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).