The God Who Does Not Suffer

Based on two different email threads, from my sent folder.

God did not suffer on the cross. A theme in Athanasius’ Oration Against the Arians is that God does not suffer. Jesus in his person suffered, and according to his human nature suffered, but Jesus as the divine Word did not suffer. Khaled Anatolois in his work on Athanasius shows that the church father understood suffering in terms of passivity and activity rather than experience. Jesus in his humanity was subjected to suffering but in his divinity was the actor, not the one being acted upon (impassibility).

For example (Arians 3.56),

Wherefore of necessity when He was in a body suffering, and weeping, and toiling, these things which are proper to the flesh, are ascribed to Him together with the body. If then He wept and was troubled, it was not the Word, considered as the Word, who wept and was troubled, but it was proper to the flesh; and if too He besought that the cup might pass away, it was not the Godhead that was in terror, but this affection too was proper to the manhood. And that the words ‘Why have You forsaken Me?’ are His, according to the foregoing explanations (though He suffered nothing, for the Word was impassible), is notwithstanding declared by the Evangelists; since the Lord became man, and these things are done and said as from a man, that He might Himself lighten these very sufferings of the flesh, and free it from them. Whence neither can the Lord be forsaken by the Father, who is ever in the Father, both before He spoke, and when He uttered this cry.

Edward Shillito’s short poem “Jesus of the Scars” concludes with this stanza,

The other gods were strong; but Thou wast weak;
They rode, but Thou didst stumble to a throne;
But to our wounds only God’s wounds can speak,
And not a god has wounds, but Thou alone.

Jesus is God, so we can speak of God dying on the cross, having scars. This attributes to the person (Jesus is God) what is true according to one of his natures (humanity) since the divine cannot be wounded or killed.

This is what Cyril of Alexandria means when he says, “He suffered impassibly, because he did not humble himself in such a way as to be merely like us, rather, as I have said before, he reserved to his own nature its superiority over all these things.” Since Christ is a unified person we can speak of him suffering. He suffered in his humanity so according to his divinity he might elevate humanity from our suffering. John Behr’s The Nicene Faith deals with this topic in more depth in vol. 1, pages 226-232.

J. Todd Billings in his Rejoicing in Lament shows how this doctrine of impassibility (God doesn’t suffer) related to Jesus on the cross as a foundation for the Christian’s comfort amidst sorrow. Because God cannot suffer, suffering is not the final word. Suffering is not something that God must overcome for himself, but something he conquered on our behalf by virtue of his impassibility according to his divine nature in the person of Christ.