Does God Suffer, pt. 2: Insight From Early Christian Martyrs

The next few posts on this topic will take a look at the Christian “Apologists” of the 2nd century, and their heirs. Did the early Church (specifically in the first three centuries after Christi) speak of God’s ability or inability, to suffer, and if so, what did they have to say about it?

In our earliest accounts of Christian martyrs, Christ is said to suffer with the martyr, and “gives the power to withstand torture”[1] Paul Gavrilyuk contrasts this with Philosopher Alfred North Whitehead’s description of God as a “fellow-sufferer who understands”, saying that Whitehead’s description is of a God who merely suffers with-us, but is powerless to do anything about this suffering. While this is a somewhat accurate implication of Whitehead’s philosophy, there is a synthesis of these two points that I think is worth spelling out. There is a Trinitarian involvement with the suffering of believers. As several passages in scripture point out, we are recipients of Christ’s resurrection as a corollary of our participation in his sufferings and death.[2] We experience unity with Christ in this process. The Holy Spirit fills us with power to endure, and one can imagine the strength experienced by martyrs, such as Felicitas, as the Father’s response to the suffering of one of his children.

Felicitas was a second century Christian martyred for her faith in what is now France during a local persecution of Christians by the Roman Empire. Before her gruesome death she is recorded as making the bold assertion: “another will be in me who will suffer for me”. Gavrilyuk, representing a more classical understanding that God does not suffer, interprets Felictas assertion this way:

“the early Christian theology of martyrdom offers the insight that Christ’s suffering (in the qualified sense of providing power to endure persecution to those who suffer for his sake) extends beyond…the incarnation…”[3](emphasis mine)

Howeer, that caveat in parentheses does not seem to do full justice to that bold assertion of Felicitas, or the testimony of the Sanctus, another early Christian martyr at Lyons, who claimed that “Christ, suffering in him, manifested his glory, delivering him from his adversary” (emphasis mine).[4] To suffer almost in no way naturally implies to provide power, unless we are flatly re-defining suffering. It seems more likely that these early Christians simply believed that Christ would take-on their suffering, and that He was able to do this without being overcome by it.

While I do not live under threat of death for my faith, there are large numbers of Christians in the world who do. The volatile embodiment of Islam in ISIS has reminded many Christians that religious toleration is not a permanent situation across the globe, and that organization’s attacks on modern democracies in Europe are clearly stoking fear (not altogether irrational) that we will soon be on the receiving end of this networks violence if our government does not act. I think a proper theology of God’s ability to suffer without being overcome can provide strength and courage for this country’s Christians. In the crucifixion, we are provided with the framework for understanding that the Son’s suffering will result in victory; and our own suffering for his name will do the same. The early martyrs seem to have an underlying assumption that while Christ called his disciples to take up their cross, it is only if He Himself carried the suffering that they would endure without recanting their faith.

[1] Gavrilyuk, The Suffering of the Impassible God, 73

[2] ibid., 71, footnote 27. Specifically Phil. 3:10, 2 Cor. 4:10

[3] ibid., 73

[4] Martyrs of Lyons. Coakley and Sterk, 26

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