St Isaac the Syrian: Love and the Punishment of Evil

This article has been revised, expanded, and republished: “St Isaac the Syrian and the Punitive God of the Scriptures.”


But surely God punishes the wicked! Surely there is divine retribution for sin and evil, if not in this life at least in hell! As the angels spoke of Sodom: “For we are about to destroy this place, because the outcry against its people has become great before the LORD, and the LORD has sent us to destroy it” (Gen 19:13). As the prophet Isaiah declared: “And I will punish the world for their evil, and the wicked for their iniquity” (Is 13:11). And the prophet Jeremiah: “But I will punish you according to the fruit of your doings, saith the LORD: and I will kindle a fire in the forest thereof, and it shall devour all things round about it” (Jer 21:44). And the Apostle Paul: “There will be tribulation and distress for every human being who does evil, the Jew first and also the Greek” (Rom 2:9). And perhaps most terrifyingly, Christ himself: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (Matt 25:41).

Yet St Isaac the Syrian rejects all notions of requital as unworthy of the living God:

A sign of compassion is forgiveness of every debt; a sign of an evil mind is offensive speech to one who has fallen. The man who administers chastisement with a view to healing, chastises with love; but he who seeks vengeance is devoid of love. God chastises with love, not for the sake of revenge—far be it!—but seeking to make whole His image. And he does not harbor wrath until a time when correction is no longer possible, for He does not seek vengeance for Himself. This is the aim of love. Love’s chastisement is for correction, and it does not aim at retribution. A righteous man that is wise is like unto God, for he never chastises a man to requite and avenge his wickedness, but to correct him, or so that others might fear. That, however, which does not resemble this is not chastisement. Now hereby the Spirit depicts, as in an image, the mind that God has had everlastingly. But the man who chooses to consider God an avenger, presuming that in this manner he bears witness to His justice, the same accuses Him of being devoid of goodness. Far be it, that vengeance could ever be found in that Fountain of love and Ocean brimming with goodness! The purpose of His mind is the correction of men; and if it were not that we should be stripped of the honor of our free will, perhaps He would not even heal us by reproof. (Ascetical Homilies I.48, p. 364)

Isaac is emphatic: the punishment of evil does not belong to the divine nature. Whether we call it retribution or requital or penalty or vengeance … or justice … does not matter. God does not inflict punishment for the sake of inflicting punishment. This is not the God who is revealed in Jesus Christ. Retribution may have a place in our judicial and penal systems—I do not know what Isaac would say about that—but it certainly does not have a place in the Christian life or in the Christian understanding of the Deity. God is love. Isaac is so horrified by the notion of the divine infliction of pain and suffering that he even momentarily entertains the suggestion that God might forcibly heal us, if only it were possible to do so without violating human freedom.

St Isaac has, of course, read his Bible. He is acquainted with the many stories, prophesies, parables, and sayings that speak of God’s wrath and anger. These texts must not be read literally, he says. Christ himself is our hermeneutic. We must burrow through the literal meaning of Scripture and penetrate to its theological truth:

That we should imagine that anger, wrath, jealousy or the such like have anything to do with the divine Nature is utterly abhorrent for us: no one in their right mind, no one who has any understanding at all can possibly come to such madness as to think anything of the sort against God. Nor again can we possibly say that He acts thus out of retribution, even though the Scriptures may on the outer surface posit this. Even to think this of God and to suppose that retribution for evil acts is to be found with Him is abominable. By implying that He makes use of such a great and difficult thing out of retribution we are attributing a weakness to the divine Nature. We cannot even believe such a thing can be found in those human beings who live a virtuous and upright life and whose thoughts are entirely in accord with the divine will—let alone believe it of God, that He has done something out of retribution for anticipated evil acts in connection with those whose nature He had brought into being with honour and great love. Knowing them and all their conduct, the flow of His grace did not dry up from them: not even after they started living amid many evil deeds did He withhold His care for them, even for a moment. … For it would be most odious and utterly blasphemous to think that hate or resentment exists with God, even against demonic beings; or to imagine any other weakness, or passibility, or whatever else might be involved in the course of retribution of good or bad as applying, in a retributive way, to that glorious divine Nature. (Second Part II.39.2-3)

We need to be prepared, in other words, to interpret the Scriptures metaphorically and spiritually, especially when the plain sense violates God’s self-disclosure in Christ. God is not the angry, punitive deity that we sometimes see depicted in the Bible. These images must be corrected by the revelation of absolute love and boundless mercy. If we do not engage in this correction of the literal meaning, not only will we be guilty of an “infantile way of thinking” but we will find ourselves imagining God in “unspeakably blasphemous” ways (II.39.1). Isaac invokes the historically progressive character of divine revelation, our understanding of which will only be fulfilled at the Eschaton:

Just because the terms wrath, anger, hatred, and the rest are used of the Creator, we should not imagine that He actually does anything in anger or hatred or zeal. Many figurative terms are employed in the Scriptures of God, terms which are far removed from His true nature. And just as our rational nature has already become gradually more illumined and wise in a holy understanding of the mysteries which are hidden in Scripture’s discourse about God—that we should not understand everything literally as it is written, but rather that we should see, concealed inside the bodily exterior of the narratives, the hidden providence and eternal knowledge which guides all—so too we shall in the future come to know and be aware of many things for which our present understanding will be seen as contrary to what it will be then; and the whole ordering of things yonder will undo any precise opinion we possess now in our supposition about Truth. For there are many, indeed endless, things which do not even enter our minds here, not even as promises of any kind. (II.39.19)

Yet even after having purified his theological reflection of inappropriate anthropomorphic imagery, Isaac does speak of God directly punishing humanity for its sin and disobedience. He knows both the Scriptures and the human condition too well not to do so. Hilarion Alfeyev notes that it is rare for Isaac to speak of the wrath of God, but he does do so on occasion. In one of his homilies, for example, the saint speaks to monks who approach God with laxity and contempt: “You have not yet experienced the sternness of the Lord, when he changes from his right hand, full of kindness, to his left hand, exacting his due to those who abuse him—how angry he burns, and how filled He is with zeal at the time when this has been aroused! … He burns like a furnace in his anger” (II.31.10). But this language of wrath ultimately expresses, not requital, but the intensity of God’s love and desire to save. As we have seen in the above quotations, God punishes solely in order to heal and convert. “God chastises with love,” Isaac writes, “not for the sake of revenge—far be it!—but seeking to make whole His image.” The Father inflicts suffering and trials for one purpose alone—to draw us away from our sinful attachments and to himself in faith, repentance, and love.

Isaac stands in a long tradition of theologians and spiritual teachers who insist that divine punishment for sin is always pedagogical, medicinal, therapeutic, reparative, remedial, restorative. As Clement of Alexandria writes, “But God does not punish, for punishment is retaliation for evil. He chastises, however, for good to those who are chastised, collectively and individually” (Strom VII.16). Our heavenly Father chastises for our good; otherwise he would not be a true Father. He does not punish to exact retribution. He does not injure his creatures for the sake of balancing the scales of justice. He does not practice an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth. He does not give us the evil that we deserve. “God is not one who requites evil,” the holy monk exclaims, “but He sets evil aright” (II.39.15).

If God is indeed the punitive, retributive Deity that our imaginations have created, how can we love him, how can we worship and adore him? Such a God can only be feared. But St Isaac of Nineveh exhorts, “Fear God because of His love and not because of the reputation of austerity that has been attributed to Him” (I.51, p. 388).

(Go to “Hell and the Scourge of Divine Love”)

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18 Responses to St Isaac the Syrian: Love and the Punishment of Evil

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  2. PJ says:

    “If we do not engage in this correction of the literal meaning, not only will be guilty of an “infantile way of thinking” but we will find ourselves imagining God in “unspeakably blasphemous” ways (II.39.1).”

    But if this is true, then isn’t the vast majority of the catholic, orthodox tradition is infantile and blasphemous. How is such a claim congruent with a spirit of humility? That’s what I struggle with.


  3. PJ says:

    I can’t help but feel as though Isaac begins with an idea of God and then “works” Scripture to fit his thesis. Should we not have more respect for the integrity of Holy Writ? Do you think I am being unfair?


  4. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    “Do you think I am being unfair?”

    PJ, I think you are seriously wrestling with a complex, difficult issue, and I applaud you for doing so. Keep thinking. Keep reading. I don’t want to say anything more, as I have at least one more article on St Isaac to write. But I do not think that such a difficult and important as the one we are discussing can be decided by simply counting heads. The majority is not always right. And Scripture can be plausibly, perhaps compellingly, read to support the position of St Isaac. It just depends on which texts one chooses to be decisive. I could say more, but I suspect that it’s best for you to just continue to wrestle with St Isaac at this point. Invoke him in your prayers and ask him to pray for you and guide you.


  5. Julie Mary says:

    I have recently come to closure of a long journey of healing. This came about only because I was impelled through the eyes of mercy and compassion to forgive. I became aware that to do so required giving up any right to justice for the sins committed against me. If I did not stay within christs mercy I would fall into a renewed desire for justice. The Jesus prayer enables me to remain in love and mercy and to pray with compassion for them.


  6. mary benton says:

    If we believe God’s love to be unconditional, we cannot say that God offers love and mercy only some of the time, to some of the people or until some point in time (such as last judgment, after which he condemns some to hell). Unconditional love is – unconditional. No matter how sinful we have been. His mercy is unending.

    It is interesting to note how C.S. Lewis deals with a “last judgment” type of scene – all looked at Aslan’s face in “The Final Battle”. Those who looked upon him with fear and hatred swerved to their right, while those who looked at him and loved him went to their left. Aslan himself was not hating, condemning or punishing in this scene but simply standing there as the people/creatures sorted themselves out. There is no indication that he was any less loving to those who went one way than to those who went the other. But they had a choice.

    Can we enter and participate in the Divine love without choosing? All of creation participates in the Divine love but most out of the necessity of nature, not the choosing that brings the created into loving union with the Creator. If we are to enter His love freely, there is no escaping the reality that we can choose evil. But, as written in the previous post, our choice does not change God or His unconditional love.

    Thank you, Fr. Aidan. I look forward to part 4.


  7. The heart of St. Isaac seems to reveal the heart of God. He is compelling.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Didn’t Hauerwas say that the saints must teach us how to read Scripture? I have always understood this as meaning that they can do so because they have become sacraments and revelations of the Word. Of course, there are saints and there are saints. St Isaac breathes the Spirit. He speaks out of a mystical knowledge of Christ that I cannot but acknowledge and reverence.


  8. Susi says:

    Compelling, indeed. This series is…to again borrow Father Stephen’s language…compelling me to not only continue in my forgiveness of others, but to rediscover my ability to truly love them. This is a very timely series. May our Lord continue to bless us and yourself, Father Aidan, with the study and writings of St. Isaac.


  9. Father Kimel,

    This has been a great series, and I eagerly await part IV. Pardon my beating a dead horse here, but this is Luther! (I’d like to hear about/read some Isaac that you might think would beat at odds with Luther….) Luther to spoke of God’s wrath and anger as His “alien work” – that which He did reluctantly so that He could get on with His “proper work”, which was to lavish tender – not stern – love to His children.

    “Hilarion Alfeyev notes that it is rare for Isaac to speak of the wrath of God, but he does do so on occasion. In one of his homilies, for example, the saint speaks to monks who approach God with laxity and contempt: “You have not yet experienced the sternness of the Lord, when he changes from his right hand, full of kindness, to his left hand, exacting his due to those who abuse him—how angry he burns, and how filled He is with zeal at the time when this has been aroused! … He burns like a furnace in his anger” (II.31.10).”

    Interesting stuff, and here is what I do not get here. You say, “We must burrow through the literal meaning of Scripture and penetrate to its theological truth”, but is this really the case? Are the word and the Spirit necessarily so at odds here? Must the “rule of faith” seem so different from the letters of the Scriptures that we see? Why not rather say our “literal reading” is the wrong literal reading? That we have failed to discern the possible meanings for the words that are actually on the page and meant to be taken seriously? I read your posts about Gregory where he to sets the Spirit vs the literal meaning, or letter, but then I see how he goes no to draw His teaching from these same words of Scripture!

    As to eternal torment, here is how I see it. Men might enjoy using this or that “God” for their own self-centered pursuits, but the flip side of this is that oftentimes, man, the fool, wishes the jealous and zealous God of Israel out of existence (Psalm 14:1). Perhaps this explains why there is eternal punishment with God, and not annihilation (the cessation of all personal existence, popular in Eastern conceptions such as Nirvana). Though God certainly expressed regret in the O.T. at creating man, He emphatically can not be said to “take life”, or “snuff out life” in order to be rid of relationships forever, dePersonalizing reality. Said differently, it is man who desires that God not exist, not God who desires that man not exist. Is man really so foolish that he would tell God what love is – namely treating others as if they do not exist, disregarding their presence, and ultimately destroying life, destroying relationships? Evidently.

    In other words, Hell is not so much about retribution, but about keeping those who would destroy our trust and love from God far from those who have and treasure these things. Isolation – an isolation they chose – is justice. And while God is in both heaven and hell (Rev. 14), His presence near the center of the circle results in health and wholeness while on the outside rings, there is not lushness, but desert.

    Also, does this mean we get rid of “penal substitution”? I don’t think entirely, for there is much that was written early on in addition to the Scripture to illustrate that he was “was pierced for our transgressions” and “crushed for our iniquities”: See The point is that Anselm is not the only person we can look to in order to get a solid moorings for the atonement. There is much that is in Anselm that is not helpful. Also important of course is the Son’s willingness to do what He does at the cross out of love. In His wrath, the Father gives men over to their sin, and Jesus absorbs the full brunt of this unique punishment from God and destroys sin, death and the devil from the inside out…

    Indeed, that they might be brought to their senses…. that all men may know, when He is lifted up….



  10. Infanttheology;
    Protestantism (via RC), RC & EO all had the same beginning 2,000 years ago. Therefore, there are still elements of truth that have survived even today. EO does not claim that it is the only group that teaches Truth; but it does claim that it is the only group that teaches the Full Truth.

    I was raised Protestant (Presbyterian) & I learned elements of Truth very young, but I also learned a lot of errors very young. The same is true of RC, Episcopalians, Anglicans, Baptists, Methodists & many others (I only name a few). Do not be surprised if you read something here about an Orthodox belief that you have been taught in the LC-MS. Truth is Truth & will survive, even if only in bit & pieces. Those bits & pieces of Truth of my Protestantism I found in Orthodoxy, but without the errors of my Protestantism.

    Also, don’t make the false assumption that we all (RC, EO, Protestantism) believe the same thing & therefore it doesn’t matter which group you belong to when you encounter those scant few commonalities. The differences are far more prevalent & more than merely semantic. You will find that EO has a vastly different mindset than the RCC whose mindset Protestantism inherited. Plese use these blog sites such as Fr. Aidan’s & Fr. Stephen’s Glory to God For All Things as a chance to learn & ask questions.


  11. eternallypresentfillingallthings,

    “Also, don’t make the false assumption that we all (RC, EO, Protestantism) believe the same thing & therefore it doesn’t matter which group you belong to when you encounter those scant few commonalities.”

    I am glad that you discern this as my attitude. You do so rightly. For though I believe my church is truly church, I am not eager to find differences, even as I know they must not be ignored.

    I will indeed listen.

    Blessings in Christ,


  12. elijahmaria says:

    Quick note: I think Anselm takes something of an unfair beating in these kinds of discussions. For example he spends a good bit of energy, in his Proslogium for example, explaining to his audience that it is God’s justice that spares the wicked, and even if we are vengeful, God is not. God’s ways are not our ways. God is not a vengeful God…Nor does he force us to be or do things we choose not to be or do. If a reprobate soul rejects God, why would God force him to spend eternity in His presence. That the love and mercy of God are His justice is the heart of Anselm’s message. In many ways, he and Isaac speak a very similar message.


  13. Pingback: Re-Blog: Reading the Real Bible and Notes on the Real Hell | Everywhere Present Filling All Things

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