The Problem of Satan

How to explain Satan? What could be harder to believe than an angel deciding to turn from God’s goodness and do evil until the end of time? Yet what could be harder to deny than the existence of persistent evil in this world?

I know that angels could pursue evil because being has nothingness as its counterpart and they could freely choose this nothingness, which is evil (evil, strictly speaking, does not exist – it is the absence of goodness). But why was Satan so insistent in his evil? I know that it is part of the infinite goodness of God that He allows evil to exist and out of it extracts good (Summa Theologiae, 1.2.3). Very well, we know why God allows Satan to be evil, but why does he have to be evil eternally, and cast into hell for eternity? Would it not be the greatest good of all for even the devil to repent and be restored to God? We know that God cannot force one into blessedness, for one must be contrite to be perfectly blessed (i.e., attain heaven), and for all we know Satan will never be contrite. Perhaps he is like some men who chose evil precisely because it is evil, and they get a sick pleasure out of doing so, and sometimes they never tire of it. Although God disposes all of us towards the good, he allowed us to choose to take evil as our good.

But surely even the most wicked demon will come to his senses and realize that the greatest goodness is not found in evil? Surely then the demon would become contrite and be able to achieve perfect bliss? Perhaps, but even then God may not allow him to attain heaven. True, some may ask whether it is fair to punish one eternally for temporal sins. But would it be fair to massacred children to have their murderers share the vision of God with them? It would, on the contrary, seem better to not let those who freely chose evil view the blessedness reserved for those they wronged, but rather to be exiled from it and suffer when they see what they have lost, for “there will be wailing and grinding of teeth when you see Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God and you yourselves cast out” (Luke 13:28). Yet God will be merciful to all, and even the devil will have some good in hell.

So if God allows evil in order to bring good out of it, then those who commit evil will be punished with a (merciful) justice. But why does the evil need to be committed by demons or men in the first place? Could it not just be natural evil, like an earthquake? For not all evils are committed by demons or men, but rather the nothingness in the (created) demons is also in other parts of creation: in the gospels Christ does not extract demons from all whom He heals, but only some, showing that not all ills are from demons (Luke 4:40-41). So it seems even better if God only allowed all evils to happen by natural events and created us so that we could not even choose evil – for in heaven, we are perfected so that we cannot choose evil. On the other hand, some goods can only be produced from willful evil, e.g., forgiveness and repentance (one cannot forgive an earthquake, nor can it repent).

In summary, then, God decided to allow evil in the world so as to produce good out of it. For some goods can only exist if some evil exists, willful evil above all. Without the tears of the crucifixion, for example, Christ’s disciples would not have had the more-than-surpassing joy of the resurrection. “Those who sow in tears will reap in joy” (Psalm 125(126):5), and the joy will be far sweeter by having followed tears. But given that God allowed evil to pervade the universe for this good, he also had to be just to those who did evil and give them (mercifully) what they deserved for their free choice.

CUA’s Fathers of the Church Series

In addition to the Ancient Christian Writers  series, I’ve also discovered that also has some books from the Catholic University of America’s Fathers of the Church series. Here are the best ones:

Orthodox Resources and Links

Here are some good Orthodox resources that I found today:

Besides resources, here are some specific links:

Ancient Christian Writers

I’ve just discovered that has a collection of PDFs of the Ancient Christian Writers series. Most of these can’t be found elsewhere online (e.g., at, and even if they can, Ancient Christian Writers provides a more modern translation. Here are the best ones:

Medieval Causality in Modern Chemistry

…whatever happened to the notion of efficient causality on the way from Aquinas’ time to Hume’s, some other things also happened from Hume’s time to ours, which allow us a new perspective on the old idea. For in contemporary natural science it is actually no longer the idea of diachronic event-patterns that is the prevailing idea of causation, although it still is in many philosophical speculations (see “how mental events can cause physical events and vice versa”), but rather it is the idea of the flow of energy and information among systems of various scales and their subsystems. However, that idea is precisely the scholastic idea. Consider Aquinas’ general description of the notion of a cause: “a cause is from the being of which there follows [the being of] something else”. Now, if we add to this that the notion of being for Aquinas is not just the static modern idea of “being an element of the universe of discourse”, but the dynamic notion of being the actuality of all forms, where the notion of actuality is that of being in act, being active, being at work, which in Aristotle’s Greek would be the idea of being in energeia, i.e., in a state of energy, then we should not be surprised at the idea that our modern notions of energy and information will bear some striking resemblances to Aquinas’ dynamic notions of being as act, and of form as that which informs, as that which determines the various ways in which things are, can be, and can be active or receptive, informing others and receiving information from others.
– Gyula Klima, “Whatever Happened to Efficient Causes?”, from Volume 10 (2012) of the Proceedings of the Society for Medieval Logic and Metaphysics, pp. 29-30


Recently I’ve been studying the foundations of chemical kinetics and equilibrium, especially about how we can derive the condition of equilibrium. There are two ways to derive the equilibrium constant, which is a number calculated using the concentrations of products and reactants at equilibrium, and which should be the same as long as the same reaction is occurring at the same temperature. One way to derive it involves basic kinetic theory. According to kinetic theory, the rate of a reaction depends on the mathematical product of the concentrations of the reacting chemicals. For a simple reaction that occurs in a single step, such as A + B → AB, the rate of reaction is proportional to the product of the concentrations: forward rate = k[A][B]. For the reverse reaction, AB → A + B, the rate of reaction is proportional to the concentration of AB, reverse rate = k’[AB]. At equilibrium, the forward rate equals the reverse rate, k[A][B] = k’[AB]. Rearranging this to get all the concentrations on one side, we get k/k’ = [AB]/([A][B]), which is the equilibrium constant. This is easy to derive for this reaction, because it only occurs in a single step. But, for any general reaction aA + bB cC + dD, the equilibrium constant is
To see a derivation from kinetic principles for a general reaction, there is nothing better than Frederick O. Koenig’s article in Volume 42 of the Journal of Chemical Education. This kinetic derivation depends upon the idea of collisions of particles being the condition for a successful reaction. For, the derivation requires the assumption that at least some reactions occur in a single step, i.e., a reaction that “fulfills the following conditions: (1) the reaction occurs through either (a) a collision of two or more particles … or (b) a decomposition of a particle … (2) the particle or particles considered as the reaction products are the immediate result of the collision or decomposition in question” (Koenig, 1965, p. 228). But “This definition suffers from vagueness owing to the terms ‘collision’ and ‘immediate'” (p. 228), which is partly why Koenig says the kinetics derivation of the equilibrium constant requires certain simplifying assumptions. The derivation of the equilibrium constant from thermodynamic principles, meanwhile, is “exact” (p. 227). The thermodynamic derivation only depends on the idea that energy is exchanged in a reversible process, and that the total amount of heat energy absorbed in such a process (at constant temperature) equals zero.


In the above quote, Gyula Klima contrasts the 18th-century idea of causation as events following one another with the 13th-and 20th-century idea of causation as “flow of energy and information.” I think this contrast can be seen in the kinetic derivation of the equilibrium constant versus the thermodynamic derivation. The former, it seems, requires thinking of causation as a succession of events, i.e., the cause = the collision event, the effect = the reaction event. The problem here, as Koenig tells us, is that we assume that the collision and reaction are instantaneous, when in fact it may be that, collisions may take time and this may vary depending on the reactants, or that reactions may take time after collisions, and this too may vary, etc. In contrast, the thermodynamic derivation avoids all the problems of involving time and only considers the overall transfer of energy, which is partly why it offers a more exact proof. It seems to me that the thermodynamic approach doesn’t think of causation as a succession of events in time. Rather, it sees reactions happening as energy, contained in one body, flows to another body, which yields changes in substantial form. And by avoiding time, it manages to avoid many complexities.


To conclude, I think that the thermodynamic proof offers certain knowledge of the condition of equilibrium, since it only depends upon evident ideas about matter (e.g., that they contain energy, etc.). The kinetic derivation, on the other hand, offers only probable knowledge, since it depends on a certain simplified conception of very complex molecular processes. This is not to say that the kinetic derivation is bad science. After all, Sir Isaac Newton did very much the same with physics, but no one would dare say that he was a bad scientist. Instead, it would seem that making probable assumptions and arguments is a good way to about the issue and helps us achieve more certain knowledge later on. Funny enough, Albert Einstein makes a similar point in his 1919 article “What is the Theory of Relativity?“:

We can distinguish various kinds of theories in physics. Most of them are constructive. They attempt to build up a picture of the more complex phenomena out of the materials of a relatively simple formal scheme from which they start out. Thus the kinetic theory of gases seeks to reduce mechanical, thermal, and diffusional processes to movements of molecules — i.e., to build them up out of the hypothesis of molecular motion. When we say that we have succeeded in understanding a group of natural processes, we invariably mean that a constructive theory has been found which covers the processes in question.

Along with this most important class of theories there exists a second, which I will call “principle-theories.” These employ the analytic, not the synthetic, method. The elements which form their basis and starting-point are not hypothetically constructed but empirically discovered ones, general characteristics of natural processes, principles that give rise to mathematically formulated criteria which the separate processes or the theoretical representations of them have to satisfy. Thus the science of thermodynamics seeks by analytical means to deduce necessary conditions, which separate events have to satisfy, from the universally experienced fact that perpetual motion is impossible.

The advantages of the constructive theory are completeness, adaptability, and clearness, those of the principle theory are logical perfection and security of the foundations.

St. Maximos on Christ’s Omniscience

EDIT (May 2017): see more information on the patristic understanding of Christ’s knowledge here. It looks like I was right when I suggested that “Tradition does seem to suppose that Christ had impressive knowledge” – it seems like the quote below from St. Maximus, which denies ignorance of Christ in his humanity, summarizes the patristic consensus from at least the 600-700s onward.

Earlier this year I was reading a series of questions, mostly about Scripture, answered by St. Maximos the Confessor. It’s known in Latin as Quaestiones et dubia, but the passage I’m interested in seems to come from an appendix/supplement to the work. In any case, I’m translating it from Cerf’s edition, Questions et difficultés, pp. 175-176. Here it is:

Qu. I, 67: How should we understand the ignorance of the Son on the final things (cf. Mt 24:36, Mk 13:32)?

[Answer:] There are two kinds of ignorance. The first kind is blamable, the other kind isn’t. The blamable kind, which depends on us, is ignorance with respect to virtue and piety. And the other kind, which doesn’t depend on us, is ignorance with respect to whatever we want to know but don’t, such as the things coming in the future. But if the holy prophets, by the grace of God, knew the distant events that are not up to us, how much more then did the Son of God, and through him his humanity, know all things (knowing them, of course, not by his human nature but by his human nature’s union with the Word of God). In the same way that iron that has been heated red-hot has all the properties of fire – it is bright and burning – being still not fire by nature, but iron by nature, so the humanity of the Lord, in that it was united to the Word, knew all things and showed attributes proper to God. And he is said to be ignorant according to his human nature. (Translation slightly adapted using the translation from Greek in Robert Moloney, Knowledge of Christ (London: Continuum, 1999), p. 46).

In other words, St. Maximos is saying this: when Jesus says in Mark 13:32 that the Son is ignorant of the final hour, he is simply telling us that the Son’s human nature is ignorant by nature. However, St. Maximos adds, even though his human nature is by nature ignorant, by its union with the Word it is given omniscience of the final things, just as iron, which is not burning by nature, becomes burning when brought in union with fire.

How does this fit with the claims of modern theologians that in his earthly life, Jesus was (practically speaking) unaware of certain things because he didn’t always have ‘immediate access’ to his divine knowledge? Hans Urs von Balthasar has this to say:

Now a rather large number of texts, however, show undeniably that Jesus expected the arrival of the kingdom of God and with it the end of this world in the very near future; “some of those standing here” will experience this event before their death.

Hans Urs von Balthasar responds by saying that Jesus knew that “something horrible for him is coming, through which he will attain the end of the world,” which von Balthasar says is “the atonement of the whole world with God” by his death on the cross. However, according to von Balthasar, Jesus understood this as the literal end of the world (that the world would soon end was popularly believed by Jews at Jesus’s time).

Does what St. Maximos says allow that Jesus, while correctly predicting the end of the world in some sense (e.g., the end of the world as the atonement, as von Balthasar says), was ignorant about its exact nature? It seems not, because above he writes that Jesus’s human nature still “knew all things” by its union with his divine nature.

On the other hand, we can’t try to take too much from a passage. St. Maximos’s goal above was simply to clarify what Jesus meant when he said he was ignorant. He was not trying to answer more than this. One may object that St. Maximos says that Jesus’s human nature “knew all things” and so it’s very clear he would not allow it. But it’s risky to try to find answers to a question different from the one being responded to. Often times what is said in response to the original question leaves out some details because they’re not relevant to answering the original question. To illustrate: in one of his sermons, St. Augustine says “God has filled the world with all sorts of bitterness” (Sermon 311.14). If all we had from St. Augustine was his sermons, some would say that it’s obvious from this passage that St. Augustine thinks that God actively brings about evil. But this, we know, is totally wrong. He only said what he did to make a rhetorical point in a sermon. In the philosophical works where he actually treats the question, he is clear that God only allows evil, but doesn’t cause it. So it might be the same with St. Maximos here. I can’t say with certainty what St. Maximos thought about it. Maybe in other works he (or an earlier Father) discusses this point more directly, but I haven’t seen it.

One well-known Orthodox priest, Fr. Ephrem Lash (who reposed recently) does add this: “the idea that our Lord during his earthly incarnation was acquainted with the technical language of Greek philosophy has interesting implications for Christology. I am not sure it is quite what the Fathers of Chalcedon meant when they declared that Christ is homoousios with us, ‘sin alone excepted’.” So maybe there’s the answer. He doesn’t cite any Church Fathers, so I can’t be exactly sure, though.

But a very important point about this whole debate is made by Fr. Herbert McCabe, OP in his review of The Myth of God Incarnate:

A prominent symptom of misunderstanding the doctrine of the incarnation as telling us what, empirically, Jesus was or is like is confusion about Jesus’s knowledge. I know that large claims have been made for Jesus’s human knowledge … by many … Christians, including St. Thomas Aquinas, but none of these claims have any logical connection with the incarnation … People ask, then, did Jesus in Galilee assent to the Chalcedonian definition of himself? And nearly everyone nowadays says: No, he didn’t. He lived in a time before the language of Chalcedon was formulated; he no more accepted this than he accepted Newton’s third law or the theory of surplus value. But what about Jesus’s self-understanding as God? There seems to be an idea that if we once admit (with Chalcedon) that Jesus was divine in Galilee … he must, by the power of his divine nature, have foreseen the propositions of Chalcedon and assented to them. Once again the theological mind boggles. It would have seemed absurd to, for example, Aquinas, to say that Divinity ever assented to any proposition at all. The idea that Jesus, qua Son of God, constructed some special divinely authorised set of propositions such as the christian creed is as anthropomorphic as the idea that God has a white beard. Whatever we can mean by speaking of God’s knowledge, we know that it cannot mean that God is well informed, that he assents to a large number of true statements. Jesus’s knowledge of history, as Son of God, was no different from the existence of the world; it was not in the same ball-game with what he learnt as man.

In other words, Fr. McCabe says that the dogma that Christ is God and Man does not tell us any empirical facts about Jesus’s psychology: “The doctrine of the incarnation, like the doctrines of creation or redemption, is not conveying information, it is pointing to a mystery in Jesus.”

In conclusion, I’m not sure exactly what to make of all this, but I do think that most of the Church Fathers did not put limits on Christ’s knowledge in his earthly life, as von Balthasar did. Tradition does seem to suppose that Christ had impressive knowledge, and while this may not necessarily follow from the incarnation, it does seem good to not contradict the Fathers unless we have excellent reason to do so.