The God Who Suffers

An online acquaintance said this:

Pardon me while I think out loud, as it were. I had occasion last night to sit and ponder death. Within 20 minutes I discovered it had impacted two people that are a part of my and Dryad’s life.

There is a woman in our neighborhood we call the tamale lady. Every couple of weeks she comes around selling pork, beef and chicken tamales that she has made by hand, 7$ a dozen. There are delicious; we buy them almost every time she comes. I hadn’t seen her in several weeks, then last night she showed up the usual smile absent from her face, but carrying the familiar bag. I asked her how she had been, and told her we’d missed her and worried for her, which was true. She said she hadn’t been in the mood, or had the time in a while. Then she pointed to the sky and said,”My husband, he go away April 26.” Tears leaped up to my eyes, all I could say was I was sorry. We exchanged tamales and money, and she walked off a sad smile on her face.

He then went on to make several thoughtful observations and closed with this:

Overlaid all of this is the fact that God Himself promises, there will be no more fear, no more pain, no more grief and suffering, and that the wounds we carried will be healed and soothed by His own hand. How can I not desire that place? My true home, in time to come, where I will have all of time to explore God’s handiwork to my great delight and contentment, and in so doing worship Him in a way I was made to do so, with all of those who, throughout history, have loved Him for his great mercy and compassion.

Now, let me share with you my response:

Some random thoughts inspired by your out loud thinking:

This world is not my home.

Do you know who first thought and said that? The Gnostics. The first Christian heretics. Gnosticism was a dualism heresy; a kind of Greek re-working of Buddhist dualism.

This world is my home! And the blessed hope is not going to heaven, but God setting right a world gone wrong. Heaven is a interim stop between death and the resurrection and new creation. The hope of the Gospel is fulfilled in the resurrection. Yes, I believe in life after death. But more importantly, I believe in life after life after death. In other words, I’m no Platonist or neo-Gnostic satisfied with a disembodied state in the realm of ethereal forms — I am a Christian longing for the resurrection of the dead and a world set to rights!

One of the tenants of Gnosticism that survived the various councils was the doctrine of divine impassibility. It is a doctrine that says God is impassive and derives no pain or pleasure from the action of beings outside Himself; i.e. God is without emotion. This philosophy was originally developed by Plato and Aristotle and then co-opted by the early church fathers who were prone to be far more Greco-Christian than Judeo-Christian. Origen, Augustine, Aquinas, Calvin all believed in divine impassibility. In fact, one could say that all of the church fathers, medieval theologians and Reformed theologians (with the exception of Luther) believed in divine impassibility. The notion that God is impassive, emotionless and cannot suffer was the orthodox position until the 20th century.


That’s the issue here.

Gnosticism was largely an attempt to develop a doctrine where all suffering could be eliminated. It plotted a course very similar to that of Siddhartha Gautama (Buddha) involving attaining a state of detachment (impassivity). Of course to develop a doctrine wherein there is the potential escape from all suffering, you must make freedom form suffering an attribute of God. Thus, divine impassibility or the God who cannot suffer.

As I said, divine impassibility was widely accepted by theologians until the 20th century. But today divine impassibility is almost entirely rejected. What happened?

The Holocaust.

The Holocaust forced theologians to reconsider divine impassibility. Could God really be impassive to such horrific human suffering? The instinctive answer is, no.

The other effect the Holocaust had on theological thought was it forced the church to face its tacit anti-Semitism. In so doing, theologians “discovered” that Jesus was Jewish and that Christianity has Jewish roots. Of course the God of the Jewish scriptures (the Old Testament) was never impassive and emotionless; the God of Israel was so connected to His people in covenant that He suffered with them and experienced a wide range of emotions. It was Plato and Aristotle that gave the notion of divine impassibility to the church, not Moses or Paul. And the bottom line is Plato is not a prophet and Aristotle is not an apostle.

The doctrine of divine impassibility died in the Holocaust.

Writing from his Nazi prison cell a short time before his execution a 38 year old Lutheran pastor and theologian by the name of Dietrich Bonhoeffer said this:

Only the suffering God can help.

What help can an emotionless God who cannot suffer be to a suffering people?

But God does suffer…with us and for us.

By His wounds we are healed.

As far as I’m concerned the doctrine of divine impassibility can be dashed to pieces with the shortest verse in the Bible:

Jesus wept.

God has suffered. God does suffer. God suffers because He wills to love. God is not impassive, God is love.

Holocaust survivor and Nobel laureate, Elie Wiesel, has often said, “The opposite of love is not hatred, but indifference.”

God is not indifferent, God is love.

Elie Wiesel tells of three Jews being hung while he was at Auschwitz; two men and a youth. The two men died quickly, but the youth hung by his neck for half an hour. While being forced to watch this horrible spectacle a voice behind Elie asked, “Where is God?” A little while later the voice again asked, “Where is He?” Elie answered, “He is here, he is on the gallows.”

In a mystical way Elie Wiesel is right. God has hung on a gallows. The gallows of the cross. He suffered and died upon the gallows of the cross.

And Jesus rose from the dead. Death is defeated. Death is not the end. Death is not the death that used to be. And this is the hope I have for the world: The resurrection of the dead the dawn of a new creation. And quite honestly, I know of no other hope. This is the hope for all the “tamale ladies” of this broken world.

Yes, the problem of pain is a problem for the theist. But it is just as big a problem for the atheist. The atheist has to explain why there is a sense of justice in the first place and why Dostoevsky’s Ivan Karamazov is not right in saying, “Without God all things are permitted.” No one really wants to live in a world were “all things are permitted” anarchists be damned (and they are — Satan himself being the ultimate anarchist!). In a world without God what is the foundation for justice? Or why is there even the idea of justice? An ontological argument for justice leads to the Ontological Argument for God. Thus the problem of pain for the atheist.

I’ve thought much about the philosophical implications of death a lot over the past few years and I have arrived at this conclusion: You have two honest options…

Jesus Christ or Friedrich Nietzsche.

The will to power or the will to love.

God is dead or God has risen from the dead.

The Superman of the Son of Man.

The Ubermensch or the Incarnation.

Anything in between is either shoddy thinking or a cowardly cop out.

I’ve made my choice.

I choose Jesus.
I choose the Son of Man.
I choose the Incarnation.
I choose the will to love.
I choose the God who died.
I choose the God who rose again.
I choose the God who suffers.
I choose the God who heals.

This is my hope!