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Does God suffer?
The question of the passibility of God is one critical to Christian theology, for a number of reasons. Firstly, the notion of a suffering God appears, at least initially, to challenge the philosophical conception of the Christian God as immutably, eternally perfect and transcendent. Secondly, the notion of the suffering of God comes most keenly into focus in relation to our attempts to correctly understand the events of Jesus' death from a theological perspective, specifically with regard to how God and Christ relate to one another within the person of Jesus, and what aspects of God are revealed through the cross. Further, it appears that the question of God's suffering has importance for our understanding of the nature of love, and how God's love interacts with the world. We should begin our discussion by examining the first two of these reasons in tandem, asking both whether the notion of Jesus suffering on the cross need imply that God himself has suffered, and whether God's involvement in Jesus' suffering on the cross presents a genuine challenge to the traditional Christian claims that God is both immutable and incapable of suffering. That an ability to suffer is vital to God's capacity to love fully will become clear in the course of this discussion, and I will go on to conclude firstly that no assertion that God is able to experience suffering, when properly couched and understood, should stand against the existence of the Christian God, and further that the incarnation and crucifixion are only of value to Christianity as interactions between God and the world if they include and entail God's suffering to some extent. The importance of the events of the crucifixion, and the symbolic value of the cross, to Christianity can hardly be over-estimated, as they stand as the culmination of God's direct and defining intervention in human history, and the willing sacrifice of one man, however divine, for the good of all men. Moltmann asserts that we can only do justice to the centrality and importance of the cross in Christianity if we conclude that God was involved in Christ's suffering on the cross, since this centrality and importance derives from the nature of God as having given without requirement something of himself, for the good of mankind. We have not fully understood the soteriological importance of the crucifixion, Moltmann asserts, until we have understood its significance to God himself.1 It is for this reason that Moltmann declines to adopt what is described as a 'two natures' Christology - namely, and most simply, that within the person of Jesus resides both a human nature and a wholly distinct divine nature. By such a Christology we could reasonably assert that only Jesus the human suffered on the cross, and that Jesus the Son, as part of the Trinity, did not suffer, and thus the impassibility of God might be preserved. The development of the 'two natures' Christology in the early Church, alongside a number of other attempts to resolve the problem of Christ's suffering and what it meant for God, allowed the Church to hone its understanding of the events of the cross through successive controversies regarding subsequently-heretical theologies such as Docetism and Nestorianism. 2 The Docetist claim asserted that Christ was fully divine, and that, as such, Jesus' human experiences on earth did not involve his divine nature. Docetists, then, asserted the unqualified impassibility of God, but at the cost of the 1 J Moltmann, The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ As the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology, trans. RA Wilson and J Bowden (London: SCM, 1974) 2 P Gavrilyuk, The Suffering of the Impassible God: The Dialectics of Patristic Thought (Oxford: OUP, 2004)
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