The so-called “problem of evil” garners enduring attention in our culture. I recall in my freshman philosophy class the conundrum was used as the “coup de grace” in the logical assault on God’s existence. “Not only does God not exist, He’s not even good.” Poor God. All of this is made even more poignant in our comfortable world of modern prosperity where minor setbacks are seen to unravel the universe. The fathers of the Church were no strangers to suffering. More than a few were the victims of torture and persecution. They lived in a world of high infant mortality where 50 years of age was “old,” and where even minor illness (by today’s standards) could prove fatal. Life was indeed “brutish and short.”
Evil has always been a serious business, and was carefully discussed within the course of the Church’s teaching. It is often poorly understood in modern conversations, as are some of the most important aspects of classical Christian foundations. One of those foundations that remains utterly essential is the Christian affirmation of the goodness of creation. I offer here a short summary of the classical teaching, as well as a suggestion for thinking about those things we call “evil” in the world. Perhaps most striking in my suggestions is what I call “unfallen suffering.”
God created all that exists – out of nothing. Thus, everything that has being is utterly dependent upon God for its initial existence and continued existence. He not only brings into existence, He also sustains. All that God created was/is good. Nothing, simply by virtue of its existence, is evil.
Evil is not a “thing,” an “existence.” Evil is a direction, in fact, a misdirection. Everything created has, as part of its being, its purpose and direction. This is its telos, it’s end-point. Evil is nothing other than the deviation from the telos or end-point of our being.
In looking at this, the Fathers say that evil has no existence. It is not anything. Neither is it “nothing.” “Being” is not a category that applies to evil. Evil is only a direction, a movement. It is the movement of good things in the wrong direction.
Bearing this in mind, it is possible to look at anything within our world, and consider its proper direction and the goodness of its existence. This is sometimes a painful exercise, given the wounds we bear from our own suffering and that of others.
For example, there is nothing “evil” about a bacterium. Indeed, there are more bacteria in the human gut than there are cells in the human body. Digestion and any number of other processes necessary to human existence would be impossible without the continued, healthy existence of certain bacteria in our digestive tract. We have a symbiotic relationship with such bacteria. Their “goodness” is easy to contemplate.
On the other hand, there are bacteria that are deadly for us. Bacterial pneumonia is a killer. But the life and nature of bacterial pneumonia is no different from that of the beneficial bacteria in our gut. All that differs is the distorted direction or movement in pneumonia. The bacteria in that disease do the same things the bacteria do in your gut, but they do it in the wrong way, at the wrong time, in the wrong direction. And they kill you.
There is nothing inherently wrong with human freedom. It is a gift from God. And yet, we use that freedom in actions of violence and murder and any number of evil things. The freedom is not evil (though many would restrict freedom in order to have less violence). What is evil is not the freedom, but the direction in which it moves.
I will reach for something even greater. I suggest that we may think of such a thing as “unfallen suffering.” Because the suffering we endure in this world is often the result of evil actions and distorted directions, it is possible to simply conclude that suffering is inherently evil. Understood in a certain manner, this is true. If, by “suffering,” we mean only to describe a movement that is a deviation from the proper telos of a thing, then it is synonymous with that movement we call “evil.” However, suffering seems to have a meaning other than this. St. Paul, for example, prays:
…that I may know Him and the power of His resurrection, and the communion of His sufferings, being conformed to His death, if, by any means, I may attain to the resurrection from the dead. (Phi 3:10-11)
St. Paul is not asking to experience evil, even though he specifically asks for the communion of Christ’s suffering.
The suffering and death of Christ is something that we may call a “two-sided” icon. On the one hand, seen from the perspective of the Roman soldiers and the leaders who called for His torture and execution, His death appears to be the very image of evil, the wicked torture and murder of the innocent. But this icon always was a misreading of His suffering and death. That fact reveals something about the true nature of suffering, and the reality that I am describing as “unfallen suffering.”
However, we speak wisdom among those who are mature, yet not the wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age, who are coming to nothing. But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God ordained before the ages for our glory, which none of the rulers of this age knew; for had they known, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory. (1Co 2:6-8)
The “rulers of this age” (the demonic powers) see only the wrong side of the icon. They perceive Christ’s suffering and death as His defeat. They see it as the triumph of evil. But it is the “hidden” wisdom of God. The suffering of Christ is not defeat, nor can it be seen as the work of evil. St. John Chrysostom is careful to say: “On the night in which He was given up, or rather when He gave Himself up to death…” St. Basil joins in the same emphasis:
For when He was about to go forth to His voluntary, ever-memorable and life-creating death,
This is a “life-creating” death, a description that can in no way be attributed to evil. The suffering of Christ is not a misdirection nor a deviation from its telos. And that, of course, is quite puzzling.
The heart of this puzzle, I think, lies within the nature of love itself. Christ says, “Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13). We are told by St. John that “God is love.” We understand within the teaching of the Church that there is indeed a “laying down of life” within the very Godhead. This is the mutual self-emptying of the Persons of the Trinity. We hear bits and pieces of this in various statements of Christ. He speaks of the hiddenness of the Father who can only be known through the Son. The Father delights in Him and has given all things into His hands. Christ Himself does not do His own will but only the will of the Father. The Spirit does not speak of the things concerning Himself, but only of Christ, and so on. One contemporary theologian has said, “The Father only knows Himself as He sees Himself in His Son.” I think this is profoundly true.
Our human experience would judge such self-emptying actions to be a form of suffering. If we can say that the preference of the other over the self is a form of suffering, then we must also say that it is “unfallen” suffering, for it is a reflection of the very love of God. Consider this saying:
Therefore My Father loves Me, because I lay down My life that I may take it again. No one takes it from Me, but I lay it down of Myself. I have power to lay it down, and I have power to take it again. This command I have received from My Father. (John 10:17-18)
Christ is not “killed” on the Cross: He lays down His life on the Cross. This is a very different thing.
This image of Christ’s self-offering is also the perfect icon of love, the most sublime example of the very heart of His commandments. We are commanded to take up our Cross as well. We are not commanded to do evil.
Modern thought has largely come to equate evil with pain. The relief of pain seems to be its definition for “doing good.” Of course, in great irony, this understanding has given rise to various reasonings to justify killing: of the unborn, of the sick, etc. Suffering in this model has lost its significance and meaning. Only pleasure and self-fulfillment have value. This is the ultimate outcome of a consumer ethic.
Christ’s teaching is wholly opposed to Mammon as God. It does not teach acquisitiveness, but generosity. It is self-giving in every instance.
There was an ancient heresy called “Theopaschism,” one that said “God suffered on the Cross.” Chalcedonian Orthodoxy would say more precisely, God, according to His human nature, suffered on the Cross. This can be misunderstood in a manner that utterly isolates God from His creation. However, we must say that Christ, the Second Person of the Trinity, is the subject of the Cross, and not a mere observer of His human nature. Much of this conundrum can be better understood if we see that Christ’s death and resurrection are themselves a revelation of God rather than simply an event that happens to God. God is not changed in the death and resurrection of Christ. Rather, He is made known and the mystery of His love is revealed.
This reality is hinted at when we are told that Christ is the “Lamb slain from the foundation of the world” (Rev. 13:8). Equally, St. John makes it clear in His gospel that the “glory” of God and the crucifixion of Christ are synonymous. The crucifixion is not a mere remedy of sin, but a revelation of the glory of God.
Consider this statement (from The Art of Seeing: Paradox and Perception in Orthodox Iconography, Kindle, 1369)
The contours marked out by the “form of the slave” encompass fully the person and work of Christ, for his whole life was an ongoing sacrifice, a ceaseless self-offering. “All his life, while he was with us, had been nothing but unceasing suffering. Golgotha is only the concluding act, in which everything came together in a climactic point.”1 Christ’s death on the cross was neither an isolated event nor a tragic derailment of his mission, but rather the revelation of the very form of his being. In this way, the self-emptying described by St. Paul is the realization in time of Christ’s eternal, self-sacrificing love, for he is the “Lamb of God” (John 1: 29, 36), who was “slain before the foundation of the world” (Rev 13: 8), and who “will continue to suffer, until the end of time.” 2 The mystery through all time and space, of God’s presence and participation in the suffering of all living things, makes the sign of the cross an affirmation of all that is, ever was, or shall ever be. In this way, the divine self-emptying becomes a foundational, indeed universal, principle, so that “whoever has understood the mystery of the cross has understood the essential content of all things.” 3
This is the image revealed to us in Christ’s death and resurrection. I have termed it “unfallen suffering,” for it does not destroy nor divert nor damage, but renews, makes whole, indeed, it makes us divine.
Footnotes for this article