Can God Suffer?


One of the most heated theological topics discussed in recent years has been the issue as to whether or not God can suffer. The classical or traditional position on this matter was well summed up back in the 11th century by Saint Bernard of Clairvaux who said that although God cannot suffer, he can be compassionate. But how can that be, when the word “compassion” means “suffering with” or sharing another’s pain. So can we have it both ways, namely, that God as God is incapable of suffering, yet in some way nevertheless shares or feels our human pain?

        The obvious answer, at least from the Christian point of view, centers around what we believe happened when Jesus died on the cross. On the one hand, during the past century, we have had conservative Protestant theologians like Karl Barth, who asserted that everything that happened to Jesus also happened to God, or when have his more liberal-leaning disciple, Jurgen Moltmann, who provocatively titled one of his best-known books “The Crucified God”.  However, on the other hand, we also had Karl Rahner, who is considered (at least by theological liberals) to have been the greatest Catholic theologian of the 20th century, who late in life admitted in an interview “It does not help me to escape from my mess and mix-up and despair if God is in the same predicament.For if God, who is the ground or foundation of all that exists, is subject to the same kind of quantum uncertainties of material existence that we are, and is liable to cosmic accidents that evolutionary science reveals, then we stand on shaky ground indeed!

        One answer to this theological dilemma is to make a fine distinction in this regard by saying that God cannot suffer in the sense of being inflicted from outside (that is, by his creation) against his will, but that at the same time God can choose, out of love, to share our sufferings -- as is graphically demonstrated in the death of Christ, who is “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), on the cross. But the problem to that answer is still to explain exactly how much of the reality is to be found in the image. To what extent is it really true that “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself” (2 Cor 5:19)?

        One answer to that question can be found in the great hymn found in the Epistle to the Philippians (2:6-11) which speaks of Christ as being in the “form” or “likeness” of God, but who “emptied” himself taking on the form of a servant or slave and was “obedient unto death, even to death on a cross”. A long-standing Christian tradition has generally interpreted this passage as referring not just to Jesus in his humanity allowing himself to be humiliated and mistreated, but even more to his emptying himself of his divine status by being born into our world in the first place. Another answer, based on the Apostle John’s teaching that “God is love” (1 John 4:   8), is that it is of the very nature of God to be self-giving or self-emptying. 

        Understood either way, Christ’s death on the cross was more than just an injustice or a tragic accident.  For Christians, it is understood as a sign of God’s ultimate gift of himself to humanity, so that we, in turn, might, at least to some degree, share in his divinity.  Christians believe that if God has shared in our sufferings through the crucifixion of Jesus Christ, then his resurrection from death is the opposite side, so to speak, of the coin or price paid for our redemption.  Thus, if the death of Christ has cancelled the debt of our guilt, his rising from the dead gives us hope that we all can somehow share in his resurrection.


R W Kropf               4/20/11                                Can God Suffer?.doc     11-04-20.html