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Free Will and Death

Death was unknown to the first man. "With much love for his Benefactor", he lived in Paradise an untroubled and blessed life, in innocence and forthrightness of heart and without evil. He was filled with "every wisdom and prudence," [1] being a possessor of the true knowledge of God. He had authority similar to that of the angels, and shared a similar life with the archangels, being a hearer of the voice of God. [2] The phrase in Genesis that "God walked in Paradise" (Gen. 3,8) and conversed paternally with His creation, denotes that God and man were in direct and personal communion. And while "the angels trembled and the Cherubim and the Seraphim did not dare to look up, Adam was able to converse with God as a friend with a friend." [3] All these were but "enigmas of immortality," indications of immortality, because from the beginning God wanted man to be immortal. [4]

That this was so is proven, also, by the fact that He granted us the "essence" (hypostasis) of the soul to be "forever immortal." [5] The soul is of course a creation of God, but it is incorporeal, rational and immortal. As such it is superior to the material body and gives life to the body . [6]

According to St. Gregory of Nyssa, that man was created for life and immortality, is also proven by the fact that God planted "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" in the middle of Paradise (Gen. 2,17). This was done by divine goodness in order for man to be able to progress day by day and to become finally steadfast in life. "The commandment of God was a law of life, promising immortality." [7]

The body which the Creator fashioned resembled "a golden statue that was bright and shining" one, and which had just come out of the heavenly crucible. That body created by God was not troubled by sorrow or pain, by toil or corruption, nor by death. [8] And while the human body was excellent in every way and bright and free from every pain, it was not incorruptible and immortal. It was susceptible to corruption and to incorruption. [9]

Here, however, we must make two basic clarifications. First, the immortality of the soul is not a natural attribute; it is a gift of the grace of God. Second, the creation of the soul and body in this particular manner, an act of unfathomable divine love, also proves the depth of divine wisdom and divine economy for mankind. And for this reason: If God had created man immortal, then man ought also to have been incapable of sinning. For, if while immortal, he had fallen into sin, evil would have existed eternally. And evil would have itself, become immortal! On the other hand, if God had indeed created man immortal and, therefore, incapable of sinning, then the freedom of man would have been curbed; man would not have been a free being. If again God had created man to be mortal, then the Creator would have been "the cause of the death" of His creature! Theophilos of Antioch expresses this matter very well:

"God created man neither mortal nor immortal, but susceptible to both conditions. Thus, if he were to incline himself toward those things that have to do with immortality, having kept the commandment of God, he would receive his reward of immortality from God and become god by grace. But if on the other hand, he would incline himself toward those things that are related to death, having disobeyed God, he himself would be the cause of his own death. For God created man free and the master of his will." [10]

St. Gregory of Nyssa teaches us that in Paradise there existed two possibilities for man; the possibility of life and the possibility of immortality or eternal life. In the middle of Paradise was "the tree of the knowledge of good and evil" (Gen. 2,17), which gave man the possibility of either life or death. [11] Therefore, immortality was given to man as a "possibility." We would have become immortal finally if we had made good and correct use of our freedom. [12]

Man was, therefore, created, according to divine economy, to be susceptible to both conditions—mortality and immortality. He was created "neither totally mortal nor altogether immortal." Thus, if he had resolved to keep the commandment of God freely and without coercion, he would have received the reward of immortality of the body. But if he were to disobey the divine commandment, he would himself have become the cause of his death. [13]

St. John Chrysostom, referring to death that was imposed on us after man's first disobedience, speaks on behalf of God to Adam and Eve: "Dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return." For this not to have happened, I had told you: "Do not touch the forbidden fruit." [14] Thus, death was altogether unknown in Paradise. It was a foreign event regarding the free nature of man created by God. If Adam and Eve, with the gifts they received and the innate possibility of immortality they possessed, conformed willingly and freely to the divine will; if by their obedience to God they made their freedom steadfast toward good, they would have gained immortality. They would not have experienced death. By advancing in virtue they would have acquired "the likeness" of God to be "gods" by grace and to live eternally and always with God.

How precisely this would have come about is inconceivable to us who live after the fall. For we are now under the authority of death; our will is weakened; our intellect is darkened, and for this reason "the imagination of man's heart is evil from his youth" (Gen. 8,21). Because of this we are unable to understand the realm of divine grace in which our original forefathers lived. We are unable to understand the magnitude and the extent of divine goodness which embraced the first humans so that they might have self control, might be free, might be without sorrow and without cares; so that their behavior might be among the more divine concerns and their thoughts inclined always toward the good. Today, with corruption as a permanent companion of our life, with the endless and urgent needs of our very troubled lives, it is impossible even to imagine their angelic life in Paradise. Precisely as they were unable to comprehend the magnitude of the disaster which their disobedience would have brought about, so also we cannot even imagine their life in incorruptibility and blessedness." [15]

God in His compassion had forewarned us clearly of the dreadful catastrophe that would follow our disobedient folly. This is why God gave Adam the specific commandment: "You may freely eat of every tree of the garden; but of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it, you shall die" (Gen. 2,16-17).

And so we come to the tragic drama of the human race. Death, grim and unrestrained, enters violently into the world to change radically our life; to deprive us of our blessed journey toward communion with God and to terminate our eternal and incorruptible life. . . .

But man who asks himself these ultimate questions [about sin and death], may also have this doubt: Since God decided to create us free, why did He not so create us that we would necessarily live with Him and be so obligated that we could not go away from Him? Would it not have been much better to have had the will of original man definitively crystallized to do good and to have thus avoided the catastrophe? Was not the freedom of will granted to Adam and Eve a gratuitous gift?

This doubt, however, is irrational! Freedom and obligatory adherence to do good are two completely opposite conditions. Freedom means the ability and the convenience of movement. A definitive crystallization of the will only to do good implies a certain binding and enforced movement toward a predetermined direction. But this is precisely a deprivation of freedom. Divine omnipotence may be infinite, but it always operates in a rational and free manner; it creates creatures that are rational and free.

God created us free and gave us the right to choose on our own the way of good and of virtue, or the way of sin and evil. For, as St. Gregory of Nyssa says, "virtue must be voluntary and masterless and free of all necessity". A rational man must choose good alone, with his own will; "for it is appropriate that virtue be free of all fear, without a master and to prefer good by voluntary choice". Good cannot be something involuntary, nor something that is imposed by necessity; it must be "an achievement of choice". Virtue is something that does not permit a master, and should not be imposed by a master, but rather must be the fruit of free will. What is forced and enforced by external authority cannot be virtue. [16] St. Basil the Great teaches: God does not love what is done by force, but what we achieve by our own free will. Virtue is done by free choice not by necessity and force. [17] Let us not forget, after all, that we were created for virtue "by nature", as Clement of Alexandria says. We were not to have virtue from birth, but to be able to acquire it ourselves, always, of course, with the help of divine grace. [18] St. John of Damascus summarizes this teaching very successfully in his statement: "What is done by force and by necessity is not virtue." [19]

Moreover, we must remember that while God created man to be free, He did not leave him without help. He had the hitherto untried will of His creature directed toward good. Thus, drawn by this good, man would have moved toward good and would have become steadfast in virtue.

Consequently, evil entered into the world exclusively through our own carelessness and not by any act of God. [20] The divine is "altogether free of any responsibility for evil, being good by nature." [21] Since we abused the gift of freedom, "God cannot be held responsible for the evils of Hades; we are responsible—we alone and no one else." Thus, "it cannot be said that God created death, but we ourselves, by our evil choice, have embraced death." [22] We are the cause of our catastrophe and no one else!

This is what the God-bearing Fathers teach us. This is why "the Orthodox Tradition has accepted that the entrance of death into the human race was realized as a consequence of man's subjugation to the devil, after having disrupted his communion with God." [23]


1. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, On Genesis, Homily 14,5 PG 53,117.

2. BASIL THE GREAT, That God Is Not the Cause of Evil 7 PG 31, 344CD.

3. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, ("On The Next Day ..." I PG 63,473-474.

4. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, On I Corinthians, Homily 17,3 PG 61,143.

5. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, On Genesis, Homily 21,2 PG 53,177.

6. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, On the Statues, Homily 11,2 PG 49,122. On I Corinthians, Homily 39,3 PG 61,335. On Genesis, Homily 13,1 PG 53, 106f.

7. GREGORY OF NYSSA, On the Song of Songs, Homily 12 PG 44, 1020C.

8. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, On the Statues, Homily 11,2 PG 49,121. "On the Next Day ..." I PG 63,473.

9. THEOPHILOS OF ANTIOCH, To Autolycus 11, 27 BEPES 5,39 (26). IRENAEUS, Against Heresies E XII,1 and XIII,3 BEPES 5, 104 (21-22); 165-166 (39-40; 1-2).

10. THEOPHILOS OF ANTIOCH, To Autolycus 11, 27 BEPES 5,39 (25-31).

11. GREGORY OF NYSSA, On the Song of Songs, Homily 12 PG 44, 1021A.

12. G. FLOROVSKY, Anatomia Problematon tes Pisteos (Anatomy of Problems of Faith), metaphr. Archin. Mel. Kalamara, ekd. Bas. Regopulou, Thessaloniki 1977, p. 62.

13. THEOPHILOS OF ANTIOCH, To Autolycus 11, 24 and 27, BEPES 5,38(12-13); 39(20-28).

14. JOHN CHRYSOSTOM, On Genesis, Homily 17,9 PG 53,147.

15. GREGORY OF NYSSA, On the Beatitudes, Homily 3 PG 44, 1225D-1228A.

16. GREGORY OF NYSSA, On the Song of Songs, Homily 5 PG 44, 877A. On Prayer PG 44, 1156C. On the Song of Songs, Homily 2 PG 44,796D. On the Nature of Man, Homily 16 PG 44,184B.

17. BASIL THE GREAT, That God Is Not the Cause of Evil 7 PG 31, 345B.

18. CLEMENT OF ALEXANDRIA, Stromateis 6, XI and XII BEPES 8, 213(36)—214(1-10).

19. JOHN OF DAMASCUS, Exposition of the Orthodox Faith 12 PG 94,924B.

20. GREGORY THE THEOLOGIAN, Homily 40,45 PG 36, 424A: "Believe that evil is not some particular essence, nor dominion; it is not without beginning, or existing in itself, and it is not made by God. Evil is of our own doing and of the evil one, and because of our carelessness it entered into us, but not because of the Creator."

21. GREGORY THE THEOLOGIAN, Homily 4,47 PG 35, 572B.

22. BASIL THE GREAT, That God Is Not the Cause of Evil 7 PG 31,332C and 345A.

23. BAS. T. GIOULTSE, Theologia kai diaprosopikai scheseis kata ton M. Photion (Theology and Interpersonal Relations According to Photios the Great), Analekta Blatadon, Thessaloniki 1974, p. 63.

From The Mystery of Death, by Nikolaos P. Vassiliadis, trans. Fr. Peter A. Chamberas (Athens: The Orthodox Brotherhood of Theologians, 1997), pp. 60-63, 89-91.