatic and unsystematic — this is a defining characteristic of the Eastern Church. A “no” to religion (which we can define as the left hand forcing the right hand to “do” or vice versa, often means “yes” to the Kingdom of God).

    How else to be authentic and inclusive when Truth is incarnated and ineffable?

  3. mushroom Avatar

    In the classical teaching of the Fathers, evil is not a something, a force or a presence: it is an action driven by a distorted will. It is an opposition to God, but without meaning or substance except as an opposition. Evil is thus not a presence, but a tragic movement towards absence. It is not communion with God but a self-ward movement towards non-being.

    I think I’m going to write that on my hand.

  4. Seraphim Avatar

    Blind Willie McTell,

    Essentially, mankind sows and reaps from within himself. Good is to good, and evil to evil. Such things are eternally self evident — it is mankind who is subject to that change not God.

  5. Darlene Avatar


    It is this very topic, the goodness of God, that has caused my son to abandon his Christian faith for agnostic atheism. Rather, I should say that my son does not believe there is any goodness in God. He challenges such a notion citing example after example of the atrocities of God in the O.T. to all the disasters that occur throughout the world on a regular basis.

    He says with anger and disdain, “I cannot worship a God that would destroy whole nations and peoples and slaughter innocent children.” referring to the various accounts when God slew Israel’s enemies, and directed His servants to kill entire families, etc. He will cite modern day tragedies in which little children and innocent people are swept away in death by typhoons and tsunamis. (natural disasters) “Where’s the love of God in that?,” he argues. Such a God, according to him is not worthy of worship.

    How does one even get through to a mind that has put up so many walls and defenses to protect themselves against what they perceive to be an evil god? I don’t debate with him, neither do I try to engage in some sort of theological defense of theodicy. Such attempts would be fruitless.

    Really, all I can do is pray for my son, and by my actions be a living example of the love of God. And so I press on.

  6. Seraphim Avatar


    In the fall, mankind utterly lost the vision of the glorious image of God. Man could never know the Eternal Father unless the Son willed to reveal Him.

    May I point you to Alexandre Kalomiros’ River of Fire?:

  7. Bill Avatar


    Just wanted to say that I have been in a similar situation with my brother, who was a strong atheist and made similar arguments.

    With him and with others, I find objections to the faith to always come down to something personal, which makes sense, since God is a relationship, and not an idea. I think these arguments are really more like rationalizations.

    Thanks be to God, my brother’s heart was softened after several incidents in his life and he returned to the church. And it was certainly not because of my good arguments!

    Keep up with your prayers. God is merciful and is seeking out your son’s heart. And God does not fail in his work.


  8. fatherstephen Avatar

    I don’t believe in the God your son is describing – and I think He shows a proper instinct for goodness by rejecting such a false God. The River of Fire suggestion is a good one for understanding the Orthodox reading of Scripture and the fathers in this matter.

  9. Brian Avatar

    If nothing else, it sounds as though your son is being honest about his feelings. There is always hope for an honest soul, a heart that cannot bring itself to feign faith merely for the sake of propriety. If this is the case with him he is, in a strange and frightening way, on the path of truth that leads to the God of love. I, too, have prayed for him this day.

    As the bishop said to St. Monica of her son, “Go on your way, and God bless you, for it is not possible that the son of these tears should be lost.”

  10. maximus scott Avatar
    maximus scott

    According to the Apostle Paul, both the non-being of evil and the good which all derive from Christ are great mysteries:

    2 Thess. 2:7 For the mystery of lawlessness is already at work.
    1 Tim. 3:16 Great indeed, we confess, is the mystery of godliness…

    When the same Abba Anthony thought about the depth of the judgments of God, he asked, “Lord, how is it that some die when they are young, while others drag on to extreme old age? Why are there those who are poor and those who are rich? Why do wicked men prosper and why are the just in need?” He heard a voice answering him, “Anthony, keep your attention on yourself; these things are according to the judgment of God, and it is not to your advantage to know anything about them.’

    Thus these things we can’t completely understand but we CAN trust in the God who entered into our pain and misery for our sakes.

    Great post Father and great comments brothers and sisters!!

  11. Darlene Avatar

    Thank you, Brian.

  12. fatherstephen Avatar

    Maximus, I would not say that the non-being of evil derives from Christ. God is not the author of evil, nor is non-being anything to be derived from something else. It just isn’t.

    The quote from St. Anthony is most apt. Thanks!

  13. maximus scott Avatar
    maximus scott


    God forbid!! I meant that all good is derived from Christ as seperate from the non-being of evil, however they are both mysteries. How can non-being come from HE WHO IS? I wrote that in a way that could be misunderstood. Thank you Fr.!!

  14. optina Avatar


    What your son has brought up is something that many Orthodox have struggled with from St. Isaac of Syria to Dostoevsky. David Bentley Hart, an Orthodox theologian, has a book entitled The Doors of the Sea, which covers this subject and focuses specifically on the tsunami deaths a few years back.

    It is most likely the case that mere arguments will do little good at this stage like you noted, but you might appeal to your son’s sense of fairness by mentioning that lots of people within the faith have struggled with the same questions and it might be of help for him to read them and see how they navigated these issues.

    I agree with Fr. Stephen that I reject that concept of God as well so I don’t quite understand the notion that you must believe in that vision of God or leave the faith.

  15. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Not exactly a theologically rigourous explanation, but it has a certain something: Subject: Does God exist?
    This is one of the best explanations of why God allows pain and suffering that I have seen!

    A man went to a barbershop to have his hair cut and his beard trimmed. As the barber began to work, they began to have a good conversation. They talked about so many things and various subjects. When they eventually touched on the subject of God, the barber said, ‘I don’t believe that God exists.’
    ‘Why do you say that?’ asked the customer.
    ‘Well, you just have to go out in the street to realize that God doesn’t exist. Tell me, if God exists, would there be so many sick people? Would there be abandoned children? If God existed, there would be neither suffering nor pain. I can’t imagine a loving God who would allow all of these things.’
    The customer thought for a moment, but didn’t respond because he didn’t want to start an argument. The barber finished his job and the customer left the shop.
    Just after he left the barbershop, he saw a man in the street with long, stringy, dirty hair and an untrimmed beard. He looked dirty and unkept.. The customer turned back and entered the barber shop again and he said to the barber, ‘You know what? Barbers do not exist.’
    ‘How can you say that?’ asked the surprised barber.. ‘I am here, and I am a barber. And I just worked on you!’
    ‘No!’ the customer exclaimed. ‘Barbers don’t exist because if they did, there would be no people with dirty long hair and untrimmed beards, like that man outside.’
    ‘Ah, but barbers DO exist! That’s what happens when people do not come to me.’
    ‘Exactly!’ affirmed the customer. ‘That’s the point! God, too, DOES exist! That’s what happens when people do not go to Him and don’t look to Him for help. That’s why there’s so much pain and suffering in the world..’


    All who harbor suspicions that God is not really there (myself included in the past) do so because 1) they want God to act and be in accordance with their own will, and 2) they are not comfortable with the consequences of freedom.

  16. Seraphim Avatar

    Good points Mike.

    Sin is opaque (even to God’s Light) — it’s very hard (if not impossible) to love someone that one doesn’t know.

  17. Darlene Avatar


    Your last paragraph is profound. I would have to admit that in my son’s case, he wants God to act according to HIS paradigm, HIS worldview. And in his worldview, man’s freedom absolves him from responsibility, and thus the evil acts that he commits.

    However, I believe there to be an even more deep-seated problem. He became steeped in the Reformed mindset, fully convinced (or so it seems to me) in the Calvinist understanding of the nature of God. On top of that, when he was confronted with hard-core atheists who boldly and proudly proclaimed their deconversion from the Christian faith, he found himself lacking in the ability to answer their questions and settle their assertions. So, in the process he joined their ranks.

  18. Seraphim Avatar


    In the parable of Lazarus and the rich man, it is the unfaithful who are depicted as being unable to transcend the impassable boundaries between the here and the hereafter.

    In the parable, it is the righteous Abraham (rather than God) who is presented as the interlocutor. Such are the wonders of a one storey universe (in losing the divine vision of the glorious image, man also necessarily forgot who he himself was).

  19. Karen Avatar


    Prayer for your son is best, but in reading your comments, I couldn’t also but be reminded of David Bentley Hart’s work in his short book “The Doors of the Sea.” It is one of the most satisfying apologies for an Orthodox (i.e., truly biblical) understanding of suffering that I have ever read, and Hart comes down most powerfully against Calvinistic distortions. You might enjoy reading it yourself. You will know best if your son might also be receptive to its message.

  20. Christophoros Avatar

    Darlene and All,

    David Bentley Hart also has another book that might be helpful to those who turn to atheism (a popular option these days). The title is <>. It’s true that the ultimate means of conversion is rooted in the mystery of God and personal/relational actions (like acts of love). We can speak to the mystery of another’s heart through prayer, while not saying anything or much to them.

    Yet, we are also rational/reasonable creatures because God is rational/reasonable. If I understand correctly, the fathers thought of sin as irrationality. St. Gregory the Theologian said, “I suppose that anyone with a mind will consider learnedness to be the greatest good for us; and not only this our most noble learnedness, which, despising all embellishment and exuberant speech, seeks only salvation and contemplative beauty, but also outward learnedness, which many Christians, from flawed reasoning, shun as something wickedly artful, dangerous, and separating us from God….

    “To the contraty, we should recognize as stupid and ignorant those who, holding to such an opinion, would wish to see everyone as like unto themselves, so that they might hide their own inadequacy by the general inadequacy and thereby escape reproach for their ignorance” (Homily 34).

    My oldest son claims to be an atheist for similar reasons (and those supplied by the likes of Richard Dawkins and Daniel Dennett). In his deepest self, I believe he desires good, but he does not know it in the face of Christ. So an appeal to reason may be part of the mystery God uses to bring a person to Himself. We are called to be prepared to give a reason for the hope we have, and to do so with humility and respect (1 Peter 3.15). May God grant illumination to your son and to all who are wandering in the desert of non-illumined desire! Lord have mercy.

  21. Christophoros Avatar

    Sorry, the post does not allow words between the arrows. Dr. Hart’s book is titled: Atheist Delusions: The Christian Revolution and Its Fashionable Enemies.

  22. Christophoros Avatar

    …and in the 3rd paragraph it should read “contrary” not “contraty.” My editing skills need some help!

  23. Brian Avatar


    My heart goes out to you. I have prayed and will continue to pray. Every appearance of your name on this blog will serve as another reminder to do so. God is faithful!

  24. syrian88 Avatar

    This site contains a video interview with Dr. Hart divided up into several parts. He discusses the New Atheism and other subjects:

  25. Peter Avatar

    I think that it is important also to have an accurate definition of what “evil” is. The rape and torture of an individual is something that we all would consider “evil,” but if we break it down to its constituent parts what do we find?

    We find an individual inflicting physical and emotional pain on another individual.

    Often it is necessary to inflict pain, such as when a doctor operates on a patient, a soldier or police officer shoots a person in performance of their duty, or when we tell someone information that they need to know, even though it will cause them emotional distress.

    It is the context in which these things occur that make them either “good” or “evil”.

    Since we cannot know the mind of God, we are not in a position to determine accurately whether something that happens is good, or evil in the grand scheme of things.

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