One of the most common affirmations in Orthodox services is the goodness of God. Many services conclude with the blessing: “For He is a good God and loves mankind.” The goodness of God is utterly foundational to our faith – and yet that goodness is itself a mystery: it is not always apparent and remains a conundrum to those who are outside of the faith. The so-called “problem of evil” with which non-believers frequently assault belief in the existence of a good God points to the problematic character of goodness.
God is good – but not in a way that is obvious. The goodness of God can be known – as God can be known. Neither, however, are readily apparent.
In some of the early patristic writings, particularly those that can be described as “apophatic” (“unable to be spoken”) God is not only affirmed as good but as “hyper-good,” that is, His goodness is beyond anything we know – it is a transcendent goodness. The God made known in the Incarnation of Christ is indeed “unknowable.” It is the Incarnation of Christ that has made Him known.
No one has seen God at any time. The only begotten Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, He has declared Him (John 1:18).
All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him (Matt. 11:27).
We come to know the attributes of God in the same manner. The goodness of God is the goodness we see in the Incarnation of Christ; the power of God is the power we see in Christ; the kindness of God is the kindness we see in Christ; the love of God is precisely revealed in Christ.
St. Paul writes of the “attributes” of God being clearly seen through the things He created – but the passage is not necessarily the grounds for a “natural” theology (a knowledge of God derived from contemplating nature).
For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because what may be known of God is manifest in them, for God has shown it to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, even His eternal power and Godhead, so that they are without excuse, because, although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful, but became futile in their thoughts, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Professing to be wise, they became fools, and changed the glory of the incorruptible God into an image made like corruptible man—and birds and four-footed animals and creeping things. (Romans 1:18-23).
St. Paul, I believe, is here describing the “fall” of man and the ignorance of God which it brought. The passage is consistently placed in the past tense. “Although they knew God,” etc. This is much different than saying that “knowing God” they are not thankful, etc. Instead he describes the long history of mankind before Christ as people who have become “futile” in their thoughts, and having their “foolish hearts darkened.”
However, it does seem to suggest that this knowledge can be restored as our hearts are enlightened – which is an inherent part of our living communion with Christ. But this knowledge is one that is seen only through an enlightened heart, again made possible only in the Incarnation of Christ.
It is important to approach the mystery of goodness in such a manner. The goodness of God is a goodness made known in Christ and not an intellectual category or philosophical concept that can be described apart from Christ. Such a separate concept is the secularization of goodness – ultimately a blasphemous approach (“There is none good but One, that is, God” – Luke 18:19).
The mystery of God’s goodness is most especially to be found in the mystery of the Cross. In the gospels Christ is described as “going about doing good” as well as healing the diseases of people. But the depth of that mystery is found in His death and resurrection.
The mystery of the Cross is the triumph of foolishness over man-made wisdom; the triumph of weakness of man’s perceived power; the ultimate victory of good over evil. The most common image of the death and resurrection of Christ in the Eastern Church is the icon of Christ’s Descent into Hell – for it is this icon that carries the fullest expression of the theological content and reality of His death and resurrection. It not only depicts his victory over death and evil (shown as the devil bound in chains), but also show the cosmic and timeless element of His victory as He grasps the hands of Adam and Eve to lead them out of the bondage of sin and death.
The Christian definition of good is the goodness of God. In the world in which we live we do not see that goodness in abstraction but in the fullness of its conflict with evil and its ultimate triumph. The Gospel presumes and acknowledges the presence of evil while at the same time affirming that goodness, in Christ, overcomes that evil.
In the classical teaching of the Fathers, evil is not a something, a force or a presence: it is an action driven by a distorted will. It is an opposition to God, but without meaning or substance except as an opposition. Evil is thus not a presence, but a tragic movement towards absence. It is not communion with God but a self-ward movement towards non-being.
The great struggle within our world, as presently constituted, is not between ourselves and the forces of a blind and rudderless nature, but a struggle with the consequences of that relentless challenge. The Cross is not an image that excludes the brutal forces of wicked powers – it is the triumph of love and forgiveness in the very heart of those struggles.
Goodness cannot be abstracted from the human tragedy – it is known and experienced within the very context of that tragedy in the fullness of the Cross of Christ. This is a radical departure from the philosophical discussion of the problem of evil. Christianity is not a set of ideas that compete on the playing field of philosophical systems. It is event and relationship neither imaginary nor abstract. This occasionally leaves classical Christianity at a disadvantage – unwilling to grant the givens of an alien philosophy – and thus seeming silent or weak in the face of a serious intellectual challenge. But Christianity is a language that is spoken in the tongue of the Logos, whose incarnation, death and resurrection speak with the eloquence of the true and living God.
St. Paul recognized that his preaching of the Cross of Christ would either make him seem weak or foolish. It is a weakness and a foolishness that modern Christians should not disdain. For the weakness of God is stronger than death. The foolishness of God is wiser than all men.