The doctrine of divine impassibility was widely assumed by Christian theologians throughout the history of the church. But that consensus was fractured in the twentieth century with the decline of a widely held theological model belatedly known as “classical theism”. With the fracturing of a consensus on the classical theist model, several divine attributes were called into question, among them omniscience, atemporal eternity, and simplicity.
Arguably, the classical attribute subject to the most criticism has been divine impassibility, the claim that God does not suffer. The objections to impassibility have been many. To my mind, the most compelling objections focus on arguments from incarnation and have the following basic structure:
(1) Jesus Christ suffered.
(2) Jesus Christ is a divine person.
(3) Therefore, a divine person suffered.
(4) If a divine person suffered then divine impassibility is false.
(5) Therefore, divine impassibility is false.
But many other objections have been rather poor and misguided. Among the worst is based on the mistaken assumption that impassibility somehow entails apathy. In other words, if God doesn’t suffer when we suffer then God doesn’t care that we suffer. In still other words, if God doesn’t suffer with us then God doesn’t love us.
While that bit of reasoning has struck many people as compelling, the fact is that it is deeply flawed. After all, God the Father sent his Son Jesus to live the perfect life and die an atoning death to bring about the healing of creation. If that isn’t indicative of care and love then what is it?
But how can God love us if he doesn’t share in our suffering? This too is deeply misguided. And by way of rebuttal, I offer a quote from the doctor on The Horn.
Allow me to explain. The Horn is a documentary series on Netflix which follows a team of experts headquartered in Zermatt — climbers, paramedics, doctors, and helicopter pilots — as they rescue stranded and injured people hiking in the Alps. At one point, the main doctor on the team describes the importance of separating emotion from one’s work with patients. He says:
“One must work with a patient completely without emotion. It’s the best for the patient and the best way for positive results.”
Here’s his point. If his goal is to benefit the patient, then it does precisely no good for the doctor to break down and weep as he witnesses the patient’s egregious injuries. Rather, as a doctor who longs to bring healing to the patient, it is critical for the doctor to set aside his own emotion and labor simply to apply his skills of healing.
Whether you agree with it or not, the same logic lies behind the doctrine of divine impassibility. God has identified with us and our suffering in Christ. But in his divine nature, God remains like that doctor: he works without the sway of emotions and in that way he brings about the best results for the patient.