The Rev. Stanley S. Harakas is a priest of the Greek Orthodox Archdiocese of America and is Archbishop lakovos Professor of Orthodox Theology Emeritus in the field of Orthodox Christian Ethics at Holy Cross Greek Orthodox School of Theology in Brookline, MA. Fr. Harakas is the author of five pamphlets and fifteen books, both scholarly and popular, and over one hundred thirty published scholarly articles and book contributions. For twenty-one years (1980-2000), he was a weekly columnist in the national Greek-American newspaper, The Hellenic Chronicle. He is a beloved teacher to generations of Greek Orthodox Christians in America, thanks to his many years as a professor and his prolific writings.
Why were human beings created?
Q: I have asked many persons this question, but I have as yet not received a satisfactory answer. Maybe there is no answer. The question is, “Why was humanity created by God?” I know the “how” and the “circumstances,” but not the “why.” – D.A.C., Augusta, GA.
A. One way of answering your question would be to say simply, we have no direct revelation on the subject in the Bible, and so we can’t answer your question, since “No one has ever seen God; the only Son, who is in the bosom of the Father, he has made him known” (John 1:18), and to my knowledge, Jesus has not revealed the answer to this question.
But this is an excellent example of the place of the Holy Tradition in the life of the Church, which is guided by the Holy Spirit in the understanding of the great truths about God, and described in the New Testament as “the church of the living God, the pillar and bulwark of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15). Some of these questions have been addressed by the Spirit-filled Fathers of the Church, for “as it is written…no one comprehends the thoughts of God except the Spirit of God” (1 Corinthians 2:9, 11).
The Bible does tell us about the creation of the world, that is, of everything existing, visible and invisible, which is not God. God created everything “in the beginning” (Genesis 1:1). This teaching, in spite of many misunderstandings, does not preclude the scientific study of the material world and the inferences that can be made about it from observed data. There are numerous scientific theories that speak about the creations of the world. In nearly all of them, there is an assumption of some elementary energy forms which eventually formed the world as we know it. Science, of course, can neither prove the existence of God nor the non-existence of God. We come to our knowledge of God through the experience of faith. So in Hebrews 11:3 we read this profoundly religio-scientific affirmation: “By faith we understand that the world was created by the word of God, so that what is seen was made out of things which do not appear.” In current scientific understanding, these things “which do not appear” are the protons, neutrons and electrons out of which everything material is made.
In addition, God is the creator of the non-material, spiritual angelic world, which has an existence different from the material world.
But the Church’s theology pushes this truth even further. The Church teaches that even before such basic energy sources of matter, and before there were any other spiritual beings, there was nothing. Out of that nothingness, God brought into being the forces from which come atoms, elements, chemical compounds and everything made from them, mineral, plant and animal, as well as the spiritual realities of non-material creation about which we know almost nothing. St. Irenaeus (130-200 A.D.) expressed this teaching in his book Against Heresies in this way:
While men, indeed, cannot make anything out of nothing, but only out of matter already existing, yet God is in this point pre-eminently superior to men, that He Himself called into being the substance of His creation, when previously it had not existence” (bk. 2, ch. 10).
This creation was an act of the Holy Trinity: God the Father created the world through the Son and in the Holy Spirit.
Your question was also asked by the God-inspired Fathers of the Church. Why, indeed, did God bring into existence the creation and with it humanity?
The potential answers to this question are that God created the world out of capriciousness, out of need for Himself, or because it was not willed by Him, but occurred as an unwilled outflow of His divinity. In the first case, it would mean that God acts without reason in an arbitrary, erratic and fickle way. Nothing we know of God through divine revelation as it appears to us in the Bible, or which is consistent with our understanding in Holy Tradition about God allows us to believe that the creation came into existence as some kind of cosmic divine joke. We must eliminate that potential answer to this question.
Perhaps God might have willed the existence of the creation because there was some need that He had in Himself for the creation to exist. Was there something in the “divine psychology” that pressed God to decide to bring into being something which did not exist, to satisfy some requirement of His being? Some people answer “yes” to that question, saying “God created the world so that He could have something and someone to love.” But that is wrong, because, as a Trinity of Divine Persons relating in eternal love, God did not need the creation to love for His own sake. There is nothing, then, “necessary” which forced God to will the creation into existence.
The third response takes the creation out of the willed decision of God, and sees it as an “outflowing” from God’s divine nature, an emanation from God, and descending in being from the divine to the material. This would mean that the creation was a part of God Himself, a form of pantheism. This teaching is the exact opposite from the belief that God brought into being everything other than Himself. So, it too must be eliminated as an answer.
The Answers of the Church Fathers
The Church Fathers understood this dilemma, and sought to find an answer to the question “why” God created the world, and in particular, why He created humanity.
The answer given by the Fathers is that God freely chose out of the fullness of His goodness to share the goodness of existence with beings other than Himself. Being in communion with God, all creation would thus enjoy a relationship with the Ultimate Reality, Who is God.
St. Irenaeus, once again shows us the way:
“Nor was God influenced by any one, but of His own free will created all things, since He is the only God, the only Lord, the only Creator, the only Father, alone containing all things, and Himself commanding all thing into existence (Against Heresies, Bk. 2, Ch. 1).”
God acted freely, in an unforced way, motivated by His loving desire to share the goodness of existence with a new, created reality. Origen (185-254), the first Christian theologian, said “When God in the beginning created those beings which He desired to create, that is, rational natures, He had no other reason for creating them than on account of Himself, that is, His own goodness” (On First Principles, Bk. 2, ch. 9). St Irenaeus put it this way: “In the beginning, therefore, did God form Adam, not as if He stood in need of man, but that He might have some one upon whom to confer His benefits” (Against Heresies Bk. 4, ch. 14).
St John of Damascus (675-749) summed up the Church’s teaching in his Exposition of the Orthodox Faith that way:
“God, Who is good and more than good, did not find satisfaction in self-contemplation, but in His exceeding goodness wished certain things to come into existence which would enjoy His benefits and share in His goodness” (Bk. 2, ch. 2).
“Why?” Because God is good and wills to share His goodness with creation in general, and with human beings in particular.