The story of the appearance of evil in the Garden of Eden is connected with the serpent. We can discuss the serpent at length, and it was discussed here already once, but what strikes me in the story is that as far as man is concerned, if I may put it that way, he did not invent or create evil. Evil came to meet him, and evil come to meet him in a concrete shape. It was not metaphysical evil, it was evil personified. This I think is at the root of the Christian view of evil in general: Evil does not exist as a metaphysical entity distinct from God, opposed to Him and as independently existing as He is. Evil is always a state in which a creature finds itself; it is a form of corruption of the primitive good, it is evil resulting from the godlessness, from the betrayal, from the rejection of God on the part of a creature. Evil has no equality with God. And this is very important for us; there is the realm of God into which creatures can introduce death and evil, can perish in a certain sense which we call the Fall or the Judgement or eventually damnation, but the creature can not undo God’s doing.
And the way in which evil appears in the experience and life of man is in the shape of a creature. Man is beguiled by another creature and evil enters into the realm of man, that is, into mankind, but also in all those things which depend upon mankind through someone else. We have discussed this up to a point last time, and from there I think we can understand, or at least guess however feebly why throughout the Old & New Testament there seems to be a relationship between God and evil, because evil is always personal, always attached to a creature. And if it is true to say that in the struggle for man, for the earth, the evil one appears as the adversary of God – Satan , on another level he is simply and nothing but a creature of God.
If there is a question of the defeat of Satan, that mankind and the earthly cosmos may be saved, there is also a problem of the devil in himself `vis-a-vis’ God. This is a thought which Lossky insisted on because he always was worried about the way in which by speaking of the devil as God’s adversary, we seem to tend to give him an absoluteness, a physical independence which does not belong to him any more than it belongs to us. And yet in the form of a creature which has either chosen for evil or has become prisoner of his own corruption, evil seems to be at large in the world and very destructive indeed. And many ask a question about it: `How is it possible that God can allow evil to be active, to be destructive?’ For one thing, whether it is evil whether it is good, whether it is life, love or death, they are all connected, inevitably, inseparably connected with our freedom. If we are free, then all the rest is there at least as a possibility and indeed – I was about to say the only excuse God has to create us free – is that there is neither life nor love, nor good apart from freedom. But also God has not created us free irresponsibly. We have spoken of this more than once here. At the root of our existences as created beings there is on the part of God total, constant, unflinching solidarity. I use the word solidarity rather than that of responsibility because when we speak of responsibility there is a nuance of accusation in it as far as good and evil are concerned. It is a question which we are turning against Him, while solidarity is His own choice.
And if this solidarity is such as we see it in the Old and New Testament, particularly indeed in the Incarnation and the death of Christ, then we can say, even if we do not see how in the end He will vanquish, we can say that He had a right to create us free in spite of the risk and the horror of it, because He bears both the horror and the risk infinitely more than we do. There is a sort of covenant between man and Him, not only in what is good, but also in connection with evil. This we can see again in the beginning of Genesis with regard to Cain; “The Lord said unto Cain, ‘Where is Abel thy brother?’ And he said ‘I know not: am I my brother’s keeper?’ And he said ‘What hast thou done? The voice of thy brother’s blood cried unto me from the ground. And now art thou cursed from the earth, which has opened her mouth to receive thy brother’s blood from thy hand.’ …And Cain said unto the Lord, ‘My punishment is greater then I can bear. Behold, Thou hast driven me out this day from the face of the earth. And from thy face shall I be hid; and I shall be a fugitive and a vagabond in the earth and it shall come to pass that every one that findeth me shall slay me.’ And the Lord said unto him, ‘Therefore whosoever slayeth Cain, vengeance shall be taken on him sevenfold.’ And the Lord set a mark upon Cain, lest any finding him should kill him. And Cain went out from the presence of the Lord and dwelt in the land of Nod on the east of Eden.” This mark which God sets upon Cain is a sort of protection that will save him from destruction, but not only him – and here perhaps we find something concerning both man and God with regard to evil – anyone who would slay Cain would become a new Cain. He will also, in the name of false justice that knows of no way of salvation for the culprit – he will also commit murder, and this seal, this mark upon Cain, is a protection of him lest, indeed he be killed, he and all those who are of his blood, but also a protection against anyone, and a warning that when we oppose evil to evil, we find ourselves not on the ground of God but on the devil’s own ground.
And this applies to all the forms of resistance of evil by evil. On the other hand, it confronts us also with God’s own impossibility to destroy evil by murder, by annihilation, because the God who created man, if He only turns to his creatures in order to destroy evil, would become a God of terror and of destruction. He might have annihilated Cain but then He would have had to spy, not only on the lives but on the hearts of men, on the thoughts of men, on the tremors of men’s will, incipient evil, and destroy it. And the life of man would no longer have been freedom, it would have been devoid of the very possibility of good, because good enforced by terror would have had no moral value and it would have deprived us of God the Creator, to confront us with God the Destroyer.
So that there seems to be apparently a covenant between God and evil which in reality is not between God and evil but between God and Cain, a creature wounded to death by evil, a victim of its own evil and of the evil of others. We find the same kind of covenant expressed in the story of Job. There is a dialogue between the devil and God, and a dialogue always means a relationship. It is no friendship, it is no agreement or approval, but it is a dialogue, not only in words, but in all the forms of relatedness. This dialogue includes God and him which speaks to Him, but also all those towards whom, against whom the hatred of the one who is a murderer from the beginning, as Christ calls the devil, is turned.
We see here again that God does not check evil by violence. He allows evil to be active. It is not God who defeats evil; it is man. Whatever happens, Job does not renounce God and Job does not charge God with foolishness. And in the end of time, when things are fulfilled in Christ, evil is defeated by the man Jesus Christ, as St Paul calls Him. Death is undone by death, not by the glorious Resurrection, which is an act of God, but by the death which is an act of man. And throughout history we find the same, the victory which is won is won by man, by the power of God, in the power of the Spirit, because man has united his strength with that of God, but still man.
Macarius of Egypt, speaking of prayer, says that when we pray for someone, we must be prepared to take upon ourselves all his burden. And he warns us not to take upon ourselves praying for the devil, because we cannot carry his burden. But on the other hand, anyone who has fought against temptation has defeated evil, has, with regard to him perhaps also power of forgiveness. In that sense man is more central and more meaningful and more important in the destiny, not only of himself, but of the visible world and of the world invisible, than we imagine. And this view is possible only if we keep to the Biblical faith that there is no such thing as metaphysical evil, separate and distinct from people who have fallen a prey to temptation and to corruption. It acquires reality in creatures, but it always remains on the scale of creatureliness. It cannot outgrow creatureliness.
These are the few things I wanted to say as an introduction to the continuation of the discussion about evil. And I remind you that we mentioned, without touching upon it at all, also last time, the question of freedom and that of obedience in connection with good and evil.
Answers to Questions:
…What impresses me in saints is not their particular gifts: I know that St John of Damascus wrote good poetry and that there were saints who were intelligent and some who were less, but it is not really what impresses me in a saint. What impresses me is the scope and magnitude and the daring. It is people who would not be content with little bourgeois ways, even when they spoke in this sort of way in which S. Theresa spoke, little ways, etc. because her little ways are quite unlikely to be followed by many. What impresses me is that it is people who would not stop half way, who had passion, in the good sense, fire, who were ready to go to the extreme after, and in every case at their own cost, not at someone else’s cost. And I think this is one side, the other one is that when this passionate commitment is there, there is also, God coming into it, acting and helping.. And then there is a transparency, suppleness which in someone who seems to be so immensely powerful, tips the scale completely `My power is manifest in weakness.’
Analogy and comparison between the Knight’s gauntlet and the surgeon’s glove, so thin and weak, but letting the power and skill of the hand work through the frail tissue of the glove. What strikes me is that they were never weaklings – because the humility and the meekness of saints has nothing to do with the sheepishness we exhibit at times when we try to ape them and to do as though we were humble and meek. They were people of extraordinary strength, because to be humble is a quality of strength much greater than to be violent.
I think what is important in the question, not only of saintliness, but in the spiritual life, is that it cannot be manufactured by effort or by gifts because what is aimed at, desired, what is prayed for is God’s own life in us. And whatever we do about it we cannot produce it. It can be given and it can be received, but it cannot be made, manufactured by us and this is perhaps why so many prayers addressed to the Orthodox saints praise them for having become capably of receiving, much more than they are praised for what they receive in a way; because what they receive is God’s generosity. And once you are capable of receiving, you can receive anything that God gives. There is nothing to praise you for the gifts, but what we are incapable of is receiving, simply because to receive within one’s hand, one must have empty hands, and whatever you have, whether it is a precious thing or a little pebble, the moment you shut your hand on it you are deprived of one hand already.