Suffering Subverted: Good Friday, Easter, and Divine Impassibility
Opportunities for meditation on the nature of God’s being often present themselves in surprising places. For example, on Holy Wednesday, I was in a Zoom class at my progressive, mainline Protestant seminary. The class was discussing accessibility for disabled people in the Church. In the course of this discussion a classmate of mine posited the idea that, because God is “super able,” our theology can easily tend to exclude people with disabilities. He then followed up with: “But Holy Week reminds us that we worship a God who is weak and who suffers. Those who are weak can see themselves in God.”
While I understand and appreciate this pastoral impulse, these statements testify to just how far we have wandered from the Christian metaphysic that our fathers took for granted. While a suffering God may be more “inclusive,” such a god would never be someone who could save us. Only a God who cannot suffer could save us on the Cross. The classmate in question is intelligent and well-meaning; I bring the issue up not to disparage him, but to illustrate just how watered down our contemporary theological discourse about the divine attributes has become.
My classmate is by no means the first person to make such a statement; at some point in the last five hundred years or so, many Christians have come to believe that God is merely a being that is “like us, but more.” As Barth famously and prophetically wrote, “One cannot speak of God simply by speaking of man in a loud voice.” But that is exactly what we have done. We assume that, because we suffer, God must also suffer if we are to “see ourselves” in God.
The pastoral implications of such a sermon are not wrong, even if the theological and metaphysical implications are. It is certainly true that too often Christians have turned a blind eye to the suffering of those to whom we are called to minister. Too often we have aligned ourselves with the strong, as though physical, military, and economic strength in this world are somehow evidence of divine favor. Yet our darkest history has nothing to do with who God is, but only how we have failed to live in accordance with His holy laws.
The Christian tradition has long held that God cannot suffer, and that He cannot be roused to anger, compassion, delight, or any emotive response. Known as divine impassibility, this idea is central to Christian metaphysical claims. God’s nature is perfect and perfectly simple. It does not change, no matter what any outside force may do to it. Traditionally, the church has not read scriptural descriptions of God’s anger or delight as literal statements, in the same way we don’t believe that God has a physical back to show Moses or a physical hand in which to hold Israel. God’s wrath is a rich figurative description of the near-infinite distinction between our actions as sinners, and God’s perfect unchangeable nature.
Divine impassibility is related to arguments from causality. When I feel sadness at a news story or joy at an unexpected gift, it is because something outside of myself has acted upon me (in this case, the news story or the gift). Our emotional responses, “the passions” as they are traditionally known, are just that: responses to outside stimuli. No matter how stoic each of us may be, when we feel physical, mental, and emotional pain our bodies, minds, and hearts are responding to things which we did not create and over which we have no authority.
But God’s ways are not like our ways. There is nothing in the world which God did not create and there is nothing over which He does not have authority. God is the first cause, the source of all that is seen and unseen. He is dependent on nothing, and thus His nature is perfectly free. He is free from all passions—nothing in the cosmos can make Him more or less than he already is. He cannot change His mind or His heart. Nothing at all can act on the divine nature and thus, He is completely free from and incapable of any suffering.
It seems easy to point to Holy Week as evidence that God suffers, as my well-meaning seminary classmate did. Holy Week, more than any other time of the Christian year reminds us that Jesus is fully God even while he is fully man—so what then do we make of the torment in the garden, the scourging, the crown of thorns, the nails, the suffocation, and Eli, Eli, lama sabachthani? Isn’t this evidence that God suffers, or at least that God did suffer? Some have found it comforting to think that God undergoes suffering and thus “knows what it is like” for us mere mortals. And it is true that suffering and death are at the very heart of the Paschal mystery. But this mystery calls us to a much more radical understanding of both suffering and redemption.
The Crucifixion is not evidence of divine weakness, but of divine power. It is true that, as a fully human man, Christ fully suffered not only the physical torments of death by crucifixion, but the desertion of his closest friends, the mockery and cruelty of those he loved and to whom he was sent, and the seeming abandonment by the Father in whose love he had lived from before all time. Jesus Christ, Son of God and Son of Mary, took these things upon himself in all their horror. As a man, Jesus descended to the depths of human suffering and the darkest parts of human existence. And, for a moment, it appeared that Hell was going to have the last word. The Son of God was dead. But what the Powers of Hell—those forces which are the root of all death, abandonment, sorrow, and pain—could not see, is that even this could not break the impassible God.
God is incapable of feeling emotion not because He is cold and distant, but because He is love itself. Yet this is not the sentimental and emotional love with which we are familiar, but rather a love which is His very nature. A god that can be acted on by outside forces, one that is subject to emotional whims, passions, arguments and appeals, could never be trusted by its people. The love of that god would be contingent, conditional, and fleeting. But the Scriptures instead reveal a God who even on the Cross is not changed, not suffering, not limited, but who cannot be other than he is. God cannot stop loving us, precisely because He never began to love us within the finite horizon of time. There was never a time when His love was not. All the powers of Hell can rise against Him, and still He cannot be other than love itself.
This is why the classical metaphysical tradition has affirmed that the divine Logos does suffer. God does not submit to suffering and death, but passes through them, subverts them, and vanquishes them. Those powers do not change, alter, diminish, or shape His nature in any way. The Cross is not a validation of suffering and death, but the symbol of their defeat. When suffering in its purest form came face to face with Love itself, the powers of Death were broken, and Christ the victim was Christ the conqueror. The ancient hymn for Good Friday puts it best: “Sing, my tongue, the glorious battle; of the mighty conflict sing; tell the triumph of the victim, to his cross thy tribute bring. Jesus Christ, the world’s Redeemer from that cross now reigns as King.”
As the eternal victor over the powers of change, decay, and death God is what he was before the Incarnation, before the Crucifixion, and before all worlds were made. And because Jesus Christ is God incarnate—fully human in His suffering and fully divine in his impassibility—He brings our wounded nature, the sinful nature that unleashed suffering in the first place, with Him on this conquest. When we are baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we are caught up into the unchangeable and unalterable love that broke death and suffering on the Cross. And thus on Easter morning the God who cannot suffer stands outside the empty tomb, still bearing the wounds of his passion on His physical body, but utterly unchanged in His divinity.
This odd and frightening time is not the time to abandon these teachings in favor of those that may seem more soothing or pastoral. We do not worship a God who is weak, and we do not worship a God who suffers like us. We worship a God who took on suffering, not that he might legitimize our suffering, and not that He might be more like us, but that he might break its power over us and make us more like Him: free from suffering, free from fear, and free to exist eternally as participants within His nature, which is love itself.