“Do not call God just,” St Isaac the Syrian scandalously declares, “for His justice is not manifest in the things concerning you.”
But surely God punishes the wicked, we quickly retort. Surely there is divine reprisal, an infliction of deserved deprivation and suffering—“life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe” (Ex 21:23-25). Retribution springs from the heart of the Creator and is necessary for the rectification of the moral order. The scales must be balanced; sinners requited; the wicked given their just deserts—if not in this life at least in hell! So it is throughout the Holy Scriptures.
As the three angels informed Abraham regarding the fate 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)
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)
Moving into the New Testament, 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)
. . . when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. (2 Thess 1:7-8)
The Apocalypse of John:
A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and its image and receives its mark on their forehead or on their hand, they, too, will drink the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. They will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb. And the smoke of their torment will rise for ever and ever. There will be no rest day or night for those who worship the beast and its image, or for anyone who receives the mark of its name.” (Rev 14:9-11)
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)
The theme of punishment as a primary expression of the divine righteousness runs throughout the Bible, typically with retributive intent. Not always, of course. Jews and Christians will point out that the chastisement of God may also intend discipline and reformation. Celebrating the LORD‘s covenant with David, the psalmist sings:
If his children forsake my law
and do not walk according to my ordinances,
if they violate my statutes
and do not keep my commandments,
then I will punish their transgression with the rod
and their iniquity with scourges;
but I will not remove from him my steadfast love,
or be false to my faithfulness. (Ps 89:30-33)
Yet it is hard to deny that in the Old Testament God’s punishment of Israel is principally characterized as retributive (just ask the peoples of Sodom and the Northern Kingdom), coupled with the hope that she will learn the harsh lesson and return to obedience to Torah:
As I live, says the LORD God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways; for why will you die, O house of Israel? (Ez 33:11)
Most importantly, Jews and Christians will insist that in the Bible the punitive dimension of God’s life with his people is outweighed by his loving kindness and eagerness to forgive. As the LORD declared in the presence of Moses:
The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation. (Ex 34:6-7)
I very much wanted to omit the two concluding clauses, but that would have been dishonest. Mercy and retribution are intertwined in the biblical witness.
Even so . . .
St Isaac the Syrian categorically 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)
The punishment of evil does not belong to the divine nature. Whether we call it retribution, requital, vengeance, or justice does not matter. The God revealed in Jesus Chris does not punish for the sake of punishment.1 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 divinity. God is love—absolute, infinite, bounteous, scaturient 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 well acquainted with the stories, prophesies, parables, and sayings that speak of God’s wrath and anger. These texts must not be read literally, he teaches. The crucified and risen Christ is our hermeneutic. By the Spirit we must burrow through the literal meaning of Scripture and penetrate to its evangelical 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)
God does not act out of anger or wrath. He never exacts vengeance; he never inflicts harm or damage in the name of justice. In all matters he seeks only the good of his creatures. Isaac’s sentiments echo the words long attributed to St Antony the Great:
God is good, dispassionate, and immutable. Now someone who thinks it reasonable and true to affirm that God does not change, may well ask how, in that case, is it possible to speak of God as rejoicing over those who are good and showing mercy to those who honour Him, and as turning away from the wicked and being angry with sinners. To this it must be answered that God neither rejoices nor grows angry, for to rejoice and to be offended are passions; nor is He won over by the gifts of those who honour Him, for that would mean He is swayed by pleasure. It is not right that the Divinity feel pleasure or displeasure from human conditions. He is good, and He only bestows blessings and never does harm, remaining always the same. We men, on the other hand, if we remain good through resembling God, are united to Him, but if we become evil through not resembling God, we are separated from Him. By living in holiness we cleave to God; but by becoming wicked we make Him our enemy. It is not that He grows angry with us in an arbitrary way, but it is our own sins that prevent God from shining within us and expose us to demons who torture us. And if through prayer and acts of compassion we gain release from our sins, this does not mean that we have won God over and made Him to change, but that through our actions and our turning to the Divinity, we have cured our wickedness and so once more have enjoyment of God’s goodness. Thus to say that God turns away from the wicked is like saying that the sun hides itself from the blind. (Texts on Saintly Life 150, in the Philokalia)
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 Jesus Christ. The LORD is not the wrathful, punitive deity that we frequently see depicted in the Bible. These images must be corrected by the New Testament revelation of his boundless mercy. If we do not engage in this correction—or perhaps even better, transcendence—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 comprehension 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. Met 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 expresses not retributive requital but the intensity of God’s love and desire to save. God punishes in order to heal and purify. The Father inflicts suffering and trials to liberate us away from our sinful attachments and draw us to himself.
Isaac stands in a long tradition of theologians and spiritual teachers who assert that divine punishment for sin is always pedagogical, medicinal, therapeutic, reparative, remedial, purgative, restorative. Distinguishing between punishment as retributive (timoria) and punishment as disciplinary (kolasis), 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. But he does not punish to exact vengeance. 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 we deserve. “God is not one who requites evil,” the holy monk exclaims, “but He sets evil aright” (II.39.15).
In modern times one theologian stands out as speaking in the spirit of the Syrian saint, even though he probably had never heard of him—the great 19th century Scottish preacher and storyteller, George MacDonald. On first glance the two figures appear to disagree with each other on divine justice. Whereas Isaac revels in the opposition between justice and mercy, MacDonald denies the antinomy, reinterpreting the former in light of the latter:
‘Mercy may be against justice.’ Never–if you mean by justice what I mean by justice. If anything be against justice, it cannot be called mercy, for it is cruelty. ‘To thee, O Lord, belongeth mercy, for thou renderest to every man according to his work.’ There is no opposition, no strife whatever, between mercy and justice. Those who say justice means the punishing of sin, and mercy the not punishing of sin, and attribute both to God, would make a schism in the very idea of God. (“Justice,” Unspoken Sermons)
MacDonald rejects the retributive element of God’s justice. “Punishment, deserved suffering,” he declares, “is no equipoise to sin. It is no use laying it in the other scale. It will not move it a hair’s breadth.” True justice is achieved not by punishing sinners but by delivering them from the power of sin:
Primarily, God is not bound to punish sin; he is bound to destroy sin. If he were not the Maker, he might not be bound to destroy sin—I do not know; but seeing he has created creatures who have sinned, and therefore sin has, by the creating act of God, come into the world, God is, in his own righteousness, bound to destroy sin. . . . But vengeance on the sinner, the law of a tooth for a tooth, is not in the heart of God, neither in his hand. . . .
Punishment, I repeat, is not the thing required of God, but the absolute destruction of sin. What better is the world, what better is the sinner, what better is God, what better is the truth, that the sinner should suffer—continue suffering to all eternity? Would there be less sin in the universe? Would there be any making-up for sin? Would it show God justified in doing what he knew would bring sin into the world, justified in making creatures who he knew would sin? What setting-right would come of the sinner’s suffering? If justice demand it, if suffering be the equivalent for sin, then the sinner must suffer, then God is bound to exact his suffering, and not pardon; and so the making of man was a tyrannical deed, a creative cruelty. But grant that the sinner has deserved to suffer, no amount of suffering is any atonement for his sin. To suffer to all eternity could not make up for one unjust word.
So much more needs to be said about the Scottish preacher’s presentation of divine justice, which undoubtedly scandalized his Calvinist countrymen. Please do read his sermon on justice and reflect upon the similarities and differences between “St George the Divine,” as his son Greville affectionately named him, and St Isaac of Nineveh.2 I suspect that the differences between the two are more apparent than substantive.
If God is the punitive, retributive Deity our imaginations have created, how can we love him, how can we worship and adore him, how can we gladly surrender our lives to him? Such a God can only be feared and loathed; but this is not the Father of Jesus Christ! St Isaac 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).
(18 March 2013; rev.)
 Does this make Isaac a Marcionite? Only if we believe that the inspired meaning of a biblical text is limited to its literal or critical meaning. Yet if this were the case, the Apostles and Church Fathers would never have discovered Christ in the Scriptures. See Brad Jersak, A More Christlike Word (2021).