By the Very Rev. John Breck
In the previous column, we stressed the point that God does not “punish” us for our sinfulness. If He allows us to know pain and suffering, it should not be construed as punishment meted out in vengeful anger. Because God in His very essence is Love, any suffering we may know or any penance we may be called to exercise is to be understood as a function of that love. Its purpose is not to exact retribution, to demand from us some penance or payment to compensate for offenses we have committed against the divine righteousness. It is to guide, chasten and purify us, so as to encourage an attitude of repentance that alone enables us to reenter the sphere of God’s holiness. God does not punish us; He does not condemn us. As the scripturally based prayer of absolution declares: “God desires not the death of a sinner, but that the sinner turn from his evil ways and live.”
Yet this leaves us with an unavoidable question. How are we to understand the biblical images of judgment and condemnation that occur in Jesus’ parables and other teachings: images of persons cast into “outer darkness” (Mt 22:13), or into “unquenchable fire” (Mt 3:12; 18:8), or into “Hades/Gehenna” (Lk 10:15; 12:5)? What are we to make of the frequent references, from the Psalms (20:10; 77:31, LXX) to St Paul (Rom 1:18 passim), that speak of divine “wrath,” directed against human sin? Don’t these references oblige us to look at suffering and death as wages of sin, paid out by the God of righteousness, who abhors sin and “hates evildoers” (Ps 5:5)?
To begin a reply, we need to clarify a few terms that easily lead to misunderstanding, particularly the notions of “propitiation” and “wrath.” As we pointed out in the last column, a great deal of confusion arises from the fact that we have adopted a Western notion of “repentance” that sees penance as an obligatory payment we must make in order to assuage God’s wrath and obtain forgiveness of our sin. Under medieval Latin influence, we have confused “propitiation” and “expiation.” The former implies that since we ourselves are sinful by nature, we cannot offer a “reasonable sacrifice” to God that He will find acceptable. Only the divine Son, sinless and holy, constitutes a “satisfactory” offering to the holy and righteous God (Anselm); and God (in His mercy!) accepts the torture and death of His Son as the means by which those who believe in Him achieve “vicarious atonement.” Jesus is thus conceived as our sacrificial offering, our means of propitiation, in the face of divine judgment.
The inadequacy of that understanding, however, is clear from Scripture itself. The biblical terms ilasmos and ilasterion should be translated “expiation” rather than “propitiation” (as for example, in 1 Jn 2:2; 4:10; Rom 3:25). They signify the work of “atonement” in the sense of reparation for sin by means of God’s self-offering in Christ. It is that divine initiative, that self-offering by God Himself, which elicits from us faith manifested as repentance and good deeds. The work of atonement – achieving redemption and reconciliation between ourselves and God – is wholly God’s: it is not our offering to the Father, but His gracious offering to us. In His boundless mercy and love, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to Himself” (2 Cor 5:19). Our response to divine judgment, in other words, is not to offer propitiation: some payment we make or punishment we suffer in order to purchase forgiveness and salvation. Our response, rather, is to turn, to change direction, in an inner movement – inspired and directed by the indwelling Spirit of God – that leads us from “works of the flesh” to “gifts of the Spirit” (Gal 5:16-25), from sin and death to repentance and faith (which are two sides of the same coin).
What then of “divine wrath”? Although the ancient Israelites believed in a God who became angry and vengeful, as well as forgiving and merciful, Jesus and the apostolic writers present God as preeminently the God of love. To St Paul’s mind, in any case, divine wrath is always directed toward non-believers, those who have heard the gospel message and have rejected it. For the apostle, “divine wrath” is a metaphorical expression (an “anthropomorphism”) that describes God’s way of responding to unrepentant sinners: by allowing them “to stew in their own juice.” Like the notion of punishment, divine wrath is to be understood not as God’s direct action against us, but as an expression of His silence, His apparent absence in the life and experience of those who reject Him. While we are in this state in which He has seemingly abandoned us, God allows us to suffer the consequences of our sinful actions, including our refusal to repent. It is not God who punishes and condemns us; we do it to ourselves (God “gives us up” to the consequences of the sin for which we are wholly responsible, Rom 1:24f). As One whose very nature is Love, God desires that all come to repentance, in order that all may enjoy the free, unmerited gift of eternal life and eternal joy. The way to that life and that joy, once again, is repentance: a change of “mind” (meta-noia), a conversion and radical reorientation of our life from slavery in sin to freedom in the Spirit.
The great spiritual elders of the Church can certainly speak of “the great anger of God the Judge,”1 and of the spiritual benefits that accrue from “fear of punishment” for our sins. We need to take these indications very seriously, for God does manifest Himself as “angered” by our rebellion; and as St Symeon declares, “Fear of punishment hereafter and the suffering it engenders are beneficial to all who are starting out on the spiritual way.”2 The image of divine anger, and the summons to “fear punishment,” however, serve a single purpose: to call us to repentance.
As the Fathers also insist, “When a man abandons his sins and returns to God, his repentance regenerates him and renews him entirely.”3 This renewal restores in us the very image of God: not because we have “become perfect,” but because, by humbly confessing our sins and turning from them – again and again throughout this life, and only by the grace and mercy of the God who loves us beyond all we can hope or expect – we “regain our true splendor, just as the moon after the period of waning clothes itself once more in its full light.”4
1. St John of Sinai (+ 649), The Ladder of Divine Ascent 5:32, (Willits, CA: Eastern Orthodox Books, 1973), p. 108.
2. St Symeon the New Theologian (+ 1022), “Practical and Theological Texts” #65-66, The Philokalia IV (London: Faber & Faber, 1995), p. 37.
3. St Isaiah the Solitary (4th-5th c.), “Twenty-Seven Texts on Guarding the Intellect” #22, The Philokalia I (London: Faber & Faber, 1979), p. 26.
4. St John of Karpathos (7th c.?), “One Hundred Texts for the Encouragement of the Monks in India” #4, The Philokalia I, p. 299.