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

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? <;
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
5 Moltmann, The Crucified God. (New York: Harper & Row, 1974), 193-194.
6 1 Cor. 2:10
7 Gavrilyuk, 159
8 ibid, 6. “ 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.

A Devout Atheist & Suffering

I just attended a forum with guest speaker Vanessa Zoltan, the Assistant Humanist Chaplain at Harvard University, where she spoke about her “devout atheism”. The forum was jam-packed with Christian seminarians interested in hearing and learning from someone who was willing to come talk openly about her Atheism, what it means, and what it does not mean.

Students at Gordon-Conwell during the forum
Students at Gordon-Conwell during the forum “Devout Atheists: A Closer Look at the Non-Religious Experience”

Vanessa’s story was fascinating, and I’ll mention one thing that struck me before moving onto the most moving point.

The first thing of interest was her position towards “the Sacred”. Vanessa has a well-developed sense of how humans can take things and treat them as “sacred”, and how we then learn from them just by taking that posture. As opposed to a Christian’s assumption that the reason that, say, the Bible inspires them and challenges them is that God is working in them or through it, Vanessa sees this possibility inherent in any sufficiently complex piece of writing, and stemming more from the human potential for these things which only needs the instigator. In her own experience, she took the book Jane Eyre and for months treated it as a sacred text, learning and growing into a better person through it. I find it fascinating that this term “the sacred”, which is now used rampantly among Christians, is so flexible and broad that an atheist can apply it to her own experiences. It reminded me of the analysis that Allan Bloom made of the term in The Closing of the American Mind and how its’ roots are solidly in Nietzche and the atheistic German school of philosophy. In this culture, despite the reduction of our attentions to only value 140 character quips, we talk too much,  in language whose meaning we do not explore, and thus, we talk about we know not what.

The second thing that struck me was her emphasis on suffering. Vanessa was raised Jewish and growing up she literally did not know one-single elderly person who was not a Holocaust survivor. For her, belief in God was absolutely impossible in the face of what her grandparents and all of their friends suffered. She relayed how she visited Jewish Temple still, but how the prayer “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God is one Lord” was offensive to her, not because of what it said, but because this was often the prayer that the Jews would make right before they were gassed to death. As she put it during our Q & A “Either God was not looking, or there is no God.”

This moved me profoundly because my own theology has undergone dramatic shifts which sometimes, it seems to me, only atheists, or those who do not believe in God, seem to grasp fully. Most of those shifts revolve around suffering.

In the “Classical” tradition of theology, which most Catholics and Protestants have inherited, God’s “essence” or “being” does not suffer. Suffering, it is assumed, means that one is not in control, because if one could avoid suffering, why wouldn’t they? Thus, it is impossible for God, who is the most powerful being, to be impacted and suffer from anything that happens in his created order. Obviously, this seems to fly in the face of the revelation of God in Christ, but theology has its’ ways (and I appreciate them, even though I disagree with most). In addition, the Classical statements of the divine attributes, which imply that God foreknows (Arminian) or “foreordains (Calvinist) all things which will occur, ever, implies this fact:

“Either this is best possible world, or God deliberately created a world with more evil in it that was absolutely necessary”.

I’ll argue for that point in my next post, but assuming that is true, we can easily see how it flies offensively in the face of anyone who not only has suffered, but who empathically suffers. This is more than just suffering yourself. If you find yourself deeply affected by the suffering of others, as I suspect Vanessa has, it is not only your own experience which you must find a worldview to explain, but the suffering of your friends, of people who have been murdered and never found, violated and never consoled, people whom you have never met, but are able to mourn for at the thought of these disturbing realities. What Vanessa’s talk helped me realize was this:

While many branches of the Christian tradition are not yet ready to even touch the inherited understandings of God as immutable, impassible, and atemporal, there is a whole world of hungry lost souls waiting to hear that, possibly, God did not create the world with depression, suicide and rape as just a necessary part of what some would call “his incomprehensibly deep and beautiful design”; that, perhaps, God is not just “outside” of the universe, in his timeless, spaceless, impassible, moment-less “perfection”; but rather, as I think is clearly revealed by Jesus Christ on the cross, that He has fully entered our suffering, and is calling us to step into His kingdom as He finishes the war on death, suffering, and all that causes the Vanessa’s of the world to turn their face from Him. This invitation, and the image of God we’re given through Christ, is what I live for.

The Weak, Seek

Over the past few weeks I’ve shared the story of my conversion with several people, and it reminded me of something I’ve wanted to write about for a while now. My conversion came at the lowest point of my life, and as such it exemplifies certain negative stereotypes which people have of religion in general, whether it’s faith in Jesus or something else. The one I want to address here is the idea that religious belief in general is a “crutch” for those of us who are just too weak to face the struggles of life alone.

The prejudice runs something like this: Few people are able to stare the meaninglessness of life in the face and create their own destiny, become gods, but those who do are truly strong. A more spiritual version of this is the idea that one can simply find “within oneself” the resources to sustain one’s life, and that there’s a sort of divine power which we need to access, and we will not be seeking resources to live from outside of ourselves. For those who turn to reliance on a power outside themselves or others, well, they’re just a little weak. The conclusion to be drawn is that, if that last sentence is true, then it somehow should count as negative evidence against these beliefs.

Now, I can only address this from the perspective of a disciple of Christ, but the general response is the same: the conditions under which people come to see something as true has little bearing on whether it is true, or not. For example, it may be only while I am watching a graphic film about factory farming that I conclude the industry’s practices are immoral, but just because I was queasy when I came to the conclusion doesn’t mean it isn’t true. This must be assessed on other grounds. Similarly, individuals coming to faith in times of duress is a circumstantial piece of information that does not determing whether their belief is true.

For Christians however, these observations are meant to confirm our faith. They are not meant as evidence for those who do not believe, but their existence is given robust explanation in scripture. There are two ways that I have been thinking of this.

Sant'Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy. (click image for source)
Sant’Apollinare Nuovo, Ravenna, Italy. (click image for source)

The first is that Jesus Christ’s most famous sermon states in no uncertain terms that God specifically blesses those who the rest of the world would consider “unfortunate” or “weak”, in the exact kind of ways which many “weak” believers would hope. Consider the beatitudes:

Blessed are the poor in spiritfor the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.

Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousnessfor they will be satisfied.

Blessed are the mercifulfor they will be shown mercy.

Blessed are the pure in heartfor they will see God.

Blessed are the peacemakersfor they will be called the children of God.

Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousnessfor the kingdom of heaven belongs to them.

Blessed are you when people insult you and persecute you and say all kinds of evil things about you falsely on account of meRejoice and be glad because your reward is great in heavenfor they persecuted the prophets before you in the same way.

In the Gospel of Luke, chapter 6:24-26, we see another sermon (or perhaps the rest of this one) combined to contrast Jesus’ attitude towards those whose assurance that they are living well rests on their level of comfort:

But woe to you who are richfor you have received your comfort alreadyWoe to you who are well satisfied with food nowfor you will be hungryWoe to you who laugh nowfor you will mourn and weepWoe to you when all people speak well of youfor their ancestors did the same things to the false prophets.

In other words, all of the observations used against faith birthed out of suffering, were acknowledged by a Jewish Rabbi over 2,000 years ago, and his followers have always known this is how the world seems to work.

The second way in which this counts as further confirmation for the Christian faith is that the entire New Testament unambiguously declares that the world is under the influence of the spiritual enemies of God, and that their rule (called the “kingdom of darkness”, or “kingdom of the world”) is one of deception. Specifically, a theme for Jesus is the deception of riches. It seems as though the fact that the world’s well-of seem to feel less in-need of God is an intentional ploy by the enemies of God. Here are just a few more passages to confirm this:

1 John 5:19 “We know that we are from Godand the whole world lies in the power of the evil one.”

Matthew 13:22 “The seed sown among thorns is the person who hears the wordbut worldly cares and the seductiveness of wealth choke the wordso it produces nothing.”

Luke 12:19-21 (Here Jesus is finishing a parable) “And I will say to myself, “You have plenty of goods stored up for many yearsrelaxeatdrinkcelebrate!”’ But God said to him‘You fool! This very night your life will be demanded back from youbut who will get what you have prepared for yourself?’ So it is with the one who stores up riches for himselfbut is not rich toward God.”

1 Timothy 6:7-10 “For we have brought nothing into this world and so we cannot take a single thing out eitherBut if we have food and shelterwe will be satisfied with that. Those who long to be richhowever, stumble into temptation and a trap and many senseless and harmful desires that plunge people into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of every type of evilsSome people in reaching for it have strayed from the faith and stabbed themselves with many pains.”

So, my final word is to those who may find themselves in weakness, in suffering, in poverty, and like Job are asking “Why do the wicked go on living, grow old, even increase in power?”

The reality of suffering and injustice were forever placed into the experience of God’s own life, and He knows what it is like.  “For we do not have high priest incapable of sympathizing with our weaknesses“, the author of Hebrews says. Jesus’ death puts on display the reality that the world is simply not just. The beautiful hope which we recently celebrated on Easter is that God is making all things new. In light of the reality of Christ’s bodily resurrection, we have assurance that he is able to resurrect us. This world’s order is passing away, and this short life will not be our last. When we awake, it will be to a reign of peace and love “for the former things have ceased to exist.” Today, I encourage you to take his words to heart:

“In the world you have trouble and sufferingbut take courage – I have conquered the world.”

Carrying a Cross

Not able to make time and finish the last three posts with a conclusion, I read a quote on a different topic that I thought was worth sharing.

Followers of Jesus often talk about “carrying our cross”, and, the quote below argues, we often confuse what Jesus meant by that.We can mistakenly call every difficulty we go through as “our cross”, anything from our car not working to being annoyed with a co-worker is given a highly doubtful significance. In doing this we belittle the real sacrifice that Jesus calls his disciples to make, and are unable to make that sacrifice ourselves because of our lesser substitutes.

That’s not to say that God is not walking with us through the everyday ups and downs of life, but there is a distinction between this and “taking up our cross“.  We can see this in Jesus’ life. He faced a multitude of difficulties in his life, but they were not all “carrying his cross”. Jesus carried his cross as the result of the kind of life He lived, and called his disciples to that same kind of life, which would result in the same kind of treatment. The quote below is from “The Politics of Jesus” by John Howard Yoder:

The believer’s cross is no longer any and every kind of suffering, sickness, or tension, the bearing of which is demanded. The believer’s cross must be, like his Lord’s, the price of his social nonconformity. It is not, like sickness or catastrophe, an inexplicable, unpredictable suffering; it is the end of a path freely chosen after counting the cost. It is not, like Luther’s or Thomas Muntzer’s or Zinzerdorf’s or Kierkegaard’s cross or ‘Afechtung’, and inward wrestling of the sensitive soul with self and sin; it is the social reality of representing in an unwilling world the Order to come. The word “The servant is not greater than his master. If they persecuted me they will persecute you” is not a pastoral counsel to help with the ambiguities of life; it is a normative statement about the relation of our social obedience to the messianity of Jesus.

Representing as he did the divine order now at hand, accessible; renouncing as he did the legitimate use of violence and the accrediting of the existing authorities; renouncing as well the ritual purity of noninvolvement, his people will encounter in ways analogous to his own the hostility of the old order.”