By Fr. Dumitru Staniloae
Death casts a tragic veil over human existence and darkness over the life of all Creation. But the human person, through reason, which seeks meaning in existence, cannot accept the lack of meaning in final death.
Taken as a final event, it deprives not only human beings and their existence of meaning (for if a being or its generation one by one die forever, what would be the meaning?) but also the entire world. Because the meanings of things felt by people devoid of meaning do not make any sense either. But the meanings in the world cannot be denied, just as it cannot be taken as devoid of meaning and the ability of human beings to think, and if there were no meaning in humans, then this would mean that they would search and find any meanings in vain .
Not to mention the fact that final death would make redundant or inexplicable not only the human ability to think, but also all the spiritual values that sustain man: mutual love, the joy that springs from this love, the pain that people inflict on themselves due to carelessness, separation, the great responsibility that one has for another, the inability not to mention our loved ones after their death; the importance we attach to deeds done for good and to be preserved in the memory of posterity; the hope that those who do all these good works will benefit from them for eternity…
And if death is not a final event for human beings, what positive meaning can be contained in it that they must nevertheless endure? We will try to outline this meaning – as the Christian faith sees it.
When people give each other strength for life through word and deed arising from faith in the Lord and thanks to His power, then to those who give – to them it is given. They are enriched and they themselves are strengthened in life, and the most complete self-giving is when a person gives his life to the Lord and to his neighbor, because this leads to elevation, to the most fulfilling life. This is the greatest paradox inherent in the human personality. The more a man gives himself to God and to men, the more he ascends to the abundant, higher life. If every good deed done for another is a renunciation of yourself or a partial sacrifice for others, this can only happen if at the same time you dedicate this deed to the Lord. Joy is also for you – by sacrificing your own will, you give it to God. In a completely natural way, this brings you joy and a new life, as full as possible, because it comes from the One who gave you life and carries eternal life in Himself.
When we accept death as a sacrifice demanded by God for others, then it will not be the fruit of mere passivity, but will be an act of supreme will and power. This will not be an act of negation of your life, because that would belittle God’s gift, but a use of this fundamental gift to perform the one act of supreme love for which you were actually given life. Death as a sacrifice, that is, the use of life to perform the act of supreme love, is in fact an act of supreme elevation of life to the strongest experience of that love in human being. This sacrificial act must be accepted if those for whom you give your life need your sacrifice. You must not accept death as a sacrifice that others do not need, that no one will benefit from.
And the love you have revealed in this death is due to the freedom you have been given by God. Because if it had not been given to you by Him, He Himself would have predestined man to fall into sin and the sufferings associated with it. God has given men a fatal gift – the gift of freedom, although He knew in advance that this gift would lead some to eternal misery. If freedom was predetermined by Him, then the positive response given by some to His call for obedience to God, as well as the negative response given by others, would have been given by Him Himself. Berdyaev says: “Sotiriology in traditional theological teachings can easily be perceived as a correction of the error committed by Him, which correction also takes the form of a corrective process. Rational cataphatic theology forgets the Divine Trinity in its cosmology and anthropology, forgets the Spirit of love and self-sacrifice, seeing redemption, not the creation of the world, as the goal of the mystery of Christian revelation. It fails to pass the stage of this divine comedy and constructs a fictitious theodicy.’
Even in God, he goes on to say, or in the Indefinable, equivalent to indeterminate freedom, both good and evil coexist. Good cannot exist without evil. Hence the tragedy, inextricably linked to existence itself, i.e. “evil is possible only because there is a dark will in God, or in other words – in the Undefinable.” “Furthermore, evil has a positive meaning for the birth of the cosmos and of man. Evil is the shadow of good because the light implies the existence of darkness as well. Light, goodness and love, in order to manifest, require the presence of an opposite principle, an opposite counterpart. God himself has two faces – that of love and that of anger, a face of light and a face of darkness.” Böhme himself says: “For the God of the light world and the God of the dark world are not two different deities. There is only one God. He is all existence; He is good and evil, he is heaven and hell, light and darkness, eternity and time, beginning and end. Where His love is hidden in an existence, wrath appears”.
Good prevails by defeating evil, light prevails by defeating darkness. “On the cross, says Böhme, Christ had to absorb into His holy existence that anger which had awakened in the essence of Adam”. And Berdyaev explains: “Boehme perceives redemption from a cosmological and anthropological point of view as a continuation of the creation of the world.”
We hold, contrary to this opinion, that evil cannot be understood as organically related to existence – in the sense that if there is no evil, good cannot be imposed. How could good still be imposed if evil is as bound to existence as good? And why would good need evil to exist? Also, why is good not imposed on all sentient creatures if evil is given to be defeated?
We think that God has endowed sentient creatures with freedom, but apparently He does not dispose of the freedom He has given. And not because He could not or because then freedom would not be a gift from Him, but because He wants them to dispose of the freedom given to them. He has given them a freedom that belongs to their being, not to His. He made them free beings.
There is a difference between His being and their being, and there is a difference between His will or freedom and their will or freedom. The human being is of limited power, the human will is also affected by such limitation. Despite these limitations, however, the human being has a thirst for life without limits and the opportunity to progress in it, but with the help of God, who is a limitless being. It is also an opportunity for people not to advance towards this limitless life by their efforts and will, by asserting their freedom. Their will can endure, but it can also slip, being weakened, as is their entire human being.
And God is not to blame for this weakness. He offers through His love power to His creations and free will to grow in power. But this requires the cooperation of the creations themselves.
Love reveals God as One Who does not abuse His omnipotence to hold men by force in communion with Himself, but neither does He leave them to their own devices. Through love, He wants to strengthen human beings, but also their will and freedom of action. It is up to them to open themselves to God’s love. He who does not accept love does so out of pride, and this is a sign of a weakened power of freedom. It was not freedom in itself that caused the fall, but the denial of freedom. It is within man’s power at any time to return to the power of freedom. And in this he is helped by the love shown to him by God and by his neighbors. The more someone loves God and his neighbor and the less he looks only at himself, the freer he is. It is not freedom that drives him to evil, but its complete futility, if it is not also understood as freedom from itself. From the other who wants to be one with me comes my strength to grow in freedom and ultimately from the One Whose will is to gather us all lovingly together in a place where we will forget ourselves in the selfish sense of the word, because he commanded us to love one another in him, and it is he who has shown his love to us by offering himself as a sacrifice for us all.
In love, we live in the greatest fullness of our destiny, the unforcedness of our will and our freedom. I love with good will, I love with joy, because I am attracted to the other person, but attracted with forgetfulness of myself, and not to satisfy any desire. Then my love for the other deepens with his love for me, each strengthened by the other. But in its higher vibration my love does not wait to be awakened and strengthened by someone’s love for me, but is awakened by the recognition of its wondrous mystery and by the desire to make the other also a partaker of this mystery, that he may realize the value of love as secret of power; to make himself happy by the love he shows.
But He who goes before as an example and as a source for the awakening of love in all of us through His love for us is the Son of God, who became man and was crucified for us, sacrificing Himself as a testimony of a love that precedes the love with which will be answered to us, or which is simply explained by the value which He gives to those to whom it is shown, a value with which, on the other hand, He Himself has clothed us. This is the most indeterminate freedom. This is the secret of the Supreme Personality, of supreme love.
In the book Genesis the world is not presented as created by God to necessarily pass through the experience of evil, but the Creator’s approval that all created things are good is revealed to us. Genesis does not reveal God to us as the Creator of the world, carrying within himself the possibility of evil, to be opposed to good. Nor does it show Him as compelled by some necessity to create such a world. He creates the world out of love, because in love manifests true, non-deterministic freedom. But that is precisely why He does not create a world forced to love Him, but creates it with the risk that the world will not respond to His love. And it is an act of condescension, of humility that can be accepted as a sacrifice, considering the omnipotence that He can manifest. He does not use His omnipotence to create a world to be forced to love Him, or a world to show that it does not need His love. This would not mean true omnipotence. This would represent Him as the servant of His own omnipotence. God exhibits an indeterminate freedom, but it is not above Him, but His. He Himself is the indeterminate Freedom.
The appearance of evil in the world cannot be explained by the creation of a world that must necessarily be exposed to the experience of evil. This would rather be the work of limited rather than of God’s boundless freedom. Evil could appear in the world precisely because God created the world with his boundless love. But the indeterminate freedom granted to men implies that they can experience good only in their communion with God, and, on the other hand, can choose evil, which is the absence of communion with Him.
By creating the world out of love, God made this world good. But he could not make him be and remain good except in his communion with Him through love. For their part, people can choose evil precisely through their free will and not responding to His love. Knowing this, however, God, at the creation of the world, had decided in advance to resort to a new condescension of His to this world, in order to bring it to a still greater union with Himself in love through the Incarnation and Crucifixion of His Son, and so He again renounced by His omnipotence. There is a deep connection between Creation and the Incarnation. The Incarnation is not a correction of an imperfect creation, but a step forward towards bringing this world closer to God through love, bringing love closer to the world, until achieving union with Him in the Person of the Son of God.
Even the act of Creation is a manifestation of a peculiar humility of God, as it reaches its limit at the Incarnation and Crucifixion of the Cross of the Son of God. That is why Christians make the sign of the cross, praising the Holy Trinity out of gratitude for the sacrifice given for us, an expression of the greatest humility and condescension to the world out of love for us.
However, in view of the fact that some of His sentient creatures will not benefit from this second and perfect step of the Creator in His will of union with them, but remain in misery, the question arises whether it would not have been better if He had not been created the world. Böhme answers this question through the idea that God cannot help but create the world as He created it through an indeterminate freedom that is superior to Him or precedes Him.
Christian teaching says that God chose to create the world and condescend to it, making a sacrifice for this world, because even existing in incomplete union with God is better than non-existence. God gives to creatures as much as it does not depend on their own will to receive. This is what St. John Damascene says, thus answering that Manichaean who asked him why God created the devil, knowing that he would be evil: “He created him out of an abundance of goodness. Because he said: “Since he will do evil and lose all the goods given to him, shall I completely deprive him of his given goods and make him non-existent?” Not at all. Even if he is evil, I will not deprive him of communion with Me through being, even against his will I will not deprive him of My good through being.” Because no one holds and connects everything in existence, except God – because existence is a good and a gift of God… Everything that God gives to everyone is good, because what the Good gives is good. Therefore, all who have being are present in part in the good, in a final degree.’ Or: “God also offers the devil good things, but he does not want to accept them… And in the future age, God will give good things to everyone, because He is the source from which all good things flow.” But everyone participates in good to the extent that he himself is ready to accept it”.
So God does not regret having created the world, even after some of His creation ended up in eternal hell. He continues to sustain the being of those created for being as a continuation of the manifestation of His goodness to them. Their condition in hell is not a punishment from Him, but their refusal to accept more of the gifts He has offered them. This leads us to understand evil not as a total lack of good, but as a scarcity of good… Suffering comes from this lack of good, from the lack of good, since man was created to progress in the limitlessness of good.
But here the question arises – in what does this diminished good of the bad and those in hell consist, and why does it go together with suffering? And why is the value of being good? Because being cannot simply be taken for existence, emptied of all value. We admit that it is a mystery that is difficult to describe…
The diminished good in the existence of those in hell, which is good nonetheless, is the good experienced through a life devoid of other goods. If we attempt to say something about this meager good, it may perhaps be remarked that conscious creatures who are out of communion with God, nor even in sincere communion with their fellows, are nevertheless benefited by the satisfaction which their existence gives them, which they in their pride suppose they have of themselves and forever. And the lack of spiritual love, which would bring them communion with God, can it be compensated by the illusion that, knowing the world, they have knowledge of everything? Pride and illusion could give them some compensation for the lack of happiness that communion with God (and with fellow men) could give them. These two things may seem like compensation and because you may get used to not experiencing the happiness that love of God and neighbors can give you. And so you can come to the conviction that God and your neighbors cannot give you happiness at all, as well as to the conclusion that God does not even exist. Because without having this experience of God, Who can give them love in abundance, many are convinced that He does not exist at all, or that He is not a God of love, or that His love cannot make them happy. They may become accustomed to living in hostile relations or indifference to others, in aloofness from God, even in disbelief that He exists at all. And although this constantly provokes dissatisfaction in them and causes them to suffer, they compensate for this with an arrogance that pushes them into these states, and with the illusion that, despite everything, they are progressing through new experiences in the state in which they are.
Since only through persons can the potential will be activated in a good or bad direction, only persons are effective factors of good or evil, only they experience good and evil through themselves and among themselves. A human nature that does not exist in a specific human personality could not be activated, manifested as good or bad. That is why good or evil lives between persons and by persons. They do good or evil by using the potential of human nature to do good or to cause evil. Of course, when people make good use of the potential of their good nature, they use it in harmony with the purpose of their human nature, or on the contrary – they can act against it. When they use it for evil, they act against their human nature. Even then, however, evil cannot be done without using the potencies of that nature, without that which it contains within itself. Evil has no power to act outside of this nature. Because only she is called into existence. Evil is forced to use the potentialities of what exists. And since that which exists in human form exists only in the person, only a human person can do evil and only he can do good. Man uses the general will to be a human being in certain ways, and can allow himself to be carried away by the illusion that he is serving the benefit of the human creature even as he uses his natural will against him. Human nature can also be used against its real growth because, on the one hand, it was created to move toward growth through harmony within itself and with God, but, on the other hand, it is changeable, so it can move in her concrete existence as a person and towards that which is contrary to spiritual development, refusing to move in harmony with her own powers and towards God, deluded by the pride that she can enrich herself through herself and through the world at her disposal , and seeking the exaggerated enjoyment of the pleasures this world has to offer.
St. Athanasius writes: “The soul by nature is easily active, it does not stop moving, even if it turns away from the path of virtue and not to contemplate God, but thinking about the non-existent, uses what is in its power, perversely, badly taking advantage of this freedom for fanciful desires. Because, created free, it can incline to good or turn away from him. And turning away from the good, unkind thoughts inevitably appear in her. However, it cannot stop its movement, because by nature, as was said above, it is easily active in different directions. And being aware of her freedom, she sees herself able to use her bodily members for non-existent things and for existent things. Those who exist are good and those who do not exist are evil. I call those that exist good because they have their models in God, who is the Existent, and I call those that do not exist evil because they arose from human thoughts… Seeing its power and freedom, as I said above, the soul begins to direct its fleshly members to evil and instead of striving for creativity, she turns her gaze to desires, thus proving that this too is possible for her, and thinking that by directing her movement she preserves her dignity and does not sin by doing what is in her power. Because it does not understand that it was not created only to move, but to aim for what it should”. According to St. Athanasius, there are two things in which the evil done by man is contained: in his delusion about his inner desires, and in the pride that is expressed in the thought that a person can develop alone, rise up without God’s help.
And as the divine nature exists only in Persons, so the human nature exists only in persons. Only through them is knowledge and love achieved. Especially love can have no place except between individuals. Only individuals together can experience the eternal fullness of being with God and the true elevation of man.
Only in and through the Divine Persons does man experience the boundless fullness of being in God, and only in human persons does human nature dwell and can be led more and more towards the infinite divine life. However, it is possible that this drive will take the opposite direction – to narrow and mutilate the human being without being able to prevent it. But even in this impossibility of stopping the drive towards divine eternity or, on the contrary – towards going back, we can see the image of God sealed as a dynamic tension in human nature, but in the case of its limitation it is experienced in a false or apparent way.
In destroying evil, man uses what is given him in his human nature: his mind and his body. However, when he uses them for evil, he chooses those things that do not exist, that is, those things that weaken his power, distort his authentic nature, and give fleeting pleasures. However, it cannot be completely destroyed once it is given to him by God and resides in the God-given being. The good consists in remaining in communion with God, and the evil in choosing that which is not there by separating from Him.
In these words of St. Athanasius we have a definition of the embedded image of God in human nature. Separation from God is one with evil and with the weakening or perversion of human nature. Therefore, the human being is an image of all that God is: being, knowledge, love. God has these three in unlimited fullness, and man has them in himself in dependence on God and advances in them only if he opens himself to communion with Him…
However, when man has cut himself off from fellowship with God and puts his will into enmity and battle against Him, which is also a kind of fellowship, he helps to deform his authentic human nature through his arrogance and selfish desires, opposed to the humility that gives us it opens to God and to the neighbors and strengthens the enrichment of the spirit.
Ascending to the order of God’s eternity opens the possibility of limitless spiritual enrichment, with the prospect of eternal life, instead of the monotonous progress in our own pride and complexes, for which we also use the powers given to us by God, but going in a direction opposite to His path. People who progress spiritually through their relationship with others, even in their association with individuals hostile to themselves, manage to learn what to avoid, what to guard against. People who live locked in the microcosm of their selfishness and immerse themselves in the stream of new and new desires (according to the temptations offered by the world) can only learn something good and overcome their haughty opposition to God if they stand before their eyes those who are always open to God’s immensity…
Thus, the history of humanity acquires meaning, indicating the essential moments that can benefit the next generations and enrich the human being in God’s eternity and in the aspiration to it… It is in human nature and through it that goodness grows and the forms in which it multiplies it manifests itself in the world – through persons, for persons and in persons. But evil also manifests itself in this way – through persons, for persons and in persons. Each person will have their merit, but will also be judged for the increase of good or evil in human nature that passes into the next generation.
In personality, human nature is revealed as aging, attached to the Eternal God and inseparable from Him, but also at the risk, if separated, of losing its beauty, becoming polluted, weakened and impoverished, yet continuing to exist, for the creative and sustaining power of God does not withdraw from its foundations.