God’s Motivation: Love or Evil?

Recently I read some email comments about the power of evil in the world.  The comments implied that it was because of evil on earth that God sent His Son into the world, and that the death of Christ on the cross was also the result of evil.  Thus, the way the story was being presented it was the existence of evil that caused the incarnation.

The corollary of attributing God’s saving action to evil would then be to say, thanks to evil, God became incarnate.  For in this thinking it is evil which motivates God to do something for His creatures.  Yet the witness of John 3:16 is clear that it is God’s love which motivates Him toward the world, not the existence of evil.

For God so loved the world

that He gave His own dear Son

that whoever believes in Him

would have eternal life.

The true motivation of the God who is love is clear in the writings of certain saints of the Church.  St. Isaac of Syria (7th Cent) attributes the entire incarnation and death of Christ to one thing only: God’s love. Whatever happened to Christ is because of God’s love, not because of the power of evil in the world.  St. Isaac, so I’ve read, does not attribute the suffering and death of Christ to sin, original sin, Satan, death or evil. In fact some scholars say you would be hard pressed to find in Isaac’s writings any such “theology of the cross”: No substitutionary death of Christ, no demand for justice, no price being paid to anyone. I’ve read similar claims about St. Ephrem of Syria (4th Cent) as well.

Some could rightfully object that neither St. Ephrem or  St. Isaac encompasses the entire Tradition of the Church. Others would say that the theology of the cross is already nascent if not full blown in St. Paul whether the patristic saints mention it or not.

Be that as it may, St. Isaac’s thought is part of the tradition of the Church, and his theology counterbalances those writings which overly credit evil with causing God to act.  Evil is not the cause of everything, especially not of the incarnation of the Word.  Some would say it can’t be the cause of anything for it doesn’t have substance.

“But the sum of all is that God the Lord surrendered His own Son to death on the Cross for the fervent love of creation. ‘For God so loved the the world, that He gave His only begotten Son over to death for its sake.’ This was not, however, because He could not have redeemed us in another way, but so that His surpassing love, manifested hereby, might be a teacher unto us. And by the death of His only-begotten Son He made us near to Himself.” (St. Isaac the Syrian THE ASCETICAL HOMILIES, p 345)

Love, not justice let alone evil, is the basis of the incarnation according to St. Isaac.  God’s love, especially for the Eastern Patristic writers,  is also the cause for Christ descending into Hades upon His death and rescuing all the dead from the power of sin, evil and death.

Archbishop Hilarion Alfeyev in his CHRIST THE CONQUEROR OF HELL  points out that there was a difference between Eastern and Western Patristic period writers in understanding the  descent of Christ into Hades.  The Western fathers tended to believe that Christ rescued only the righteous from Hades and left the sinners there.  The Eastern fathers thought that would not really be love but only justice.  The Eastern fathers, believing God’s motivation to be love, saw Christ as emptying Hades of everyone.  This is the triumph of God’s love over sin, death and even the limits of justice.  (Interestingly, according to St. Irenaeus,  the heretic Marcion wrote that Christ rescued the sinners from Hades – thus Cain and Lamech raced out of Hades to embrace Christ their savior when He descended into Hades, while the Jewish righteous – such as Noah – relying on Torah chose to stay in Hades thinking a graceful exit from Hades must be a trick, and that the OT righteous decided to stay in Hades until they had opportunity to show God how righteous they had been).

So the Eastern Fathers saw Christ as rescuing us from Hades and death (the both of which are our enemies), whereas the Western fathers tended to see Hades and death as part of God’s justice and so God would hardly be saving us/sinners from his own justice.  Perhaps in this Western version sin helps separate the good from the evil – the good work to overcome their sins while the evil must pay for their sins eternally.   It is all the works-righteousness idea playing (working?) itself out.

Sin and death therefore are either that which separates us from God and which must be overcome by the incarnation,  death and resurrection of Christ (a view common in the Christian East),  OR   sin and death are the very conditions necessary in order for God to be our Savior and thus can be said to cause salvation.  A number of the Eastern Patristic Saints were convinced that love alone was what caused God to act on our behalf – in the incarnation and in the crucifixion.  Evil is not the cause of God’s plan of salvation, rather God’s love destroys evil in all of its manifestations including sin and death.   Evil does not cause God to act.  The God who is love acts according to His own nature to overcome evil.  Love conquers all.

6 thoughts on “God’s Motivation: Love or Evil?

  1. Pingback: Orthodox Collective

  2. Nemo

    I can understand that evil does not limit God nor necessitate the Incarnation. But if the Incarnation is caused by Love, does it not follow that the suffering and death of Christ is also caused by Love, and since God is Love, he is also suffering eternally?

    1. Fr. Ted

      When speaking about God, apophatic wisdom would caution that human terminology is inadequate to the task. God is impassible, yet is love. God in the flesh suffers for us.

      God has suffered for and with his creation from the beginning. It is the risk that comes with creating free will beings. Since love requires free will for it to be true love, love means a willingness to suffer. Love is not a reaction, but is willed action, a choice. God chooses to love us despite our being sinners.

      Certainly in Genesis 6:6, God is anthropomophically described as grieved – namely God was suffering because of His human creation.

      Indeed in Christ all that is human is assumed by Him, united to His eternal person, including His suffering for us.

      1. Nemo

        I’ve always thought that God does not suffer, because suffering is caused by damage and accompanied by change, and because God never changes, He never suffers. At least, this is what I learned from St. Augustine.

      2. Fr. Ted

        Think apophatically: human language applied to God brings God down to being understandable by humans.

        The Bible presents many images of God – that God both cannot suffer or change, and then presents God anthropomorphically as suffering, grieving, etc.

        The language is human language trying to help us get some understandable experience of the incomprehensible God.

        It is true that God does not suffer like we do since God exists outside of both space and time – yet God the Word became incarnate and thus entered space and time. It is true mystery and tells us not to get too literal about our understanding of God. Creation is by definition “not God” and yet in the incarnation God becomes “not God.” Our language breaks down.

        But in the failure of the language we come to understand something more about God – sometimes our effort to be theologically precise about God actually obscures the deeper truth about God. And sometimes when we realize God is incomprehensible, indescribable and ineffable (words used in the Orthodox Divine Liturgy to describe God), we actually have a deeper truth revealed to us.

  3. Pingback: the symbolic language of God’s way of heavenly peace « power of language blog: partnering with reality by JR Fibonacci

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