Quodlibetal Questions 1.2 ‘Does God Suffer?’

My next question comes from the great Rob Saler, who asks ‘What are some right and wrong ways to think about the question of whether God suffers or not?’

I like that this question asks about different ways of approaching the issue of whether God suffers, rather than just for my view about the answer. I expect my own views will not be too hard to discern, though.

Let’s start with some resources that I think are less than helpful.

(1) The Bible

(Best to get this one out of the way first…) The Bible does not really give us any direct answers to the question of whether God suffers, and the biblical evidence, such as it is, is compatible with a variety of rival views. To be sure, there are many passages to which we can appeal for proof-text purposes: passages that portray God as changing his mind (e.g., Ex 32:14) or attribute to God various emotional states (e.g., Judges 2:18 in which he is said to be “moved to pity” by the “groaning” of his people).

Such passages do not really settle the issue, however, because—as ever—the Bible does not interpret itself. We still have to decide whether they should be read literally, or whether they express metaphors or poetic anthropomorphisms, like those passages that describe God as having hands. Moreover, advocates of impassibility make a decent case that the overall picture of God that we find in the Bible—the transcendent, sovereign, all-powerful, free Creator—entails an impassible God: God does not suffer with his creatures precisely because he is not one of his creatures. This is not biblical theology by proof-text, but it is still biblical theology. In summary, it is possible to find Biblical evidence that supports both sides of the question, and so the Bible does not help us make much progress in answering it.

(2) The theology of Jürgen Moltmann

Among modern Christian theologians, Moltmann has perhaps done the most to shift the theological consensus toward the idea that God suffers. I want to read Moltmann with charity, and I certainly find some parts of The Crucified God to be very moving. It definitely resonates with many people, and that reaction is something I would like to take seriously. But I also find in Moltmann very little in the way of argument, and even less in the way of clear-eyed reflection on the theological consequences of his views.

Moltmann’s critique of classical theism should be unpersuasive to anyone who has studied patristics. His concerns about twentieth-century ‘protest atheism’ are not inapt, but it is far from clear how positing a suffering God would really addresses them. He is right—profoundly right— to say that the death of Jesus on the cross should be the center of all Christian theology, but he elucidates this truth in a way that owes more to Hegel than to St Paul. The net result is a panentheistic doctrine of God that lacks both the theological virtues of orthodox Christian theism and the metaphysical virtues of Whiteheadian process theism.

(N.B. to the 2015-16 Finalists: You still have to read Moltmann.)

(3) Overly anthropomorphic worries about divine indifference

I suspect that a lot of people are motivated to say that God suffers because they find human indifference in the face of suffering to be monstrous. There is a strong tendency to assume that a God who cannot suffer would be just as monstrous as a human being who does not suffer. Nobody wants an indifferent, callous God, or a God who does not love those who cry out in need. This feeling is very natural, but sometimes we don’t give enough attention to all the ways in which God must be very different from human beings.

Human suffering is mediated by human bodies. It comes with specific cascades of hormones and is associated with specific brain states. Because God does not have a body, we already know that God cannot suffer in the same way that humans do. Similarly, human suffering is typically colored by (if not caused by) fear and uncertainty, but presumably a sovereign creator God would not be fearful or uncertain, and so again could not suffer in the way that humans do.

Human beings are limited in ways that God is not, because no human being is the sovereign, almighty creator. For precisely this reason, a God who cannot suffer must be something altogether different from a human being who does not suffer. Divine impassibility is not just human indifference writ large.

Now I turn to some better ways of thinking about whether God suffers.

(4) Reflection on the nature of God

One’s views on impassibility need to be consistent with one’s broader views about what God is like. (You can read this as a point about metaphysics or as a point about theology.) Someone who holds that God suffers needs to be prepared to give up on quite a lot of the traditional Christian doctrine of God. For instance, one would have to give up on any strong doctrine of omnipotence and omniscience. (Roughly, my thought here is that a God who has the power to bring about any state of affairs that he wishes and who knows how all future states of affairs will turn out is not able to experience the kind of fear, regret, and uncertainty that are necessary conditions for genuine suffering.)

To come at the matter from the opposite direction, someone who takes it as a basic axiom that God suffers might well be led to endorse process theism, and I think that move would also make sense. Or, relatedly, someone who takes himself to have good reasons for embracing process metaphysics also has good reason to think that God suffers. I find the process theologian much more coherent and persuasive on divine suffering than the putatively orthodox theologian who wants to stick fairly closely to traditional orthodoxy but still wants to say that God suffers. One thing that we can learn from Moltmann is that it is very difficult to make small changes to the orthodox doctrine of God without forcing major changes that one may or may not want.

(5) Reflection on the nature of love

It should be a bedrock claim that God is love, and we should give up on impassibility long before we should give up on the claim that God that loves us. If it is correct to say, with Moltmann, that that which cannot suffer cannot love, then we must affirm that God suffers. So one important dimension of this question is about what it means to love. Is it true that human love implies openness to suffering? If so, is that an essential fact about human (or created?) love as such, or is it contingent on the fact that we live in media res, after the fall and before the eschaton? And even if it is true than human love implies openness to suffering, is that also true of divine love? If not, then what exactly do we mean when we say that God loves us?

(6) How do you sit with Chalcedon?

For Christians, reflection on divine impassibility should properly begin with reflection on the traditional doctrine of the incarnation. Whatever its other merits, Chalcedonian Christology is also meant to answer our worries about divine impassibility. It aims to identify the crucified man Jesus of Nazareth with the divine Logos, on the one hand, while insisting that the Logos cannot suffer, on the other. The doctrine of the two natures of Christ, along with the traditional affirmation of the communicatio idiomatum lets us say that God suffers as a man while denying that God suffers as God.

Here I think we should ask two questions. First, does this Christology make sense? And, second, does it address our worries about divine indifference? If what we want is a God who suffers along with us, who experiences abandonment and loss and pain, then plausibly what we want is a God who suffers human suffering. This is exactly what Chalcedon gives us.

If Chalcedon makes sense, then, the question to ask is: what would God suffering as God give us that God suffering as a man does not?


4 thoughts on “Quodlibetal Questions 1.2 ‘Does God Suffer?’

  1. That Very final question – what does a suffering God offer Give us that God suffering as man doesn’t? – was one of my arguments in my GCS paper. It seems the examiners didn’t find it convincing… I suspect it’s less convincing if one doesn’t understand historical orthodox christology. If one doesn’t grasp a cyrilline/chalcedonian understanding of the incarnation, it might sound like only the human nature suffers, whilst God gets off scot free, as it were (so failing to solve the problem). So, I think you’re right to emphasize the importance of a proper understanding of historical orthodox christology.


  2. While I understand that it is a central part of Christian doctrine that God incarnate suffered the kind of suffering which we suffer, the question is: Can there be any talk of divine suffering prior to the Incarnation?

    a) Can we talk about God as suffering because of Israel’s rejection of God as Lord?

    There seem to be a number of Old Testament passages which appear to suggest that God is indeed disappointed by His people’s failure, offended by their disobedience, wounded by the broken relationship, grieved because of their sins (Genesis 6:6, Jeremiah 31:20, Hosea 11:8-9, Psalm 78: 40-41, Isaiah 54:6, 2 Samuel 19:3, Genesis 45:5, Psalm 56:5 and many more).

    b) Can we talk about God as suffering with the people who are suffering?

    There seem to be support for such a view in many Old Testament passages which depict God as being concerned for his people, suffering with them in their sufferings, mourning, moved to pity, anguished over their situation, weeping, yearning, moaning (Judges 2:18, Deut. 32:36, Psalm 135:14, Psalm 91:5, 23:4, 16:8, Jeremiah 31:20)

    c) Can we talk about God as suffering for the people?

    Again, we have a number of Old Testament passages which describe God as bearing people’s sins, restraining in the face of the suffering of people and thus intensifying his suffering. God gives of self for the relationship with the people, he immerses himself in the depths of Israel’s troubles (Isaiah 42:14, 43:23-24, 48:9, 57:11, Ezek. 20:21-22, Ps. 78:38).


  3. The anthropopathic passages mentioned above are not to be set aside as rather crude ways of speaking of God which are not really appropriate to the reality of God. While anthropopathisms are not to be taken as wooden, literal truths, they certainly are meant to convey some truth about the mind and heart of God.


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