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Does God suffer with us? (and how that question is misunderstood) (1)

April 2014 | by Luke Jenner

The memory of ‘the war supposed to end all wars’ has raised big questions for many theologians over what God is actually like.

Christian men and women grappling with the sheer scale of suffering throughout the last 100 years have often searched hard for answers to the horrors of the Somme, Auschwitz, Darfur and Homs.

One commonly explored, potential source of catharsis is in the nature of God himself. Perhaps it is, some say, helpful and true to say that God participates in the suffering of the sufferers — he suffers with them — and, in doing just that, provides the greatest comfort imaginable to grief-stricken humanity.

Heresy

This is a well-meant hypothesis. But, in that way, lies heresy. To affirm that God is subject to suffering, in the same manner that we are, is to run against everything the Christian church has stood for down the centuries and to undermine the biblical witness to God’s sovereign transcendence.

The debate over this question is a live one. The question ‘Does God suffer?’ frames the doctrine known more technically as God’s impassibility (also expressed as God being ‘without passions’). It opens up discussions that generate both heat and light, together with not a little confusion, in our current theological climate.

Some argue that unless God suffers in his essential nature, he will be unable to sympathise with or help us. Their motives are usually laudable. But they are wrong. Biblical, historic, Reformed theology stands tall on the conviction that, in fact, the very opposite is true.

It is only by God being immune to suffering in his own divine being that he is capable of meeting our deepest and most painful needs at all. Only an impassible God is good news.

So what exactly is God’s impassibility, and why is there more than one view? That is the groundwork I will be doing in this article, before moving more positively to what the Bible actually teaches and how it is supremely relevant next month.

Definitions

Here is a concise definition of impassibility from pastor theologian Kevin DeYoung: ‘God cannot suffer and is incapable of being acted upon by an external force’ (http://thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/kevindeyoung/files/2010/04/T4G-2010-KDY-v_2.pdf).

The opposite of impassibility is passibility, which has in fact become a new theological orthodoxy, even among some evangelicals. So we might as well define that too. Scholar Thomas Weinandy does that for us in his book Does God suffer? (University of Notre Dame Press, 2000; p.39):

‘For God to be passible … means that he is capable of being acted upon from without and that such actions bring about emotional changes of state within him … passibility implies that God’s changing emotional states involve “feelings” that are analogous to human feelings’.

The heart of the issue, then, is twofold. First, is God prone to fluctuations of ‘emotion’ over which he has no personal control? Does human pain stir up involuntary sorrow within him, for example? Does the sight of his people’s obedience cause delight to wash over him from he-knows-not-where? Passibilists say yes; impassibilists say no.

Second, is God’s emotional life just like ours, or are there important category distinctions between how he ‘feels’ and how we ‘feel’? Passibilists affirm the former; impassibilists the latter.

These two issues are interconnected, simply because it is the nature of human emotion to be involuntary. If God does experience feelings that are simply unplanned reactions to this or that turn of events, then his emotional life is basically the same as that of humanity — only ‘writ large’ — because such unplanned (and sometimes unwanted) reactions are indeed the common lot of creatures like us.

Debate

You may already be convinced that God could not possibly experience anything that he had no sovereign control over. If so, you are an impassibilist!

So was everyone else, basically, from the early church fathers until the nineteenth century. Since then, however, the general default theological position has tended to assume that the historic doctrine of impassibility is an unscriptural error.

There are a number of reasons for this change of opinion. First, many people dismiss the doctrine because they think they know what it’s saying, when they don’t. They think that impassibility teaches that God is lifeless and static, or doesn’t have any kind of feelings at all.

They believe that, when the church fathers taught that God is ‘without passions’, they were (unforgivably) allowing Greek philosophy to colour their thinking, leaving them with a cold and unfeeling deity, fashioned in the mould of Plato rather than Scripture.

They reason that Augustine & co. must have accidentally left their Bibles at home on the day they came to write on this subject, because the God of the Bible does react with anger and grief towards sin, with joy toward obedience, with compassion for sufferers.

But unfortunately such critics, admirable though their faithfulness to the Bible is, have misunderstood what ‘without passions’ was actually intended to mean.

As impassibilist theologian Paul Gavrilyuk says, ‘Divine impassibility is primarily a metaphysical term, marking God’s unlikeness to everything in the created order, not a psychological term denoting (as modern passibilists allege) God’s emotional apathy’ (‘God’s impassible suffering in the flesh: the promise of paradoxical Christology’, in James F. Keating & Thomas Joseph White [eds.], Divine impassibility and the mystery of human suffering; Eerdmans, 2009; p.139).

If you need a minute to read that over again slowly and digest it, feel free! Gavrilyuk is basically saying that too many people assume that saying ‘God doesn’t suffer’ means that you’re charging him with not caring about the world or how it behaves.

But that’s not what impassibility is all about. The doctrine is only concerned with preserving God’s transcendent otherness, that he is not overcome by emotion as we are. It is not really saying anything about the reality of God’s love, hatred, compassion, etc. It certainly doesn’t denythose attributes.

Evangelicals

I wish I could say that the failure to understand this is confined to obscure, uninfluential authors, whose books are read by about three people. But, unfortunately, the same is what Wayne Grudem says about impassibility in his fine and widely read Systematic theology:

‘[Clearly] God does not have sinful passions or emotions. But the idea that God has no passions or emotions at all clearly conflicts with much of the rest of Scripture, and for that reason I have not affirmed impassibility in this book’ (Systematic theology: an introduction to biblical doctrine; IVP/Zondervan, 1994; pp.165-66).

Crucially, ‘the idea that God has no passions or emotions at all’ is not what our theological ancestors were trying to say. They were Bible men; they didn’t have their eyes shut when reading about God’s mercy or wrath or joy. They were saying something very different.

You would hope that evangelicals like Grudem could be reasoned with to examine their sources again and see that, actually, the Reformed tradition wasn’t full of weird Bible-ignorers or closet Platonists!

But another reason impassibility has become passé stems from a more theologically sinister direction. If you can still call the open theism movement ‘evangelical’, then here’s where other ‘evangelicals’ are coming from. They say, God must suffer and feel emotion if he is to be truly loving; he must be open to the changes that participation in our lives will throw his way.

Most of all (they say), the answer to our own suffering is found in God’s joining with us in our pain. Paul Helm (another impassibilist) sums their approach up like this: ‘[The modern church] desperately seek[s] reassurance that God is like us — that he is accessible to our imagination, and especially … that he is our emotional peer’ (www.rpcbmt.org/DivineImpassibility.html).

Muddle

I even found this sort of thing on the blog of popular Christian apologist William Lane Craig, in his response to a Muslim who was asking him about the cross: ‘As the greatest conceivable being, God must be compassionate and share our sorrows and joys. Impassibility is actually a weakness, whereas compassion redounds to God’s greatness’ (www.reasonablefaith.org/divine-impassibility-and-the-crucifixion).

For such a great thinker, this is full of muddle. Impassibility is not incompatible with compassion. Nor is it actually good news at all if God literally shares our sorrows and joys. But more of that next month!

All we are doing here is seeking to establish that this common (and perhaps understandable) theological response to the unprecedented human anguish of the 20th century is in fact a serious misunderstanding of the biblical, historic doctrine of divine impassibility.

It is said that the affirmation of divine suffering is surely one of the best answers to the problem of evil. In the next article we will discover that it really isn’t.

To be continued

Luke Jenner