Saturday, February 02, 2008

Does God Suffer? Part 2

Part 1 | Part 3 | Part 4

Dealing with Traditional Philosophy

In part 1, I described the traditional philosophical view of why God can't suffer. The problems with that are twofold.

First, God isn't ontologically dependent on us - we can't make God suffer, but he can choose to suffer for us and because of us. This is actually just the doctrine of grace.

The LORD did not set his affection on you and choose you because you were more numerous than other peoples, for you were the fewest of all peoples. 8 But it was because the LORD loved you and kept the oath he swore to your forefathers that he brought you out with a mighty hand and redeemed you from the land of slavery, from the power of Pharaoh king of Egypt.
Deuteronomy 7:7-8, NIV

God didn't choose Israel because he had to - he did it because he wanted to. There wasn't anything about Israel that forced him to do it. In the same way, there isn't anything about us that can force God to suffer. But God can still love us, by his own choice, and that might well affect whether he suffers.

The second problem is that suffering doesn't imply the sort of change that God doesn't do. The Bible teaches that God doesn't change, but also that he acts and that he was incarnate. In 500BC, God wasn't incarnate as a man. In AD20, he was. When we say that God doesn't change, if we are being true to the Bible or to the idea of the Incarnation, then we need to be careful what we mean by "change".

Wayne Grudem describes what the Bible teaches about God's unchangingness as follows:

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.

When we have that understanding of what it means for God to be unchanging, it starts to become clear that it doesn't actually mean that God can't suffer. There's also the possibility that God might suffer eternally - I'll discuss that more later.

Jurgen Moltmann

I've avoided talking about dead Germans up until now. But Moltmann is really important here because if you read any modern books on God and suffering, they always spend a lot of time discussing his views, which have been very influential. And in true Monty Python style, he isn't dead yet either.

Moltmann effectively centres his whole theology on the question of God and suffering, even on the question of what it means for God to be with us in our suffering. Here's probably his most famous passage, which starts with a quote from a Holocaust survivor.

“The SS hanged two Jewish men and a youth in front of the whole camp. The men died quickly, but the death throes of the youth lasted for half an hour. 'Where is God? Where is he?' someone asked behind me. As the youth still hung in torment in the noose after a long time, I heard the man call again, 'Where is God now?' And I heard a voice in myself answer: 'Where is he? He is here. He is hanging there on the gallows...'”

Any other answer would be blasphemy. There cannot be any other Christian answer to the question of this torment. To speak here of a God who could not suffer would make God a demon. To speak here of an absolute God would make God an annihilating nothingness. To speak here of an indifferent God would condemn man to indifference.

Moltmann sees the idea of God being crucified as central, even to the point where it twists large chunks of the rest of his theology. He also sees the answer to the problem of suffering as being that as God is crucified, he takes into himself all the suffering in the whole world, past, present and future. So God is seen as sharing in and participating in the suffering of the world.

Along with many modern theologians who put God's suffering central, Moltmann tends to end up in panentheism - the belief that God is in everything and everything is in God.

In part 3, I'll look at the traditional understanding of how / whether God suffered when Jesus was on the cross, and whether it's enough.


Anonymous said...


Forgive me for asking a question that is tangential, but how does one deal pastorally with suffering in the context of your essay?
Am I correct is saying that God 'suffers' because He wants to? Can it even ever be said that God in fact, may want us to suffer?

The usual evangelical response to people who are suffering goes along the lines of:

1. All suffering is a result of sin.
2. We basically have to lump it until Jesus returns.
3. Chin up! God is using this to mould your character!

Perhaps this is a oversimplification, but dead Germans notwithstanding, I sometimes wish I had a better pastoral praxis went dealing with individuals who are suffering rather than a dry theological one.

John said...

That's a rubbish response, but you're right that it's the usual one.

I'd want to make at least the following points (anticipating slightly part 3):

1. God suffers with us and for us. He is not a remote God who inflicts suffering on humanity; he is a God who shares in the suffering of humanity through Jesus.
2. In Jesus, God overcomes suffering and demonstrates that it is not the final word.
3. In Jesus, God redeems suffering and shows that he can and does use even the rubbish of his son being crucified for good.