“Only the Suffering God Can Help”

“Only the Suffering God Can Help”
Brian Zahnd

Very early in the development of Christian theology the doctrine of divine impassibility ascended to an unquestioned status. Commonly understood, divine impassibility asserts that God is not a subject of any passion, including pain and suffering. Throughout long centuries the doctrine of divine impassibility rested undisturbed and rarely visited in the library of Christian thought. But then came the twentieth century when advancements in technology tragically increased the capacity for human suffering. At the same time that our species was making significant advancements in medical science that lessened the suffering of disease, we also learned how to mechanize war and how to subject large portions of human beings to totalitarian control. From the Gatling gun to the hydrogen bomb, from the Third Reich to Pol Pot, the capacity to inflict suffering became exponential. The crematoriums of Auschwitz and the killing fields of Cambodia haunt our memories and torture our imaginations. In the ghastly light of the Holocaust the language of divine impassibility became untenable. From his cell in the Flossenbürg concentration camp shortly before his execution at the hands of the Nazis, Dietrich Bonhoeffer penned these words: “Only the suffering God can help.”

After Auschwitz, the idea of divine impassibility had to be revisited. To be fair to the Greek Church Fathers, their intention was never to suggest that God lacks the capacity to know human suffering. The triune God not only knows the sufferings of Christ, but knows the sufferings of each and every one of us. The question for the ancient theologians was not does God know suffering, but how does God know suffering. Does God know suffering as the omniscient Creator who transcends time or as a being within time? On the level of academic theology I think the language of divine impassibility still has currency, but on a popular level — and ultimately this is the level that matters — we must find better ways of talking about God and suffering. This is what Bonhoeffer as a theologian and a pastor (and a sufferer!) understood.

What lurks behind all of this is the thorny question of theodicy — the attempt to reconcile the seemingly irreconcilable. Christians claim that the God revealed in Jesus Christ is all-loving, all-knowing, and all-powerful, yet the world we live in is full of unjust suffering. We confess that the living God is Love, yet babies get brain cancer and brides die on their wedding day. How do we reconcile this? We can’t ignore the troubling question of the problem of pain for at least a couple of reasons. First of all, we probably have to face the question in our own lives; and secondly, the problem of pain is the most formidable weapon in the arsenal of the angry atheist. I’m convinced that any credible theodicy must eventually involve an appeal to free will. Without authentic freedom, we do not actually exist as authentic beings. In the world of theological determinism, we are essentially just a movie playing in God’s head. To be something other than a figment of God’s imagination we must have some degree of real freedom. But that freedom seems to come at a tragically high price.

The only satisfying theodicy (if there is such a thing) is that human suffering may be the price for authentic being, but God has not exempted Godself from this experience. God does not stand aloof from human suffering, but fully participates in it with us. Through Christ as the “Man of Sorrows” human suffering enters the fellowship of the Trinity. This is not merely the comfort of divine solidarity with human suffering (though it’s that, too). Rather, Christian eschatological hope asserts that suffering is not the end. It is not human pain, but divine love that will have the final say. The Apostle Peter echoes Isaiah when he says, “by his wounds we are healed.” When we bring our wounds to the wounds of Christ, it does not multiply woundedness but begins the healing process. And yet Christian hope for healing in Christ is even more bold. For we confess that in the end death itself will be fully undone. The undoing began on the first Easter and now, amidst our woundedness, we await the day when death is destroyed “so that God may be all in all.” This is our echoing hope.


This is from my afterword for Echoing Hope by Kurt Willems.

The artwork is from the Isenheim Altarpiece (1516) by Matthias Grünewald in Alsace, France. I saw this altarpiece in 2016.