Against the Suffering God

Barth’s formulation of the classical doctrine of impassibility is largely correct in his insistence that while God does indeed have a heart and is moved to compassion, it is a free movement from within Himself, and not a movement that occurs as a result of an outside force. Barth moves the idea of impassibility/passibility away from suffering and towards compassion, love and freedom and in doing so retains a personal, loving God who acts from within His own freedom and His own fullness of love to aid those who are suffering.

Why can’t God suffer, though? Three reasons that I find particularly convincing:

(1) For God to suffer would mean that God is a part of the created order. For God to suffer would mean that an aspect of the created order (not to say that evil, which causes suffering, is a created thing – it simply ‘exists’ in the created order of nature) could affect the uncreated order. Thus God’s wholly other-ness and transcendence is violated, making Him part of the same created order within which evil works. God then becomes little more than a being-among-other-beings.

(2) If God can suffer, then suffering, caused by evil, would cause God to experience the deprivation that causes suffering. For God to experience suffering means that He is deprived of some kind of good or goodness – and thus is no longer wholly good or goodness itself.

(3) This is a point made by David Bentley Hart in ‘The Doors of the Sea’:

‘…if God’s love were in any sense shaped by sin, suffering and death, then sin, suffering and death would always be in some sense features of who he is. This not only means evil is a distinct reality over against God, and God’s love something inherently deficient and reactive; it also means that evil would somehow be a part of God, and that goodness would require evil to be good. Such a God could not be love, even if in some sense he should prove to be “loving”. Nor would he be the good as such. He, like us, would be a synthesis of death and life.’ (p. 78)

Against the common rejoinder that the doctrine of impassibility is an import of Greek metaphysics which makes God into a static, lifeless and emotionless rock, I answer that:

(1) Far from the doctrine of God making God static, it affirms the dynamic nature of the fullness of Trinitarian love which God has by positing, as apophatic boundaries, that God does not have or undergo the fickle passions that humans (and the Greek gods) are subject to. Thomas Weinandy makes this point well:

‘Contemporary theologians wrongly hold that the attribute of impassibility is ascribing something positive of God, that is, that He is static, lifeless and inert, and so completely devoid of passion. This the Fathers never countenanced. The Fathers were merely denying of God those passions that would imperil or impair those biblical attributes that were constitutive of His divine being. They wished to preserve the wholly otherness of God, as found in Scripture, and equally, also in accordance with Scripture, to profess and enrich, in keeping with His complete otherness, an understanding of His passionate love and perfect goodness.’

(2) The early church reacted against the Aristotelian idea of God as only a Prime Mover by positing, on the basis of biblical revelation, His uncreated-ness and wholly other-ness. Again, as Thomas Weinandy argues in the same essay:

‘In keeping with biblical revelation, as opposed to pagan mythologies, they were concerned with upholding the complete otherness of the one God in relationship to the created order. They accentuated and clarified, against Platonism and Aristotelianism, that God did not merely order or set in motion preexistent matter but that, by His almighty power, He created all out of nothing”creatio ex nihilo . God was then no longer merely at the pinnacle of a hierarchy of being, but His transcendence, as Creator, radically placed Him within a distinct ontological order of His own. As such He was the perfectly good and loving personal God who eternally existed in and of Himself.’

Impassibility, far from being a static, lifeless conception of God, is an affirmation of His free love, compassion and fullness of being.

10 thoughts on “Against the Suffering God

  1. Chris Falter October 6, 2014 / 1:37 pm

    I’m curious, Josh: how does this formulation of impassibility (in particular, the notion that God cannot suffer because He would be part of the created order) square with the teaching that God the Son did indeed incarnate Himself into our created order, and He “suffered, died, and was buried”? I’m not saying this seeming contradiction between Barth and the Nicene Creed cannot be reconciled…but I’m having a hard time seeing it through, myself. What are your thoughts?


    • whitefrozen October 6, 2014 / 2:52 pm

      Im on my phone at the moment so ill just paste a section from Weinandys essay:

      “First, in accordance with the authentic Christological tradition, the eternal, all-perfect, and immutable Son of God experienced, as man, human weakness, frailty, suffering, and death in a truly and authentically human manner. He who is impassible as God was truly passible as man. As Cyril of Alexandria poignantly put it: “The Impassible suffers.” However, since it was the Son of God who suffered, did He not equally experience such suffering within His divinity? No, for suffering is caused by the loss of some good, and while as man the Son was deprived of His human well-being and life, He was not deprived of any divine perfection or good. Moreover, to hold that the Son suffered as God would mean that He experienced our human suffering in a mitigated divine manner, and thus that He did not truly experience authentic human suffering. God in the end would not truly experience suffering and death as men experience suffering and death.”

      Youd enjoy the essay, I highly recommend it.


    • whitefrozen October 6, 2014 / 4:27 pm

      I think its also helpful to keep in mind the hypostatic union – Christ unites the divine and human in one person, without the co-mingling of either. He is very God and very Man – and suffers as Man. Hart makes the point well:

      ‘… Inasmuch as as the divine Word truly became man, and inasmuch as there is but one Person or hypostasis in Christ, God the Word has experienced pain and death in their fullest depth. The teaching merely affirms two logically necessary truths. First, that susceptibility to suffering (which is a limitation, not a capacity) is a natural property of Christ’s humanity, not his divinity, which does not in fact in any fashion endanger the unity of Christ (since it is not ones “nature” that is the subject if any experience but ones or son, and so logically it is indeed the divine Word who suffered).

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Christina Johnston October 7, 2014 / 8:38 pm

    I haven’t read any of Barth, so please excuse my ignorance (I’m a newbie to the world of theology), but would Barth argue, then, that the doctrines that speak of the “emotions” of God fall into the doctrine of His condescension, to make himself more understandable to finite creatures?


    • whitefrozen October 7, 2014 / 8:46 pm

      Thanks for the thought provoking question.

      Barth would most likely argue that God does indeed have an “emotional life” – he explicitly states that God has a heart. On this particular issue I don’t think Barth would argue that because this issue isn’t connected so much with revelation or our understanding of it. He would warn against anthropomorphisms taken too far – against interpreting Gods love, compassion, mercy against our own experience of conscious emotion. So in a way then, I suppose you would in fact be correct to identify this as a subjet having to do with condescension insofar as Barth would likely say that while the descriptions of Gods emotions tell us literal truths of God they aren’t mean to be taken literalistically.


      • Christina Johnston October 7, 2014 / 8:52 pm

        Thanks for the reply. That makes a lot of sense. So, would he affirm something along the lines of God’s emotions being a perfect expression of said emotion and completely incomparable to ours? E.g., God’s jealousy being a perfect desire for the worship and adoration of the beloved creature versus our petty jealousy of someone with a possession or circumstance we want.


        • whitefrozen October 7, 2014 / 9:02 pm

          Well, I read Barth as basically in line with the classical tradition (though he modifies and rejects some aspects) so I don’t really see him as saying God perfectly expresses all emotions – Barth argues that the act of Gods love is his being, essence and nature, and that Gods love is perfectly free love. I think its reasonable to interpret Barth as making the classical assertion that God doesn’t so much have emotions like we do but rather we experience His love as wrath, grief, etc. The changes in God aren’t predicated upon God but rather the upon the attitude/heart of the people experiencing Him.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s