Monday, July 12, 2021

A Christian argument against divine suffering

Some Christians think that God changes and is capable of changing emotions such as suffering. Now, if God is capable of suffering, then God feels empathetic suffering whenever an evil befalls us, and does so to the extent of how bad he understand the evil to be.

The worst evil that can happen to us is to sin. God knows how bad our sin is better than any human being can. Thus, if God can suffer, he suffers compassionately for our sins. He suffers this qua God and independently of any Incarnation, more intensely than any human being can.

But if so, that undercuts one of the central points of the Incarnation, which is to allow the Second Person of the Trinity to suffer for our sins.

A view on which God is capable of emotions such as suffering makes the Incarnation and Christ’s sacrifice of the Cross rather underwhelming: God’s divine suffering would be greater than Christ’s suffering on the Cross. This is theologically unacceptable.


Michael Gonzalez said...

A few questions about this:

1) Wouldn't empathy merely require that He feel suffering when we suffer, and do so to the extent of how severe the suffering is? In other words, God's empathetic (em + pathos) suffering would be related, not to how objectively "bad" our situation is, but to how much we are suffering.

2) If there is a tension between the Incarnation doctrine and the teaching that God feels empathetic suffering, it seems to me the latter will win on Scriptural grounds. The Scriptures indicate that God feels empathetic suffering when we suffer (Exodus 3:7; Isaiah 63:9; Zechariah 2:8...) and even that our sins can cause Him emotional pain or joy (contrast Psalm 78:38-41 with Proverbs 27:11).

The Incarnation, on the other hand, is not taught in Scripture (it never says God came Himself; it says God sent someone else.... John 3:16; John 6:38; Romans 8:32; Hebrews 10:5-7... ref. also John 1:18 and John 17:3-5.).

3) Even leaving (2) entirely aside, why is it theologically unacceptable that Christ suffered more than any other human and sufficiently to serve as a sympathetic High Priest (Hebrews 2:17, 18 and 4:15, 16) just because it turns out that there is a non-human agent that has suffered more (namely, God)? I don't see how any of the things the Bible says about Jesus' sacrifice are in any way under tension from the idea that his Father suffered even more.

Alexander R Pruss said...


Ad 1: Technically, you're right about empathy. I tried to skirt the issue by going between "empathetic" and "compassionate". The thing is that we don't have a good word here. What I mean is this. When you love someone, you suffer when they are doing badly, whether or not they themselves are feeling any suffering. In English in these cases we say you "feel for" your friend. Your best friend's spouse is cheating on them or everyone is saying bad things about your best friend behind their back, but they don't know about it. You feel for your friend, perhaps quite intensely, even though your friend isn't suffering. In fact, perhaps, you feel more intensely for your friend because they aren't suffering.

I think the idea is that the virtuous human has an empathetic-like reaction not just to the actual sufferings of those they love, but to the sufferings that those they love *should* have if they were in a position to have them (i.e., if they knew the facts, etc.), and in the latter case the empathetic-like feelings can be even more intense. The wicked person *should* be cut to the heart by what they are doing--but often is not.

Ad 2: As of course you know, the Church Fathers have a well-developed theory of accommodation to explains these kinds of texts, so we probably shouldn't reprise that discussion. I do have one thought, though, that might take things in a different direction from how the Church Fathers do. There are radical treatments for extreme pain where the patient ends up reporting that they feel the pain just as they always did, but they don't *mind* the pain. If we take it seriously, we might describe it as this: they have the pain but do not suffer and are not made worse off by the pain. If so, we might have a theory that can explain these texts, on which God can feel pain, but without suffering.

Ad 3: I am, of course, assuming orthodox Christianity here. So I am assuming that the Logos is God. Thus, if my argument is right, if God can suffer _qua_ God, then the Logos *already* suffered even more (_qua_ God) for our sins prior to becoming a sympathetic High Priest. This seems quite wrong.

Michael Gonzalez said...


I see what you mean about the suffering, beyond mere empathy when they suffer. Yes, this does seem like it would be a serious puzzle for someone who wanted to affirm the Trinity and Incarnation as well as Biblical statements about God's emotions. Some sort of "accommodation", as you put it, would need to be made. I do feel like "the one touching you is touching the pupil of my eye" loses all meaning if we add "and I don't mind". Why make the statement at all, then? But, in any case, I'm probably not the right person to comment on this sort of issue.

Alexander R Pruss said...

The accommodation story would note that God exhibits the kind of behavior that someone who suffers for our pain does.

Michael Gonzalez said...

I have to ask, though: Don't statements like "when they were distressed it was distressing to Him" or "they kept grieving Him in the desert" or "be wise and make my heart rejoice" give the wrong impression if God does not actually feel emotions in response to our actions? These statements aren't about actions He takes, but purely about what He feels.

Alexander R Pruss said...

Another aspect, besides the behavioral, may be Aquinas' external-wellbeing story. One's wellbeing includes the wellbeing of those one loves. This is not mediated by feelings. Thus, if something bad happens to someone I love, I am thereby worse off--even if I don't feel anything about it (say, because I am asleep). We can then get a richer, but faithful to the Tradition, notion of divine distress if we include both behavioral and external-wellbeing components. And maybe we can include a sufferingless-pain as well.

Michael Gonzalez said...

External wellbeing is expressed in terms like "harm" or "bad"; the terms God used in the Bible are specifically emotions/feelings. I think the tradition is mistaken. And, since tradition and church authority are not my reasons for taking the books of the Bible to be inspired of God, there's no contradiction in my own case for saying "the Bible says this, so church authority is wrong".

But that's all more theological, rather than addressing the specific philosophical and conceptual concern you raised originally. In terms of trying to uphold all those pieces you mentioned, I agree there is an interesting conceptual puzzle about God's experience of empathetic suffering.

Wesley C. said...

Couldn't one just make a distinction between emotions as finite physical things and emotions in the sense of attitudes that God can indeed possess? Since God isn't physical and is timeless, if we ascribe emotion to God it can't be exactly how they are in us - it may be more along the lines of being purely attitudes, or containing the reality of what these emotions are in us but in an eminent way without the limitations that they imply for us.

So God could really be said to be grieved about things or even to suffer, but not in the way we suffer via physical emotions in time and via implied loss in essential perfection.

And the Incarnation is still important in this case as it would be God taking on a unique finite mode of a reality which exists in us as emotion, even if He can be said to have emotion in a different, non-limited, non-physical and non-imperfective way.

Wesley C. said...

Another option includes considerations about God's will as related to creation - for example, God can be said to truly delight and enjoy His creation, yet this doesn't imply a change or lack in God's essential perfection. One way to solve this would be to say that God's will finds accidental and finite delight in created things, while it finds essential and infinite ddelight in Himself (which is also how our wills should function in Heaven with the Beatific Vision), so delight in creation can't add to His essence. In this way, we might even be able to describe God suffering or being grieved by creatures - it's His will as moved towards finite things that is grieved in a finite way, without diminishing His essential happiness in Himself and His will as related to Himself.