Natural Consequences (9): The Definition of Natural Consequences and St. John of Damascus

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In his Against the Manicheans, St. John of Damascus writes:

“A judge justly punishes one who is guilty of wrong doing; and if he does not punish him he is himself a wrongdoer. In punishing him the judge is not the cause either of the wrongdoing or of the vengeance taken against the wrongdoer, the cause being the wrongdoer’s freely chosen actions. Thus too God, Who saw what was going to happen as if it had already happened, judged it as if it had taken place; and if it was evil, that was the cause of its being punished. It was God who created man, so of course He created him in goodness; but man did evil of his own free choice, and is himself the cause of the vengence that overtakes him.”

St. John Damascene, Dialogue against the Manichaeans, 37. Translated in Jurgens, op. cit., vol. III, p. 348.

This seems to be a very straightforward statement of the idea of retributive justice. In response to wrong actions, a judge ought to issue a sentence that condemns a wrongdoer. This sentence is followed by the judge actively imposing his will to deal out punishment. Refraining from punishment is a crime, because the demands of justice must be satisfied.

In this post I will argue that St. John can be interpreted as teaching that hell is a punishment in terms of the natural consequences of sin. First, I will examine the concept of punishment as a natural consequence of sin and distinguish it from willfully imposed punishment. Then I will examine texts in St. John that suggests he understands some punishments as natural consequences of sin, establishing that his use of permissive language should be interpreted this way. Finally, I will re-examine the retributive-sounding texts offered above in the wider context of his writings, and argue that these texts do not require a retributive interpretation. I will also suggest that a non-retributive understanding of St. John is not just possible, but more plausible than a retributive reading.

Natural consequences defined by necessary relationships

A question that is raised by various quotes in St. John is what he means by “consequent will and permission”. There are at least two things that can be meant by “consequent will/permission”. One possible meaning is that God wills that, if things go differently than according to his original plan, He will introduce by a distinct act of will a response. Think, for instance, of what happens when God makes skin garments for Adam and Eve. This was a response to the fall; arguably it wouldn’t have happened unless the fall had happened. So in that sense it is part of God’s consequent will. Yet God actively imposed his will into the world to provide the garments. God didn’t just create the animals initially or preserve them in existence post-fall, as they (by some bizarre natural process) turned themselves into garments. Rather, God killed some animals and turned them into clothes by performing a distinct action of “killing the animals” and an action of “turning them into clothes”. So God’s consequent will—his will in response to the mitigating circumstances introduced by the misuse of human free choice—can include actively imposing a response by a choice of God’s will.

The other possible meaning of “consequent will/permission” is that of natural consequences. To use the fall as an example again, Adam’s corrupt character that was introduced post-fall was not brought about by God introducing a distinct divine decision to punish. There was no decision such as “make Adam increase in pride” or “make Adam wicked”, followed by God causing Adam to become more evil. And yet, whereas before the fall Adam did not have pride, post-fall he had increased in pride. This is because choice naturally and necessarily affects character. God permitted this increase in pride in the sense that because He had created Adam initially, and He preserved him in existence and empowered/conserved him in existence as he made the choice, God let it happen—even though it was contrary to the purpose for which God had made Adam.

This distinction between God’s permissive will inserting a distinct response or God’s permissive will as permitting natural consequences may seem false. After all, didn’t God make the world? Didn’t He make a world in which sin leads to corruption? This hardly seems different from God inserting a punishment in response to the fall by a distinct divine act of will. God is the cause of both; the only real difference seems to be that God did one directly (by immediately inflicting punishment with his will), and He did the other indirectly (by making the world that would lead to the suffering).

In order to unravel the actual distinction between distinct imposed punishments and natural consequences, we must make distinctions about providence. Natural consequences concern the necessary relationships between certain things in creation and between creation and God. For clarity, consider three different senses in which God can be said to have providential control: (1) being the temporal originator of something; (2) empowering (energizing) the continual existence and activity of something; (3) introducing by a distinct act of will (other than the normal divine empowerment) a change in the states of created beings.

Though it is true that God does not have a deterministic kind of providential control over the workings of the wills of men and angels, it seems there are other things that God cannot control. Free will isn’t the only thing God can’t control. God can’t make the laws of logic false, for instance. Nor does it seem He can control the relationships between all universals. Surely he can control the relationships between some universals; but it seems He can’t control the relationships between all of them. For instance, universals relevant to shape (rectangularity, triangularity, etc.) and universals relevant to color (blueness, yellowness, etc.) cannot be instantiated completely separately. God could instantiate triangularity separately from blueness, so in this sense God can control the relationships between these universals, thereby controlling the shape and color of a thing. But He could not instantiate triangularity in something without giving that thing some kind of color (if not blue, then red perhaps; if not red, then yellow, etc.). So God can’t control all of the relationships between universals in every manner. God can choose whether or not to create a triangular thing; so He has control over the triangular thing in sense (1). God also has control over the triangular thing in sense (2): He chooses to preserve it in existence and empower it to do various activities. Finally, God has control over it in sense (3): He can make it behave differently from its normal behavior.

What God can’t do is control the relationship between the triangular thing and whether or not it has any color. He can choose which color it has, and He can choose to destroy it (together with its color) if He wants. But God can’t make a triangular thing without color; He can’t preserve or empower a triangular thing in a colorless state; and He can’t change a triangular thing from colored to colorless. So God does not have control in sense (1), (2), or (3) over whether or not triangularity requires color in order to exist in a thing. This is because the relationship between triangularity and color is a metaphysically necessary relationship, a relationship over which God has no control. Shape and color are not related by an act of God’s will, but by virtue of what they are.

Next, it seems there are other necessary relationships between things such that God cannot make them relate in some ways. For instance, the relationship between sin and morally corrupt character is not something over which God has providential control. God cannot make (or preserve, or change a world into) a world with creatures which, when they sin, don’t tend to become spiritually corrupted. God can providentially control the existence of beings that can sin and die in the sense of (1) by choosing whether or not to make them, and how to make them. He can providentially control the effects of sin in the sense of (2) by choosing to preserve and empower the existence of a sinner and his human nature, and the things his sins affect. And God can intervene and repair some of sin’s damage to the world in the sense of (3), by imparting life and grace to corrupted human nature (introducing more divine activity, and thereby imparting more power or potentiality to a human soul and/or body). So God has providential control over sinners in senses (1), (2), and (3). But God can’t make a creature whose sins don’t tend to lead to vice. The tie between personal choice of sin and an evil character is a necessary one. God couldn’t make (or preserve, or change creatures into) creatures whose sin led to virtue.

This gives a rough idea of what is meant by natural consequences. There isn’t a force called “fate” that controls God or makes things happen differently from how God wants. Rather, some things, in virtue of what they are, have necessary relationships, which God can’t control. All death is a punishment for sin, because bad character (and, I would also suggest, physical corruption) is a divinely controlled consequence of the choice to sin. Moral corruption is divinely-controlled in the sense that God made a world in which sin leads to death; He preserves this world in existence; and He can act on this world in a way that empowers creatures not to sin or removes the effects of sin. Thus, it is a divine punishment for sin. Yet in another sense it is not divinely controlled. For God could not have made a world (or preserved a world, or altered the course of a world such that it became a world) in which sin didn’t tend to lead to death.

Thus, there is an enormous difference between the natural consequences of sin and the imposition of punishment by a distinct manifestation of the divine will. It is not true that “because God made the world, natural consequences are just imposed punishments mediated through the way God structured the universe”. Instead, the two categories are not the same; they are two genuinely different kinds of divine responses to sin. Both can be called punishments, but they are two irreducibly different kinds of punishments.

Punishment as Natural Consequences in St. John of Damascus

When we consider the context of the chapter on providence, it becomes plain that St. John can speak of God’s “desertion” in terms of natural consequences. Take the following passage, from his chapter On Providence:

Another is allowed to fall at times into some act of baseness in order that another worse fault may be thus corrected, as for instance when God allows a man who takes pride in his virtue and righteousness to fall away into fornication in order that he may be brought through this fall into the perception of his own weakness and be humbled and approach and make confession to the Lord.

St. John surely does not mean that the fornicator is caused to become wicked by God imposing his will by a distinct choice that has the goal “make this man a fornicator”. He also doesn’t think that God caused the fornicator to become wicked for the sake of bringing him to perceive his weakness. Nor does he think that God chose to set up the world in such a way that whereas God could have made a world in which pride didn’t lead to fornication, God instead decided to set up a world with the following law of human nature: “a prideful man will tend to become a fornicator”. God is in no way responsible for causing or encouraging sin. After all, as St. John says elsewhere, “…it would not be right to ascribe to God actions that are sometimes base and unjust…” In his section on providence and judgment, St. John speaks similarly saying “those [things] that are in our power are outside the sphere of Providence and within that of our Free-will.” He further says in his section on foreknowledge and predestination that “it is not His will that there should be wickedness nor does He choose to compel virtue.”

In discussing the fall, St. John explains that virtue, which is a participation in God by his grace, is naturally connected to obedience. Vice, on the other hand, is an inevitable result of the rejection of goodness:

For wickedness is nothing else than the withdrawal of goodness, just as darkness is nothing else than the withdrawal of light. While then we abide in the natural state we abide in virtue, but when we deviate from the natural state, that is from virtue, we come into an unnatural state and dwell in wickedness.

(On the Orthodox Faith, “On Prescience and Predestination”)

There is thus a necessary relationship between sin and moral corruption—not a relationship that exists because God chooses that sin and vice relate in this particular way. Sin is a departure from God’s goodness, and therefore whoever sins enters by necessity into a state of having departed from God’s goodness. In other words, you end up where you are going.

Given his understanding of vice as a natural consequence of sin, St. John can’t mean that God tries to make the fornicator more wicked by imposing a distinct providential act of will (or choosing to make a world that will encourage fornication). When he speaks of permission, then, he means that the fornicator’s actions that God lets happen for the purpose of humbling him are not caused by a responsive divine intervention by a distinct act of will. Rather they are caused by God conserving and upholding that creature in existence as it acts and experiences the effects of its actions in a way that conforms to the natural and necessary structure of the world. Thus John can speak of “allowed to fall” without meaning by this that God is responding by a distinct act of will (or a world set up to encourage a fall) and making (or permitting) the creature’s fall to occur. Rather, St. John can mean that the creature is experiencing the natural consequences of its choice to sin.

This seems to be John’s meaning when he writes:

Of things that are not in our hands some have their beginning or cause in those that are in our power, that is to say, the recompenses of our actions both in the present and in the age to come, but all the rest are dependent on the divine will. For the origin of all things is from God, but their destruction has been introduced by our wickedness for our punishment or benefit. For God did not create death, neither does He take delight in the destruction of living things (Wisd. i. 13). But death is the work rather of man, that is, its origin is in Adam’s transgression, in like manner as all other punishments. But all other things must be referred to God. For our birth is to be referred to His creative power; and our continuance to His conservative power; and our government and safety to His providential power; and the eternal enjoyment of good things by those who preserve the laws of nature in which we are formed is to be ascribed to His goodness. But since some deny the existence of Providence, let us further devote a few words to the discussion of Providence.”

(On the Orthodox Faith, Book II, Chapter 28.—Concerning what is not in our hands)

Here St. John says that death is the work of man, and that its origin is in Adam’s transgression. St. John probably does not mean by this that God could have made a world in which sin didn’t lead to death and He decided to impose death (either in how He initially created the world or by a distinct act of will during history) to punish sin retributively. Given that he keeps insisting that God did not create death, he must see death as having its cause in the corruption introduced by human sin.

This is confirmed by the fact that Adam’s wicked character and our inherited tendency towards vice is a divine punishment in St. John of Damascus. According to the Saint, Adam was given a law that disobedience would lead to his punishment by divine justice. He writes:

Man, then, was thus snared by the assault of the arch-fiend, and broke his Creator’s command, and was stripped of grace and put off his confidence with God, and covered himself with the asperities of a toilsome life (for this is the meaning of the fig-leaves); and was clothed about with death, that is, mortality and the grossness of flesh (for this is what the garment of skins signifies); and was banished from Paradise by God’s just judgment, and condemned to death, and made subject to corruption.

(On the Orthodox Faith, Book III, Chapter 1)

Clearly the banishment and condemnation come from an infraction of the law of God. Sin leads to punishment by God’s justice, resulting in condemnation to death and subjection to corruption because man has been stripped of grace. Nevertheless, (following St. Athanasius) St. John sees this law as predictive and descriptive of the way the necessary order of the world works, not prescriptive of a divinely-imposed response. For as we have seen above, part of the law’s punishment is vice (moral corruption, the deprivation of goodness), and we have already established that God does not impose vicious character willfully upon a person. The punishment must therefore be understood as a natural consequence of sin. Thus St. John says:

When therefore He had furnished his nature with free-will, He imposed a law on him, not to taste of the tree of knowledge. Concerning this tree, we have said as much as is necessary in the chapter about Paradise, at least as much as it was in our power to say. And with this command He gave the promise that, if he should preserve the dignity of the soul by giving the victory to reason, and acknowledging his Creator and observing His command, he should share eternal blessedness and live to all eternity, proving mightier than death: but if forsooth he should subject the soul to the body, and prefer the delights of the body, comparing himself in ignorance of his true dignity to the senseless beasts, and shaking off His Creator’s yoke, and neglecting His divine injunction, he will be liable to death and corruption, and will be compelled to labour throughout a miserable life.”

(On the Orthodox Faith, Book II, Chapter 30)

To recapitulate, the logic these passages (particularly the last one) suggest is as follows. The law that God gives states that Adam and Eve will die if they disobey, and part of their death consists in becoming wicked. So part of God’s punishment for the fall is that Adam and Eve become wicked. But God does not impose wickedness as a willful punishment for sin; as we saw in John of Damascus’ understanding of relationship between action and character, he sees vice as a necessary consequence of sin (if you walk away from life, you leave life behind; “you end up where you are going”). Thus the punishment of God that is given when Adam and Eve disobey God’s law is to be understood as a natural consequence of sin

A final point before returning to the subject of eschatological punishment is theological language related to the will of God. St. John is very careful to explain that sometimes Scripture speaks of God willing or causing something that is not, in fact, directly caused by God in a distinct act of will intending to produce the effect, but is permitted as a natural consequence. St. John writes in his section “That God is not the cause of evil”:

It is to be observed that it is the custom in the Holy Scripture to speak of God’s permission as His energy, as when the apostle says in the Epistle to the Romans, Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour and another unto dishonour? And for this reason, that He Himself makes this or that. For He is Himself alone the Maker of all things; yet it is not He Himself that fashions noble or ignoble things, but the personal choice of each one. And this is manifest from what the same Apostle says in the Second Epistle to Timothy, In a great house there are not only vessels of gold and of silver, but also of wood and of earth: and some to honour and some to dishonour. If a man therefore purge himself from these, he shall be a vessel unto honour sanctified, and meet for the master’s use, and prepared unto every good work. And it is evident that the purification must be voluntary: for if a man, he saith, purge himself. And the consequent antistrophe responds, “If a man purge not himself he will be a vessel to dishonour, unmeet for the master’s use and fit only to be broken in pieces.” Wherefore this passage that we have quoted and this, God hath concluded them all in unbelief, and this, God hath given them the spirit of slumber, eyes that they should not see, and ears that they should not hear, all these must be understood not as though God Himself were energising, but as though God were permitting, both because of free-will and because goodness knows no compulsion.

His permission, therefore, is usually spoken of in the Holy Scripture as His energy and work.

St. John is highlighting the fact that because of God’s governance of all things, and his influence on free creatures, we can speak of God “giving the spirit of slumber” or “concluding all in unbelief”. But although active language of willing and energizing is used (God “gives” or “concludes”), we should distinguish the active imposition of energy and will from the mere permission of evil. This permission occurs by God’s empowerment given to created things to continue in their existence and functions. The existence of this interpretation of Scriptural language further supports the idea that St. John is committed to the idea of natural consequences as a category distinct from the willful imposition of punishment. It importantly shows that sometimes St. John thinks the language of God causing or providing harm can be used to express divine permission of natural consequences.

A reexamination of eternal punishment in St. John:

Thus far we have distinguished between natural consequences and the imposition of punishment. Evidence has been provided that St. John of Damascus sometimes understands punishment as the natural consequence of sin. We have also seen from St. John’s exegesis of Scripture that he thinks God’s permission can be referred to in a way that sounds similar to God’s will. Bearing these points in mind, we can now turn to the texts in St. John of Damascus about the final judgment.

A non-retributive interpretation of two texts:

Consider the following text, taken from St. John’s discussion On Providence:

Moreover, it is to be observed that the choice of what is to be done is in our own hands: but the final issue depends, in the one case when our actions are good, on the cooperation of God, Who in His justice brings help according to His foreknowledge to such as choose the good with a right conscience, and, in the other case when our actions are to evil, on the desertion by God, Who again in His justice stands aloof in accordance with His foreknowledge.

Now there are two forms of desertion: for there is desertion in the matters of guidance and training, and there is complete and hopeless desertion. The former has in view the restoration and safety and glory of the sufferer, or the rousing of feelings of emulation and imitation in others, or the glory of God: but the latter is when man, after God has done all that was possible to save him, remains of his own set purpose blind and uncured, or rather incurable, and then he is handed over to utter destruction, as was Judas. May God be gracious to us, and deliver us from such desertion.

Initially this seems to be a statement of the natural consequences understanding of eschatological punishment. Before a detailed interpretation is offered, it is important to note that these texts are taken from the same chapter in which St. John says the following:

Also one must bear in mind that God’s original wish was that all should be saved and come to His Kingdom. For it was not for punishment that He formed us but to share in His goodness, inasmuch as He is a good God. But inasmuch as He is a just God, his will is that sinners should suffer punishment.

The first then is called God’s antecedent will and pleasure, and springs from Himself, while the second is called God’s consequent will and permission, and has its origin in us. And the latter is two-fold; one part dealing with matters of guidance and training, and having in view our salvation, and the other being hopeless and leading to our utter punishment, as we said above. And this is the case with actions that are not left in our hands.

(On the Orthodox Faith, Book III Chapter 29)

When these two texts from the same chapter are read in light of each other, there are a number of interesting implications that can be drawn. In one text, John clearly says God is the just God who must punish. But he also describes the divine “desertion”, saying that “God, in his justice, stands aloof according to his foreknowledge”. In the same chapter St. John stated that God has “allowed [a human] to fall at times into some act of baseness in order that another worse fault may be thus corrected”. Earlier in this post an examination of this quotation established that this language of “allowing to fall” means natural consequences (which is also how St. John understands the punishment of the fall). Given that the idea of natural consequences is already present in the passage, and given that St. John uses language of God “deserting/standing aloof” that is similar to “allowing a fall”, this passage provides evidence that St. John sees eschatological judgment in terms of God permitting people to experience the natural consequences of their sins.

This is born out by the way that St. John explains the punishment of the damned in the same passage. He says that if “after God has done all that was possible to save him, [a human] remains of his own set purpose blind and uncured, or rather incurable, [then] he is handed over to utter destruction, as was Judas. May God be gracious to us, and deliver us from such desertion.” The language of retributive divine repayment in proportion to the guilt of sin is absent in St. John’s explanation for why people end up in hell. Instead we see the idea of character-solidification and habituation. When a person resists God’s grace in an ultimate, decisive way, God cannot do anything to cure that person. In this event, “he is handed over to utter destruction”.

There is also an interesting disanalogy between the language St. John uses to describe “desertion in matters of guidance and training” and “complete and hopeless desertion”. He says that “The former has in view the restoration and safety and glory of the sufferer, or the rousing of feelings of emulation and imitation in others, or the glory of God:” The language of “has in view” implies that this aspect of the natural consequences of sin fits with what God intends; it accords with God’s will that the sinner that experiences the natural consequences of his sin repent in response to the experience of self-inflicted pain and harm. But St. John does not say that God’s hopeless desertion has anything in view. Instead, he simply identifies it as a human remaining fixed in vice and incurable. Though it is possible that St. John thinks the hopeless desertion has something in view (and is therefore imposed by a specific act of divine will) he does not say as much. His omission in this context is significant, because he seems to be giving a detailed explanation of what God’s purposes are in punishment, and how human beings become recipients of divine judgment.

The same difference in description shows up in the more retributive sounding text from the same chapter, where St. John says that God’s consequent will has “one part dealing with matters of guidance and training, and having in view our salvation, and the other being hopeless and leading to our utter punishment, as we said above.” The first aspect of God’s consequent will has in view our salvation. The language of “has in view” seems to imply it is purposively oriented towards fixing the problem with humanity. The second part of God’s consequent will can be described as “leading to our utter punishment”. This sounds more causal or directional, expressing a result that is consistent with previous action, as distinct from the purposive or intentional language of “having in view”, which seems to involve conformity to God’s purposes, and being instrumental to accomplishing God’s goal (our salvation).

But if the hopeless desertion of God does not have anything in view, and does not seem to be instrumental in accomplishing God’s goals, then it seems it cannot be an exercise of retributive punishment. For retributive punishment has a goal—the satisfaction of the demands of retributive justice. In light of the distinction between punishment that has something in view and hopeless punishment that (apparently) does not have something in view, it seems like St. John probably understands the hopeless punishment as a natural consequence of sin.

Those that think St. John understands hell retributively might reply thus. Perhaps St. John sees the desertion of God as an imposed punishment. It could be that God permits the suffering of the damned for retributive reasons, instead of merely as a natural consequence for sin. Firstly, the objector might claim that the denial of retribution as the motivation for the hopeless desertion does not accord with the language of “justice” that is used to describe why punishment happens, which suggests retribution. Second, St. John says that “it is [God’s] will that sinners should suffer punishment”. This language of “God’s will” seems to mean that it is something God willfully chooses to inflict and impose. Third, St. John sees God’s final desertion as leading to “utter destruction”, which is parallel in the other part of the chapter with “utter punishment” again suggesting a willfully-imposed harm, instead of a divinely-permitted natural consequence of sin. In order to reasonably maintain the idea that St. John does not see eschatological punishment retributively, these features of the text must be explained. Another possible interpretation must be given, or else the retributive reading is to be preferred.

In addressing the first argument, it must be noted that the fact that the hopeless punishment results from God’s justice does not by itself mean that it is retributive punishment. For it is already clear that justice can mean something other than retribution. God’s justice motivates the first part of God’s consequent will, which includes the punishment that is geared towards our salvation. Furthermore, the motivation for the punishment of the fall was God’s justice, but the punishment of the fall was a natural consequence of the sin of Adam and Eve—not something that fulfilled God’s will to inflict retribution. Therefore, the mere fact that it is motivated by God’s justice does not mean that it is retributive.

St. John can also understand God’s justice in terms of “what is fitting” or “what is required by the necessary way reality is”. For instance, he says that one reason God had to become incarnate was for the sake of divine justice. At first this sounds like an endorsement of a satisfaction or penal substitution theory of atonement, where God requires repayment in proportion to sin. But what St. John really means is that God manifests

…his justice in that when man was overcome He did not make [another creature other than man] victorious over the tyrant, nor did He snatch man by might from death, but in His goodness and justice He made him, who had become through his sins the slave of death, himself once more conqueror and rescued like by like, most difficult though it seemed…

On The Orthodox Faith, Book III, Chapter 1

Here we see the idea of justice as “fittingness”, “consistency” or “accordance with what is necessary by nature”. This understanding of justice as consistency fits with the natural consequences that are God’s just punishment for the fall. It is consistent with the necessary way the world is that the divinely-empowered order of the world results in harm (including the harm of acquiring bad character traits) as a necessary consequence of sin. Utterly absent from this text (even granting for the sake of argument that it could be present elsewhere) is the idea of justice as retributive. What this shows is that at the very least, not every reference to justice is a reference to retributive justice.

Regarding the second argument, we should bear in mind the following. For similar reasons to those cited above about justice motivating punishment, the language of “his will is that sinners should suffer punishment” does not always mean retribution. St. John can mean this in a non-retributive sense, for he says that one part of God’s will that sinners should suffer punishment “deals with matters of guidance and training, and [has] in view our salvation…” So there is nothing about “his will is that sinners should suffer punishment” that requires retribution. Furthermore, in his discussion of whether or not God is the cause of evil, St. John was careful to say that sometimes we can speak of God’s will making something happen, and mean that God permits that thing to happen. It is at least possible, therefore, to interpret “his will is that sinners should suffer punishment” non-retributively, and even as expressing the divinely-permitted natural consequences of sin.

Regarding the third argument, it is true that the final judgment of God results in our destruction. And it is possible that the final judgment therefore must be something God actively imposes by a distinct act of will. After all, to say God destroys something seems to imply He is willfully inflicting harm.

But this does not necessarily follow, depending on what the destruction is. Is destruction always a state of willfully-imposed harm (as when an executioner electrocutes a criminal)? Or can St. John mean by “destruction” vice and bad character? St. John of Damascus can refer to vice as “a pit of destruction” as when he speaks of those that willfully reject the existence of God:

But since the wickedness of the Evil One has prevailed so mightily against man’s nature as even to drive some into denying the existence of God, that most foolish and woe-fulest pit of destruction (whose folly David, revealer of the Divine meaning, exposed when he said The fool said in his heart, There is no God)

Here, the vice of unbelief is called a “pit of destruction”. In discussing the fall, St. John also affirms that the consequences of the fall can be called a state of destruction (or liability to destruction):

But since God in His prescience knew that man would transgress and become liable to destruction, He made from him a female to be a help to him like himself; a help, indeed, for the conservation of the race after the transgression from age to age by generation.

Because vice (and an inherited, increased tendency toward vice) is a consequence of the fall into sin, St. John implicitly includes vice within the destruction wrought by the fall. But the vice of unbelief and the punishment of the fall are natural consequences of sin—not something that God willfully imposes. If the “utter destruction” that God hands sinners over to is their own vice, or the fact that they are morally and spiritually “incurable”, then the penalty is not retributive but a natural consequence of sin. Nothing in the text precludes the possibility of reading the “utter destruction/utter punishment” in this way.

Consequently, we have some good (though not decisive) reason to think that St. John understands hell as a natural consequence of sin. The three reasons offered thus far against this idea do not hold up.

The most difficult text (from Against the Manicheans)

Now let us deal with the passage, from the beginning of this post, that seems to offer the strongest evidence of an idea of final retribution in St. John Damascene. Let us see if our insights about the texts in St. John’s section “On Providence” can inform us about how he views God as judge in his Against the Manicheans:

A judge justly punishes one who is guilty of wrong doing; and if he does not punish him he is himself a wrongdoer. In punishing him the judge is not the cause either of the wrongdoing or of the vengeance taken against the wrongdoer, the cause being the wrongdoer’s freely chosen actions. Thus too God, Who saw what was going to happen as if it had already happened, judged it as if it had taken place; and if it was evil, that was the cause of its being punished. It was God who created man, so of course He created him in goodness; but man did evil of his own free choice, and is himself the cause of the vengence that overtakes him.

Dialogue against the Manichaeans, 37. Translated in Jurgens, op. cit., vol. III, p. 348.

This text is particularly important because in it we see St. John speak of the judge not being the cause of the vengeance that overtakes the wrongdoer. But the interpretation of “the judge is not the cause” that St. John offers does not preclude the possibility that the judge actively imposes his will to inflict harm. Instead, it might mean that the judge does not actively try to inflict harm, and only does so as a response to a wrongdoer’s sinful choices. This complicates the idea that this passage is talking about the natural consequences of sin, because it shows that John does not necessarily mean that God does not actively impose his will when he denies that God causes punishment.

At first glance, this seems like a fatal problem for any attempt to understand this text non-retributively. But consider two things we know from elsewhere in St. John about how God the Judge punishes. First, the Judge doesn’t punish at the final judgment like a normal judge. A normal judge, when issuing a sentence, prescribes harm to be willfully inflicted. But St. John thinks that God as Judge permits harm. It may not be possible to conclusively show that this permissive language in the texts from “On Providence” refers to natural consequences; but even if understood as a kind of retributively-motivated permission, it is different from the way that a Judge normally prescribes punishment.

Second, the language of God “willing” something does not necessarily correspond to the concept of God actively imposing something by a distinct act of will. As we have seen, when St. John interprets Scripture, he is sensitive to the fact that it is legitimate to sometimes use the term “will” (or the language of willful causation) to designate what is actually God’s permission. So when describing God as the Judge who wills to punish the damned, St. John might not mean to use the language of willful causation in a technical sense; he may be giving a description of God’s permission in the style of the biblical writers.

The initial impression that this text must be read retributively may not stand up to careful scrutiny. But the wording of St. John is still something that needs to be dealt with in order for a natural consequences reading of the text to be acceptable. Much in the passage does sound like an idea of retributive justice, so it should now be examined to see if that is the only plausible way to read the text.

St. John writes:

A judge justly punishes one who is guilty of wrong doing; and if he does not punish him he is himself a wrongdoer.

This text seems to say God must punish in order to satisfy the demands of justice. But how is justice to be understood here? Is it to be seen as retribution? The same kind of language is used elsewhere to describe divine correction (God’s consequent will in matters of guidance and training), proving that the demand of justice that God punish sin is not always a demand for retributive justice. An alternative reading would be to incorporate the idea of justice suggested earlier as “consistency”. This idea of consistency was seen to be the way that St. John understood justice in the following text:

[God shows] his justice in that when man was overcome He did not make [another creature other than man] victorious over the tyrant, nor did He snatch man by might from death, but in His goodness and justice He made him, who had become through his sins the slave of death, himself once more conqueror and rescued like by like, most difficult though it seemed:

This idea of “consistency” or “fitting with the necessary order of the world” also seems to be behind the idea that it was God’s justice that led to punishment for the fall of man:

[Humans were] banished from Paradise by God’s just judgment, and condemned to death, and made subject to corruption.

But as discussed earlier, this just judgment at the fall cannot be understood as a willfully-imposed response. Instead, it must mean a natural consequence of sin (otherwise God willfully imposes vice, causing humans to be wicked, which John denies is possible). Consequently, the language of “just judgment” in this text must mean God’s permission of natural consequences that are just insofar as they are consistent with the necessary order of reality. If something happened that was inconsistent with the necessary order of the world, then it would be unjust. Thus, the idea of a just judge does not entail retribution; the same language can describe natural consequences.

Next, St. John Damascene writes:

In punishing him the judge is not the cause either of the wrongdoing or of the vengeance taken against the wrongdoer, the cause being the wrongdoer’s freely chosen actions. Thus too God, Who saw what was going to happen as if it had already happened, judged it as if it had taken place; and if it was evil, that was the cause of its being punished. It was God who created man, so of course He created him in goodness; but man did evil of his own free choice, and is himself the cause of the vengeance that overtakes him.

Though it was conceded earlier that this could be read as a way of talking about the fact that willfully-imposed punishment is not arbitrary, but rather responds to evil, it is not necessary to read the text this way. We have already seen reason to doubt whether the description of God as Judge implies willful imposition of harm. Also, as suggested in the preceding section, God’s punishments are not always retributive in focus.

It is definitely possible for someone who thinks that eschatological punishment is a natural consequence of sin to say “God is not the cause of the sin or the vengeance that overtakes the sinner; rather it is the sin that causes the vengeance that overtakes the sinner”. St. John uses the same kind of language about God not causing punishment when he refers to the corruption that comes from the fall as a punishment that has its cause in us, not in God:

For the origin of all things is from God, but their destruction has been introduced by our wickedness for our punishment or benefit. For God did not create death, neither does He take delight in the destruction of living things (Wisd. i. 13). But death is the work rather of man, that is, its origin is in Adam’s transgression, in like manner as all other punishments.”

Thus the punishment of the fall is said to be caused by us. This punishment is not introduced by God willfully imposing it. For it involves moral corruption, and God does not willfully impose moral corruption. This moral corruption is a natural consequence of sin as we can see from the texts already mentioned above:

Man, then, was thus snared by the assault of the arch-fiend, and broke his Creator’s command, and was stripped of grace and put off his confidence with God

For wickedness is nothing else than the withdrawal of goodness, just as darkness is nothing else than the withdrawal of light. While then we abide in the natural state we abide in virtue, but when we deviate from the natural state, that is from virtue, we come into an unnatural state and dwell in wickedness.

Thus, the language of punishment “having its cause in the sinner” does not require the idea of a willfully-imposed response. It can mean a natural consequence of sin. By “caused by the sinner”, the believer in natural consequences means that the sin has vice as its necessary consequence, and that this state of vice is therefore a divinely-permitted result of sinful action. So the second part of this text does not necessarily refer to the non-arbitrariness of willfully-imposed punishment; it could easily refer to punishment as a natural consequence of sin.

Conclusion:

When set in the larger context of St. John’s thought about justice, sin, corruption, punishment, and God’s providence, the texts that seem to teach hell is retributive do not require this interpretation. They can be consistently understood as referring to the natural consequences of sin. These consequences are a just (consistent with the necessary structure of reality) punishment (divinely-permitted state of loss of goodness) for sin (departure from goodness). This explanation does not reduce to an indirect infliction of retribution, because the category of natural consequences is distinct from the category of willfully-inflicted punishment.

The question remains of what has actually been shown by this examination. Has the argument given throughout this post shown that St. John does not view hell as a natural consequence for sin? Or has the argument merely shown that this is a possible way of interpreting St. John? Either conclusion is significant, because both mean that there is no positive case for the idea of hell as retribution in St. John Damascene. But it is still important to ask what this study has really shown.

Though it may not be possible to answer this question with precision and certainty, there is more to be said. If we accept a fairly plausible assumption, this assumption may give us reason to think that the above arguments have shown it is unlikely that St. John thought hell was retributive. This assumption is as follows:

“Consider an image used by an author in one section of text in a way that permits the image to be given either interpretation a or interpretation b. Imagine that the image is explained and qualified by the author in another section of text in a way that suggests interpretation a. In that case, we should interpret the image in light of the way that it is explained and qualified in the other section of text that suggests interpretation a.”

It seems that the more difficult passage in St. John which begins “A judge justly punishes one who is guilty of wrong doing” is presenting the image of God as a judge. The passage does not support by itself (if my arguments in this post are correct) either interpretation a (the Judge inflicts retribution) or interpretation b (the Judge permits the natural consequences of sin). Now consider the passage in which St. John says God “in His justice stands aloof in accordance with His foreknowledge” and continues by saying that God hands one over to “complete and hopeless desertion…when man, after God has done all that was possible to save him, remains of his own set purpose blind and uncured, or rather incurable…” This second passage seems to explicate the meaning of God as Judge, expanding on the image and showing some of what the reality of that image is. That passage seemed upon examination to probably teach interpretation b—that hell is God’s permission of the natural consequences of sin.

Because the second passage is likely an explanation of the image of God as Judge—an image which is presented but not explained in precise detail in the first passage—we should let the interpretation fill in the details of the image’s meaning. For if the principle of interpretation that I suggested above is correct (and it is a plausible principle) then we should allow the second passage to help us understand the first, qualifying and explaining the meaning of God’s image as Judge. Therefore, it is more than just possible that St. John of Damascus thought eschatological punishment was the natural consequence of sin, and not willfully-inflicted retribution.

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9 Responses to “Natural Consequences (9): The Definition of Natural Consequences and St. John of Damascus”

  1. Athanasios Boeker Says:

    MG,

    You said:

    “For God could not have made a world (or preserved a world, or altered the course of a world such that it became a world) in which sin didn’t tend to lead to death.”

    Question: Is God, by an act of divine fiat, able to suspended the law of physical death, which is a consequence of sin, or is He powerless in this regard?

  2. MG Says:

    Athanasios–

    Thanks for commenting.

    I’m not entirely settled on how to understand this issue, so I’ll share some preliminary thoughts.

    1. Even if God can suspend the law of physical death, his reasons for not doing so might be non-retributive. For instance, it could be that He does not suspend it in order to deter us from future wrongdoing, showing us what the consequences of our actions will be. Of course, then they wouldn’t be natural consequences in the strict sense that I defined it.

    2. Even if God can suspend the law of physical death, that doesn’t completely negate the force of my argument that there are such things as natural consequences unless God can suspend the law of “sin leads to corrupt character”. For the effects of the fall are called a divine punishment by St. John, and corrupt character is included in those effects, but it seems to just be a natural consequence (unless God wills or arranges to encourage our wickedness).

    3. Depending on how we understand the laws of nature, God could suspend the law of death. I think there’s probably three views (but I might not accurately represent them, and there could be more). (1) Some people just think they are descriptions of the likely correlations of events (which is a more Humean and reductionist line). (2) Others would say that the regularities of nature are due to God directly causing every event in ways that are normally predictable to us, but which don’t necessarily have to relate. (3) I would agree with the view that says the laws of nature are descriptions of the effects produced by the most fundamental powers and liabilities of physical things. The abilities and tendencies of physical objects are described by the laws of nature. Because different particular things can have the same powers and liabilities (one apple has the same powers and liabilities as an apple of identical shape, size, and composition) they can be predicted to operate in regular ways by acting on each other (using their powers to perform specific activities), and reacting to the ways they are acted upon (having a liability to react a specific way when something acts on them). I think this powers/tendencies view of the laws of nature fits best with the essence-energies distinction in the Fathers, and is most likely the view of many ancient philosophers too. The one modification it requires, in order to fit with the e/e distinction, is that it must assume that things are given the power to exist and have the particular abilities they do by God’s continual activities (including being, life, goodness, etc.).

    Some things can have a tendency towards the loss of power. This happens if they are partaking less and less of various divine energies (which are the basis for their power). If something ceases to partake of divine activity, it ceases to exist. Now, God can empower a dying thing. He can act (energize) in a way that supplements the normal workings of the natural order by giving more life to a dying thing. What He can’t do is remove by fiat the tendency of a dying thing to die, or the tendency of a dead thing to stay dead. So God could continually impart life to something that is dying and preserve it forever in existence; but it would still have a tendency to die. In the case where God empowers a dying thing to preserve it in life, He is “violating the laws of nature” in a sense. It’s not that He takes away the powers and tendencies of the thing that is dying. Rather, He acts on it in a way that is out of the ordinary. Instead of just acting on it to degree x to empower it and conserve it in being, He must act on it to degree x + n. That way, the thing will partake more in his activity/energy, and have more power by which it can continue to exist.

    When God resuscitates a dead thing, He likewise imparts divine activity to it, restoring its power to live. This is outside of the normal way a thing would act and react once it is dead, and so in that sense it is a violation of the laws of nature. But God doesn’t make that thing cease to have its respective powers and capacities. Furthermore, even if it is resuscitated, it will still tend to die.

    But as your namesake St. Athanasius the great (and Irenaeus before him, and Cyril after them, along with the other Fathes) the only way to fully destroy the law of death is to ensure that a created thing that can die is fixed in its participation in the power of God’s energies. It seems like the Fathers would explain this in roughly the following way: this being “fixed in partaking of God’s energy of immortality” only happens when a divine person activates the created powers of human nature in a way that permanently and irreversibly incorporates them into participation in divine activity. Because a divine person cannot fail to will correctly, once Christ recapitulates some part of nature by activating its powers to partake of its proper divine activity, that part of nature cannot fail to partake of the divine energy that empowers it. If Christ hadn’t empowered nature from within, it would still have a tendency to die (even if God fought this tendency by endlessly imparting the power of life to it).

    So in that sense, God can’t stop and destroy the tendency to death without becoming incarnate, as St. Athanasius taught. But He can empower dead and dying thigns by acting in them. Does that make sense?

  3. MG Says:

    Athanasios–

    Here are a couple of other issues that occurred to me after I wrote my first response. I think this might anticipate some of the issues you brought up:

    1. I thought of an objection to what I’m saying that goes something like this:

    “I understand why God can’t control our tendency towards moral corruption—sin stains our souls, and the connection between sin and vice is inevitable, because when you actively remove yourself from light you dwell in darkness. But why does sin give us an irremovable stain of tending towards physical corruption as well? Why can’t God by fiat effectually will to remove this tendency?”

    One response is this. The soul and the body are organically connected. There are necessary and natural connections between them, for they are intrinsically related. The body is an image of the soul, because the soul is the principle of life that animates the body. Insofar as the soul persists in a state where it tends to corrupt, the body must persist in a state where it tends to corrupt through its organic union with the soul as its principle. So as much as the soul was actively removed from light at the moment of the fall, and now dwells in darkness, the body accompanies the soul and is removed to darkness with it. This isn’t to say there is a 1-1 correspondence between spiritual health and physical health, but it is to say that the persistence of the principle of corruption in the souls of even the most virtuous person may force the body to persist in a state of tending towards corruption. Of course because Christ has changed death and united it to life, now death can be the means to removing the principle of corruption from both body and soul.

    Furthermore, we can say that because humanity sums up creation in itself, the corruption of the soul transfers through the corruption of the body to the corruption of the cosmos. Thus, although God can resuscitate dead things, and can heal corrupted things, He is just putting a Band-Aid on them. The deeper problem—the principle of corruption—is a consequence of the union that the physical world has with the spiritually corrupt human soul. The only way to remove the physical corruption is to remove the spiritual corruption. Hence again the words of St. Athanasius, that because the law of death cleaved to the body and dwelt within it, God couldn’t remove it by an act of will externally. God had to make life cleave to the body by indwelling it.

    2. Lazarus and other resuscitated people still died, and other saints still die including the Theotokos who was (if I’m correct) fully sanctified (at least by the end of her life on earth). I’m curious why this would be on your view. It doesn’t seem like the answer can be a retributive one, nor do the other motives for punishment seem adequate (correction, deterrence, etc.). This might support the idea that the tendency towards physical death is inevitable, not just a matter of God willing that it occur, or arranging the world to allow for it. What do you think?

  4. MG Says:

    “I think this might anticipate some of the issues you brought up:”

    should be “I think this might anticipate some of the issues you *could bring up in reply*:”

  5. Athanasios Boeker Says:

    MG,

    I have not had a chance to read your comments for 12/17. I will check them out right away, God willing. But I would like you to take a look at this, I think it relates to the subject at hand. Maybe not directly:

    “Yet, true though this is, it is not the whole matter. As we have already noted, it was unthinkable that God, the Father of Truth, should go back upon His word regarding death in order to ensure our continued existence. He could not falsify Himself; what, then, was God to do? Was He to demand repentance from men for their transgression? You might say that that was worthy of God, and argue further that, as through the Transgression they became subject to corruption, so through repentance they might return to incorruption again. But repentance would not guard the Divine consistency, for, if death did not hold dominion over men, God would still remain untrue. Nor does repentance recall men from what is according to their nature; all that it does is to make them cease from sinning. Had it been a case of a trespass only, and not of a subsequent corruption, repentance would have been well enough; but when once transgression had begun men came under the
    power of the corruption proper to their nature and were bereft of the grace which belonged to them as creatures in the Image of God. No, repentance could not meet the case. What—or rather Who was it that was needed for such grace and such recall as we required? Who, save the Word of God Himself, Who also in the beginning had made all things out of nothing? His part it was, and His alone, both to bring again the corruptible to incorruption and to maintain for the Father His consistency of character with all. For He alone, being Word of the Father and above all, was in consequence both able to recreate all, and worthy to suffer on behalf of all and to be an ambassador for all with the Father.”

    Athanasius On the Incarnation, chapter 2

    Not to get too far away from St. John, but it seems that when we look at this piece from St. Athanasius we see two different concerns: one ontological, which you and I for the most part agree about; the other dealing with God’s consistency and law. It is interesting when he says, “It was unthinkable that God, the Father of Truth, should go back upon His word regarding death in order to ensure our continued existence.” and “But repentance would not guard the Divine consistency, for, if death did not hold dominion over men, God would still remain untrue.” and “and to maintain for the Father His consistency of character with all.”

    According to the implication of the text God could have ensured our continued existence, but on the other hand he could not do it, not neccesarily because it was an ontological impossibility for him, but because God could not go back on his word. It would have made him a liar. How? Because God told Adam and Eve, “You can eat from all the trees in the garden accept the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. For on the day you eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, on that day you shall surely die.”

    Or as David Bently Hart says:

    “Athanasius lamenting the loss of humanities original beauty in the fall, argues that redemption was necessitated by God’s (consistency, righteousness, honor, glory), which requires the maintenance of his twin decrees that on the one hand, humanity will share in the divine life and that, on the other, death must fall upon the transgressors of holy law; to prevent the second decree from defeating the first. guilt must be removed from humanity through the exhaustion of the power of death in Christ’s sacrifice (7.1-4) The hold death had on us was just, says Athanasius, and it would be monstrous were God’s decree that sin shall merit death to prove false (6.2-3);but it would be unworthy of God’s goodness were He to let His handiwork come to nothing (6.4-10) Nor could God simply accept our repentance as a just recompense for our offense, as repentance would neither suffice to guard God’s integrity nor serve to restore our wounded nature (8.3) In His body,
    then, Christ exhausts the wrath of the law(8.4;10.5) and renders satisfaction for our debt (9.1-3)
    David Bently Hart, The Beauty of the Infinite page 370

    Now if we put the words of St. John Damascene next to this passage of St. Athanasius I think we can see a possible parallel. Maybe???

    “A judge justly punishes one who is guilty of wrong doing; and if he does not punish him he is himself a wrongdoer. In punishing him the judge is not the cause either of the wrongdoing or of the vengeance taken against the wrongdoer, the cause being the wrongdoer’s freely chosen actions. Thus too God, Who saw what was going to happen as if it had already happened, judged it as if it had taken place; and if it was evil, that was the cause of its being punished. It was God who created man, so of course He created him in goodness; but man did evil of his own free choice, and is himself the cause of the vengence that overtakes him.”

    BTW, I would prefer to say that the fathers have retributive elements in their thought, rather than say they use a retributive model

  6. MG Says:

    Athanasios—

    I’m sorry for plaguing you with enormous responses, but I want to be thorough, so here goes. If you need me to cut down comment size, I can.

    I agree that Athanasius has both concerns, legal and ontological. But the question is how he understands legal things like God’s word and his consistency. God’s word “the day you eat of the tree you shall die” can be understood in more than one way. Is it a legislation of how God will choose to impose punishment by a distinct act of will? Or is it a prediction of how the natural law of death will affect a person who sins? If it is a prediction, then we can still say that if God’s prediction were rendered false, that would be against his consistency. So the issue of divine consistency doesn’t seem to favor either your view or mine. I actually discussed this with a Reformed friend at great length here: http://wellofquestions.wordpress.com/2009/01/21/natural-consequences-5-athanasius-on-the-law-of-death/#comment-1662

    Admittedly, it seems you’re right about one implication of God’s consistency—God is powerful enough to do something about death, otherwise there wouldn’t be the possibility of him being inconsistent by going back on his word about “the day you eat you will die”. This is not something I had considered before in St. Athanasius, and I thank you for drawing it to my attention. Yet it seems to me that the way Athanasius phrases things doesn’t imply God could just cancel our *tendency towards spiritual and physical corruption*. For Athanasius says:

    “By nature, of course, man is mortal, since he was made from nothing; but he bears also the Likeness of Him Who is, and if he preserves that Likeness through constant contemplation, then his nature is deprived of its power and he remains incorrupt.” Section 4

    “Men, rejecting eternal things and through the counsel of the devil turning toward the things of corruption, became the cause to themselves of the corruption in death.” Section 5

    This seems to mean that our tendency to die is not grounded in God choosing between creating humans incapable of death or humans capable of death. Rather this tendency to die is grounded in a necessary fact about us—the fact we are created out of nothing. God couldn’t have made us incapable of death. Our not dying is a consequence of our contemplating eternal things (ie. personally choosing to partake of the divine energy of immortality). Once we reject eternal things, we experience the consequence of our being made from nothing—a necessary (natural) result of departure from immortality. The only way for God to not make creatures that tend towards death is to not make creatures that are created out of nothing. Notice how similar this is to what St. John says about how those who depart from life in sin experience spiritual death as a consequence of leaving life. So our tendency towards death is a natural, necessary consequence of our departure from life combined with the fact that we are created out of nothing.

    Furthermore, Athanasius doesn’t think that it would be possible to save humanity from our tendency towards corruption without the incarnation:

    “You must know, moreover, that corruption which had set in was not external to the body but established within it. The need, therefore, was that life should cleave to it in corruption’s place, so that, just as death was brought into being in the body, life also might be engendered in it. If death had been exterior to the body, life also might be engendered in it. If death had been exterior to the body, life might fittingly have been the same. But if death was within the body, woven into its very substance and dominating it as though completely one with it, the need was for Life to be woven into it instead, so that the body by thus enduing itself with lie might cast corruption off. Suppose the Word had come outside the body instead of in it, He would, of course, have defeated death, because death is powerless against the Life. But the corruption inherent in the body would have remained in it nonetheless. Naturally, therefore, the Savior assumed a body for Himself, in order that the body, being interwoven as it were with life, should no longer remain a mortal thing, in thrall to death, but as endued with immortality and risen from death, should thenceforth remain immortal. For once having put on corruption, it could not rise, unless it put on life instead; and besides this, death of its very nature could not appear otherwise than in a body. Therefore He put on a body, so that in the body He might find death and blot it out. And indeed, how could the Lord have been proved to be the Life at all, had He not endued with life that which was subject to death? Take an illustration. Stubble is a substance naturally destructible by fire; and it still remains stubble, fearing the menace of fire which has the natural property of consuming it, even if fire is kept away from it, so that it is not actually burnt. But suppose that, instead of merely keeping the fire from it somebody soaks the stubble with a quantity of asbestos, the substance which is said to be the antidote to fire. Then the stubble no longer fears the fire, because it has put on that which fire cannot touch, and therefore it is safe. It is just the same with regard to the body and death. Had death been kept from it by a mere command, it would still have remained mortal and corruptible, according to its nature. To prevent this, it put on the incorporeal Word of God, and therefore fears neither death nor corruption any more, for it is clad with Life as with a garment and in it corruption is clean done away.” Chapter 44

    This passage is one of the most elaborate images Athanasius gives of how the Incarnation saves us. The crucial part, I think, is this: “Suppose the Word had come outside the body instead of in it, He would, of course, have defeated death, because death is powerless against the Life. But the corruption inherent in the body would have remained in it nonetheless.” The saint seems to be saying here that God can stop deaths just by an exercise of will, imparting power by the activity of life. But the problem of corruption runs deeper than particular instances of physical death, because it concerns the disorientation of human nature from within by means of the sins of human persons. This can only be done away with if life cleaves to human nature from within—if the participation of the created in the uncreated is fixed from within by the Word’s hypostatically incorruptible free choice. So bestowing life by a mere external exercise of will would not fix the participation of a corrupted nature in immortality. What this implies is that physical corruption is a necessary consequence of sin (presumably because the dying body partakes of the soul which is necessarily corrupted by sin, and both are enhypostatized by sinful persons). So it seems like what Athanasius says fits really well into the distinction suggested earlier between God empowering something with life (which He can do by fiat) and God actually fixing the problem of corruption, which requires the recapitulation of life and death in Christ.

    All that to say, in one sense you’re correct that Athanasius thinks God could have gone back on his word. He was powerful enough to preserve us everlastingly in a state of not being dead. But it was impossible for Him to actually deal with corruption apart from the incarnation, which means corruption is a necessary/natural consequence of sin in the theology of St. Athanasius.

    I think Hart’s quote is interesting, but I don’t agree with it. First, I don’t think its an accurate representation of what Athanasius thinks, as I’ve argued above and in my post on the subject. I’ve heard the idea of retribution and penal substitution in Athanasius offered and argued for before (in my discussions with my friend David that I linked to above, for instance), and was even aware that Hart said something like this. I will admit that it is compatible with much of what Athanasius says. But it doesn’t seem to fit with several very crucial texts in On the Incarnation (including especially the ones I gave above that seem to show that he thinks the tendency toward corruption is a natural consequence of sin).

    Another problem is that Hart seems to presuppose a kind of conflict or at least hierarchy in God’s goodness. Two decrees (the complete mutual realization of which is incompatible) must be maintained. But God primarily wants the first to happen, which is why he must prevent the second decree from “defeating” the first decree. This seems to imply that there is conflict within God, and that sounds suspiciously like an affirmation of the dialectic of opposition. The idea of justice as retribution that Hart seems (and I might be wrong) to be working off of sounds more like the Thomism I have heard some attribute to him, and less like the (so-called) Palamism that I think is the authentic patristic-Christian tradition Athanasius is working from.

    I agree that there are similarities between how St. John Damascene speaks about God’s judgment and the way St. Athanasius speaks. But I think these similarities do not imply a shared retributive or quasi-retributive framework, but a shared understanding of God’s justice as consistency and of punishment as including (even if it is not exclusively) natural consequences.

    You wrote:

    “BTW, I would prefer to say that the fathers have retributive elements in their thought, rather than say they use a retributive model”

    Well depending on what you mean by that, I think I’d agree. If what you mean is that they see God as actively punishing the damned in the eschaton, and they think this punishment cannot lead to their repentance, then that’s something I can agree with wholeheartedly (so long as it is understood in a Christological and Trinitarian way). But it seemed to me like you were arguing using your patristic quotes that the Fathers think that it is inherently valuable for God to harm those that have done wrong in proportion to their guilt (which is my rough definition of retribution) as a manifestation of His justice. Is that right? Would you say that it is inherently valuable for God to harm those that have done wrong in proportion to their guilt?

    I’d like to say, before we continue, how helpful this discussion has been for me. You’ve challenged me to think about these issues more carefully and to really look at what the Fathers say. I’m not 100% sure the conclusions I’ve come to are right, but I think some kind of progress is being made.

    Looking forward to your response.

  7. Athanasios Boeker Says:

    My friend I very much enjoy, and find helpful, these conversations as well. Thank you very much.

    I guess I really need to understand a little bit better what you mean by, “It is inherently valuable for God to harm those that have done wrong in proportion to their guilt as a manifestation of His justice.

    I really think that the C. S. Lewis quote that I provided you from The Problem of Pain comes the closest to my conception of “retribution.” And it must me remembered that C. S. Lewis coined the phrase, “The doors of hell are locked from the inside.”

  8. Athanasios Boeker Says:

    I do agree with you wholeheartedly when you say the fathers see God as actively punishing the damned in the eschaton, and they think this punishment cannot lead to their repentance (as it is understood in a Christological and Trinitarian way). Although I do not understand all of the details of it. To be honest I have never been real good at putting togather completely consistent systems of thought.

  9. MG Says:

    Athanasios–

    I have not forgotten our discussion, and will try to reply as soon as I can.

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