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