Thinking About Good and Evil

Recent conversations have brought up questions about good and evil, particularly in the natural world. When the world is locked down in response to a virus, it is easy to wonder about the nature of things. Can a virus be called “evil?” Is that the right word for it? In truth, we use words in a very loose manner in our common speech. We say “evil” about many things, without thinking carefully (or meaning to) about what we’re actually saying. This changes, however, when we attempt to do theology. For theology is always something that involves words, and often turns on the right use of the right word for the right thing. Classically, some of the largest controversies turned on a single iota.

We do not speak with precision in our daily life, and it is silly to expect that we should. But, it is also good to pause, now and again, to think carefully about our speech and what we mean. This article is a small attempt to speak carefully about the nature of good and evil and how Orthodox theology, at its most careful, speaks of them. I’ll also try to define my terms with some care. Here goes.

The Fathers, particularly the Cappadocians through Dionysius and St. Maximus the Confessor, belonged to a school of speech that took great care to hammer away at certain terms, reaching consensus on use and meaning. The seven Great Councils all belong to a single vocabulary project that, over time, developed a working consensus on terms and their application. Some of those words are key:






This list could be expanded even further, but I’ll stop with this. There are some fundamental ideas in all of this. First, and foremost, is the understanding of “being.”

Being, like goodness, and beauty, is foundational. Everything that exists, apart from God, is created out of nothing. And everything(!) that is created is good. God is not the author of evil. Thus, nothing can be said to be “evil” in its actual being. And here we have to think carefully about our language.

When reading classical theology, “essence” or “ousia” or “substance” all refer to the actual being of something – the simple reality that it is. Further, the word “nature,” or “physis,” is used to describe the “what-ness” of something. Thus, a tree has the nature of a tree; a rock has the nature of a rock; an angel has the nature of an angel, etc. If we ask what the “nature” of a tree is, we would answer “to be what a tree is.” A tree is not a rock nor an angel. Again, these are words that describe “being” or “what something is.”

The terms “person” and “hypostatic” are a bit more problematic. For nothing simply “is.” Everything that exists, exists in a particular manner. The tree outside my window is a unique tree and not just the essence of treeness. This expresses something of the uniqueness of what exists. It not only has being (essence), but a particular being (hypostasis).

When speaking of human beings, “hypostasis” or “person” have a quality that is more than mere particularity. There is a relational aspect of our unique existence. I am not fully “who” I am except as I am also in communion with others (more or less).

Related to this, with regard to all things, are the words “existence” and “subsistence.” Something not only has “being,” but the actual being it has is expressed in some manner that is describable. My “existence” encompasses everything that I am doing and every way that I function. Thus, if something is “existential,” it is a matter of the basic expression of my being in a way that can be described and experienced.

Two additional words are quite interesting: “will” and “energy.” Interestingly, the “will” in its most proper meaning, is a faculty and property of the nature (our essence or being). It is a nature’s drive to naturally be what it is created to be. Trees never want to be anything else. A virus wants what a virus wants (by nature). It does not do something else. You can count on it.

Human beings, however, have a different experience of the will, a consequence of our brokenness and lack of communion with God. We have a natural will (the will of our nature), that always tends towards our proper end, that is, what we were created to do and be. But there is what St. Maximus termed the “gnomic” will – a sort of experience of choosing. That will is not governed by our nature but has a kind of unguided freedom. Generally, when we speak of the “will,” we mean this “gnomic” will. The very fact that we have one is not natural. It is unnatural and is a cause of great suffering in our lives. Christian ascesis, to a large extent, concerns itself with the healing of this disruption in our makeup.

Indeed, according to the authoritative teaching of St. Maximus, Christ Himself did not have a “gnomic” will – a separated, fallen, choosing sort of confusion about His actions. He acted with complete integrity and union as a human being (united with His Divine nature). This can quickly become a very complicated discussion, so I will leave it at that. I will say that we often speak about the human will and human freedom in a manner that ignores this distinction and leads to some very false assumptions about what it means to be human.

For what it’s worth, we see a somewhat similar kind of integrity in the actions and life of the Theotokos. But that’s for another day.

“Energy” is a very interesting word. For years I imagined it in terms of physics, thinking it described some sort of force emanating from a being. However, it’s far more simple. “Energies” are our actions, our “doings.” With God, His actions and His being are one. God is what He is and He is what He does. We’re a bit more problematic.

Our doings are often in contradiction to our being. For example, anything we do that is a movement or action against true existence (our being) is a contradiction of who and what we are. Murder is an action that is inherently evil. Note, it’s not the “being” that is evil, but the misuse of the being in its evil actions.

The Fathers (particularly the Cappadocians, Dionysius, Maximus, etc.) view the creation as inherently good, which is also the same thing as saying that it exists and has being. But they do not see the creation as having the fullness of the Good. Everything that exists is created to move towards union and full participation in the Good (God Himself). Creation is dynamic and moves and changes. Sin and evil are a deviation from this dynamic. The path the Fathers describe is: being, well-being, eternal being. Being is a given. Our present life should be an increasing acquisition of well-being. Our final goal is full participation in eternal being, the very life of God.

I have found it very helpful to keep all of this in mind when thinking about sin and evil. Orthodoxy makes a strong link between sin and death. Sin is a movement, a misdirection, a drive and direction towards non-being. It displays as murder, lies, deceit, etc., everything that moves us away from the path to God. It is, however, a false path, and not the thing itself. We may say that a man is evil, but, if we are precise, we must say that his actions (energies) are evil. It was certain errors in the West that led some to speak of human beings as totally depraved and actually evil – or, in Luther’s phrase, “a mass of damnation.” That imprecise language did much harm.

What about the things in the world that are called “natural evil?” This would include events (earthquakes, floods, plagues, etc.). What is “evil” about such things? There is nothing inherently “evil” in the shifting of planetary plates (earthquakes). It’s what planets like ours do. It creates continents, mountains, etc. It is normal. We use the word “evil” in describing these things because of the suffering and death that comes in their wake. But earthquakes are not death and suffering itself, nor is a virus.

Sometimes people speak of the world as “fallen,” and go on to describe the world as therefore bad or evil in some manner. “Fallen” is not a term found in the Scriptures, and can sometimes be a bit problematic. St. Paul speaks far more carefully about creation’s problematic state. He says that it was made “subject to futility.” What he meant by that was that creation (like human beings) was made subject to death, decay, and destruction. It does not mean that creation itself is death, decay, and destruction. Those things are a sort of anti-creation, part of that drive towards non-existence. But they are not part of the natural order itself. They are its destruction.

The problem is death, not creation. Christ’s relationship with creation is interesting. He is asleep in a boat during a storm, unperturbed. The disciples are afraid (they fear death). They wake Him up. He speaks to the winds and the sea and says, “Peace. Be still.” I suppose He went back to sleep after that. There was nothing “evil” about the winds and the sea, though they could well have sunk the boat and drowned the disciples. Christ “rebukes” fevers. He tells demons what to do. He withers a fig tree. In Christ, we see a foretaste, or a small glimpse of humanity and creation in its right order. St. Paul describes creation as “groaning like a woman in child-birth” longing for the restoration of this relationship in its fullness. He calls it the “glorious liberty of the sons of God.”

St. Dionysius the Areopagite’s The Divine Names, has a very dense passage on all of this, in chapter 4. He uses a very interesting verb in describing evil, borrowing from an earlier usage of St. Gregory of Nyssa. The word is paryphistimi (παρυφιστημι – a sort of “standing beside”) which essentially equates with the noun, παρυποστασις. It is an attempt to describe the “parasitic” character of evil. It doesn’t exist in and of itself, but is spun out of the will of sentient creatures.

In dealing with the so-called “problem of evil,” it is important to place it squarely in the realm of God’s providential care for all creation. The death and decay to which we are subject certainly have the capacity to draw us towards non-being. Conversely, they also draw us toward repentance, turning towards God and the path of life. We are not dualists. The battle between good and evil is not a level playing field. The whole of the field is the arena of our salvation and the working out of the whole of creation’s union with God. Even death has a strange place in all of this. In Christ’s Pascha we hear echoes of this place. Christ tramples down death by death. The very thing that is our enemy is the same thing used to destroy our enemy. It is the ultimate statement of God’s good will triumphing in all things.

Let God arise, let His enemies be scattered. Let those who hate Him flee before His face!

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.






110 responses to “Thinking About Good and Evil”

  1. Sinnika Avatar

    “Even death has a strange place in all of this. In Christ’s Pascha we hear echoes of this place. Christ tramples down death by death. The very thing that is our enemy is the same thing used to destroy our enemy. It is the ultimate statement of God’s good will triumphing in all things.”

    Father Stephen,
    Perhaps this is what I had in mind?

  2. Karen Avatar

    Dee, I love your story! If you have already answered this question because it has been asked before, forgive me for overlooking that. Is there anywhere you have recorded your thoughts and story surrounding your spiritual formation, discovery of Pascha written in what you were studying of the nature of the created world, and insights you have received from Orthodoxy and Seminole culture? I would love to read those in one place (not just as comments here, valuable as those are). You have a unique and valuable perspective I find very enriching.

    As I have pondered the question, “Why Eve?” I have also wondered whether it is because on a certain level, in Jewish and Christian tradition Eve also symbolizes humankind in general, whereas Adam on this interpretive level is an image/symbol of God and type of Christ. It is humankind which was vulnerable to seduction, and Christ who voluntarily accepts to share our human vulnerability, yet could not Himself be deceived or fall into sin. Perhaps this also explains why some (traditional? patristic?) readings of the story excoriate Eve and exonerate Adam–she is in these readings being seen as the type of humankind, while Adam is being interpreted as the symbol of God/Christ. I’m speaking mostly from ignorance here, though. I’ll pose the question for any readers more familiar with the teaching of the Fathers on these matters.

  3. Dino Avatar

    I can’t help pondering that the description of Christ as lacking a ‘separated, fallen’ gnomic will, could be enriched by bringing to this the notion of His hypostasising of all: that everything about Christ is belonging to “THE One”. (I’m saying this thinking of His human nature here). So, there is nothing that is general (or ‘not particular’) about Him, whereas, in contrast to that, our own experience of the ‘natural will’ contains a sense of generality (albeit which becomes particularised to the personal “yes” of each person). There is also a sense that there exists a relation of our ‘gnomic will’ to the (separated and) individualised, and yet, in becoming healed (and becoming ‘in accordance with our natural will’) this enables us to also say ‘I am’, not as an “individual” negation but as a “personal” affirmation of the ‘generality’ of the natural will in each one of us, e.g. Stephen, Dino, Michael etc. I am therefore thinking that the “infinite-made-particular” in Christ, is a significant reason, among many others of course, why we say Christ had no ‘gnomic will’, or that, His gnomic will was perfectly corresponding to the natural will. (The natural will [general] could be referred to as His natural will [particular] only with Christ in this sense). I obviously see here the natural will as something general for all humanity and the gnomic as something particular which veers from the traditional definition somewhat. Just some thoughts after rereading this today.

  4. Ziton Avatar

    Thanks Dino. I found that last reflection very helpful. Provides an extra dimension (for me anyway) in reflecting on the Incarnation, and maybe even about the fracturing and how the two are related. I shall continue to ponder.

  5. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    Unless I’m not understanding and mixing ‘apples and oranges’, it seems to me that you are saying something similar to St John of Damascus, who writes about “accidents” (btw, this term is not equivalent to ‘making a mistake’). In this sense, the accidents of a individual human being are manifested individually, which would include accidents manifested in the gnomic will. Then as you say, Christ manifests His gnomic will (the accidents of Christ’s individuality), by completely submitting to the Divine will of the Father.

    I’m saying this off the cuff, however, and ask Father for correction as needed.

  6. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    Dino, Dee,
    I think it is best to follow St. Maximus in saying that there is no gnomic will in Christ. The gnomic will is not natural – it is an artifact of the fall. It is better, I think, to contemplate (in Christ) what the fullness of the natural will means. It’s not that the gnomic will lines up with the natural will. According to Maximus – there is no gnomic will in Christ.

  7. Dee of St Hermans Avatar
    Dee of St Hermans

    ok thank you Father!!

  8. Michael Bauman Avatar
    Michael Bauman

    Like us in all things, save sin. Sin, as I understand and perceive it, is a corruption of my will so that it desires things selfishly, lustfully and impurely. It is possible to distance oneself from the corruption so that, even when tempted, the path of non-corruption can be followed to some degree but since our own bodies are subject to corruption it is never possible to be wholly without temptation.

    At that is what I have been taught.

  9. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    “The corruption of the will” is, in the analysis given by St. Maximus, and represents the understanding of the Councils, would be “having a gnomic will.” It is not the “natural will” – which is the true, proper will of humanity. When we say that Christ has two wills – Divine and Human – it is because a nature has a will (the natural will). But He does not have a fallen will (the gnomic will). This is not taught very often – nor is it commonly understood by most priests.

  10. Sinnika Avatar


    …”Sin, as I understand and perceive it, is a corruption of my will so that it desires things selfishly, lustfully and impurely.”…

    I think Fr Bill explains ‘sin’ in a better way in his Blog 11. The Resurrection:…2
    when he says:. ..”Sin” (amartia) means “miss the mark”. The “mark” is unity with God, love of God…

    Then the focus will be on God, not on me and my will. If we Love God we will try to do our best to please Him and ask for forgiveness. Christ could not “miss the mark”, because He Is the mark.

    And if you wonder about my name, Sinnika is a Finnish name and means ‘blue cap’ , sini =blue, at least that is what I have been told.
    God only knows why my father choose that name, Glory to God for all things!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Subscribe to blog via email

Support the work

Your generous support for Glory to God for All Things will help maintain and expand the work of Fr. Stephen. This ministry continues to grow and your help is important. Thank you for your prayers and encouragement!

Latest Comments

Read my books

Everywhere Present by Stephen Freeman

Listen to my podcast