Suffering and Death: Elements of an Orthodox Theodicy

I was invited to take part with two other pastors in a panel discussion yesterday at Life Pacific College in Christiansburg, Virginia on the topic of suffering, evil, and God. We were each given 20 minutes for our initial presentations. Given that the students had little acquaintance with the Eastern tradition, I thought it might be most useful to briefly outline an Orthodox approach to death. I hope my fellow Orthodox can recognize their faith in my address (introduction omitted).  

The talk went well, though I did find myself stumbling through some of the Q&A. Good, hard questions were put to me, and some of my answers were obviously weak. I found myself stumbling, for example, trying to explain evil as privation of being. But the students were patient with me throughout, for which I am grateful. I don’t know about anyone else, but I certainly enjoyed myself. 

1) “God is love”—so the Apostle John declares in his first epistle (1 John 4:8).

The confession can be exegeted in various ways. Within the context of the epistle, I imagine that it speaks of God’s attitude and beneficent action toward humanity: God is love because he acts lovingly toward us. But in the theological tradition, this confession also came to be understood as speaking preeminently of the inner life of God the Holy Trinity, of that life shared by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God is constituted by relations of mutual exchange, self-giving, and reciprocity. God is love and love is of God and love is God. Even if God had never created the world, even if he had never brought into existence beings toward which he might act lovingly, he still would be, and eternally is, love. The divine nature is constituted by relations of mutual exchange, self-giving, and reciprocity. The Father begets the Son and breathes out the Spirit; the Son receives the gift of the Father and in the Spirit offers himself to his Father. As Met Kallistos Ware, perhaps the best known contemporary Orthodox theologian, puts it: “‘God is love’: not self-love, the love of one isolated, turned in upon himself, but mutual love that is exchanged and shared.” God is, if we may be so bold, a koinonia, a communion and fellowship, of three co-eternal and co-equal “persons.”

God is love! By Orthodox apprehension, this is the fundamental revelation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. It governs everything we Orthodox wish to say about suffering, evil, and death.

2) God has freely created the world from out of nothing.

This was one of the first doctrinal matters that the Church needed to address in the second and third centuries, as she sought to distinguish a properly Christian understanding of deity from pagan understandings. In the beginning, God made heaven and earth. He didn’t create the world from pre-existent stuff, as in Plato, but rather effortlessly speaks it into being. “Let there be …” and there the world was—or more accurately, there the world is, for we must not think of the divine act of creation as an event of the past, something that happened way back when. At every moment, from all eternity, God the Father is speaking the world into being, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. Who has read C. S. Lewis’s The Magician’s Nephew? In the story we are given to see the creation of Narnia. Aslan sings it into existence. The being of the cosmos is like a song on the breath of a singer (James Ross). If even for a split second God should stop singing, the song would vanish. As the Apostle Paul declares in the Book of Acts: “In him we love and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28).

3) Therefore, the world is good.

According to the Book of Genesis, at each step in the process of creation, God surveys what he has made and sees that is good. Why is it good? Because it reflects and participates in the goodness of God. The entire cosmos is a theophany and manifestation of the eternal Creator. Because God is infinite Goodness, the beings he creates are truly good and beautiful and worthy of love and appreciation.

“The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” sings the 19th century Catholic poet Gerard Manley Hopkins.

“The world is a mirror of infinite beauty,” proclaims the 17th century Anglican poet Thomas Traherne. But we must have eyes to see.

4) Therefore, death does not belong to God’s original intent for the world.

The Orthodox Church is clear and emphatic: The God who is infinite goodness and love brings forth only goodness and love. He does not ordain suffering. He does not create evil. He does not will death. St Basil of Caesarea, one of the great bishops of the 4th century, declares that both he who denies God and he who attributes evil to God commit sins “of equal rank, since both alike deny the Good One, the one saying that he does not exist, while the other concludes that he is not good. For if God is the cause of evils, clearly he is not good, so that in both cases there is denial of God.”

Death should not exist in the good world God has made—yet it does. That it does is the incomprehensible catastrophe of the Fall, the fall from grace not only of Adam and Eve, and with them all of mankind, but also the pre-temporal fall of those angelic beings we call demons.

5) Therefore, we must make a critical distinction between God’s ordaining will (that is, that which God antecedently and positively wills) and God’s permissive will (that is, that which God suffers to happen contrary to his goodness and love).

God does not will our suffering, yet he permits our suffering. God does not will evil, yet he permits angels and human beings to sin. God does not will death—and especially, we may confidently declare, he does not will the death of infants—yet he permits our death and the deaths of all living beings. He allows it to happen; but in his omnipotent mercy and grace, he has conquered death on the Cross and brought about an even greater good—the good that is Easter.

6) Therefore, we should not seek to explain or justify death or mitigate its horror.

Death is an unspeakable horror, whether its victim is a 6 month old infant or a 32 year old young man who jumps to his death from a four-story parking lot or an 85 year old grandmother who dies peacefully in her sleep. Not only should we not attempt to justify death for pastoral reasons; but we should not do so for theological reasons. It is the gospel of Jesus Christ that reveals to us on the Cross the absurdity and intrinsic meaninglessness of death, just as it reveals to us on Easter morning the defeat of death in the triumphant resurrection of our Lord and Savior. As Orthodox theologian David Bentley Hart writes: “Yes, certainly, there is nothing, not even suffering or death, that cannot be providentially turned toward God’s good ends. But the New Testament also teaches us that, in an other and ultimate sense, suffering and death—considered in themselves—have no true meaning or purpose at all; and this is in a very real sense the most liberating and joyous wisdom that the gospel imparts” (The Doors of the Sea, p. 35).

7) Pascha!

Jesus Christ, crucified and risen, is the only spiritually satisfying answer to suffering, evil and death.

Christ is risen from the dead,
Trampling down death by death,
And upon those in the tombs
Bestowing life!

(And yes, I actually sang the troparion–three times!)

 

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29 Responses to Suffering and Death: Elements of an Orthodox Theodicy

  1. Bert says:

    Very good points.
    Do you know if this entire event was recorded, by chance?

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Yes it was, but I do not know if it will be made publicly available. Given my mediocre performance, I’m kind’ve hoping it won’t be. 🙂

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      • Bert says:

        We’re always our own toughest critic. From my own experience in such events, I can perhaps offer the encouragement that one always feels their performance is mediocre afterward.
        I think it has something to do with the fact that a 20-minute statement or a two-hour dialogue can only express 20 minutes or two hours of what is usually years of study and devotion. To adequately sum something like that up would be impossible.
        For what its worth — as someone inquiring into Orthodoxy — I think your remarks were quite helpful and gave me something to chew on.

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      • I for one would love to see you speaking!

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  2. shoreless says:

    Is it not the Orthodox attitude that the suffering that God allows to come upon us is for our benefit? This is my takeaway from the monastic sayings (which of course is backed up by scriptural sources like the book of Job, Philippians 1, etc). Is this also part of the Orthodox attitude towards the Cross, that it converts suffering and death into Life?

    I’m inquiring into the faith and having struggle with the Orthodox view of atonement/salvation. Thank you!

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Yes, we find many sayings like that in the ascetical tradition, both East and West. Spiritually, I think we must maintain this attitude when we find ourselves confronted with severe suffering, in faith that God can use this suffering to our good. The only alternative is disbelief and despair.

      Liked by 2 people

      • shoreless says:

        Agree. Previously my feeling was that it was all the devil’s doing, then when God did nothing to alleviate it I wound up in the dead end of despair. Thank you, Father!

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  3. Talk about the relationship between 4) and Evolution.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      “But as the theme progressed, it came into the heart of Melkor to interweave matters of his own imagining that were not in accord with the theme of Ilúvatar; for he sought therein to increase the power and glory of the part assigned to himself.”

      Perhaps it all went awry from even before the Big Bang.

      Liked by 2 people

      • Robert says:

        “Perhaps it all went awry from even before the Big Bang.”

        This is why I favor Nyssa’s notion of a ‘double creation.’ In the second creation death predates the fall, and thus double creation can accommodate evolution.

        Liked by 2 people

        • Mike H says:

          Robert, can you give a brief summary of “double creation”?

          I know it’s popped up here before, but I can’t for the life recall the major components.

          Liked by 1 person

        • grandiosemaitre says:

          What sort of conception of Gregory’s Double Creation are you referring too? I always read the section about that in On the Making of man as merely saying that God introduced the division of male and female so that a path for reproduction would available after the foreknown Fall.

          Liked by 1 person

      • That’s the only answer that makes sense, that differentiation, which is prerequisite for being, can also offer the possibility of dissonance.

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      • grandiosemaitre says:

        I think something along those lines is almost certainly true, after all we and all our choices pre-exist in the mind of God (note, I don’t mean that as a real pre-existence like in Origenism), but my question is how do we square that and Adam with St. Paul’s treatment of him. St. Paul almost certainly didn’t believe Genesis 3 was altogether literal history, but he certainly seemed to believe a first human’s sin brought death to all.

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    • Iain Lovejoy says:

      I see your point: death is the driver of evolution. On the other hand, evolution is the struggle of life to overcome death; it is made necessary by the Fall. The Bible says it was the result of the Fall that man (and presumably therefore Creation) has to strive and earn his food by tjecsweat of his brow, until returning to the soil in death, leaving the next generation to continue the struggle. We don’t know what God intended instead, without the Fall.

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    • Tom says:

      OK, I will! Thanks Greg!

      If one is talking about the end/telos for which we are created, then obviously mortality isn’t intended by God, but then neither are other features of finitude that are part of God’s good creation, features that needed to be in place as the context in which our progress to theosis is even possible. But if one is talking about how to get created, finite human beings into union with God, then my own (heterodox?) sense is that doesn’t happen apart from our perceiving the truth about ourselves and relating to God within that truth, and that truth is our finitude and nothingness. So in my view we were mortal from the get-go, as created by God, and thus willed by God to be mortal, not as the telos God intends for us, but as the necessary means/context in which we’re able to achieve that telos. But God-given mortality ‘becomes’ death (a despairing misrelation to mortality), but these are not identical experiences.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. David White says:

    Out of curiosity, I wonder if you would mind sharing some of the difficulties you encountered in the Q&A. For example, what did the students find problematic about the notion of privation? etc.

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    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      All the difficulties were on my end! I’m the one who found myself unable to explain, e.g., the privatio boni adequately. And other stuff. I don’t do well in these impromptu situations.

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  5. mattk says:

    I like it! It’s very clear and succinct. Thorough, but still lean.

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  6. mostlygreek says:

    Your last statement under number three “But we must have eyes to see” reminded me of the scene in CS Lewis’ Narnia book “The Last Battle” where some of the dwarves are sitting in what they thought was just a smelly stable, but was really the equivalent of Heaven. They were blind to it because they refused to believe and so they remained in their own self imposed darkness. Truly that is Hell, the Darkness without the light of Christ.

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  7. Father, Bless!

    Thank you for sharing your presentation. It has echoed many of my own thoughts, but I would add my own wish that you had been able to bring a discussion of natural evolution and its relation to moral and physical death and evil into the main body of the presentation (though I realize that would have taken things a little too far afield of a presentation of theodicy). Did you address scriptural passages -especially in the Old Testament- that seem to suggest that God is the Author of evil?

    To my mind, part of your explanation about evil as privation, and God’s will borders on the scholastic (not that that’s necessarily a bad thing, I myself am actually preparing to begin an online Master of Arts in Philosophy (Christian Wisdom concentration) program through a Catholic college that is this poor Anglican’s formal introduction to the thought of S. Thomas.) or is that Augustinian? Do you have other posts that comment on the relation between Orthodoxy and Thomist-Scholastic philosophy-cum-theology?

    Liked by 1 person

    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Michael, I didn’t touch on the question of evolution, specifically, the reality of death, predation, and destruction in the cosmos long before the creation of man, because I have no idea how to deal with it, except to point to the possibility of a pre-temporal angelic fall. (If it was good enough for Tolkien, it’s good enough for me.) I know that is unlikely to satisfy anyone, though.

      Liked by 1 person

      • Thank you for your honesty, and humility in the matter then, Father. For myself, I’m the kind of person who would probably create a whole blog dedicated to the purpose of ferreting out the relationship of evolution and faith (especially the issue of evil and death as it touches upon cosmological and human origins) as it applies to consciousness and the soul, and then add in the sheer enjoyment of God’s creation and a desire to revive the Associative Worldview, for good measure, and title it The Strange Affair of the Evolutionary Creationist (oh wait, I already have, I just haven’t gone public with it) -which just shows how lacking in humility I really am.

        Incidentally, I was touched by your “About” section, as it mirrors part of my own life and marriage (though I haven’t (yet) moved on from the [official] Anglican Communion, nor received the sacramental grace of Holy Orders.

        I do look forward to continuing to read your insights.

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  8. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Here is the video of the talks. It always find it strange, and uncomfortable, to see and hear myself talking. I wish I were a better speaker, and I especially do well with Q& A; but here it is: https://youtu.be/8JYN6hY972M.

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  9. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

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  10. John H says:

    Father Aidan,

    I think that you did an outstanding job with both your presentation and the responses during the Q and A session. You were obviously speaking to a group of evangelical Christian students who were probably not that familiar with the classical Christian understanding of evil as the privatio bonni. You explained that difficult concept in a clear and cogent fashion. BTW, I think that you sing well. I occasionally patronize karaoke clubs in New York City, so I have heard some pretty horrible voices. Believe me Father, yours ain’t one of them.☺️

    Just a couple of follow up questions. What is a 3 point Calvinist ? Woulda 3 point Calvinist be receptive to the Universalist hope? What is the title of the paper that you presented which Father Louth praised?

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