Gregory on Evil and Suffering. Part Two: An Alternative?

About the Author
David Wagschal

This post is part of the series Patristic Redux: A Lutheran Reads the Fathers, in which our goal is to read the “fathers of the church” without rose-tinted spectacles: i.e. not as a priori authorities, set high upon a pedestal, surrounded by an aura of holiness and inspiration, but simply as any other theologians, whose work can and should be subject to critique in the same manner as anyone else’s. Can the theology of the fathers stand on its own two feet? Can it withstand serious critique? Can it hold its own in a contemporary theological conversation? Above all: is it actually good theology?

At present, we’re working through Gregory of Nyssa’s late 4th century Catechetical Oration (see the intro post for texts and editions)

Gregory on Evil and Suffering: Part Two

  1. [Part One] Suffering and Death: The Main Argument of 5-8
  2. [Part One] How Good Are These Arguments?
  3. An Alternative
    • Re-think #1: Our Idea of God
    • Re-think #2: The Comprehensibility of Evil
    • Re-think #3: The Free Will Trap
  4. Afterword: Why Does Gregory Mess This Up? Greco-Roman Culture 101.
    • Slavery
    • The Agon (Culture of Competition)


3) An Alternative

It’s not difficult to build a much better theology of suffering and death (read: that conveys the Gospel more faithfully), but since we’ve all become so accustomed to theology like Gregory’s, the alternative can feel very unintuitive.

Essentially, we need to radically re-think all of Gregory’s underlying assumptions. Luther opened the door to this in the 16th C, but the necessary conclusions are still rarely voiced in contemporary theology.

Re-think #1: Our Idea of God

The place to start is our ultimate idea of who God is—and where we’re getting that idea from.

Gregory’s starting point is basically Neoplatonic: God is a Perfect Being in the Sky, Absolutely Good, Absolutely Wise, beyond all change, all passibility, etc.

Promoting this vision, defending it, and working out its implications are the key generative forces behind Gregory’s theology. His theology is essentially one long set of corollaries to this vision.

But you don’t have to do theology this way. As Luther realized, there is another way that Christians can approach the knowledge of God. This way is called the “theology of the cross”. This approach understands the ultimate and chief reference point for God to be not some abstract Perfect Being, but the Christ of the Gospel—specifically, the crucified redeemer who died for us and who grants us salvation as a radically free gift.

In this vision, we take Christ crucified as the fundamental and basic revelation of who God is—and then work out our theology from there.

Philosophically, this is a messy way to do theology. But it is fascinating to see how it points us to some very startling conclusions.

What do we immediately notice when we turn to the question of evil and suffering?

First, the point of the crucifixion is not to exculpate God—Gregory’s central concern—but to implicate God in our suffering and pain. God is immediately revealed as precisely a God who suffers: is passible, changeable, weak, conflicted. God is not fundamentally a Big Spotless Being in the sky. He’s fundamentally a filth-encrusted human wallowing in the muck of our reality—but who bears a promise of something better. So immediately our starting point is virtually opposite that of Gregory.

Second, the crucifixion is precisely about physical, sensible (sense-able) suffering. There is no denial or downplaying of the significance or reality of this type of suffering. To the contrary, God reveals this type of suffering to be, in effect, what suffering is really about. There is certainly no whiff of a call for us to raise our minds “above” this type of suffering, to ascend beyond it to some intellectual realm where we can perceive that our suffering is not “really suffering” or evil. Not in the slightest! In fact, brief thought reveals that such an idea would be tantamount to denying the significance of the cross altogether.

Third, God isn’t revealed as trying to “teach” us something with suffering, or use it as a medicine, or suggest it is necessary for us. There is no justifying of suffering and death, and no instrumentalization of it at all. Suffering remains nothing but a horror that God experiences and then simply destroys. This point is tremendously important. There is nothing sapiential about the cross or suffering: it is not fundamentally about providing us with any wisdom or insight. Critically—despite some early Christian speculation to the contrary (“take up your cross”)—it’s also not something we’re being asked to participate in: in the Gospel, God is doing the all of the suffering for us. That’s the whole point. There is nothing we need to add.

Fourth, God doesn’t seem to be too worried about whose fault any of this was! It’s just not an issue. And, if anything, it is very interesting to ponder the implications of the fact that God is clearly the one taking responsibility (“paying the price”) for evil. Hm!

So, right off the bat, the Gospel pushes in precisely the opposite direction of Gregory’s theology, and on fundamental points. If we take the approach of the “theology of the cross”, and understand the Gospel of Christ crucified as truly definitive of Christianity—it’s criterion of truth—Gregory’s theology should be quite impossible. The Gospel pushes us towards something very different.

Re-think #2: The Comprehensibility of Evil

One of Gregory’s basic assumptions is that Christianity can make sense of evil: that part of the Good News is that we get a Good Explanation.

To be fair, humans do want an explanation for suffering and evil in the world—and particularly for why God permits it to happen. This is a very basic human need.

But is this something that Christianity can really provide? Or should even try to provide?

Gregory is an excellent example of how this can go wrong. His attempt to explain evil basically ends up twisting the Christian message into an ideology of abuse: our experience of suffering is dismissed, the victims are blamed, and God is established as a cruel, sadistic disciplinarian who is obsessed with coercing his creation to obey and love him not just from fear but totally freely (or else: more “medicine”!).

But Gregory is not alone here. I would suggest that most attempts at explaining evil end up with a picture of God that is pretty messed up. The Augustinian/Calvinist theories of predestination provide other excellent examples.

But perhaps there is another way of approaching this?

Here we need to re-examine another “deep assumption” of almost all patristic and medieval theology (inherited from Greco-Roman mind-body dualism): that there remains something pristine in our intellectual faculties that is untainted by sin. Ancient theology is profoundly convinced that we possess a seed of the divine that remains somehow unsullied, and that is capable, with training and God’s help, of “connecting” with the divine in a pure way.

As a result, much patristic and medieval theology is concerned with the re-activation and re-orienting of our intellectual/volitional faculty (usually away from earthly realities to heavenly ones) as the very process that effects, or is, our salvation. This belief leads directly to a very high valuation of human reason. It suddenly becomes possible for us to think our way to the truth of problems like the problem of evil; and holding this truth becomes itself a path to salvation.

Luther, however, reflecting on the Gospel that Jesus has done everything to save us, and we do nothing, had a much more thorough, radical idea of sin. For Luther, there remains nothing in humanity that is untainted by darkness and evil, including reason (and the will). In fact, if anything, reason might be the most tainted element of the human. Further, this taint is a deep stain, penetrating to the very core of all our faculties, leaving nothing recoverable or usable, at least as pertains to the divine. And the stain is indelible. There is no amount of our scrubbing that we can do to “unleash our hidden divinity”, as it were.

As a result, for Luther, reason is fundamentally and permanently untrustworthy as relates to any question of the divine—including the nature of evil.

So for Luther, the whole idea that we can come up with a Good Explanation is suddenly put into doubt. Our reason will always generate inadequate explanations. These will be inherently corrupt, i.e. they will always undermine the Gospel of radical grace, no matter how well-intentioned. There is, therefore, in this world, no escape from the tortured conclusions of our minds: our minds will always end up presenting us with something like Gregory’s theology, or Calvin’s—a vision of cruelty, futility, horror.

This approach to reason creates a very different theology than what we are used to. Theology becomes fundamentally deconstructive, not constructive. It becomes at core a process of constantly challenging our beliefs and dogmas by the impossibly radical message of the Gospel of free, universal grace. That’s it. Theology is just an exercise in allowing the Gospel of radical grace to constantly and permanently explode and contradict what our minds come up with about God and God’s actions. It is an exercise in total (and impossible) passivity and humility before this Gospel.

What then happens to the problem of evil in this framework?

It suddenly shifts from a problem of finding the right answer/explanation to a problem of figuring out how we can still engender hope in light of the fact that there is no good answer.

Theology therefore shifts from an abstract discourse of knowledge to a practical discourse of trust—from a sapiential to an existential discourse. The basic “sapiential answer” to evil then becomes quite simple, almost banal:

– The world is filled with evil. God does nothing. All is horror. No explanation works.
– Correct. Nevertheless: we have the Gospel.

But providing this answer is not the point—since it’s obvious, and also unsatisfying. The point is that we are now driven to finding concrete ways, for concrete human beings whom we know, to turn that message of grace into actual hope, actual care, and actual diminishment of suffering. The point suddenly becomes action.

Re-think #3: The Free Will Trap

Central to Gregory’s thought on evil and suffering is the concept of free will. In fact, this concept is critical to Gregory’s entire anthropology (i.e. his understanding of what it is to be human). He views free will as “the most beautiful and honoured of good things” which God has bestowed upon humanity, and an essential element of how humans have been made to “reflect” God’s image (ch. 5). This last is key, as our creation in the “image of God” is understood as a critical affinity or nexus with God by which salvation/deification is effected.

Gregory’s arguments about free will and evil (which don’t originate with him) will become classic. They are as follows:

  1. As a creation of God, humans are unthinkable without free will: God wanted a son, not a slave. God was not interested in creating an automaton, since an automaton could not be said to participate in his goodness in any type of authentic way. Participation in God = salvation, and participation requires real choice.
  2. However, a creature with an authentically free will comes with a risk: this free will might turn away from God. And this (with a nudge from the Devil) is exactly what happened to humanity. This is the origin of evil.
  3. God, of course, in his omniscience, knew this was going to happen. But because of #1, in his wisdom, God accepted this outcome, since this was better than not creating us at all, which was the only other alternative. And, of course, God also provided for the means of recalling our will back to the good: the whole “economy of salvation” (i.e. Christianity).
  4. So, in the end, our world as we experience it now, suffering and all, is effectively a necessary corollary of creation.

Today, I think some version of this argument functions as most Christians’ day-to-day explanation for evil and suffering. It’s logical, simple, and exculpates God from any direct causation of evil. Above all, it provides some reason for the evil we experience—it puts evil and suffering in the perspective of a grand plan.

Interestingly, and a bit perversely, it also flatters us on a number of levels. It grants our actions and the movements of our will cosmic significance. Created as mini-reflections of God, we have been able, by our choices, to fundamentally alter the direction and state of creation—and therefore, very importantly (and we’ll come back to this later in this series), our will are critical in effecting salvation. It also flatters us by allowing us to assume a grave piety of “taking responsibility” for evil and suffering. This allows us to adopt a stance of moral superiority—almost moral machismo—vis-à-vis any other type of explanation that might try to blame God, or something other than ourselves. It makes us feel grown-up and serious. It is strangely self-satisfying.

Gregory’s arguments about evil and free will, however, are much weaker, and much less necessary, than they first appear.

Once again, Luther was the first theologian to suspect that the old theology might have taken a wrong turn. In particular, Luther had a really revolutionary insight: there is not a necessary connection between human free will and salvation. This insight is in turn based on a thought that I think never, ever entered the mind of any classical or medieval theologian before Luther (although some of the medieval mystics and nominalists may have come close). Luther realized that it is possible to conceive of humans as having an intellectual faculty or capability—the mind, the will, perception, the interpretative faculty, whatever—which is fully functional, sophisticated, and God-given, but that simultaneously is completely unimportant and ineffective in regards to salvation. We have been given Reason, and Will, and they both might be powerful, glorious, a great gift, and so on; but, as relates to salvation, they simply don’t matter.

Luther is here saying that there is a complete metaphysical gap and incommensurability between the human and divine realms (philosophers: here Luther is very much a proto-Hume). They are just totally different categories. So, it is no problem to affirm that humans, as humans, have perfectly free wills in their day-to-day “civic”, human lives, and even that this is how God created us to be. But at the same time Luther can affirm that our free wills have nothing to do with salvation, as this is entirely in God’s realm. There is no essential reason to say that free will is only free will if it also somehow affects our salvation.

This observation throws the ancient theology into paroxysms, because it is predicated upon removing any ontologically significant role for humans in things divine—we’re always “just humans”. There is no longer a nexus between the bodily and divine worlds which we are straddling, climbing and ever-closing. Instead, in terms of salvific effect, humanity’s relationship to God is only one-way: God acting on humanity. Humans, as relates to the divine, are totally passive in the sense that we always remain “just humans”, even as God effects our salvation. This is a short-circuit for ancient Greco-Roman thinking, which could only view humans as worthwhile or valuable if they were becoming divine—participating in divine things, and becoming little gods. But Luther is saying that we can be are valuable and beloved simply as humans. No element of our faculties needs to do anything divine or become divine. God can just act on us from outside.

This may all sound pretty abstract, but in relation to evil and suffering, Luther’s view is actually quite commonsensical. Think about it: Why would God ever put our salvation in our hands? Or allow our wills to have any life-or-death impact upon us? It only takes a few moments to realize that the “son not slave” argument is really weak. If your child is about to walk off a ledge and plunge to their death, are you not going to seize them and forcibly save them? If a car is about to strike your friend, will you not push them out of the way? In any type of life-or-death situation—which surely salvation is!—would we not always act one-sidedly to save our fellow human being?

Or would we instead scratch our chin and ponderously consider the philosophical importance of free-will agency, while our loved one is killed? Of course not!

No: in anything important—read anything divine—of course we should expect that God acts one-sidedly! (Notice how the ancient theology often seems to create a god that is even less moral than we are? I’ve remarked this many times in this blog, and it’s something worth tracking.) And this idea flows very naturally from the Gospel. We don’t save us: God saves us. The movement of salvation is a movement of God’s total grace, God’s total love, God’s total forgiveness.

No, the Gospel is exactly that God’s grace blows our free will away like a gale: the movement of grace is inexorable, crushing, terrible. Our free will is quite powerless. Of course it is!

The opposite view, that our will plays a pivotal role in salvation, corrupts the Gospel. Suffering and evil suddenly become (sadistically) part of the “Good News”: they become necessary parts of God’s plan, which is a perverse “contest of virtue”-cum-punishment-session which God tyrannously oversees. And God is oddly not even exculpated from evil, because it is precisely God’s demand for a creature with a metaphysically-potent will that is evidently the cause of evil. It’s really quite a mess!

Of course, if we remove our free will as a causative factor in the ultimate origin of evil—or indeed of anything metaphysically significant—where does this leave the problem of evil and suffering? Clearly we all experience evil and suffering, and we propagate it too. Even if we don’t believe our will has metaphysically significant results, our “everyday” wills clearly cause a lot of evil and suffering. Why? If we can’t blame our wills, how did this world happen?  

Well: see #1 and #2 above. Bottom line: reason is the “Devil’s whore”, sin permeates everything, and we really don’t have an answer. We only have the Gospel. The only real question is: how can we make the hope of the Gospel even a bit real for people who suffer?


Afterword: Why Does Gregory So Royally Mess This Up? Greco-Roman Culture 101. A few concepts critical for understanding patristic thought

Gregory ends up with a pretty ghastly, and in fact perverse, vision of evil and suffering. It’s not only incoherent, but also a very bad fit for the Gospel.

When you find a “theological hiccup” of this magnitude, it’s worth taking a step back to ponder what went wrong. In my experience, when this happens, we need to look for not simply a misstep of reason—a confused idea—but for some type of existential, socio-cultural factor that is driving the discourse, and potentially blinding the actors.

In Gregory’s case, I think a few things are going on.

First, a key factor is simply the weight of elite, non-Christian Greco-Roman piety. The broadly Platonic consensus philosophy/theology that had congealed in elite circles by the 4th C was invested to the bone in the idea of a supremely transcendent, impassible, philosophically rarefied “Big God” as the only respectable and valid concept of divinity. It also could only think of humanity as, in effect, a mass of failed or inchoate “little gods”, who naturally related to God through the affinity of faculties in their divine prototypes. These little defective gods, however weak and damaged reflections of the divine they were, were still central players in the cosmic drama: God’s fellow-workers.

Under the strain of this piety, we can see how Gregory’s theological treatment of evil went wrong. This elite Greco-Roman god was simply too small for the God of the cross! And its idea of humanity quixotic, self-absorbed, even delusional. In this case, the old Protestant canard about patristic theologians being “too philosophical” or “too Greek” is probably right.

But I think two other under-appreciated socio-cultural factors are also at play in (mis)directing Gregory’s account of evil.


It is difficult to overstate how foreign and abhorrent the ancient world would seem to us today. There are many reasons for this, but among the greatest would be the institution of slavery. Slavery was an all-encompassing, omnipresent part of ancient culture. Estimates vary, but it is likely that at least 10% of the Roman population was enslaved by the 4th C. In some places, that percentage may have been much higher. The economy was very much dependent upon slaves (and other almost-slaves), as were most elite households, and even, at times, parts of the bureaucracy. Gregory’s whole world depended upon a highly extractive, repressive social structure whose bottom layer consisted of masses of human chattel.

It’s hard for us to imagine how the reality of slavery would change our outlook and sensibilities. One in ten people you met would effectively be treated as non-human; they would have virtually no rights; they could be killed at whim; they could  be physically harmed with great ease; they could be bought and sold like livestock; they could be (and were) sexually assaulted routinely. They were in effect a whole segment of day-to-day humanity who were in a state of constant violence, brutality, and horror. To get a sense of this, go watch 12 Years a Slave, but imagine this with no escape. It is really hard to overstate how vile the ancient world was on this one account alone.

This reality, however, puts Gregory’s immense—but not terribly coherent—emphasis on free will in a totally new perspective!

Notice the language Gregory uses when discussing free will (ch. 5):

“… God would not have deprived humans of that most beautiful and most honoured of good things, I mean the grace of being without a master and having authority over oneself [λέγω δὴ τῆς κατὰ τὸ ἀδέσποτον καὶ αὐτεξούσιον χάριτος]. For if a certain necessity presided over human life, the image [of God in humanity] would be falsified in that part… for how could it be called an icon of the ruling nature if it were yoked and enslaved to necessities? [τῆς γὰρ βασιλευούσης φύσεως ἡ ἀνάγκαις τισὶν ὑπεζευγμένη τε καὶ δουλεύουσα πῶς ἂν εἰκὼν ὀνομάζοιτο;] Therefore, that which has a likeness to the divine in all things must have in its nature the capacity of self-rule and must be without a master [ἔδει πάντως ἔχειν ἐν τῇ φύσει τὸ αὐτοκρατὲς καὶ ἀδέσποτον…”

The language of slavery and social stratification is unmistakable. (Lutherans may also want to remark the curious content of “grace” here!)

This puts Gregory’s obsession with free will in a very new light: Gregory is terrified by the idea that God might have created him as a slave! Slaves were nothing. They were beyond disgrace. Slavery was the deepest horror and fear. Of course Gregory is going to set human free will at the center of his anthropology! It’s critical for Gregory and his elite audience to view God as treating them as free men. Any suggestion that might vitiate this image would, I think, be quite literally unthinkable, and plumb to their deepest fears (and no doubt guilt?).

From this perspective, it suddenly becomes possible to see the entire doctrinal complex of “free will” as an artifact of contextual theology. It is a temporally-located reflex to slavery. It is a fossilized fear-response of the Greco-Roman elite.

Sadly, it has persisted, and as we’ve seen above, its theological consequences are not happy. This is a rather good example of culture trumping good theology.

The Agon (The “Culture of Competition”)

Gregory’s discussion of the centrality of free will also betrays another key elite Greco-Roman instinct: the strong valuation of a culture of contest or competition.

Greco-Roman elite culture was profoundly competitive. In a way that has been tempered in our comparatively egalitarian society, elite Greco-Roman society (especially male society) was centered on constant public contest or agon [ἀγών]. Military culture, athletic culture, intellectual culture, rhetorical culture: all were structured around (at least notionally) public displays of competition, where winning and receiving public praise and recognition of the community were exceptionally highly valued. Gaining “glory”, winning “the prize”, seeking to best all others, and shamelessly engaging in braggadocio—with endless monuments and so on—were expected and even encouraged in a way that today seems a bit crass. (You might have noticed this in even ancient Christian ascetic literature, where monks are described as spiritual athletes and depicted as engaged in a kind of ascetic contest, vying to outdo each other or themselves in ever more extreme ascetic feats.)

Today this aspect of Greco-Roman culture feels a bit silly and jejune: even the Iliad today reads like the story of a bunch of strutting, hormonal adolescent boys engaged in a turf war (with swords).

It’s hard to imagine how this discourse could enter Christian theology. But check out this very revealing passage, which follows immediately on the passage cited above:

“[…one must have a nature that has the capacity for self-rule and is without a master] so that the partaking in good things might be a prize of virtue [ἆθλον ἀρετῆς].”

Later (ch. 7), similarly, Gregory notes that God

“…set forth for those living a life of virtue the reward of good things as a contest/prize of free-will (ὁ ἆθλον τῆς προαιρέσεως τὸ τῶν ἀγαθῶν γέρας τοῖς κατ᾽ ἀρετὴν πολιτευομένοις προθείς…), not yoking human nature by some coerced necessity to the things that seemed good to himself [God].”

God needs us to be free men, having free will, so that we can partake in a contest of virtue! It is essential that one of God’s basic tasks is to provide us with an arena to prove our worth before God, like ancient competitors before the judges of the games, or sons before their Greco-Roman father. It’s critical that Christians be able to “take the field” before God to win prizes!

Here again Gregory’s theology emerges as intensely contextual. For Gregory, formed in elite Greco-Roman culture, it’s completely natural to assume that an essential part of our relationship with God is to parade around and show off our prowess. So it’s very easy for him to incorporate the idea of contests and training into his theology of suffering. 

Unfortunately, once more, the consequences of this for the Gospel are distinctly unhappy. Indeed, by today’s standards, they are downright grotesque.

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