Hope for a Suffering World: Divine Impassibility

by Matthew Barrett December 10, 2020

Ideas have consequences.

As we look back at the 20th century, one idea that had serious consequences was the common assumption that God suffers. Influential theologians, like Jürgen Moltmann, sought to provide hope to a suffering world, a world split apart by two World Wars. Moltmann took a long and hard look at the atrocities of the Nazi concentration camps; when he heard Jews cry out, “Where is God?” Moltmann answered that God was there, and he was suffering, too. It was God who suffered in the gas chamber; it was God who hung from the gallows. For that reason, we have hope in a world of pain because we know God knows our pain.

Let’s be honest: Moltmann’s argument can be very persuasive and is emotionally appealing. Perhaps you’ve been to a Bible study where a close friend was in tears over a tragedy. If so, it is likely someone said, “Don’t worry, God is suffering with you. He is in just as much pain as you. He is just as overcome with grief as you.” The idea of a suffering God resonates with our relational instincts and appears to be a great comfort in times of suffering.

Yet, it’s in those difficult moments, when tears flood our faces, that theology matters most. While it may seem comforting to tell a friend that God suffers, too, upon further reflection, it’s a dangerous idea-—one that gives little comfort or hope in the end.

Help! My house is on fire!
To bring this point home, consider an illustration. Imagine if your house suddenly caught on fire. As you escape the flames and watch from the street, you realize that your child is still inside. What if, in that moment, a neighbor ran up to you and, wanting to feel your pain and empathize with you, your neighbor lit themselves on fire?

Naturally, you would look at them in disbelief, perhaps even maddened by the insanity of their response. Who do you really need in that moment? You need that firefighter who can, with a steady, controlled confidence, survey the situation, run into the flames, and save your child from death’s grip. Only the firefighter who refuses to be overcome by emotional meltdown is your hope in that hellish experience.

The point is: a God who suffers, a God subject to emotional change, is not all that comforting on second thought. A God who suffers may be like us, but he cannot rescue us. In fact, an emotional God is just as helpless as we are. In times of suffering, we need a God who does not suffer, one who can overcome suffering in order to redeem us and return justice to this evil world.

Retrieving an Old Word: Impassible
For this reason, the church—from the early fathers to the Westminster Confession—has believed that the God of the Bible is a God without passions; in other words, he is impassible.

Up until the 19th century, the word “passions” was a word only to be applied to the creature, not the Creator. It was a word that had negative connotations, referring to someone or something that was vulnerable to change, subject to the emotional power of others. When our fathers denied passions in God, therefore, they were distinguishing him as the immutable, self-sufficient Creator from the ever-changing, needy creature (much as Paul does in Acts 17).

In this one word, “passions,” we see the difference between the Christian God and the gods of Greek mythology, gods susceptible to emotional fluctuation, overcome by a variation in mood, gods changed or manipulated by the will of another. One minute they are given to lust, and the next they fly off the handle in a fit of rage. By contrast, the Christian God, says Thomas Weinandy, “does not undergo successive and fluctuating emotional states; nor can the created order alter him in such a way so as to cause him to suffer any modification or loss.” That is what it means for God to be impassible.

It must be clarified, then, that the house-on-fire illustration has a flaw (don’t all illustrations?). In that moment of panic and chaos, the firefighter chooses not to be overcome by emotional fluctuation; however, God is impassible not merely by choice but by nature. He is impassible. Passibility, in other words, is contrary to his very essence; he is incapable of being passible.

Why, you ask? There are many reasons why, but one important reason is because a passible God is susceptible to change, emotional change. But remember, we know from Scripture that God does not change (Mal. 3:6; James 1:17); he is immutable. Impassibility, then, is the natural corollary to God’s unchanging nature. It is essential to who God is, not merely what he does.

If God is impassible, does that mean that he is stoic, lifeless, indifferent, apathetic, and incapable of love or compassion? That is, unfortunately, the all-too-common caricature. Actually, impassibility ensures just the opposite: God could not be more alive or more loving than he is eternally.

Remember, Scripture not only says God is immutable but also says he is infinite (Ps. 147:5; Rom. 11:33; Eph. 1:19; 2:7). He is immeasurable, unlimited not merely in size but in his very being. He has no limitations; he is absolute perfection. If God is infinite, then it is never the case that something in God is waiting to be activated to reach its full potential. To use fancy theological language, there is no passive potency in God. Rather, God is his attributes in infinite measure. Put otherwise, he is maximally alive; he could not be more alive than he is eternally. The church fathers liked to make this point by calling God pure act (actus purus). He cannot be more perfectly in act than he is. Otherwise, he would be less than perfect, finite and in need of improvement.

Apply this truth to an attribute like love, for example, and it becomes plain why impassibility makes all the difference. If God is impassible, then he does not merely possess love, he is love and he is love in infinite measure. He cannot become more loving than he already is eternally. If he did, then his love would be passible, it would change, perhaps from good to better, which would imply it was not perfect to begin with.

In that light, impassibility ensures that God is love in infinite measure. While the love of a passible God is subject to change and improvement, the love of an impassible God changes not in its infinite perfection. Impassibility guarantees that God’s love could not be more infinite in its loveliness. God does not depend on others to activate and fulfill his love; no, he is love in infinite measure, eternally, immutably, and independently from the created order.

All that to say, it may seem counter-intuitive, but only impassibility can give us a personal God who is eternal, unalterable love. Far from apathetic or inert, impassibility promises the believer that God could not be any more loving than he is eternally. That is something a passible God cannot promise.

Impassibility is Our Real Hope in Times of Suffering
I said it once, but I’ll say it again: ideas have consequences. Although it may not seem like it at first, a passible, suffering God is one dangerous idea. It is dangerous because it undermines the Christian’s confidence and assurance—even the Christian’s hope—especially in times of real hardship. If God is subject to emotional change, how do we know whether he will stay true to his promises? His gospel promises might change as quickly as his mood swings. And if God is vulnerable to emotional fluctuation, what confidence do we have that his own character will remain constant? His love might not remain steadfast, his mercy may no longer be eternal, and his justice can guarantee no future victory.

But it’s also a depressing idea. As Katherin Rogers confesses, “Myself, I find the idea of a God who is made to suffer by us, and who needs us to be fulfilled, a depressing conception of divinity.” It’s depressing because it does not turn us to God as our rock and our fortress (Ps. 18:2), but instead makes us pity God as one who is just as impotent in suffering as we are as his finite creatures.

The good news of impassibility, however, is one of hope. When life’s most difficult trials hit hard, the inscrutable plan of our personal and loving God does not waver because he is a God who is immutably impassible. Although the pain strikes a heavy blow, we will rise with Luther and sing,

“A mighty fortress is our God,

A Bulwark never failing.”

Editor’s Note: This article originally appeared in the Fall ’20 edition of Midwestern Magazine. The full issue is available online.

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