December 3, 2020

Frederica Mathewes-Green on the Orthodox View of Sin

barking dog 2 misshappiness flickr comm ok

I saw this on Frederica Mathewes-Green’s Facebook page yesterday and thought it worthy of our consideration and discussion:

The Orthodox view of sin is as an infection that pervades Creation and causes suffering for all (rather than bad deeds that demand punishment). It’s a new idea and hard to grasp, for converts. But one of its implications has to do with the suffering of the innocent; there is suffering because you and I sin, and contribute to the dis-ease of this life, and empower the evil one who hates humanity. The question of “why does God permit suffering” gets turned around. God became man to put an end to sin, but we keep returning to it voluntarily. Of course the evil one is going to go after the innocent in particular, because added to that suffering is the pain onlookers feel. Why do the innocent suffer? Because I gossip and eat too much.

Here’s an illustrative quote I received today in an email from Met. Ephraim of Boston (HOCNA):

Elder Joseph the Cave-dweller (†1959): “Why does the dog bark at us? It barks, because it is telling us, ‘On account of your sins, I also suffer illness and die.’”


  1. melissab says

    We are all born sinful, therefore no one is truly innocent. Sin and its effects taint all of creation. I have always felt that God in His infinite mercy has not allowed the full tsunami of sin’s consequences into the world. For example, we have medicines to heal us, prevent disease, etc. Disease, in general, is a consequence of sin, medicine is God’s gift/mercy which ameliorates it’s full effect. God also keeps Satan in check (i.e., Job). Why does God allow bad things to happen to good people (although without Jesus’ righteousness, none of us are good), isn’t something that will be answered this side of heaven, and God doesn’t owe us an explanation either ( again with Job). Caveat: I have no formal theological training of any type so I am boldly wading into some deep theological water here. Be kind.

    • I agree with you….and am likewise just an old Catholic who trusts God.

      It has taken me a long time to realize that He does NOT owe me an explanation, and that I wouldn’t understand it if He even tried. It would be like trying to “explain” to a two year old why you are allowing someone to hold her sobbing body down and stick needles into her flesh……… that she does not die or become blind or deaf from horrible diseases.

  2. The full consequences are death.

    And the price will be paid…by ALL.

    I heard a preacher at my friend’s funeral say that he (the preacher)” didn’t understand why we have to die.”

    I wanted to stand up and shout, “The wages of sin are death.”

    • Right on. Sin is more than an infection, which can be fixed or healed. No, sin is death. Christ talked about re-birth, new life. He makes a new man that will live forever. Though God sees it now as soon as we are baptized into Christ and have faith, we won’t see more than a glimpse of it until the next life.

      • Hmm, small point. The Bible says that the wages of sin is death. But, it does not say that sin itself is death. That is part of the reason that the Orthodox view sin as an infection rather than as death.

    • Just a random thought: if the wages of labor are money, you might say that money is indirectly the cause of labor.

      • St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote: “Because of the tyrant death man is unable to live according to his original destimy of selfless love. He now has the instinct of self-preservation firmly rooted within him from birth. Because he lives constantly under the fear of death he continuously seeks bodily and psychological security, and thus becomes individualistically inclined and utilitarian in attitude. Sin is the failure of man to live according to his original destimy of selfless love, which seeks not its own, and this failure is rooted in the disease of death.”

  3. Joseph (the original) says

    We are all born sinful, therefore no one is truly innocent. Sin and its effects taint all of creation.

    i think it does most contemplative Protestant+Evangelical Christians’ good to view the teachings/understandings/theologies of the Eastern Orthodox to help bring a counterbalance to the extremes of doctrinal ‘certainty’ that i feel puts God in a box contrary to the intent of wanting to be extra-extra exacting in theological jit-and-tottle…

    i like the sin = disease attempt at explaining its insidious impact upon our humanity & the immediate surroundings we inhabit. unlike some, i do not fully accept the concept of original sin, therefore the idea that all are born sinful is not something i would conclude. and i do not believe ‘sin’ has completely corrupted all of creation, but only the earth that mankind was intended to inhabit & co-rule (guard, take care of, enjoy, etc.) over as God’s appointed caretakers. are all babies born as sinners? or are they born naive without the power to resist sin once they reach that nebulous age of accountability? like having the sin disease without a cure apart from that Jesus provides?

    however, the theological nuance of trying to understand the mess we do know we are in allows for a wide-ranging conceptual effort that cannot fully explain it from our perspective. and what is really the reason for such ruminations? we long for some divinely sourced conclusion+explanation that provides an element of satisfaction to the theological conundrum of the existence of evil, the impersonal effects of tragedy, the lack of true moral cause-and-effect to circumstances beyond our thelogical pay grade to make sense of…

    no formal theological training needed to ponder such things. we all have to wrestle with theological open-ended considerations that have never been satisfactorily answered to every ponderer’s degree of understanding & acceptance. that is why we have different faith traditions & their attempts at trying to help bring some definition or allegory to the mortal existence we, “live and move and have our being” in…

    i also believe i do not need to understand it all completely either. and my understanding has not been static all these years. my theological understanding has been stretched, challenged, parts of it discarded, reshaped, etc. on my own spiritual journey. it could be there will be mysteries never revealed to us no matter how much we want to be satisfied with explanations from God Himself. i know i have questions i would like answered someday. but then we have enough information to make this brief existence meaningful in spite of the craziness that also pervades it…

    Lord, have mercy on us…

    • Jon Bartlett says

      This image of sin is a good one…. Some infections are caught in the womb, so we may be born sinful. Some infections lead to death and can’t be fixed or healed.

  4. Christiane says

    ” . . . We are sinners,
    but we do not know how great.
    He alone knows
    Who died for our sins. ”

    (John Henry Newman)

  5. I wonder if it’s possible to affirm both — sin as infection and sin as leading to death of all sorts (spiritual, relational, and literal). After all, there are at least 5 different views of sin and atonement in Western Christendom (I know next to nothing about the East). I don’t think this Orthodox view by itself is sufficient to explain the radicalness and corruptness of sin, but I sure like it in and of itself.

    • We need to. Scripture teaches the concept of both – sin as death but also sin as a wound or illness. When the angel in the gospel of Matthew tells Joseph to name the Son of God “Jesus” because he will save the people from their sins (Matthew 1:21), the Greek word used in that verse for “save” is “sozo”, which means to both save and heal. Jesus is both Savior and the Great Physician. The Pharisees didn’t tell Jesus, “Physician, heal thyself” as Jesus prophesied but “He saved others; why can’t he save himself?”. Sin is indeed sickness unto death. We are indeed dead in our sins. Studying the Old Testament name for God, “Jehovah Rophe” leads one to the cross. Sin as illness reveals how it taints and pollutes our lives and relationships. Viewing sin as death can lead one to believe that our worries over sin are gone once we believe in Jesus and get our “fire insurance”. We need Jesus to both save us eternally but also to restore us to spiritual soundness and health – for the sake of those we love, if nothing else.

  6. Robert F says

    If the locus of identity is not the individual self, but the co-inherence of self-in-community, then we have solidarity both in sin and in redemption/sanctification, and some of these questions about innocence and guilt and what we do or don’t deserve evaporate. If humanity is made in the image of God, and God is triune, then this mutual co-inherence, this perichoresis, should not be surprising in humanity, and whether we see the fall in terms of original sin or original sickness is not such an important distinction. The thing is, when we compound the common evil we inherit with the separate sin we commit, we become more and more alienated from God, ourselves, humanity and creation; when we are lifted up by redemption through Christ into the process of sanctification, we belong more and more to God, to ourselves, to the communion of saints and to creation.

  7. I have not been shy in saying that much of the Eastern Orthodox teachings in regard to various aspects of Christian beliefs are ones that I agree with.

    I have been reading Robert Barron’s book, The Strangest Way: Walking the Christian Path and although I am only up to page 70, I am finding so much of merit in this book. I need to share just one thing with you from pages 32-33: “In his passion to set right a disjointed universe, God broke open his own heart in love. The Father sent, not just a representative, spokesman, or plenipotentiary, but his own Son into the dysfunction of the world so that he might gather that world into the bliss of the divine life. God’s center–the love between the Father and the Son–is now offered as our center. God’s heart breaks open so as to include even the worst and most hopeless among us. As we saw, in so many spiritual traditions, the emphasis is placed on the human quest for God, but this is reversed in Christianity. Christians do not believe that God is dumbly ‘out there,’ like a mountain waiting to be climbed by various religious searchers. On the contrary, God, like the hound of heaven in Francis Thompson’s poem, comes relentlessly searching after us. Because of this questing and self-emptying divine love, we become friends of God, sharers in the communion of the Trinity. That is the essence of Christianity; everything else is commentary.”

    This is more like the Christus Victor understanding of what Jesus did on the cross.

  8. Amidst regular servings of TV evangelist idiocy, it’s nice to see the Internet Monk site targeting the Orthodox equivalent (whether we are speaking of Joseph the Trogledyte or Frederica Matthewes-Green). Really, now–was there no death and disease prior to the appearance of homo sapiens? If the Orthodox really want to reduce human suffering, let them examine their own human-rights record:

    [comment edited for excessive links]

  9. Athanasius said that the incarnation was necessary in part because God needed to become man in order that we might become god. While misinterpreted by many today, he was saying that it was not enough for Our Lord to die on the Cross for us. Rather, the only way to deal with what happened in Paradise was to deal with the entirety of Creation. Thus, a new Creation, a new Adam, and here a Creation which longs for the revealing of the Sons of God so that it, too, might be saved. One trope in one of our hymns suggests that Christ was baptized not simply to “do the right thing,” but so that Creation itself might “know” that it would be set right someday.

    “Today the nature of water is sanctified. Jordan is divided in two, and turns back the stream of its waters, beholding the Master being baptized,” says one of the hymns. Let me give you a much longer quote from one of our official websites:

    The world and everything in it is indeed “very good” (Gen 1:31) and when it becomes polluted, corrupted and dead, God saves it once more by effecting the “new creation” in Christ, his divine Son and our Lord by the grace of the Holy Spirit (Gal 6:15). This is what is celebrated on Epiphany, particularly in the Great Blessing of Water. The consecration of the waters on this feast places the entire world—through its “prime element” of watering the perspective of the cosmic creation, sanctification, and glorification of the Kingdom of God in Christ and the Spirit. It tells us that man and the world were indeed created and saved in order to be “filled with all the fullness of God” (Eph 3:19), the “fullness of him who fills all in all” (Eph 1:22). It tells us that Christ, in who in “the whole fulness of deity dwells bodily,” is and shall be truly “all, and in all” (Col 2:9, 3:11). It tells us as well that the “new heavens and the new earth” which God has promised through his prophets and apostles (Is 66:2; 2 Peter 3:13, Rev 21:1) are truly “with us” already now in the, mystery of Christ and his Church.

    You see, for us Orthodox sin and salvation are much broader topics than me, my sin, and Jesus’ death and resurrection. Yes, he did die for me … and for you, and for all humans, and for the creation itself. And he rose to create us anew and to create the universe anew on that day when we shall be saved and there shall be a New Jerusalem and a new heavens and earth.

    • Christiane says

      There is a teaching among some Christians called ‘Calvinists’ called ‘total depravity’, but I have never believed that is a true teaching . . . I think we are ‘wounded’ by sin,
      and the idea of Our Lord as the Great Physician is a beautiful teaching to illustrate the truth of our need for His care.

      What a difference comes from the way Our Lord is presented to the world when the people of faith understand that He has come with blessing in His Hands.

      Even the early Christians knew this:
      ““For he who endeavours to amend the faults of human weakness ought to bear this very weakness on his own shoulders, let it weigh upon himself, not cast it off. For we read that the Shepherd in the Gospel (Luke 15:5) carried the weary sheep, and did not cast it off. And Solomon says: “Be not overmuch righteous;” (Ecclesiastes 7:17) for restraint should temper righteousness. For how shall he offer himself to you for healing whom you despise, who thinks that he will be an object of contempt, not of compassion, to his physician?
      Therefore had the Lord Jesus compassion upon us in order to call us to Himself, not frighten us away. He came in meekness, He came in humility, and so He said: “Come unto Me, all you that labour and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you.” (Matthew 11:28) So, then, the Lord Jesus refreshes, and does not shut out nor cast off, and fitly chose such disciples as should be interpreters of the Lord’s will, as should gather together and not drive away the people of God. Whence it is clear that they are not to be counted among the disciples of Christ, who think that harsh and proud opinions should be followed rather than such as are gentle and meek; persons who, while they themselves seek God’s mercy, deny it to others, such as are the teachers of the Novatians, who call themselves pure.”

      (St. Ambrose)

      • Beautiful, Christiane! I like this quote a lot. And it was said by the man whose example was influential in Augustine becoming a Christian, too — one more reason to listen to him.

      • I like St. Ambrose. I agree with him that is very important that the shepherds of the church “not drive away the people of God.” Pope Francis said that priests should have the smell of their parishioners upon them (paraphrased). That’s an earthy and wonderful statement, in my opinion!

  10. How intriguing that this topic should arise on the Sunday of the Holy Cross. Our parish did not have services yesterday so we”hopped parishes” and attended Liturgy at a parish where the priest has a far-too-uncommon gift of preaching the Gospel, Orthodox-style.

    His homily was particularly powerful as he discussed the Cross of Christ. “Sin is not your problem”, he said. “Death is. Sin is a symptom, not a cause. There was death in the pot. God didn’t need to punish anybody, and especially not Jesus, for our sin.”

    This still takes some getting used to, for somebody who grew up Reformed and was infected by the endemic revivalism of our religious culture, but it is very, very, good news indeed. Finally, somebody told that lost, hurting, scared little boy inside of me that he didn’t have to die and be scorched forever, or worse yet, that God had to butcher an innocent and loving man cruelly because I touched myself somewhere naughty and I liked it.

    That is very, very good news indeed.

    • Headless Unicorn Guy says

      How intriguing that this topic should arise on the Sunday of the Holy Cross.

      In my church calendar, it’s also called Divine Mercy Sunday.

      His homily was particularly powerful as he discussed the Cross of Christ. “Sin is not your problem”, he said. “Death is. Sin is a symptom, not a cause. There was death in the pot. God didn’t need to punish anybody, and especially not Jesus, for our sin.”

      This does fit with the Eastern Rite’s emphasis on “Christus Victor”, i.e. the Cross and Resurrection as Victory over Death. (In the classical world, Hades no longer wins.)

  11. I think the one thing about viewing sin as a sickness opposed to the breaking of the law, is that it really changes the way we think of God’s disposition towards us. A lot of people who grow up in church really, really believe God is angry at them and hates them. People will hem and haw all they want about how this is a straw man, etc., but the fact is that this is what kids come out of churches believing. They don’t believe the Father actually loves them. They don’t really believe God is worthy of worship. They believe God is a fickle tyrant. This is a real problem for Reformed theology whether people want to acknowledge it or not.

    I always appreciated this video that explains the differences between a Reformed and Eastern Orthodox view of salvation:

  12. Good post and discussion. Nice Aussie picture, by the way. Looks like my dog when he’s energized.

  13. I think biblically sin as sickness is more figurative; however, I am aware that Eastern Orthodox take this a little further. Evidence that a saint achieved a high state of theosis is if his or her body does not decay after death. The issue may not be with Athanatius as much as with Gregory Palamas, who is not recognized as a sain in the west. I have had much interest in the Eastern Orthodox church but could not get past struggles with the teachings of Palamas.

  14. I grew up thinking about sin in moral terms. When I sinned, I broke God’s law which angered or saddened or disappointed God because I wasn’t doing what he wanted me to do. The Orthodox Church has helped me develop a much deeper understanding of sin. Sin is so much more than a moral failing – it is a movement towards non-being. Adam and Eve’s choice to disobey God was a rejection of God, the only Source of Life. That decision brought death and corruption not only to Adam and Eve, but to their descendants and to the whole cosmos because man was created by God to be priest of creation. As Adam’s descendants, mankind is enslaved to sin because of death’s rule over us. The Son of God became man in order to re-gather all of creation under Him as the new Adam and burst open the gates of death by His own death and resurrection. So now all who are in Christ are freed from the fear of death which is the root cause of sin.

    This is why the penal substitution theory of the atonement is rejected by the Orthodox. It does not get to the heart of what mankind’s problem is that needs to be fixed, and doesn’t get to the heart of what Christ accomplished on the cross and through His resurrection. God may very well be angry or saddened or disappointed because of our sin, but we do not need saving from God’s attitude towards us. We need to be brought back to life from death.

  15. A most excellent post! (And I’m ELCA, not Orthodox…)