Since ancient times, it has been the practice of the Christian church to observe a forty-day fasting period in preparation for Easter, the annual Feast of the Resurrection of Jesus Christ, the Christian Passover in commemoration of the redemption of the world that inaugurated the New Covenant, of which the Passover of the Old Covenant was an anticipatory type. In the English-speaking world we call this period Lent. (1) In the Western church, this period begins on Ash Wednesday (2) which, as the name indicates, is a day set aside for the sober business of remembering our morality, and repenting our sin, (3) setting the tone for our reflections during this period. It is a very appropriate tone, since our sin and morality, are both the reason for Christ’s entering the world on His redemptive mission, taking our humanity, our mortality, and, as He died on the cross, our sin, upon Himself, and the enemies over which He triumphed when He rose victorious from the grave.
It is also ancient custom for the church’s lexicons to assign readings from the Pentateuch, and especially the books of Genesis and Exodus, to this period. The readings assigned to the daily offices (4) in the Book of Common Prayer begin Genesis at the start of Shrovetide (5), the two and a half weeks just prior to Lent. The book of Exodus is very fitting for this period, of course, because it tells the story of the redemption of national Israel from slavery in Egypt, the first Passover foreshadowing the Christian one. The book of Genesis prepares for this by explaining what the Israelites were doing in Egypt in the first place, but it also goes back to the beginning of the story, to the entrance of sin and death into the world with the Fall of man, and to Creation itself. St. Basil the Great’s Hexaemeron, a series of lessons on the six days of Creation, were originally a set of homilies preached during the Lenten season.
The juxtaposition of meditations upon Creation with reflections on sin and mortality, brings to mind the conundrum that theologians and philosophers have been struggling to answer for centuries. That is the question of evil. Why is there evil in a world created by a good and all-powerful God?
Framed that way, the traditional and orthodox answer to the question is that God gave man and the angels free will in the sense of the ability to make moral choices, i.e., choices for which they are responsible and can be held accountable, and that implicit in such free will is the possibility of evil. We shall return to this answer, but first let us look at a different angle of the question. What is evil?
This is actually a trick question, which requires some elaboration to explain. Everything that exists, is either a substance – in the philosophical sense of the term, which includes non-material substances such as spirit and energy – or an attribute– a quality, like colour, for example, that exists, not in itself, except in a transcendental realm like Plato’s realm of the Forms, but in substances. The existence of attributes, is secondary to that of substances, on which it is dependent, and a further distinction must be made between real attributes, whether properties or accidents, (6) in which the qualities are positively present in their substances, like sweetness in sugar, and “unreal” accidents that are only negatively present, i.e., absences, wants, and defects. The latter, while present and observable, do not “exist” in the same sense that substances and real attributes do. Everything that does exist, in this sense, must either be eternal, the source of its own existence, or created, dependent upon something prior to itself for its existence. As the existence of attributes is a secondary form of existence to that of substances, so the existence of all created substances and attributes, is secondary to that of the eternal. Only God, as the First Cause, is eternal, truly possessing existence in Himself that is not dependent upon another. (7) Everything else that exists derives its existence from Him as part of His Creation, either as substance or attribute. Since God Himself is Good, evil therefore, must either a) be part of His Creation as a substance, b) be part of His Creation as a real attribute, or c) not exist. Evil is certainly not a substance created by God. Nor is it a real attribute of anything that He made. Throughout the account of Creation, God looks upon the things that He has made – Light, Earth and Sea, plant life, the sun, moon, and stars, the birds of the air and fishes of the sea, and land animals – and sees that they are good (Gen. 1:4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25). Finally, after creating man in His own image, He “saw everything that he had made: and behold, it was every good.” (Gen. 1:31) Therefore evil does not exist. The orthodox answer to the question what is evil is that it is not.
It should be clear from the above, that the assertion that evil does not exist is not a denial of its presence in the world, the evidence of which presence abounds wherever we look, but that evil, being neither a substance nor a real attribute, has no being, essence, or, the title of this essay notwithstanding, nature. Evil’s presence in this world is like the presence of the shadow that is cast when some object blocks the light. Light is something, it exists, it has an essence, whereas the darkness of the shadow does not, it is simply the absence of the light. St. Basil, therefore, introduces the subject of evil in the second homily of his Hexameron, in commenting on the words “and darkness was upon the face of the deep” in the second verse of Genesis. Just as the darkness in this verse, is neither a created nor an uncreated essence, but is the “shadow produced by the interposition of a body, or finally a place for some reason deprived of light” so evil is “neither uncreate nor created by God” but is “is not a living animated essence; it is the condition of the soul opposed to virtue, developed in the careless on account of their falling away from good.” (8)
St. Basil was addressing heresies here, primarily the dualistic heresy of Manichaeism in which darkness and evil are real essences, almost equal to those of light and goodness. St. Augustine, who had been a disciple of this heresy prior to his conversion to orthodox Christianity, declared that “What is called Evil in the Universe is but the Absence of Good”, illustrating the point with bodily diseases and wounds which “mean nothing but the absence of health” and which are not substances but defects “in the fleshly substance, — the flesh itself being a substance, and therefore something good, of which those evils— that is, privations of the good which we call health — are accidents.” (9) Similarly St. John of Damascus declared that “evil is not any essence nor a property of essence, but an accident, that is, a voluntary deviation from what is natural into what is unnatural, which is sin.” (10) The writer whose works were attributed to Dionysius the Areopagite devotes much of the fourth chapter of his book on the Divine Names to addressing the question of evil, concludes that “The Evil, then, is not an actual thing, nor is the Evil in things existing. For the Evil, qua evil, is nowhere, and the fact that evil comes into being is not inconsequence of power, but by reason of weakness…[the demons] aspire to the Good, in so fa as they aspire to be and to live and to think. And in so far as they do not aspire to the Good, they aspire to the non-existent; and this is not aspiration, but a missing of the true aspiration.” (11) St. Gregory of Nyssa wrote:
No growth of evil had its beginning in the Divine will. Vice would have been blameless were it inscribed with the name of God as its maker and father. But the evil is, in some way or other, engendered from within, springing up in the will at that moment when there is a retrocession of the soul from the beautiful. For as sight is an activity of nature, and blindness a deprivation of that natural operation, such is the kind of opposition between virtue and vice. It is, in fact, not possible to form any other notion of the origin of vice than as the absence of virtue. For as when the light has been removed the darkness supervenes, but as long as it is present there is no darkness, so, as long as the good is present in the nature, vice is a thing that has no inherent existence; while the departure of the better state becomes the origin of its opposite. (12)
If evil is not something that exists, in either a created or an uncreated essence, but denotes an absence of goodness in created beings, how, since God created all things good, do we explain the presence of this absence?
We return to the orthodox answer of free will – the ability, of men and angels, as rational, responsible, moral beings to make choices for which they are accountable. If free will explains the presence of that void in the souls of men and demons that we call evil, then this raises some further questions. If God created moral, rational, beings with the attribute of free will, then free will itself must be good. How then, can free will, being good, result in evil?
In considering this question it is important to observe that evil is the result of free will, not its product or creation. This is related to what we have already considered about evil not being a substance or a real attribute but a defect or absence. When men and angels exercised their free will in disobedience to God, the evil that ensued was not the entrance into existence of a new essence called evil, but the diminishment of their own being, through the loss of the quality of goodness. Which is why this event is referred to as the Fall. Mankind fell away from what he was to become something less.
The question, therefore becomes, one of how it can it be the nature of free will, an attribute that is itself good, to make choices that result in such a diminishment of being, such a loss of goodness possible. To add another dimension to the question, remember that according to the orthodox doctrine of Original Sin, the choice to sin resulted in the diminishment, not only of our created goodness, but the freedom of the will itself, which then became bound in slavery to sin. The answer is that what was included in the nature of free will, was not the inevitability of this result, but its possibility.
This leads to the question of how, if it is the nature of free will to include the potential for evil choices, for falling away from goodness and its own freedom, free will itself can be considered good.
Here, the orthodox answer is, that while it is the nature of free will to include the possibility of choosing evil, free will is necessary for moral goodness in created, rational, beings. Free will, again, is the quality of being able to make rational, moral, choices for which one can be held accountable. This is a quality which must exist in created beings who bear the image of their Creator, which is the first thing predicated of man in the Scriptural account of his Creation. (13) It is only this quality, which includes the potential for sin, that allows for the possibility of goodness that is chosen.
The influence of his orthodox Catholic upbringing is clearly visible in the novels of John Anthony Wilson Burgess, who wrote under his two middle names. He is most remembered, due to Stanley Kubrick’s film version, for his novel A Clockwork Orange, and the very point of orthodox theology that we have been considering is at the heart of this novel. The main character of Alex, leader of a gang of “droogs”, is caught, arrested, and sent to prison after a string of “ultra-violent” crimes, including the home-invasion of a writer who is beaten half to death and forced to watch the rape of his wife, and the murder of a wealthy, elderly, woman. He is offered the chance of early release from prison, when he learns of the government’s experimental new “Ludovico technique” for curing people of violent, criminal, tendencies. He volunteers to undergo the technique, which consists of his being conditioned, by being forced to watch images of violence while being injected with drugs that cause pain and sickness, to become extremely ill whenever a violent urge arises within him. The prison chaplain objects to the technique and, speaking as the voice of the author, explains that the removal of free will, and the possibility of evil, does not thereby create goodness. The state officials ignore him and proclaim their new technique to be a success, but the chaplain’s commentary is born out as the released Alex finds that he has not been cured of his violent tendencies, so much as robbed of the ability, not just to act on them, but also to defend himself against the violence of others. There is a lesson in this, that our government, which, responding to the demands of the ignorant following the recent string of school shootings south of the border, has just introduced more gun control legislation, legislation which only ever diminishes the ability of the law-abiding to defend themselves and never keeps guns out of the hands of criminals, might learn, if it had ears to hear and eyes to see, but as long as it is led by the Trudeau Liberals, it will remain as blind as a bat and as deaf as a post.
For man to be a good being, not just in the sense in which rocks and trees, fish and birds, are good, but in the sense God intended, of a rational, moral, being who freely chooses the good, required that he be created with the potential of choosing wrongly, of turning away from God and the light, from Goodness, Beauty, and Truth, to the void that is darkness and evil. Man having so chosen, the events that we are about to commemorate in Holy Week, from Jesus’ presentation of Himself as the Christ in Jerusalem on Palm Sunday, through His death on the Cross on Good Friday, His burial and the Harrowing of Hell on Holy Saturday, culminating in His triumph over death on Easter Sunday, are the story of how God set about to rescue man from his own choice and free him from the bondage of sin, that he might finally be the being God intended him to be.
(1) As with “Easter”, “Lent” is a term that indicates the season of the year in which these occur. In the languages first spoken by the church, and modern languages derived from those languages, the celebration of the Resurrection is called Pascha (the Christian Passover) and the preceding fasting period is called by words designating its length, “from the fortieth.”
(2) The Western church does not count the six Sundays as part of the forty days of Lent because Sundays, on which the church meets in remembrance of the Resurrection, are weekly Easters or Paschas. The Eastern church, however, counts the Sundays in the forty days and so begins them on a Monday.
(3) The “Ash” of “Ash Wednesday” alludes to the ancient practice of donning sackcloth and heaping ashes on oneself to mourn over one’s sins, and to the dust and ashes, to which everything temporal is ultimately reduced.
(4) From Latin “officium”, meaning “duty” or “service”, this refers to the Hours of Prayer. There are traditionally seven of these. The Book of Common Prayer assigns readings and liturgy to the two most important, Matins or Morning Prayer, and Vespers or Evening Prayer which, when chanted or sung, is commonly known as Evensong. Elements of two other of the offices, Lauds and Compline, are incorporated into this liturgy.
(5) The period that begins on Septuagesima and ends on Shrove Tuesday, the day prior to Ash Wednesday.
(6) A property is an attribute that arises out of an essence or substance so that it cannot be changed without the substance itself becoming something different, an accident is an attribute that can be altered without altering essence.
(7) Note that God, when asked by Moses: “Behold, when I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you: and they shall say to me, What is his name? what shall I say unto them?” answered “I AM THAT I AM...Thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I AM hath sent me unto you.” Ex. 3:13-14.
(8) St. Basil of Caeserea, Hexaemeron, Homily II.4.
(9) St. Augustine of Hippo, Enchiridion, XI. Enchiridion is Greek for “handbook”, and this handbook is on the subject of the three theological virtues, faith, hope, and love. Chapter XI falls in the “faith” section, which is rebutting various heresies. The chapter prior asserted that “The Supremely Good Creator Made All Things Good”.
(10) St. John of Damascus, An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, IV.20.
(11) The Divine Names, IV. 34. Dionysius the Areopagite was the convert St. Paul made at Mars Hill (the Areopagus – hence the Areopagite) in Acts 17. The works attributed to him, are almost universally considered to be much later than the first century, and so the true author is unknown.
(12) St. Gregory of Nyssa, The Great Catechism, II.5.
(13) Genesis 1:26.
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