What then, one might well ask, is divine providence? Certainly all Christians must affirm God’s transcendent governance of everything, even fallen history and fallen nature, and must believe that by that governance he will defeat evil and bring the final good of all things out of the darkness of “this age.” It makes a considerable difference, however—nothing less than our understanding of the nature of God is at stake—whether one says that God has eternally willed the history of sin and death, and all that comes to pass therein, as the proper or necessary means of achieving his ends, or whether one says instead that God has willed his good in creatures from eternity and will bring it to pass, despite their rebellion, by so ordering all things toward his goodness that even evil (which he does not cause) becomes an occasion of the operations of grace. And it is only the latter view than can accurately be called a doctrine of “providence” in the properly theological sense; the former view is mere determinism.
God has fashioned creatures in his image so that they might be joined in a perfect union with him in the rational freedom of love. For that very reason, what God permits, rather than violate the autonomy of the created world, may be in itself contrary to what he wills. But there is no contradiction in saying that, in his omniscience, omnipotence, and transcendence of time, God can both allow created freedom its scope and yet so constitute the world that nothing can prevent him from bringing about the beatitude of his Kingdom. Indeed we must say this: as God did not will the fall, and yet always wills all things toward himself, the entire history of sin and death is in an ultimate sense a pure contingency, one that is not as such desired by God, but that is nevertheless constrained by providence to serve his transcendent purpose. God does not will evil in the sinner. Neither does he will that the sinner should perish (2 Peter 3:9; Ezek. 33:11). He does not place evil in the heart. He does not desire the convulsive reign of death in nature. But neither will he suffer defeat in these things.
Providence works at the level of what Aquinas would call primary causality: that is, it is so transcendent of the operation of secondary causes—which is to say, finite and contingent causes immanent to the realm of created things—that it can at once create freedom and also assure that no consequence of the misuse of that freedom will prevent him from accomplishing the good he intends in all things. This is the same as saying that the transcendent act of creation, though it grants existence to creatures out of the plenitude of God’s being, nonetheless brings forth beings that are genuinely other than God, without there being any “conflict” between his infinite actuality and their contingent participation in it. As God is the source and end of all being, nothing that is can be be completely alienated from him; all things exist by virtue of being called from nothingness towards his goodness; every instance of finite becoming or thought or desire subsists in the creature’s “ecstasy” out of nonbeing into the infinite splendor of God. And it is for just this reason that providence does not and cannot in any way betray the true freedom of the creature: every free movement of the will is possible only by virtue of the more primordial longing of all things for the beauty of God (to borrow the language of Maximus the Confessor, our “gnomic will” depends upon our “natural will”), and so every free act—even the act of hating God—arises from and is sustained by a more original love of God. It is impossible to desire anything without implicitly desiring the infinite source of all things; even the desire of the suicide for the peace of oblivion is born of a love of self—however tragically distorted it has become—that is itself born of a deeper love from the God from whom the self comes and to whom the self is called.
This original vocation of the creature—which is the very ground of our existence—is heaven in us, and indeed hell. As Zosima tells Alyosha (again following Isaac the Syrian and a larger Eastern Christian mystical tradition), what we call hell is nothing but the rage and remorse of the soul that will not yield itself to love. The natural will must return to God, no matter what, but if the freedom of the gnomic will refuses to open itself to the mercy and glory of God, the wrathful soul experiences the transfiguring and deifying fire of love not as bliss but as chastisement and despair. The highest freedom and happiness of the creature … is the perfection of the creature’s nature in union with God. And the highest work of providential grace is to set our deepest, “natural” will free from everything (even the abuse of our freedom) that would separate us from that end, all the time preserving the dignity of the divine image within us.