Can God experience pain? (Reading Athanasius)

Can God experience pain? (Reading Athanasius)

Today, I finished the first book in my twelve-month “God project” (check out the full reading list here).  Reading Athanasius’ On the Incarnation has been fun, surprising, and fascinating.  Written almost 1,700 years ago, On the Incarnation isn’t meant to explain the meaning of God, let alone address a 21st Century American’s problems with the idea of God.  Even so, an interesting and even relevant concept of God emerges implicitly in Athanasius’ description of the Incarnation of God in Jesus.

So who is God to Athanasius?

A God Beyond Pain

The death of Jesus is very important to Athanasius, yet it’s hard to escape the impression that Athanasius’ Jesus doesn’t exactly die.  According to Athanasius, Jesus’ particular human body, through its union with the indwelling Word of God, was freed from typical human mortality.  At the cross, Jesus willingly chose to die our deaths for us so that our souls no longer need to die.

But strictly speaking, the embodied Word of God could not die.  Jesus died our deaths in order to thereby free us from the necessity of death.  After Jesus’ death, the same body that hung on the cross was raised from the dead.  Unsurprisingly, Athanasius’ death-proof Jesus corresponds to a pain-proof God.

One of Athanasius’ favorite categories seems to be “corruption”.  “Corruption” evidently includes death, dying, pain, and decay.  God does not – cannot – experience corruption, and neither can the Incarnate Son of God.  Normal human beings, on the other hand, are always threatened by corruption and the finality of death.  Luckily, through the teaching, death, and resurrection of Jesus, God applies divinity to humanity like a spray-on fire retardant.  By infusing us with divinity, God protects otherwise vulnerable humans from the threat of final death and non-being apart from God, who is the source of being.

Most Christian theologians throughout history assumed, like Athanasius, that God could not suffer.  Yet throughout the past century, and especially after Jurgen Moltmann wrote his groundbreaking book The Crucified God, Christian theologians have frequently questioned God’s immunity to suffering.  After all, as these theologians point out, how can God really love us if God isn’t able to hurt for us and with us?  What is love without risk, and what is risk without pain?  If God doesn’t share in the suffering of humanity, then doesn’t that make God detached, cold, and distant?  Further, if God became a man who died on a cross, how can divinity be separated from suffering?

It’s important, though, to notice what exactly is going on when Athanasius says that God can’t experience “corruption.”  Through the Incarnation, God solves the problem of pain and death, and God does this by extending God’s immunity to pain and death to us.  God must be pain-free for Athanasius because God must eventually make us pain-free.

Athanasius or Moltmann?

So who is right?  Was Moltmann right to criticize the long-standing Christian belief that God cannot suffer?  Or was Athanasius right assume that God is immune from suffering and that God became embodied in Jesus in order to share this very immunity with us?

At the end of the day, I have to side with Moltmann on this one.  A God who sets things up, creates us, and then watches us suffer from a distance, unmoved, seems more to me like a demon than a God of love, even if this immunity to pain is eventually extended to humanity in the afterlife.  Although God’s empathetic suffering doesn’t fully address the contradiction of a loving God with a hurting world, I think it’s a good start.

Yet I still think that Athanasius was on to something.  Athanasius, faced with the problem of a world that is not as it should be, looked to the Incarnation to make sense of it all.  In Jesus, Athanasius found God’s answer to problem of human suffering.  In Jesus, we see God working to reverse the pain and death of creation.  That line of thinking certainly has some potential!

What’s Next?

In a few weeks, I will start really exploring the reasons to not believe in God.  I’ll read Richard Dawkin’s God Delusion and listen to a five-hour-long lecture series about influential atheist thinkers like Nietzsche and Marx.  I am looking forward to reflecting on the Incarnation (both the event and Athanasius’ book about it) through the lens of atheist critiques.

Before I get to the atheists, I will first read a book by Timothy Keller, a popular American Evangelical pastor and writer.  Although I no longer have much interest in thinking within the confines of Evangelical Christianity, I have deep roots in the Evangelical tradition.  What can I learn by reflecting on the theology that I grew up with, and can it make sense of the problems that atheists point out?  That will be my question over the coming weeks as I read Keller’s book, The Reason for God: Belief in an Age of Skepticism.

For more on my “God Project,” click here.  If this project seems interesting to you, the best way to follow along is to find “Follow blog via email” at the bottom of this page.  If you enter your email address into that box, you will receive an email update with each blog post (roughly one or two per week).

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