R.C. Sproul taught us that ideas have consequences. As we look back at the twentieth century, one idea that had serious consequences was the common assumption that God suffers. Influential theologians, such as 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 hanged from the gallows. For that reason, he said, we have hope in a world of pain because we know that God knows our pain.
Let’s be honest: Moltmann’s argument can be very persuasive and 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 as well, on 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, lit himself 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 that a God who suffers, a God subject to emotional change, is actually not all that comforting. 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 of Faith—has believed that the God of the Bible is a God without passions. In other words, He is impassible.
Up until the nineteenth 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.
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, 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, doesn’t fluctuate emotionally. His creation cannot cause him to change. That is what it means for God to be impassible.
It must be clarified, then, that the house-on-fire illustration has a flaw. In that moment of panic and chaos, the firefighter chooses not to be overcome by emotional fluctuation, but 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.