Saturday, February 09, 2008

Does God Suffer? Part 4

Sorry for the infrequent updates. I've been very busy lately - I've got a lovely girlfriend who takes priority over blog posting and I'm helping to run a quiz tournament. Back to God and suffering...

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

We need to reflect first on what it means for God to act in history before we can reflect on what it means for Jesus to suffer in history. The Bible strongly affirms that God does not change, but clearly also states that he can and does act in history, which seems to conflict with a naïve notion of what change is. In 500BC, God was not incarnate. In AD20, he was. And yet God is unchanging. Grudem summarises the Biblical evidence well:

God is unchanging in his being, perfections, purposes and promises, yet God does act and feel emotions, and he acts and feels differently in response to different situations. This attribute of God is also called God's immutability.

Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology

I think Grudem is unhelpful when he says God feels emotions. God feels love, anger, compassion and so on, but when God feels them they don't change, they aren't wrongly motivated, they're always totally consistent with his character. I would say they're like emotions, but it's truer to say that emotions are a bit like them. But otherwise, Grudem's about right

Grudem also clarifies the Bible's teaching on divine eternity well:

God's eternity may be defined as follows: God has no beginning, end or succession of moments in his own being, and he sees all time equally vividly, yet God sees events in time and acts in time.

Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology

If we combine Grudem's conceptions of what it means for God to be unchanging and eternal, a conceptual model of God starts to emerge which allows him to be both transcendent in the sense that the impassibilists affirm and suffering in the sense that the cross and human experience seem to require. It is further aided by the insight from General Relativity that time and space are so strongly interconnected that to be outside one would require being outside the other. If then, God transcends both time and space yet can act into time in exactly the same way that he can act into space, the way starts to become clearer.

God's changing emotions as presented in the Bible could then be seen to be true expressions, though also accommodations to our understanding, of unchangeable “themotions”, which change only because our position in history changes, and therefore we see some aspects of God's unchanging nature more clearly at different times, because our situation is different.

So God acts into history and therefore can and does suffer in history. And yet what is true of God in history is also true of God in eternity. God suffers in eternity because of what he chooses to experience in history.

So does that mean that suffering wins? If suffering goes on into eternity, doesn't that mean it's won? No.

For in God taking suffering into himself in eternity, yes, suffering itself becomes transcendent, and yet God transcends it, because the centre of the Christian faith is not Moltmann's Crucified God, but the Crucified and Risen Christ. Suffering is transcended because it is defeated and exceeded by the glory of the Resurrection.

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