The “Punishment” of Adam and Eve


It is quite common among Orthodox saints to view God’s activities in the world through the lens “God is love.”  They felt this was a non-negotiable truth.  If something reported in Scripture does not seem consistent with a loving God, then the issue is we don’t understand the story, how it was written and/or how it is to be interpreted.  The fault is not with God but with our limited understanding of the world.  There is mystery in the world, and much happens that we simply don’t understand because we don’t have the big picture – we can’t see how God sees the world, and so our interpretation of events and logic are very limited.

These saints were totally OK with moving away from a literal interpretation of a text if the literal interpretation seemed to show that God is not love.   Some Patristic writers and Orthodox saints for example interpreted God’s comment to Adam that if you eat the fruit of the Tree of Knowledge you will die as a loving warning to Adam rather than as a threat of punishment.  And they saw death not as punishment but God preventing a person from growing endlessly in evil – terminating life was to stop the negative growth of evil in a person.  God thus uses death to stop us from increasingly falling under Satan’s power.   As an example, St Isaac the Syrian writes:

“Just as He decreed death, under the appearance of a sentence, for Adam because of sin, and just as He showed that (the sin) existed by means of the punishment–even though this (punishment) was not His (real) aim: He showed it as though it was something which (Adam) would receive as repayment for his wrong, but He hid its true mystery, and under the guise of something to be feared, He concealed His eternal intention concerning death and what His wisdom was aiming at: even though this matter might be grievous, ignominious and hard at first, nevertheless in truth it would be the means of transporting us to that wonderful and glorious world.  Without it, there would be no way of crossing over from this world and being there.”

So though death appears to be a punishment, God was actually hiding his intention.  His intention was to give us eternal life, but the way to that end was through death – the death of the Son of God on the cross. 

Why can’t we enter heaven without dying? Because sin that clings to us cannot enter heaven – death purges us of sin, we resurrect to a new life free of sin.   This is the imagery of baptism as well – we die with Christ and are buried with Him, but then resurrected to the new life free of sin as our sins remain in the watery grave of the baptismal font.   St. Isaac continues:

“Again, when he expelled Adam and Eve from Paradise, He expelled them under the (outward aspect of anger: ‘Because you have transgressed the commandment, you have found yourselves outside (Paradise)–as though dwelling in Paradise had been taken away from them because they were unworthy. But inside all this stood (the divine) plan, fulfilling and guiding everything towards the Creator’s original intention from the beginning. It was not disobedience which introduced death to the house of Adam, nor did transgression remove them from Paradise, for it is clear that (God) did not create Adam and Eve to be in Paradise, (just) a small portion of the earth; rather, they were going to subjugate the entire earth. For this reason we do not even say that He removed them because of the commandment which had been transgressed; for it is not the case that, had they not transgressed the commandment, they would have been left in Paradise forever.”

(Isaac the Syrian ‘The Second Part,’ Chapters IV-XLI, p 164)

For St. Isaac, God was not responding to human behavior such as sin, but had a plan in place all along.  God knew what humans were going to do, and used human action as the very means for human salvation.  This is far from the angry vengeful God portrayed in some forms of Christianity.  It is a God who is infinitely loving and who works with us despite our penchant for sin and rebellion.  God has not interest in our death or punishment but forever works to bring us to salvation.

Adam’s Death And God’s Mercy

One aspect found in Patristic writings is that the authors always viewed God through the lens of “God is love” (1 John 4:8, 16).   This was considered to be an unvarying, non-negotiable truth, never up for interpretation or revision.  So all the passages in Scripture in which God appears to be only just or even cruel or capricious were viewed by them through the lens that God is love.  They felt the problem was not God appearing to be different in different bible passages, but our inability to understand God or to read the Scriptures correctly.  We are limited, one-sided creatures, and so we write about God and interpret Scripture to mean that God is something other than love.  We even have a need for this at times to justify our own actions.  These Patristic writers, however, felt we had to hold to the truth that God is love even when that truth seems to conflict with what the Scriptures literally say.  The very fact that God is Trinity, testified to them all that God is love, for the Three Persons of the Trinity abide in a unity of love.  They felt the literal reading of the text was the problem, God remained love no matter how we read the text.  So we see St. Gregory the Theologian (d. 389AD) reading the passage in Genesis 3 where Adam is expelled from Paradise and in which death becomes part of human existence.  While reading the words of the passage, he still sees the text as bearing witness to the love and mercy of God.  He does not see this as a passage about God’s justice and anger, but rather how God limits evil in our lives.  Death prevents us from sinning eternally.  Death prevents us from moving away from God forever.  Death prevents sin and evil from becoming eternal powers in our lives.  Thus for St. Gregory, even when God appears to punish, it turns out to be another form of God’s love and mercy.

“This being (man) He placed in Paradise, having honored him with the gift of free will (in order that God might belong to him as the result of choice); naked in his simplicity. Also He gave him a law, as a material for his Free Will to act upon. This Law, was a commandment as to what plants he might partake of, and which one he might not touch. This latter was the The Tree of Knowledge. But when the Devil’s malice and the woman’s caprice, to which she succumbed as the more tender, brought to bear on the man, he forgot the commandments which had been given him, he yielded; and for his sin he was banished, at once from The Tree of Life, and from Paradise. Yet here too he makes a gain, namely death, and the cutting off of sin, in order that evil may not be immortal. Thus punishment is changed into a mercy; for it is in mercy, I am persuaded, that God inflicts punishment.”  (Gregory of Nazianzos, On the Birthday of Christ, p 7)

St. John the Theologian

On Monday, September  26 we remember in the Church the death of St. John the Theologian.  John is the “disciple whom Jesus loved.

St. John writes to us:    “Beloved, let us love one another; for love is of God, and he who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God; for God is love.

In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No man has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us. By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his own Spirit.  And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son as the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we know and believe the love God has for us. God is love, and he who abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.   In this is love perfected with us, that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and he who fears is not perfected in love. We love, because he first loved us. If any one says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen, cannot love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him, that he who loves God should love his brother also.”  (1 John 4:7-21)

Brothers Cain and Abel
Brothers Cain and Abel

God’s Eternal Mercy, Love and Compassion

“Just as an abundantly flowing fountain is not blocked by a handful of dust, so the Maker’s mercy is not overcome by the wickedness of those whom He has created.[…]

In love did God bring the world into existence;

in love does He guide it during its temporal existence;

in love is He going to bring it to that wondrous transformed state, and

in love will the world be swallowed up in the great mystery of Him who has performed all these things.

In love will the whole course of the governance of creation be finally compromised.

Just because the terms ‘wrath’, ‘anger’, ‘hatred’ and the rest are used of the Creator in the Bible, we should not imagine that He actually does anything in anger, hatred or zeal. Many figurative terms are used of God in the Scriptures, terms which are far removed from His true nature. Among all God’s actions there is none which is not entirely a matter of mercy, love and compassion: this constitutes the beginning and end of His dealings with us.” (St. Isaac in The Wisdom of St. Isaac of Nineveh  by Sebastian Brock, pp 18 & 38)

Holy Tuesday (2015)

While Holy Week reminds us we will face the judgment of God, we are also reminded that God’s judgment of us is not God’s reaction to us; rather, God acts consistently toward us – always in love.  God is love, it is not just what God does but who God is.  Judgment will be how we relate to God’s love.  All of Great Lent has been a call to become charitable – to become godlike! Created in God’s image, we are to be godlike in our lives.

“It is not (the way of) the compassionate Maker to create rational beings in order to deliver them over mercilessly to unending affliction (in punishment) for things of which He knew even before they were fashioned, (aware how they would turn out when He created them – and whom (nonetheless) He created. All the more since the foreplanning of evil and the taking of vengeance are characteristics of the passions of created beings, and do not belong to the Creator. For all this (characterizes) people who do not know or who are unaware of what they are doing or thinking when something has happened with us (human beings), for as a result of some matter that has occurred unexpectedly to them they are incited by the vehemence of anger to take vengeance. Such action does not belong to the Creator who, even before the cycle of the depiction of creation had been portrayed, knew of all that was before and all that was after in connection with the actions and intentions of rational beings.” (St. Isaac of Nineveh – 7th Century, THE SECOND PART, p 165)

If we conceive of judgment as being God’s reaction to us, St. Isaac says we misunderstand God.  God is love and always acts toward us lovingly.  How we react to God’s unchanging nature is where judgment occurs.

St. Isaac says vengeance and retribution are done by those whose will is being thwarted. God has no such fear regarding His will, and so is not motivated by retribution when He judges us. God’s judgment is not comparable to how we humans judge, but a totally different reality. God reveals His judgment of humanity on the Cross! Holy Week, the week in which God deals with human sin and rebellion contains the most astounding surprise as God reveals His plan for dealing with evil on earth.

Love: The Supreme Virtue

“Paul sees in love (agape) the supreme virtue (1 Cor. 13:4). Its perfection, Peter says, covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). Love manifests the likeness of children of God to their heavenly Father. They love their enemies and are quickly reconciled with their adversaries. Nothing can separate them from the love of God which is shown in Christ their Savior (Matt. 5:24, 44; Rom. 8:38). The love of God consists in keeping his commandments, not in some vague emotion (1 John 4:7). The Lord himself summarized the commandments in the love of God and love of neighbor (Matt. 22:37-40). The ancient law preceded this charity and orientated humanity toward patience and generosity. It leads one to return the stray animal to its rightful owner, requiring that one assume care of it until the owner can again take possession of it. The law imposes respect for the rights of strangers, Egyptians, and prisoners, and demands one to give alms to the poor (Duet. 23:7; 20:10). In all this, the goodness and love of God are evident.”

(Paul M. Blowers, The Bible in Greek Antiquity, p 123)

The Incarnation: The Effect of God’s Love

“’If zeal had been appropriate for putting humanity right, why did God the Word clothe himself in the body, using gentleness and humility in order to bring the world back to his Father? And why was he stretched out on the cross for the sake of sinners, handing over his sacred body to suffering on behalf of the world? I myself say that God did all this for no other reason than to make known to the world the love that he has, his aim being that we, as a result of our greater love arising from an awareness of this, might be captivated by his love when he provided the occasion of this manifestation of the kingdom of heaven’s mighty power – which consists in love – by means of the death of his son.’   (St. Isaac)

The Incarnation and the death on the cross of the Saviour, Isaac claims, happened:

‘not to redeem us from sins, or for any other reason, but solely in order that the world might become aware of the love which God has for his creation. […]Now you can understand and realize why the coming of our Lord took place with all the events that followed it, even to the extent of his telling the purpose quite clearly out of his own hold mouth: ‘God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son’ – referring to the Incarnation and the renewal he brought about.’

Therefore, it was the love of God, and not the necessity of redeeming humanity from sin, which was the sole reason for the Incarnation of the Word. God became man because he wanted human being to turn to him as their father.”   (Hilarion Alfeyev, The Spiritual World of Isaac the Syrian, pgs. 52-53)

Intercessory Prayer

This is the 30th blog in a series exploring various aspects of “prayer.”  The first blog is “Why Pray?” and the previous blog is For What Should we Pray? (IV).

In Orthodox spirituality the opposite of love is not really anger or hatred, but self-love.  True love is relational and directed toward the good of another.  “God is love” (1 John 4:8) we are taught.  God’s goodness is other directed.  First, within the Holy Trinity each of the Divine Persons, Father and Son and Holy Spirit, are eternally loving toward each other.  They are not narcissistic or solipsistic.  God eternally is love, which means each person of the Trinity always existed in relationship to each other and forever are directed in love toward each other.  Theology would say if God is love, God could never be a monad as there then would be nothing to love but Himself.  The Trinity reveals to us the manner in which God eternally is love: there always were other persons within the Godhead to love.

Second, God is love in relationship to creation.  God has freely brought creation into existence in order to share the Trinitarian love with creatures beyond their mutually shared eternal and divine nature.

Christ and his disciples feeding the thousands

We are created in God’s image: we are created to be relational beings; we are created to love.

“An old man used to say, ‘If thou hast prayed for thy companion thou hast also  prayed for thyself, but if thou hast prayed for thyself only thou has impoverished they petition…”  (E. Wallis Budge, THE PARADISE OF THE HOLY FATHERS  vol 2, p 229)

Praying for others enriches our prayer life, and generates love in us for our neighbor and even our enemies.  This is not to say that we cannot pray for ourselves as well.

“While you can and should ask for the intercession of others, you must also pray yourself.  This is how Chrysostom puts it:

‘Even if we be in sins, and unworthy of receiving, let us not despair; knowing, that by assiduity of soul we shall be able to become worthy of the request.  Even if we be unaided by advocate and destitute, let us not faint; knowing that it is a strong advocacy, the coming to God one’s self by one’s self with much eagerness.’”  (Stanley Harakas, OF LIFE AND SALVATION, p 126)

Praying for ourselves does serve to direct our thoughts and our hearts and minds to God.  Thus even prayer for ourselves is relational and puts us into God’s presence.  But our prayer if based in love will move beyond our self, to concern for those around us.  Prayer helps us to get beyond the limit of self and to become part of something greater than an isolated and alienated being, and puts us in communion with our fellow human beings, with all of creation and with our Creator.

“It pleases the Lord, the common Father of all, when we pray for each other willingly with faith and love, for He is Love, ready to forgive all for their mutual love.  The Holy Ghost said: ‘Pray one for another, that you may be healed.’ (James 5:16).  You see how pleasing to God, and how efficacious, is the prayer for one another.”  (St. John of Kronstadt  – d. 1908AD, MY LIFE IN CHRIST Part 2, p 134)

Intercessory prayer flows from the love which we have received from God.  Intercession is one way for us to fulfill Christ’s teaching that we are to love one another as He loved us (John 13:34-35).  In ancient Christianity, “one Christian was no Christian”  (Tertullian, d. ca 225AD) because to be a Christian meant to live in loving relationship with all other believers as to be a Christian by definition is to be baptized into Christ and to be a member of His Body, the Church.  To be a Christian is to imitate Christ, which means washing the feet of fellow disciples – being a servant to others -as we witness Christ doing on the night of His betrayal and arrest (John 13:1-20).

“Our care and concerns for other people, for our country, for our planet, are not all empty, nor are they all selfish or egotistical.  This is demonstrated in the very powerful experience of bringing concerns to God in prayer.  This is not the intercession that starts out by pointing out what mistakes God is making in the running of the world, followed by a list of things we would like Him to do about it.  That practice is simply another aspect of the ego’s desire to control, an empty soul-less activity which leads us further away from God, even while we think that because we are participating in something ‘religious’ we must be progressing in the other direction.

Intercession is not a matter of telling God what to do, even with the best of possible intentions.  Nor is it a question of trying to change God’s mind about something.  Intercession is simply a matter of bringing the concerns of our own lives – friends, relatives, but also enemies and competitors – to the throne of God and leaving them there.  Any person and any subject can be brought to God. … We do not pray for specific outcomes, and we do not demand particular results, since to do so would place our own desires as the point of the prayer, whereas in reality the sole and entire aim of prayer is to discover the will of God.  It may seem rather obvious to state that we do not discover the will of God by simply repeating our own demands over and over again.”   (Archimandrite Meletios Webber, BREAD & WATER, WINE AND OIL , p 57)

Next:  Intercessory Prayer (II)

The Heart of God

“The love we see acted out for us in Jesus Christ is a love that exposes itself to rejection, to death on a cross. So, tentatively, we might say that creation is an act of suffering or sacrificial love or, at the very least, an act that lays God open to the possibility of rejection. The vulnerability of the stable at Bethlehem and the ignominious death of an alleged criminal is the selfsame vulnerability at the heart of the Creator.” (Jeremy S. Begbie, Resounding Truth: Christian Wisdom in the World of Music, pg. 192)