Meditation and Reflection

Does God suffer?


There’s an awful lot of suffering and badness around. Nasty people do nasty things, and wicked people do worse. There are floods, droughts and earthquakes, which are no-one’s fault; and murder, wars, terrorism and neglect, which are. Not unreasonably, in the face of all this awfulness and badness and evil, many conclude that there is no God. Richard Dawkins’ Twitter feed is full of it.

But it is a crass deduction; a pocket-sized Ladybird-book-level of theology. A God who is supposed to be omnipotent, omniscient and good could well permit all this suffering: the ‘problem of evil’ is actually not a problem when we view the world’s horrors not through the lens of human moral integrity but by acknowledging that God is God and His character cannot be reduced to debates around anthropomorphic virtues, duties, laws and obligations. God is in a class of His own.

And yet He became fully man.

Classical Hellenistic theology held that God is immutable and therefore impassible; unchanging and self-sufficient. Philo prepared the way for the Early Church Fathers when he made apatheia a characteristic of the God of Israel. If God were perfect, change would be inconceivable, as any change could only be for the worse. Patripassianism – the incarnation of the Father in an effort to maintain the unity of God – was rejected in part because it taught that God suffered.

Gregory of Nazianzus insisted that God must suffer, lest the reality of the incarnation be questioned. But most Patristic and medieval writers including Anselm and Aquinas took it as axiomatic that God could not suffer. In his Proslogion, Anselm argued that though we may experience God as compassionate, this does not mean that God experiences compassion, for God “is not affected by any sympathy of misery”. Aquinas wrote: “Mercy is especially to be attributed to God, provided that it is considered as an effect, not as a feeling of suffering.. It does not belong to God to sorrow over the feelings of others.”

In 1562, the impassibility of God was enshrined in the XXXIX Articles: Article I declares: “There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, part or passions..” It is also intrinsic to the Westminster Confession of Faith of 1646, which affirms that God is “without body, part or passions, immutable..”

The most celebrated protest against such thinking is perhaps Luther’s Theologia Crucis, contained with his Heidelberg Disputations of 1518. Luther used the phrase deus crucifixus (‘crucified God’) to speak of God’s sharing in the sufferings of the cross of Christ. The Old Testament also portrays God as sharing in Israel’s hurts (eg Jer 31.20; Isa 63.15); and the New Testament is replete with examples of the love of Jesus being manifest in shared suffering (eg Lk 22:62; Jn 11:35). While such scriptures undermine the intuitive plausibility of the impassible God, they do not affect its intellectual credibility. Perhaps, with Job, the heart demands a ‘feeling’ God, while the head maintains the logic of his impassibility.

For Jürgen Moltmann, God participates in the suffering and death of Jesus. The cry from the cross, ‘My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?‘ (Mk 15.34, Mt 27.46) is crucial (literally) to his understanding. It signifies an event of suffering between the Father and the Son, and is an event within God’s self, for

..the Father who abandons him and delivers him up suffers the death of the Son in infinite grief of love. We cannot say here in patripassian terms that the father also suffered and died. The suffering and dying of the Son, forsaken by the Father, is a different kind of suffering from the suffering of the Father in the death of the Son… To understand what happened between Jesus and his God and Father on the cross, it is necessary to talk in trinitarian terms. The Son suffers dying, the Father suffers the death of the Son. The grief of the Father here is just as important as the death of the Son (The Crucified God [London: SCM Press, 1974:243]).

The Son suffers in his love being forsaken by the Father as he dies; the Father suffers in his love the grief of the death of the Son (cf Rom 8:32). This is the love expressed in the Gospel of of John (3:16), which affirms that the very existence of God is love. Suffering is in God because God is love. Suffering is not justified, but is embraced in loving solidarity with those who suffer. God is one with divinity and humanity, the pain of the cross was God suffering with us so that our humanity can be liberated for freedom in the divine struggle against oppression. A suffering God becomes more plausible if God is identified with the kenosis of Christ. ‘Who, being in the form of God, thought it not robbery to be equal with God: But made himself of no reputation, and took upon him the form of a servant, and was made in the likeness of men: And being found in fashion as a man, he humbled himself, and became obedient unto death, even the death of the cross. made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant‘ (Phil 2:6-8).

But the question of God’s impassibility raises further profound questions, each of which could be a subject of apology, not least the logical notion of an omnipotent God being masochistic. There is a further logic, inherent in Moltmann’s suffering Christ, that God Himself may be said to have suffered and died on Calvary. Since this suffering occurred with God’s consent, and could therefore have been altered or avoided with God’s consent (Mt 26:52-56), it is reasonable to conjecture that this is not the same as the human condition, in which suffering happens without consent. Richard Bauckham responds:

Moltmann.. compromises the freedom of God and falls into the ‘Hegelian’ mistake of making world history the process by which God realises himself.. He does not dissolve God into world history, but he does intend a real interaction between God and the world. The problem of divine freedom leads him to deny the reality of the contrast between necessity and freedom of choice in God. Because Gods freedom is the freedom of his love, he cannot choose not to love and as love he is intrinsically related to the world (The Theology of Jürgen Moltmann [Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995:24f]).

God’s agonising over us, suffering with us and for us, is constantly reflected in Scripture (eg Zeph 3:17-18; Jer:9.1,3). But to say that God suffers with us in Christ does not solve the formal theodicy ‘problem’ of how it is logically possible that suffering could occur when God is omnipotent and perfectly good. Still less does it say why suffering occurs. In response to the sufferer’s ultimate question ‘Why?’, there is no shame in responding that we do not always know. The only adequate ‘Why?’ of human suffering is the empathetic cry of Jesus on the cross. As Moltmann expresses: “When God becomes man in Jesus of Nazareth, he not only enters into the finitude of man, but in his death on the cross also enters into the situation of man’s godforsakeness.”

Jesus suffers vicariously and in solidarity with the great apocalyptic dying of this world. Moltmann’s Christology does not only speak to all the awfulness and badness and evil of our own time; it is wholly necessary in a world come of age, if it has, or is doing. The incomprehensible scale of suffering in a holocaust draws the human heart to the belief that only the suffering God can help, because the only credible theology for Auschwitz is one that makes God an inmate of the place.

God is present in the midst of our suffering, and in the Resurrection of Jesus He fulfilled human liberation and heralded a new creation. Our sufferings are End-Time sufferings which take possession of the whole creation. God does not send pain and suffering on man, but rather He permits pain and suffering, which, like the suffering of the cross, cannot be separated from the resurrection to come. This is the ultimate stepping stone to faith: in all the awfulness and badness and evil of the world, God was, is and will be with us, in hope for and expectation of the promised eschatological fulfilment. The existence of suffering does not make God impotent: it is the secret of His power and triumph over it.