The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil

cruciThere is a death that leads to death and there is a death that leads to life. In them are hidden the meaning of all things.

As we approach Pascha, I continue to marvel at St. John’s description of Christ in Revelation 13, as the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world.” It is a Death before death. This is the Death by which death will be trampled down. 

The warning given in Genesis to the man and the woman is clear regarding the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil: “In the day that you eat of it, you will surely die.” Death enters the world at their breaking of the commandment. It is the death that leads to death.

There are other things about this tree and its fruit that are of note. When Eve sees the fruit, she sees that it is “good for food,” and a “delight to the eyes,” and “able to make one wise.” These things are true, but her perception of them was distorted. For the food that she saw can only leave you hungry and its beauty only feeds the desire of the passions. The wisdom it grants is simply that of this world. All of these are components of the death that she will die and the life that we now live. 

Why do you spend money for what is not bread, And your wages for what does not satisfy?  (Isa 55:2)

But the Tree was meant to carry something different a fruit that was not yet in due season. It was not time for Eve to approach that tree, for it was not yet given to us for food. The world had to wait for a far distant time and for a Second Eve for the hour of the Tree to be revealed.

At a wedding in Cana of Galilee, Christ is together with his disciples, enjoying what some traditions hold is a wedding for one of the twelve (Nathaniel). His mother is in attendance and is told that they have run out of wine. She goes to her son to seek His help. And an interesting conversation takes place:

And when they ran out of wine, the mother of Jesus said to Him, “They have no wine.” Jesus said to her, “Woman, what is this between you and me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Whatever He says to you, do it.” (Joh 2:3-5)

She knows who He is, and she knows something of what must come (for she had pondered all these things in her heart for years). He offers a simple warning, “My hour has not yet come.” What hour does He mean? It is the time, at last, for the Tree to be made manifest. The Lamb that was slain before the foundation of the world will be manifest as the Lamb that takes away the sin of the world – and “a sword will pierce her own soul as well.” (Lk 2:35)

Just as the angel Gabriel had proclaimed God’s good news to her at the beginning, awaiting her humble, “Be it unto me according to your word,” so now, a question is being placed again, for her answer this time has the power to set everything in an inexorable motion.

It is as if Chrisst says, “If I do this thing that you are asking, then it will not stop until my hour is reached. Are you ready to see this through?”

Her answer acquiesces to His will, even as she yielded herself before. “If it is your will, then it is mine” – “Whatever He says to you, do it.” And the first miracle is performed and the marriage feast of the Lamb which will be fulfilled in Jerusalem begins.

The Feast whose hour has now come resets the table (the Tree) that the first Eve beheld in the Garden. But the Tree is in its proper and due season. This is the Feast that God has set, and the Eve for whom it has been prepared.

The first Eve saw the fruit and thought that it was “good for food.” It was not, for it was a banquet of death. But the heavenly fruit that will hang on this Tree is indeed “good to eat.”

“My flesh is real food and my blood is real drink.” (Joh 6:55).

The first Eve thought that the fruit of the Tree was a “delight to the eyes.” What she saw we do not know, but we are deeply familiar with false beauty, divorced from God. Our own perversions celebrate beauty objectified, altered and edited to produce greater and greater desire and pleasure, enslaving all who see it.

The delight and beauty of the fruit that the Second Eve saw was truly hidden.

He has no form or comeliness; And when we see Him, there is no beauty that we should desire Him. (Isa 53:2)

And yet she desires Him above all. In the texts of Good Friday Vespers we hear:

When she saw you, O Christ, the Creator and God of all, hanging on the Cross, she who bore you without seed, cried bitterly: My Son, where has the beauty of your form departed? I cannot bear to see you unjustly crucified; hasten then, arise, that I too may see your resurrection from the dead on the third day.

Along with the other Myrhhbearers, she adored His lifeless body. Joseph and Nicodemus prepared Him for burial:

The noble Joseph, when he had taken down Thy most pure body from the tree, wrapped it in fine linen, anointed it with spices and placed it in his own new tomb.

The first Eve thought the fruit of that Tree was able to make her wise. But she found a false wisdom, nothing more than the cunning deceptions of the enemy. The Second Eve saw the Crucified Christ, and recognized Him as the Power and Wisdom of God (1 Cor. 1:24).

It is interesting to note that St. Paul does not describe the first Eve as disobedient, but deceived. (1 Tim. 2:14). She saw the Tree but could not discern its wisdom and power and ate in a state of deception.

I think that seeing and understanding the beauty and desirability of Christ Crucified is perhaps the most difficult of all spiritual undertakings. We either create an abstraction in our minds and reduce that terrible reality to little more than a cipher for our ideas, or we quickly dismiss it as but an afternoon’s horrendous and painful suffering that was soon passed.

But the Crucified predates even the creation of the world and has always encompassed all suffering, sorrow and sin. In perhaps the single most stinging critique of God and human suffering ever written, Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov describes his anguish to his brother:

I do understand how the universe will tremble when all in heaven and under the earth merge in one voice of praise, and all that lives and has lived cries out: ‘Just art thou, 0 Lord, for thy ways are revealed!’ … I want to forgive, and I want to embrace, I don’t want more suffering. And if the suffering of children goes to make up the sum of suffering needed to buy truth, then I assert beforehand that the whole of truth is not worth such a price.

His detailed, revolting descriptions of suffering children (drawn from actual news accounts of the time) seem to be an unacceptable price for any goodness they might bring about. He is absolutely right. We do not and have not suffered for the sake of some later, greater good.

We suffer because we have distanced ourselves from God and plunged ourselves and our world  (including innocent children) into the corruption of death. It would be an unthinkable and unbearable reality were it the price of some other thing. What good is worth the suffering of a child? But the fearful beauty hidden in the Knowledge of Good and Evil was too great for Eve and too great for Ivan Karamazov as well. That beauty is the love of God, by which and in which He unites Himself with all human suffering and sorrow. He became sin, we are told (2 Cor. 5:21) that we might become His righteousness. So Ivan sees only human sin, while the Mother of God sees the righteousness of Christ – love that unites itself to our sorrow that our sorrow might become Divine joy. It is not joy that is bought with a price, but sorrow that is redeemed at a price.

It is not reasonable. But it is good and desirable and able to make us wise. It is the feast of our Passover.

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.


49 responses to “The Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil”

  1. Margaret Avatar

    Thank you Fr. Stephen! This is such a beautiful meditation!

  2. Ryan Avatar

    Hi Father – just an initial question. Revelation 13 seems to vary wildly between translations in terms of Rev. 13:9. Could you comment, first, on which translation you are using? (The ESV makes it seem like it’s those written in the book of life who are written therein from before the foundation of the world, the Douay-Rheims Roman Catholic bible on the other hand makes it out that the Lamb is slain from before the foundation of the world) and why that interpretation is the correct one?


  3. Beth Avatar


    When our Lord cries out, “Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? that is to say, My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?”, does that have something to do with Him becoming sin for us, and sin being separation from God?

    Is there a certain sense that in His death on the cross, the whole business of sin is summed up – the suffering, the thirst, the accusations and mockings, and finally a separation from God and death? (Only of course, He is sinless.)

  4. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I’m not sure where the sin is separation from God thing came from. I’ve heard it most of my life – but it’s not quite accurate. “Lo, if I descend into hell Thou art there,” it says in Psalm 139. So, there is no true separation from God. Sin is death in the Scriptures.

    Christ enters death. He dies. And He dies every death. Every death becomes His. Every sin becomes His. This is a very mystical thing – a matter of union. Imagine, if you will, that He is aware, simultaneously, of every action and all suffering in a true, complete, and personal manner such that it fully becomes His. And He carries all of that into death. That’s a closer way of thinking about it.

    The words from Psalm 22, “My God, etc.” are, first and foremost, the title of the Psalm. And it is a Psalm that prophetically describes the crucifixion. It is the voice of everyman in his sin, death and suffering, that is now the voice of the Son of God. There can be no “separation” from God. But there is all suffering, sin and darkness taken upon Him, somehow taken into Him, such that it can be destroyed in His dying.

    Elder Sophrony speaks of this as “hypostatic existence,” that is, existing in a truly and fully personal manner. In his own experiences in prayer, he had a consciousness sometimes of “the whole Adam,” that, in a manner shares in this same reality. I am staggered at such things.

  5. Jane Szepesi Avatar
    Jane Szepesi

    Around 1960, when I was at St Andrews University, one of my Spanish professors showed us a print of this painting by El Greco, The Agony in the Garden, explaining that the rock and dark clouds represented the sin that Christ took on himself almost overwhelming him, but there is a ray of light from heaven. The image always stayed with me.

  6. Karen Avatar

    Yes. Thank you, Father, for this and for your comment about Psalm 22.

    Palm Sunday I was visiting my parents for Easter and attended their Evangelical church’s Easter service, which was wonderfully uplifting in many ways. The pastor’s message, however, hinged on the reading of Christ’s words from the Cross, “My God, my God . . .” as indicating the Father’s actual turning away from Christ while He became sin for us, since the pastor claimed, the Father “cannot look upon our sin.”

    There was much in my parents’ pastor’s message to commend it and that was compatible with Orthodox teaching, but this false framework for understanding what was taking place in Christ’s crucifixion (and I would say by implication even the true nature of the OT sin offering that prefigured Christ’s sacrifice, which is better understood as participation than as a sort of contractual legal transaction/exchange) effectively distorted all that.

    Considering the nature of the whole of Psalm 22, it seems to me its message really pivots around one little key sentence at the end vs. 21, “You have answered Me.” Contrary, to the teaching I heard Sunday, even upon the Cross the real faith and understanding of Christ (which is deeper than His subjective human experience in the midst of His suffering, which is indeed also ours) would seem rather to be found in the second half of that Psalm–particularly in vs. 24, “For He has not despised nor abhorred the affliction of the afflicted; Nor has He hidden His face from Him; But when He cried to Him, He heard.” Certainly, this is what the whole economy of the Incarnation of Christ (“slain from the foundation of the world”) demonstrates quite vividly.

    Those who witnessed Christ’s crucifixion may have indeed “esteemed Him smitten by God and afflicted” (as Isaiah 53 states) and equated this with His having been forsaken by God (as Job’s traditionalist “comforters” seem to have done with Job’s suffering), but the Scripture never states this abandonment (“looking away”) as an objective spiritual reality from God’s perspective. As you say, this interpretation is “not quite accurate”!

    As Hebrews 12:2 states of Christ’s ever-faithful attitude, ” . . . who for the joy set before Him, endured the Cross despising its shame . . .” (emphasis mine).

  7. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    The “God cannot bear to look at sin,” and the turning away from Christ on the Cross is pretty much a standard treatment in Evangelical Christianity – sort of a theological cliche. It is, of course, incorrect, but is repeated so many times and so widely that it is said as though it were a pillar of orthodoxy.

    Such thoughts, like the penal substitution, are very pervasive (and wrong). It propels me to write more.

  8. Byron Avatar

    A wonderful reflection, Karen.

    And thank you for this, Father! As ever, much appreciated.

  9. Fr. David Avatar
    Fr. David

    I encountered a poignant example of the pervasive “sin is separation from God” sentiment some years ago, sitting in on a teaching by a seasoned Orthodox scholar. A protestant in the audience said something along that line, “but my sin has separated me from God” – the teacher chuckled and responded, “That’s quite impossible: if you were separated from God, you would cease to exist!” It resonates with much Fr. Stephen has reflected upon here, especially in the last few months.

  10. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    The fallacy rests in the belief that because our sin makes it difficult to be in communion with God on our part we experience a separation but that does not mean God is separated from us.

    The Incarnation alone should put that idea to rest should it not?

  11. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It is said that “God cannot look upon evil.” This sentiment is based on a poor translation in English of Hab. 1:13 There are reasons why theologians should read the original languages and understand them (preachers, too).

    That verse says something like God being to holy to “look upon” evil, but the Hebrew (nabat) has more the meaning of “looking on with approval or delight.”

    And there are these verses that clearly indicate quite the opposite:

    “For the eyes of the Lord run to and fro throughout the whole earth, to show Himself strong on behalf of those whose heart is loyal to Him.” 2 Chr. 16:9

    “For His eyes are on the ways of man, And He sees all his steps.” Job 34:21

    “The Lord looks from heaven; He sees all the sons of men. From the place of His dwelling He looks On all the inhabitants of the earth; He fashions their hearts individually; He considers all their works.” Ps. 33:13-15

    “For the ways of man are before the eyes of the Lord, And He ponders all his paths.” Prov. 5:21

    “The eyes of the Lord are in every place, Keeping watch on the evil and the good.” Prov. 15:3

    “For My eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from My face, nor is their iniquity hidden from My eyes.” Jer. 16:17

    “You are great in counsel and mighty in work, for your eyes are open to all the ways of the sons of men, to give everyone according to his ways and according to the fruit of his doings.” Jer. 32:19

    “And there is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.” Heb. 4:13

    Bad translation. Bad theology. Wrong God. Very sad.

  12. Barbara Avatar

    And in Hagar’s name for God – “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” This interaction between Hagar and God touches me profoundly.

  13. Panayiota Avatar

    Father, your post reminds me that I am only thru able to rightly read Genesis (Adam and Eve), and the Wedding at Cana thru the light of the Resurrection.

  14. Karen Avatar

    Me, too, Barbara!

  15. Aaron I Avatar
    Aaron I

    The fallacy of God turning from humanity (and turning away from Christ on the cross) was my basic worldview for most of my life as an “Reformed” Christian. It led to the quite logically to the theology of penal substitution as the paradigm of salvation where Christ took all the wrath of God destined for us. If the basic presupposition is flawed, so will the resultant soteriology.

    It was when I began to see God as truly God that I saw that such theologies were deeply misguided. Firstly, it denied the impassibility of God – and posited that my acts change the disposition or demeanor of an unchanging God. As much as my Calvinist background liked to tout that all Reformed theology was God centered and not man centered – the truth was – in that theology the very being of God is dictated by man’s sin. God as love becomes the God of death (pronounced in Eden) because His attitude – His love – is dictated by the response of His creatures? That became a non-starter. Understanding that death was an ontological result of turning away from live Himself and not a pronouncement of judgment was a start.

    Of course this opened up a can of worms in regards to satisfaction atonement. How can God turn from Himself? If the Trinity is unity – indivisible and NOT three Gods, but three inseparable persons, then there cannot be a time when one part of the Trinity “abandons” or “turns away” from any other hypostases. If the Father turned from Christ on the Cross – then He has truly denied Himself – divided the indivisible – rent Love from top to bottom – and therefore the bery being of God as Love. It took two years to work through the various aspects of these problems…and when I came out the other end through studying Patristics – I found to my dismay that I was Orthodox. Dismay is now utter joy…and the incomprehensible fullness of a Church I never truly believed existed – but gave lip service to is now a living reality for me – as is a proper respect for God.

    Speaking of bad translations, bad theology…it is, indeed, very sad. I had a conversation recently with an evangelical seminary colleague of mine, (with a similar Calvinist background) who was truly perplexed when I said to Him – “No – God has never turned his back – or given up on humanity – it is quite the opposite.” He instantly began to quote a passage from Romans 1:24 – emphasizing that God “gives us up” over and over. He was sooooo emphatic – “He gave us up! He – gave – us – up! The Scripture says!” I instantly could see the thought processes he was going through…the arguments about God needing to maintain holiness and justice…about God being outraged at the sin of man.

    The look on his face was just confusion when I responded that the modern colloquial content we give to the expression “I give up” was neither intended or implied either in the KJV translation for “give up” – nor is it implied in the Greek – and that a good translation for παρέδωκεν is “give over.” This is simply the equivalent of “if you love somebody – set them free…” Love necessitates freedom. Being made in the image of He who is truly free and truly Love, necessitates being free to reject life Himself. Psalm 81 shows this clearly – “But My people did not listen to My voice, And Israel did not obey Me. So I gave them over to the stubbornness of their heart, To walk in their own devices. Oh that My people would listen to Me, That Israel would walk in My ways!”

    It is not God who cannot look upon our sins – Our sins harm only us and the creation we were to protect, they do not harm God. His response is only love and compassion and the desire for us to turn from deception and death back to Him. It is not God who cannot look upon our sins…he sees and knows all…It is we who cannot look upon our own sins – and therefore it is we who fracture the relationship with He in whom we “live,move and have our being.” Turning away from what binds our existence together; Love – that is God Himself – we fracture the only relationship that sustains life itself. And yet, He sustains us out of mercy and compassion.

    It amazes me that as evangelicals we never understood that blaming God for our death is like blaming oxygen for suffocating us because we refused to breathe.

    My seminary friend is now looking into Orthodoxy. May God bless his journey and bring him home.

  16. Aaron I Avatar

    I forgot to thank you Fr. Freeman for your wonderful thoughts. As usual you are a blessing to us all.

    I’m interested in the phrasing of John 5 you use at the beginning of your post. While I feel very clear and confident about the relationship and corollary of sin and death being interchangeable, I could see someone taking issue with the translation here and the use of thanaton and harmartia as equivalents. I wonder how one might address such an objection?

  17. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Actually, it’s not a quote from John. It’s just me. I italicized it as a sort of heading for the article.

  18. napoleonsays Avatar

    Fr Stephen,

    I am confused by this:

    “Bad translation. Bad theology. Wrong God. Very sad.”

    Here’s why: I’ve heard Orthodox say things like “we don’t know how God works outside of the Church” or “God is working everywhere all the time in the non-Orthodox”. I’ve also heard the term “accidental Orthodox” (I think you used it regarding a church in Appalachia). So, if someone believes in Penal Substitution and is believing in the wrong God, can they be saved? It seems there’s some conflict there that I can’t resolve.

  19. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    He’s a good God and loves mankind. We are saved by His goodness and mercy, not by correct theology. But “bad theology, i.e. wrong God,” makes all kinds of problems for people and their lives. He saved the pagans and even borrowed their language and a fair amount of Plato, etc. And there is so much grace at work everywhere.

    I was raised under the penal substitution God with no exposure to Orthodoxy other than reading some of the Bible (an Orthodox document). But I rejected the penal substitution theory when I was 13 years old – with all my heart in what was essentially a blasphemous outrage at the time – and I never, ever turned back. How was that possible? Some grace was obviously at work in and through my Appalachian childhood. I knew there was something wrong in it.

    My first real helpful clue to the truth was reading Gustav Aulen when I was in seminary and started thinking about the atonement. I thought about it for the next 10 years before Orthodox coins began to drop and something of a cogent answer took shape. (There were still very few Orthodox materials on the topic in print.)

    There still needs to be a book, I think, that does in a cogent, non-shrill manner what the article River of Fire does. It needs to not ridicule or caricature but be readable and straightforward.

  20. Gene B Avatar
    Gene B

    I think you need to write that book. I think the dialogue you have here is creating the language and arguments necessary for it.

    I know I have stated this before in an earlier response, but when I travel and talk to people about Christ I am struck at how little people know, even those that call themselves Christians. Perhaps the book can be made very simple, starting from the beginning with the fall of man and God’s relationship to us. There are too many books written by (and therefore for) PhDs and and other academics. People with IQs below 100 need something written for them too.

    Father, I think you are the one to do it.

    I wish you a blessed Pascha, my favorite season.

  21. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Bad theology has the most effect on people outside the church, IMO. People with big hearts and lots of empathy but no experience or foundation in God. They turn away from the false god believing that, as bad as the theology is, it is correct. They end up hating a false god and harden their hearts against the real God. Ultimately, that begins to harden their hearts against everyone else too–cynicism is often the result.

    With these people, if God is mentioned in any context except rejecting Him, the ears and heart are mostly closed.

    The trick and it is a grace actually, is to reject the untruth but keep on looking for the truth. Wanting with all of your heart to know the truth will protect you from a lot of untruth, even if you are in the midst of it. Wanting the truth allows you to recognize it/Him when He makes Himself known, however He makes Himself known.

    Of course bad theology can become a wall against recognizing the truth as well and turn into an ideology, even a sort of idol worship.

  22. Ronald Sunguti Avatar
    Ronald Sunguti

    It is good to learn about this two types of deaths I.e the one leads to live and that of death.

  23. napoleonsays Avatar

    Fr. Stephen.

    Thank you for that. Very helpful! Personally, it took me a long time to reject those things as they were seen as the heart of the gospel itself. About 6 years ago I began to be crushed by the weight of penal sub and double predestination (I was running in neo-Calvinist circles then). It created a lot of despair. I was convinced I was damned and couldn’t do anything about it because of all of my moral shortcomings. The shortcomings were the proof that I wasn’t elect. It was all kinds of awful. Praise be to God a friend who was a convert and who I’d known for over a decade took me to a Divine Liturgy. The first time I heard the words – “You are a good God who loves mankind”, all of that damning weight was lifted. Me and my wife entered the church 2 years later!

  24. Sunny Edgren Avatar
    Sunny Edgren

    I enjoy reading the comments below your posts almost as much as I enjoy reading the posts themselves! It’s encouraging to see other Orthodox Christians really passionate about the faith and sharing bits of their own journeys. And there are often pearls in your comments that I wouldn’t get otherwise.

  25. Boyd Avatar

    Fr. Stephen,

    Does this meditation presume a literal understanding of the Genesis story?

  26. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    It does not. The “literal” reading of Genesis always creates as many problems as it is imagined to solve. Whatever it says about our literal historical beginnings is not terribly interesting to me. The Old Testament is about Christ, and that’s of a great deal of interest to me. I think the conversations about literal vs. figurative when it comes to Scripture are often unfruitful and mostly used as a litmus test by people who are sure that there are secret unbelievers who are undermining the faith who must be identified and silenced.

  27. Boyd Avatar

    Good. Thank you.

  28. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    Regarding “that book” “that does in a cogent, non-shrill manner what the article River of Fire does:”

    I think there are a few audiences with different exposures to the penal substitution problem. One is those who are traumatized by bad theology because they go to church or would like to. Another is

  29. MichaelPatrick Avatar

    I accidentally posted before finishing – sorry 🙁

    Regarding “that book” “that does in a cogent, non-shrill manner what the article River of Fire does:”

    I think there are a few audiences with different exposures to the penal substitution problem. One is those who are traumatized by bad theology because they go to church or would like to. Another is Christians who see everything in their relation to God through a moralized lens that’s colored by penal substitution, where god is first and foremost a judge of mankind. Finally, secular onlookers who can only think of Christianity through one of the above distortions.

  30. Aaron I Avatar


    Absolutely! I often think of men like Sam Harris and the new atheists whose only real understanding of Christianity is the caricature presented by Western PSA proponents – who are “loud and proud.”

    I am reminded of Alexei Khomaikov’s statement about the situation this has put people in;

    “Both Romanism and Protestantism have been plunged wholly (without suspecting it) into that logical antinomy into which every living thing falls as long as it sees things only from the logical point of view. But what are the results of the conflict? In all truthfulness, there is nothing comforting here for either side. Both are strong in attack and weak in defense, since both are equally wrong, and equally condemned by reason and the witness of history. At every moment each of the warring parties can pride itself on a spectacular victory; but in the meantime both are constantly defeated, and the field of battle is left to unbelief. If the need for faith had not compelled many people to close their eyes to the inconsistency of a religion accepted only because it was impossible to get along without it, and if the same need had not compelled even those who do not seriously believe in religion to continue to hold on to what they once accepted, unbelief would long ago have conquered the field.”

  31. Roman glass Avatar
    Roman glass

    Thank you for the beautiful meditation!

  32. Leonard Nugent Avatar
    Leonard Nugent

    Aaron, I found Alexei Khomaikov’s quote to be edifying. Thanks for posting it!

  33. Karen Avatar

    I believe I’ve noted before in other threads, it’s quite an inconsistency that Evangelicals and Reformed can often admonish their fellow believers, “If God seems far away, guess who moved?”–the point being, our sin compels us to move away and hide from God (as in the Genesis story), not Him from us–but in talking about the nature of the Atonement, turn this on its head and say the very opposite!

  34. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Karen, et al
    My graduate theological training was in Systematic Theology, a field that does not traditionally have much of a place in Orthodoxy. It is a Catholic and especially Protestant discipline. What it is, essentially, is an effort to work out theologically, a “system,” in which all the various components fit properly. It is an interesting way of disciplining thought.

    I recall one seminar when we read about 12 different “Systematics.” One by this theologian, one by that, etc. And then they were dissected and critiqued. One of the easy critiques was “does this actually hold together.” Most such efforts tended to have some core idea, but then had to create little sub-ideas to handle other aspects of the full range of Christian theology.

    This can be compared to the “Unified Field Theory” in physics. Can there be a single theory that properly accounts for the physical phenomenon that we see and can it be experimentally verified? The reason such a thing is desirable is the instinct that we live in a “Uni-verse” that there is some sort of single theory that undergirds reality as it is.

    It is, I think, a very valid critique in Christian theology. Whenever you have to create small side-theories to explain this or that thing – all it says is that you’re basic assumptions and explanations are faulty.

    When I observe about Orthodox Theology that it has a cogency and that the understanding of union undergirds everything, it’s because that primary, single understanding, in fact, holds up consistently across all aspects of the Church’s teaching and of the Christian experience. Orthodoxy is easily the most complete and sublime Systematic Theology that I know – and it is that without anyone ever trying to make it so. It is what it is because what it teaches is true. It’s really that simple.

    It’s also one of the reasons that I harp on the understanding of union. Many writing in Orthodoxy are influenced by various streams of Protestant and Catholic theology. Whenever they import something that is not part of proper Orthodox thought – something grounded elsewhere than union with God, then it diminishes the faith and creates little problematic areas.

    It’s why, for example, I oppose various moralistic imports the way I do. They are not truly native – and are often expressed in terms that fail to mesh properly with Orthodoxy. Many writers don’t see this – because they’ve been ill-trained or undertrained (in my opinion).

    The inconsistencies out there are “damning” critiques, I think, and are fair game for observation.

  35. napoleonsays Avatar

    Fr Stephen,

    I was thinking about this line a lot over the last few days and now it is giving me more questions:

    “We are saved by His goodness and mercy, not by correct theology.”

    So at what point does wrong doctrine begin to matter? It seems to me that it matters a lot since heresies like Arianism are spoken of with such disdain. I suppose I’m a bit confused now because over the arc of Orthodox history, there has been a serious and devout effort to protect the truth within doctrine. Or am I missing something? It seems like correct theology has to matter at a certain point or heresy wouldn’t be so dangerous.


  36. Peter Avatar

    Michael et al,
    For a striking example of the baleful consequences of substitution-atonement theology, look at its effect on Abraham Lincoln:

    Lincoln hadn’t always been much concerned with God. As a young man he admired the skeptic Thomas Paine.

    Paine’s ‘Age of Reason’ savaged Christianity, especially the belief that Jesus died to atone for men’s sins:
    “The Christian story of God the Father putting his son to death, or employing people to do it . . . cannot be told by a parent to a child; and to tell him that it was done to make mankind happier and better is making the story still worse, as if mankind could be improved by the example of murder.”

    Young Lincoln was so impressed, he wrote a Paine-ite pamphlet of his own, and planned to have it printed — until Samuel Hill, an older friend, burned it.

    The Paine quote apparently admired by Lincoln is a caricature, how can one not still feel its force? To escape such a teaching — whether for Orthodoxy or, it seems in Lincoln’s case, a fiercely guarded atheism — must needs be a relief.

  37. Peter Avatar

    I should add, I’m by no means suggesting that Lincoln’s early atheism could be a real or adequate salve for his soul. Just that in relation to what he believed himself to be rejecting he might well be forgiven for believing as much.

  38. Byron Avatar

    “There still needs to be a book, I think, that does in a cogent, non-shrill manner what the article River of Fire does. It needs to not ridicule or caricature but be readable and straightforward.”

    Please write, Father.

  39. Byron Avatar

    “So at what point does wrong doctrine begin to matter? It seems to me that it matters a lot since heresies like Arianism are spoken of with such disdain. ”

    Napoleonsays, doctrine matters inasmuch as it helps bring us into relationship with the Truth. As an example, if we pursue life with a view that embraces the substitution-atonement theology that is being discussed, we will not walk correctly in our relationship with God and with others around us because our view of these relationships is distorted–and this affects the relationships themselves. Doctrine itself is not salvific but incorrect doctrine can destroy the relationships we are trying to cultivate (both with God and others).

    If I have mis-stated this (or completely missed the point), anyone please correct me.

  40. Napoleonsays Avatar

    that’s somewhat helpful. I still have a lot to learn, obviously. There are things I didn’t get early on that I get now. Perhaps this is one of them and in a few years it’ll make more sense.

  41. Yannis Avatar

    Right at the top of the comments, there is a question by Ryan concerning the correct interpretation of Rev. 13:9, as regards whether the adverbial phrase “from the foundation of the world” refers to “slain” or to “written”.

    Well, in the Greek, the phrase is at the end of the verse, immediately after the verb “slain”, while the verb “written” occurs much earlier in the sentence. Grammatically, one could try and interpret it as “written in the (book of life of the lamb that was slain) from the foundation of the world” but this would be very strange as the syntactical positioning makes it plain which verb the phrase refers to.

    Of course, if ones view of the crucifixion is primarily historical, the phrase is indeed puzzling until repositioned further up the sentence, as was obviously done by the, presumably Evangelical, translators of the version mentioned.

  42. Dino Avatar

    its a valid point and – to me- I think that what goes further than any possible interpretation of Rev 13:9 is the parable of the Prodigal Son. From the beginning of this story it is shown that the response of the father to the demands of the younger son is the Crucifixion – since it has the same “kenotic” character.

    This is because the father of the parable accepts to be behaved towards (from his son) as if he is already dead. He is not really dead, but the deeper structure of their relationship implies on the part of the son, this perception of the father’s death. And what does this mean for the son? It means that he is given a perfect and absolute freedom: freedom to act as if there were no longer a father; freedom to behave in towards his father as if it he is nothing.

    This is the freedom God gave to man at his creation. He left him free to behave like He did not exist, as if He, the Creator, were dead. And even further, He allowed man to even “kill Him” if he wants.

    In this respect the creation of man contains within it the Cross. The creation of man by God as an act of emptying and self-offering, includes the death of God on the Cross from the very beginning…

  43. Ryan Avatar

    Hi Yannis,

    Thanks for your answer! I was wondering if Fr. Stephen had overlooked it. That makes a lot of sense.

  44. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I hadn’t overlooked it, but I forgot it. Holy Week, Pascha…

    Yannis’ is spot on. It is also a dramatic illustration of the “politics” of translations. If the Scriptures matter to someone, it’s hard not to see the requirement of learning some amount of Greek (and Hebrew if possible).

    This year, during the reading of the 4 gospels during Holy Week (we extend it over 4 days). I followed along in the Greek when I wasn’t reading myself. It was a sort of “speed reading” exercise and a joy.

  45. Boyd Avatar

    Do you have a recommended resource for learning Greek and Hebrew?

  46. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    I do not. I don’t doubt that the world of language-learning has evolved enormously since my day. Perhaps one of our readers will have a suggestion.

  47. Dino Avatar

    I was dismayed to see two modern Greek translation explaining this the wrong way too (i.e.: “written in the from the foundation of the world” Rev 13-8) ! Although there are loads of other mistakes in them, (especially concerning the rendering of Revelations) this adds to them.

    It goes against 1 Peter 1:19 – 1:20 which more or less has the same meaning (i.e. the Lamb is slain from the foundation of the world)

  48. Avatar


    In awe of the sacrifice and great love revealed here in this post in light of a recent death of a young mother in our family. Personally, and with the whole family we are trying to make sense of it. I have avoided the pain of looking at the crucified Christ, and in honesty chosen even not to hear about it. But by the death of this young cousin and approaching death of my mother-in-law, I am forced once again to see death close up. The reason for the crucifixion of Christ is hard to understand. How can someone die for your sins, like a ransom in a transaction? Frederica Mathewes-Greene says it was more like a rescue mission of Christ’s, rather than ransom and that makes more sense to me. Fulfilling all righteousness…leaves me speechless.
    Thank you for this article, it is very helpful for understanding the Christian mystery.


  49. Heather Avatar

    When we become entangled with something…we become its “other half.” Similar to a marriage. Similar to being two halves of the same whole.

    The tree of knowledge of good and evil contained all possibilities. When we ate of that tree, we became entangled with it, and began to die.

    The tree of life contains only what is edifying and good for us and has a more limited range of knowledge…but knowledge that is paired with God’s divine nature, therefore making it safe to humanly consume. Anything added to that tree of knowledge would have been too much for us to bear, as knowledge outside of the realm of what is given to us by God, due to our human nature, would not be divinely inspired…and would add the element and possibility of sin…leading to death. When we ate of the tree of life, we were entangled with all that was divine and good…and our bodies, like the tree…had eternal life.

    The tree of knowledge of good and evil is just like dark matter. It is there for balance in our universe. Because we chose to not just eat from the tree of life, we became separated from it and now the only thing that we can eat from or draw our knowledge from, is the tree of knowledge of both good and evil…which now includes death. It holds both good and evil because it contains all knowledge…and all knowledge has all possibilities.

    If we were God, we would be able to control ourselves with that knowledge. But because we are not God…our selfish desires use that knowledge for evil. Both ends of the spectrum provide the framework for this world that we now live in. And it’s purpose now is to hold all possibilities which provides for free will.

    When it is accessed properly, and cautiously and places others first…we become entangled with the “goodness” that is within the realm of all possibility.
    When we instead focus on the negative and self fulfilling possibilities that are within all knowledge and all possibilities, dark matter is converted into dark energy…gobbling up dark matter in the process, and limiting the choices available to not only allow our world to remain stable, but for our internal world to remain stable. It takes all possibilities and converts it into one thing instead of all things. It replaces everything available to us, with one dark force. Evil.

    The tree of life was once a choice that included only one possibility…and that was life through Jesus Christ. When we chose to go and eat the other tree, we immediately were entangled with a world that no longer guaranteed life, due to the possibility of death also dwelling within the tree of the knowledge of both good and evil.

    What we do when we focus on negative things, is we start to convert the tree of the knowledge of good and evil into something entirely different. Dark matter is gobbled up by intentional focus of evil things…and that dark matter becomes replaced by a very different tree. One that eliminates life…and enhances the power of darkness and death.

    In the end, we will either be entangled with the rapidly developing tree of death, or we will choose to entangle ourselves with Jesus, who enables us to be one day reunited to the tree of life that we were separated from after the fall. Without him, you have no mediator to the tree of life…and without a selfless loving heart, you will instead be entangled to the tree of knowledge of good and evil…and eventually you will inherit eternal death instead of eternal life.

    Christ hung on the tree of death symbolically when he shed his blood for you on the cross. He paid the price and became the mediator between you and the tree of life that you have been separated from due to the fall.

    Put your faith in the blood, and you will produce good fruit from the realm of possibilities that we have been given through the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. When Christ returns…he will know you by that fruit, and he will reunite you with the Tree of Everlasting Life.

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