Does God Suffer? (pt. 1)

The brutality and sheer demonic magnitude of suffering in this world (self, other, or nature-inflicted) has become inescapably visible, and it is vital for Christians to meet this reality with the spiritual strength of the monastics, the evangelistic apologetic of the Apologists, and the theological rigor of our 4th century forerunners. That last aspect is what these posts are about. While in the pews and on the corners no one will get into a technical debate on suffering like I’ll do here, these debates eventually trickle down into our day-in day-out conversations on faith. So, while this is definitely a technical kind of post, it’s still down to earth enough to follow along with, and I try to at least mention how it relates in the world of flesh-and-blood.

The Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan (click for image source)
The Philippines after Typhoon Haiyan (click for image source)

There are two general positions with regards to God’s own ability to suffer.  The first is Divine Impassibility, which means that God does not suffer in his own being (and there are differences of opinion on what exactly this means of course). This does not mean that God does not love, or have any kind of “emotions” (though what these emotions mean when we ascribe them to God is up for debate), it just means that suffering specifically, cannot be ascribed to God in-Himself, for reasons we’ll explore below. Of course, the human nature of Jesus suffered, but this experience does not transfer over into God. The second position is Divine Passibility, which means just the opposite (again, with a range of different opinions on the meaning of “God suffers”).

In the book The Suffering of the Impassible God, Paul Gavrilyuk notes that belief in Divine Passibility has achieved the status of a “new orthodoxy” and has caused a revived discussion of the issue for several decades now. Prominent Catholic priest and theologian Thomas Weinandy, among many others, has opposed this movement in theology with his book Does God Suffer?, and has stated elsewhere that “the truth that God does not suffer is at the heart of the gospel” (1). He also agrees that addressing this issue “is pressingly pertinent to the Church’s most important public task: communicating the gospel, and doing so in a culture whose dominant virtues are compassion, empathy”. My own undergraduate writing, and interim years since, have moved me to be more open to passibilism as a result of other shifts in my beliefs about theodicy, the nature of God’s providence, and salvation. This research has forced me to think more deeply about the issue, and at least understand the “classical” position much more. Still, the reasons for that position remain unconvincing to me. So, I’ll outline what it means for us to affirm that “God suffers” by interacting with 5 points that Gavrilyuk makes in the introduction to his book.

Gavrilyuk draws a boundary against the most “radical” forms of passibilism by way of five points. They are: 1) Ascribing any and all emotions to God would negate his Goodness by ascribing emotions which are “unworthy of him”, 2) for God to suffer like a human, he must become human, 3) God must suffer voluntarily, not involuntarily, or else all the classical attributes of God are at risk, 4) God’s voluntary suffering must have a purpose, and 5) if 4) is true, then God’s compassion must result in redemptive action, and thus God’s compassion does not necessarily require that He “suffer-with” us, but rather simply that He act to redeem (2). Even if compassion required suffering-with, it would also require that God be impassible in the sense that He not be “overpowered by our suffering”. (3)

With regards to the 1), almost all theologians are in full-agreement, as am I. But, my own perspective has been increasingly influenced by what is being dubbed “cruciform hermeneutics”: doing theology, or reading and interpreting scripture, with an understanding of the Crucifixion as a presuppostion. There are many scriptural passages invoked to justify this view as the New Testament’s own, but I will make one observation that I have not encountered elsewhere. The “καταπέτασμα”, the curtain to the holy of holies in the Temple, was torn as Christ dies on the cross, implying that our access to the very glory of God is through Christ’s flesh, crucified (4). Thus, not by strict logical necessity but by implication, it seems that the deepest communion with God is to be had through the Son’s death, and it seems reasonable that knowledge of God must begin with knowledge and understanding of the Son’s crucifixion, and then proceed to other things.

As an example of the revelatory climax in the Crucifixion, Moltmann notes the strange confession of the centurion in Mark: “surely this man was the Son of God”, made immediately after Christ has cried that He is forsaken by God (5). Yet this is not strange at all in this perspective. For Paul to remind the Colossians that “I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified, and I was with you in weakness and in fear and with much trembling”, and then go on to say that he came to them with “a demonstration of the Spirit and of power” also implies that clinging to Christ crucified is the well-spring of the Holy Spirit’s empowerment. By Paul’s own sequence in this passage, it is only after this that we have access to “the deep things of God” (6). So, if there is anything that would require illumination of the Spirit, it is an understanding of the attributes of God. What we would call “unworthy” of God must be guided by what is undeniable on the cross and this puts the burden on those overly concerned with God’s reputation. We should ask: “What is undeniably true about Christ’s sufferings on the cross?” and then “What does this mean about God’s ability to suffer?” The development of early Patristic theology itself seemed to move in this sequence, even though their philosophical framework prevented a move toward passibilism.

To point 2), again I am in agreement. However, Gavrilyuk later goes further than that simple point and says: “the presupposition that the divine nature could itself suffer renders the assumption of humanity superfluous. If God could suffer as humans do without assuming humanity, the incarnation would be unnecessary” (7). While some passibilists may minimize God’s saving work in Jesus Christ to the point that all that we receive from God is a “fellow- sufferer who understands”, I am not in this camp. The possibility of God’s passibility is not a substitute for the Atonement, but a belief regarding His nature that is grounded in the self-revelation of Christ and Scripture. Point 2) affirms the need for the Incarnation, but it does not restrict God’s ability to suffer outside of the Incarnation, only God’s ability to suffer as a human.

Point 3) directs us to the larger theological web of “classical theism”, and is where I depart from Gavrilyuk a bit more (8).  On the one hand, I agree with point 3), but would say that just by the very act of creating a world with free creatures God has willingly entered into relationships that can cause Him to “suffer” (I’ll elaborate on what that means in a further post).  As an evangelical, I affirm that all of the scriptural titles of “eternal”, “almighty”, “all-powerful”, “ruler of all”, or that God “knows all things”, are to be believed and the source for theological reflection. The question in theology is “What other things can we say about God based on these?” In relation to suffering, we could ask: “What do those scriptural passages mean about God’s ability, but apparent refusal, to prevent suffering?”

Gavrilyuk’s final two considerations are fair, but seem to be responses to philosophical objections that, in my opinion, are not compelling in the first place. The statement, “Many compassionate actions do not require emotional identification with the sufferer” is true, but does not fully answer the scope of questions raised by asserting that “God’s compassion is simply His action”, or, what is more difficult to believe and not addressed, that “God’s love does not correlate to His ability to suffer when those He loves (in this case humans) are suffering”. One is again compelled to look at the scriptural testimony in texts like Jeremiah 8:21 “Because of the crushing of the daughter of my people I am crushed”, and here the suffering of the people has been brought about by their own disobedience!

Gavrilyuk’s conclusion to all of this is modest: “Divine compassion may or may not require divine suffering. At any rate, it certainly entails a measure of impassibility, which in this case means God’s ability to vanquish our misery” (emphasis mine). However, the implication Gavrilyuk draws from this that “…there is no prima facie case for the concept of an emotional and suffering God over against that of an unemotional and non-suffering God”, is, in my opinion not true (9). The arguments he presents are helpful qualifiers of impassibility, but it would seem to me that the Crucifixion decisively puts Christian theology in a position where we must work our way out of complete passibility, and that it as an a priori assumption for us that God suffers, somehow, someway.

1 Weinandy, Thomas. Does God Suffer? <http://www.firstthings.com/article/2001/11/does-god-suffer&gt;
2 Even though it derives from the Latin for “suffering-with”. Gavrilyuk references a passage in Against Praxeas that I will address below
3 Gavrilyuk, Paul L. The Suffering of the Impassible God. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 6-7.
4 Heb. 9:12, 6:19, 10:20, all scripture quotations are taken from the New English Translation at netbible.org
5 Moltmann, The Crucified God. (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 193-194.
6 1 Cor. 2:10
7 Gavrilyuk, 159
8 ibid, 6. “..in human experience we distinguish between suffering that comes against our will and that which is accepted voluntarily….the admission of such ‘accidents’ in divine life would be equivalent to denying that God is omnipotent and omniscient. This would lead, in turn, to a thoroughgoing revision of classical theism.” “Accidents” as used here is a technical term which means something like “contingency” or “non-essential attributes” of God’s nature.

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