Gregory of Nyssa, the Death of Infants, and the Life of God

“From where then comes evil?” This question, going back as far as Plato, more than any other perhaps in human history, has challenged the theist to think carefully about the nature of evil. And of course, there is a long tradition of responses in Christian history.

Most remember Gregory of Nyssa as one of the three Cappadocian fathers who were instrumental in solidifying the Trinitarian theology of the early church. As such, he became an important defender of Nicene orthodoxy. Defender against Arianism that he was, Gregory was exiled for a time during the reign of the pro-Arian emporer Valens, though this, fortunately for Gregory, was short-lived.

Gregory’s theological treatises (Answer to Enomius, On the Holy Spirit, On the Holy Trinity, On “Not Three Gods, and On the Faith) are some of his best known works. Lesser known is his On Infants’ Early Deaths, written as a letter to the governor Hierius near the end of Gregory’s life. Here Gregory addresses the difficult and painful question as to why “while the life of one is lengthened into old age, another has only so far a portion of it as to breathe the air with one gasp, and die.” Gregory ponders how we ought to think of such a life, too briefly glimpsed, in light of what we believe about human nature and divine judgment. “Will a soul such as that,” he asks, “behold its Judge?”

As any good theologian must do, to answer this question, Gregory first establishes a broader theological context. He puts forth as essential a series of propositions as prolegomena to the question, affirming:

  • the contingency of the universe as created by God,
  • the creation of humans in God’s image
  • the creation of humans to comprehend, glorify, and relate with God,
  • the existence of evil, like ignorance and truth, as the absence of personal connection to God,
  • the initiative of God to remedy this absence of relatedness to Himself,

Thus Gregory remarks, “alienation from God, Who is the Life, is an evil; the cure, then, of this infirmity is, again to be made friends with God, and so to be in life once more.” To be cut off from God is thus to be cut off from Life itself.

Gregory then takes to an analogy of two individuals with damaged sight. In his scenario, one of the individuals commits themself to being cured and follows “the doctor’s orders” while the other lives a life of pleasure and indulgence with no regard to the physician’s directions. The result of the process, Gregory states, is that the one, by his choice, receives again the ability to perceive the light while the other, by ignorant choice, receives the natural consequences of their decision. Obviously in Gregory's analogy, humans are free to accept or reject the healing salve provided by the Father to cure them of the evil in the world. The infant, for Gregory, however, has not yet tasted evil, their sight has not yet been obscured, and thus they can partake in the knowledge of God, even if only partially, “until the time comes that it has thriven on the contemplation of the truly Existent as on a congenial diet, and, becoming capable of receiving more, takes at will more from that abundant supply of the truly Existent which is offered.” For Gregory, both the innocent infant and the unborn child will partake of the blessings of God.

Saint Gregory of Nyssa. By Francesco Bartolozzi after Domenichino

Saint Gregory of Nyssa. By Francesco Bartolozzi after Domenichino

Gregory also postulates that God allows infant death so as to not subject them to the evils of the world or to prevent the evil which they would perpetuate. He states, “Therefore, to prevent one who has indulged in the carousals to an improper extent from lingering over so profusely furnished a table, he is early taken from the number of the banqueters, and thereby secures an escape out of those evils which unmeasured indulgence procures for gluttons.”

What then of those who are born to this world and do perpetuate great evils? Gregory suggests, “He tells us that God, in rendering to every one his due, sometimes even grants a scope to wickedness for good in the end. Therefore He allowed the King of Egypt, for example, to be born and to grow up such as he was; the intention was that Israel, that great nation exceeding all calculation by numbers, might be instructed by his disaster.”

The difficulty of the issue certainly escapes our ability to fully articulate what God in His goodness and wisdom might allow or intend. Gregory’s response, while neither exhausting nor ultimately resolving the question, points us to some fruitful observations.

That evil is both an intrusion into God’s world and the absence of Good rather than its cosmic opposite, offers a sound insight. In the thought-world of Second Temple Judaism, God is likewise viewed as Good, not as the author of evil. In the Wisdom of Solomon, for example, we learn “God did not make death, neither does he delight when the living perish” (1:13). Death, like evil, is an intrusion into God’s world, not His design for it. Likewise, Paul writes in a similar vein in Romans 7, asserting that Sin hijacked God’s good Law and forced it to bring death rather than life, which was God’s intent. Just as Gregory observes that the gift of life comes only from the True Life, so death comes as a result of Sin and evil, not as God’s design but as a force opposed to His purposes.

Can we hold with Gregory that those infants who die are allowed to do so that God might prevent the evils they would pursue? While this is a possibility, it raises obvious questions of why God would not prevent the life of Hitler or Stalin or Hussein. Or further more, why would God not prevent all human life, since all humans are bound to sin? Ultimately Gregory’s suggestion here is not entirely satisfactory. His insistence, however, that evil is a temporary intrusion into God’s plan to bless and prosper humanity, remains true. And his suggestion that the death of unborn children and infants must not be seen as affecting their judgment, but rather must be hopefully grasped as assurance of their being nurtured by the Father, is likewise worthy of approval.

We may, however, fault Gregory on another front as well, since in On Infants’ Early Deaths there is no explicit mention of Jesus as the means by which God is dealing with Evil, Sin, and Death. Christ’s death and resurrection ultimately alone provides hope for life and goodness. Apart from it, as Paul argues in Romans, Death and Sin still reign. But in Christ’s victory, the salve can be applied and the victory appropriated to those who come to the Physician for His healing touch. The goodness of a Good God assures us that evil will have its end, and the Life of the Light of humanity assures us that we can truly be made friends of God through the love of the Father, Spirit, and Son.


Photo:"ray of hope" by JP, CC License. 


Chad Thornhill

Chad Thornhill

Dr. A. Chadwick Thornhill is the Chair of Theological Studies and an Assistant Professor of Apologetics and Biblical Studies for Liberty University Baptist Theological Seminary. Chad completed his PhD in Theology and Apologetics through LBTS with an emphasis in biblical studies. His areas of academic interest include ancient Christianity, apologetics, biblical languages, Second Temple Judaism, New Testament studies, Old Testament studies, and theology. He is the author of a forthcoming title (IVP Academic) on the Jewish background of the apostle Paul’s election texts. Dr. Thornhill lives in Lynchburg, VA with his wife Caroline and their two children.