When the imprisoned Dietrich Bonhoeffer reflected on the church’s current state of affairs and the darkness of the Second World War, he famously wrote, “Only a suffering God can help us now.”
There is a reason why these words have become so famous. They feel true. Yet I want to cut against the grain and suggest that the exact opposite is true. God does not suffer, and only the impassible God can help us now.
The Suffering of God in Modern Theology
Bonhoeffer’s essential insight is that God suffers alongside us and so is passible. Yet historically Christians rarely taught such a view. Instead, they affirmed that God in Christ experienced suffering. He could do so not because he was divine but because he was human. The single person of Christ remained what he was (divine) and added to himself what he was not (human). Only in this specific sense, God in Christ suffered death, even death on a cross.
Yet the incarnation of Jesus Christ does not change the nature of God! He does not become passible, or able to suffer in his divine nature. That would mean God entered into change and become something he was not. But God does not change. So the Logos became human (John 1:1, 14). He took on the form of a slave (Phil 2:7). And he did so while remaining fully and truly God.
Yet some modern theology and in particular Jürgen Moltmann has emphasized so strongly the revelatory work of the cross that he goes as far as to claim that God suffers out of love for the son. He also claims that the son suffers due the Father’s forsaking of his love for the son (1993: 245).
According to Moltmann, we enter the pathos or suffering of God. Referring to believers, he writes, “He suffers with God’s suffering” (1993: 272).
It is not hard to understand why a suffering God then attracts us. We want God to enter into and experience our suffering. We also understand Scripture to variously describe God grieving, suffering, and loving as we do. So it is natural to assume God experiences emotions like us, suffers like us.
N. T. Wright, for example, writes:
God was grieved to his heart, Genesis declares, over the violent wickedness of his human creatures. He was devastated when his own bride, the people of Israel, turned away from him. And when God came back to his people in person—the story of Jesus is meaningless unless that’s what it’s about—he wept at the tomb of his friend. St. Paul speaks of the Holy Spirit “groaning” within us, as we ourselves groan within the pain of the whole creation. The ancient doctrine of the Trinity teaches us to recognize the One God in the tears of Jesus and the anguish of the Spirit.
And during this age of pandemic that we live in, how comforting would it be to know that God knows how we feel? He is just like us, we sometimes assume.
And yet almost no Christians before this century and the last would have spoken of God like this. Most would have felt it entirely improper and uncomforting to know that God suffers. Why might that be?
The Impassible God in Ancient Christianity
Wright speaks somewhat dismissively of “Some Christians” who “like to think of God as above all that, knowing everything, in charge of everything, calm and unaffected by the troubles in his world.” They are wrong, according to Wright, because “That’s not the picture we get in the Bible.”
And yet early Christians affirmed God’s impassibility, that God cannot suffer as we do. Ignatius, the pastor of Paul’s sending church, wrote around 110 AD of God the “impassible” (IgEph 7.2; IgPoly 3.2). About fifteen years later, Aristides (c. 125 AD) finds it self-evident that God was without cause, eternal, immortal, free from necessity, impassible, free from anger, perfect in memory, and without ignorance (Apol. 1.2). Justin Martyr about thirty years later again affirms God’s impassibility (1 Apol. 1.25).
The letter to Diognetus, written sometime in the 100s, likewise speaks of God without anger (ἀόργητος; Diag. 8:8). In his idiom, to be without anger means something similar to impassible. The same is true for Clement of Rome who wrote sometime in the 90s and could affirm without qualification: “Let us note how free from anger (ἀόργητος) he is toward all his creation” (1 Clem 19:3).
The great second-century theologian Ireneaus (130–202 AD) too affirms the (to him) obvious truth of God’s impassibility (AH 2.13.3–4; 2.12.1; 2.17.5; 2.17.7). His near contemporary Tertullian (155–240 AD) contrasts passible humanity with God and affirms his difference (Ad Marc. 3.7; cf. 2.16). And Origen writing in the early 200s can once again affirm without qualification: “God must be believed to be altogether impassible and free from all these affections” (On First Principles, 2.4.4).
These Christians represent the effective history of the church and the apostolic teaching. And they are not ignorant of Scripture—actually many of them know Scripture by memory and with greater depths than we do! These Christians did not deny that Scripture speaks of God grieving or being angry. They understood God to have an affective life.
Even Origen can admit that God “suffers something of love” when we pray to him (Hom. Ezek. 6.6.3). Yet here Origen has in mind not that God’s love fluctuates or is affected by biology; rather, God’s love lifts us up in a steady and sure way (Hom. Ezek. 6.6.3).
What does Impassibility Mean?
If early Christians affirmed the doctrine, and they knew Scripture and theology well, what did they mean?
Moltmann claims that the impassibility of God has its roots in Greek thinking. So he writes of Christian theologians, “they have simply added together Greek philosophy’s ‘apathy’ axiom and the central statements of the gospel” (1981: 22).
Moltmann misjudges the historical character of the doctrine, however. In fact, affirming divine impassibility helped the early Christians to define God against Greek notions of divinity. For the Greeks, the gods were full of passion and lawlessness (so Aristides, Apol. 7.1). They had bodies like we do. They committed adultery. They killed. They exploited.
God is not like the gods of the Greeks. According to Scripture, God is Spirit, and so he does not follow the passions of the body. He does not get tired and weak. He does not get angry because he is hungry. He does not have hormones that make his mood change. He is utterly unlike the false gods. And he is so because he is impassible.
Scripture itself led Christians to make such affirmations. Yes, they used Greek words and concepts to communicate the truth. But so did the apostles who wrote the New Testament in Greek! That translation was already underway.
Impassibility does not then borrow Greek philosophy and proffer up a static god. Instead, impassibility may be understood to affirm the goodness and freedom of God who cannot be compelled to sin or go back on his word or even interrupt his love for us.
Since he is impassible, he freely shares his goodness with us apart from any compulsion but simply out of his beneficent goodness.
The alternative is unthinkable but often affirmed on the basis that God must have emotions as we do because Scripture speaks of God’s emotions. Yet Scripture also says that God is everywhere, Spirit, and all-knowing. So God is like us yet also differs from us.
Christians, therefore, have understood our knowledge of God to be analogical. Analogical knowledge means that “Yes” God has emotions but “no” they are not just like ours because we have human bodies and constitutions. His emotions befit a divine being who is Spirit, immortal, incorrupt and so on.
So he never lets rage nor sadness overcome him. Whatever God feels, he does so as God and not as we are. And such emotions (or whatever we should call them) express via God’s simple, immutable nature.
Why Only the Impassible God Can Help Us Now
We want a God whose love is so perfect and pure that John can say: God is love (1 John 4:8). We do not want a god who can love more or less. We want a God whose perfect love for us never falters or changes despite the darkest of days.
If God could suffer pains of the body, he would be no God; he would be a human. If God could get angry due to hunger, then he is a creature. If God’s mood changes on the basis of weather, hormones, or heat, then his love does not outpour upon us with constancy.
If God could suffer the pains of loss, his love could be an act of protection to avoid loss. But God loves freely without any need to protect himself. He is open and never-closing.
If God could lose what he has, what hope do you have that he could lose you? If God’s love changes, then can something come between you and God’s love for you in Christ Jesus?
God did become human in Christ Jesus, and so he experienced everything that by nature divinity could not. But through this mysterious union of divinity and humanity, Christ’s divinity and humanity did not mix together to create a third thing. Christ’s two natures kept their integrity: he was fully God and fully man, not a mixture of the two.
And so even in the incarnation, God considered in himself remains impassible. And what a glory that is because apart from the impassible God there is no ever-beneficent flow of Goodness.
And when we enter into suffering, we need a God whose affections for us does not rely on his self-preservation or our response but solely on his good and loving nature.
In difficult days like today, only the impassible God can help us.