The Suffering God

Divine passibility in modern theology by Richard Bauckham

Divine suffering and theodicy

“It is part of the character of the specially modern awareness of the problem of suffering that any attempt to justify human suffering, in all its enormity, is ruled out. An authentic human response to suffering must always retain an element of protest against suffering which cannot be justified. Hence the autocratic God of absolute power who simply presides over this suffering world and cannot himself be reached by suffering appears a cosmic monster. It seems possible to justify God (‘theodicy’) only if he too suffers. ‘The only credible theology for Auschwitz is one that makes God an inmate of the place.’ Though this is a widespread motive for reflection on divine suffering, again it is Moltmann (in The Crucified God) who has made this the central feature of his approach to the issue and focused it on the cross. He sees the theology of the crucified God as opening a way forward in relation to the problem of suffering, beyond the unsatisfactory alternatives of ‘metaphysical theism’, with its impassible God, and ‘protest atheism’, with its rebellion against a world in which innocent suffering happens. Theism cannot explain suffering without justifying it, but nor can atheism keep up its protest against suffering without the longing for God’s righteousness in the world. The crucified God, however, shares in the suffering of the world, and in Jesus’ dying question he himself takes up humanity’s protest against suffering and the open question of God’s righteousness in the world. Thus for the sufferer God is not just the incomprehensible God who inflicts suffering, but ‘the human God, who cries with him and intercedes for him with his cross where man in his torment is dumb’. God himself maintains the protest against suffering.

However, if God were only ‘the fellow-sufferer who understands’ (Whitehead), it is arguable that the problem of suffering would be, not alleviated, but aggravated. It is no consolation to the sufferer to know that God is as much a helpless victim of evil as he is himself. In answer to this, Moltmann can argue, first, that the divine solidarity with sufferers does help in that it transforms the character of suffering: it heals the deepest pain in human suffering, which is godforsakenness. But secondly, and characteristically, Moltmann will not isolate the cross from the resurrection: ‘Without the resurrection, the cross really is quite simply a tragedy and nothing more than that.’ The resurrection is God’s promise of liberation from suffering for all those with whom Christ is identified in his cross, the godless and the godforsaken. In the cross all human suffering is taken within God’s own ‘trinitarian history’ in hope for the joy of God’s eschatological future. God ‘is vulnerable, takes suffering and death on himself in order to heal, to liberate and to confer new life. The history of God’s suffering in the passion of the Son and the sighings of the Spirit serves the history of God’s joy in the Spirit and his completed felicity at the end. That is the ultimate goal of God’s history of suffering in the world.’ The message of divine suffering would be no gospel without the message of the divine victory over suffering.”


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