Can God Suffer?

Martin Luther’s “theology of the cross” is not merely a theology that provides great comfort in the midst of suffering. It is, in fact, foundational for his whole understanding of “justification by faith alone”, and I hope to explore this theme further in coming blog posts.

But there’s something that needs to be clarified from the outset. In discussing Luther’s Theology of the Cross, or theologia crucis, Alister McGrath alluded to “Luther’s daring phrase”, “The ‘crucified God’”. This, he says, “is not merely the foundation of the Christian faith, but is also the key to understanding the nature of God.”

While I believe that Luther’s “theology of the cross” is, historically, one of the most important ways to understand “God” and “church” and “salvation” that came out of the Reformation, it is important to understand what Luther is and isn’t talking about. John Frame makes some helpful distinctions in his “The Doctrine of God,”( Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Company, © 2002).

Recently, a number of theologians have questioned the traditional Christian view that God is unable to suffer. Richard Bauckham summarizes Jurgen Moltmann’s “three reasons for speaking of God’s suffering”. The first is the passion of Christ. Moltmann sees his argument as following the tradition of Luther’s “theology of the cross,” which “makes the cross, for all its stark negativity, the basis and criterion of Christian theology.” Moltmann believes that the doctrine of impassibility in the church fathers was based on Greek philosophy rather than on trying to “understand the being of God from the event of the cross.”

Moltmann’s second reason for attributing suffering to God is the nature of love. In Moltmann’s view, divine love entails “reciprocity” between God and creation. It must be possible for him to be “affected by the objects of his love.” So God must be vulnerable to suffering. This argument is based, not on a mere analogy between divine and human love, but upon the nature of divine love revealed in the Cross.

Thirdly Moltmann appeals to the problem of human suffering. He finds no adequate answer to the problem of evil, except to say that God suffers with suffering human beings. Again, he does not argue merely from human suffering to divine suffering, but rather from God’s suffering with Jesus on the cross. This event has soteriological implications: “all suffering becomes God’s so that he may overcome it” (emphasis in original).

. . .

But is there any sense in which God suffers injury or loss? Certainly Jesus suffered injury and loss on the cross. And I agree with Moltmann that Christ’s sufferings are the sufferings of God. The Council of Chalcedon, which defined orthodox Christology, said that Jesus has two complete natures, divine and human, united in one person. We may say that Jesus suffered and died on the cross “according to his human nature,” but what suffered was not a “nature,” but the person of Jesus. And the person of Jesus is nothing less than the second person of the Trinity, who has taken to himself a human nature. His experiences as a man are truly his experiences, the experiences of God.

. . .

To summarize, let us distinguish … between four modes of divine existence:

1. In his atemporal and nonspatial transcendent existence, God ordains grievous events and evaluates them appropriately. He grieves in that sense, but does not suffer injury or loss.

2. In his temporal and spatial omnipresence, he grieves with his creatures, and he undergoes temporary defeats on his way to the complete victory he has foreordained.

3. In his theophanic presence, he is distressed when his people are distressed (Isa. 63:9), but he promises complete victory and vindication both for himself and for his faithful ones.

4. In the Incarnation, the Son suffers injury and loss: physical pain, deprivation, and death. The Father knows this agony, including the agony of his own separation from his Son. He regards this event as the unique and awful tragedy that it is, but also as his foreordained means of salvation. What precise feelings does he experience? We do not know, and we would be wise not to speculate.

Moltmann is right to find divine suffering in the cross in the in the senses mentioned above. But he is wrong to conclude that the doctrine of God’s impassibility is merely a remnant of Greek philosophy. As we have seen, the doctrine of impassibility should not be used to deny that God has emotions, or to deny that God the Son suffered real injury and death on the cross. But God in his transcendent nature cannot be harmed in any way, nor can he suffer loss to his being. In his eternal existence, “suffering loss” can only mean losing some attribute, being defeated in his war with Satan, or otherwise failing to accomplish his eternal plan. Scripture assures us that none of these things will happen, and so they cannot happen. In this sense, God is impassible.

. . .

As we have seen from Hebrews, Christ was made like us so that he could be a merciful and faithful high priest, empathizing with our infirmities. He takes away sin, the cause of those infirmities, and he hears our prayers with understanding. But this principle should not be magnified into a metaphysical assertion about God’s vulnerability, for, as we have seen, God’s eternal nature is invulnerable, and that invulnerability is also precious to the believer.

God’s suffering love in Christ, therefore, does not cast doubt upon his aseity and unchangeability. It is, however, ground for rejoicing (Frame, 611-616).

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