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#213 Divine Impassibility and the Crucifixion

May 16, 2011
Q

Sir,

First of all, thank you very much for your lectures. Although I am a Muslim, they are very informative and helped me reason in my belief in God. (Even though sometimes, all that philosophy talk was too much for me!)

I have two questions:

1. In saying that God felt pain that mankind had sinned (and therefore sent Jesus as a lamb for their sins), or that Christ's soul suffered, or that Christ cried out to God for help when he was on the Cross, are we not degrading God's nature? Because if God is able to be hurt (not physically, but spiritually) by mankind, isn't it a weakness of character and shows that we are able to harm Him? In fact, that would mean that when God created Adam, He created within Himself a weakness because the sons of Adam would cause Him grievance. At least, that is my understanding of it.

2. I know that you tend to answer questions based on theism and not specifically on Christianity, but please bear with me here. As I understand the Trinity, each part of the Trinity is fully God. Jesus had to die because he was devoid of any sins (because he was divine). So, when he was crucified, the part of him that had to die was not merely his human body, but the sinless soul, in order for the sacrifice to mean anything. So, okay, he died and then was resurrected three days later. Does that mean that for that portion of three days, God had died? Because Jesus is fully God, right? Or, if he is not, does it mean that God was 1/3rd less divine? And, if Jesus died (part of the triune), does that mean that part of God is not eternal?

Thank you very much for reading this (and possibly answering it).

Sincerely,

Mun

Canada

Dr. craig’s response


A

Having an avid interest in medieval Islamic philosophy and having chosen Islam as my side area of specialization in my doctoral work in theology, I very much enjoy talking with Muslims about these important questions, Mun. Thanks for writing! Your question will help Muslim readers of our site all around the world to understand better what Christians believe.

1. Since Muslims and Christians alike accept Genesis as God’s revealed word, we all must deal with the question of what the text means when it says that when God saw the pervasive sin of mankind “it grieved Him to His heart” (Gen. 6.6). Is this to be taken literally, or is this just an anthropomorphic way of speaking of God (that is, speaking of God in human terms)? The biblical narrative is indisputably filled with anthropomorphic descriptions of God, describing Him as “seeing” and “hearing” things, and so on. But should we understand God to be literally without emotions?

The view that God is in no way affected by creatures is called the impassibility of God. This seems to be the view that you favor. God cannot suffer emotional pain. Divine impassibility was thought by medieval Christian theologians to be one of the attributes of God. So you would find many Christians historically who would agree with your view. But on the contemporary scene there are very few theologians who would defend such a doctrine. There seems to be no good reason for taking the biblical descriptions of God’s emotions non-literally. Far from seeing susceptibility to emotional pain as a weakness, most contemporary Christian philosophers and theologians would say quite the opposite: that it is a weakness for a person to be unmoved by human suffering and a strength to feel emotions, including pain, indignation, compassion, etc. In fact, think of the etymology of the word “compassion”: to suffer along with. As the greatest conceivable being, God must be compassionate and share our sorrows and joys. Impassibility is actually a weakness, whereas compassion redounds to God’s greatness.

Alvin Plantinga speaks for many Christian thinkers when he writes,

As the Christian sees things, God does not stand idly by, cooly observing the suffering of His creatures. He enters into and shares our suffering. He endures the anguish of seeing his son, the second person of the Trinity, consigned to the bitterly cruel and shameful death of the cross. Some theologians claim that God cannot suffer. I believe they are wrong. God's capacity for suffering, I believe, is proportional to his greatness; it exceeds our capacity for suffering in the same measure as his capacity for knowledge exceeds ours. Christ was prepared to endure the agonies of hell itself; and God, the Lord of the universe, was prepared to endure the suffering consequent upon his son's humiliation and death. He was prepared to accept this suffering in order to overcome sin, and death, and the evils that afflict our world, and to confer on us a life more glorious than we can imagine. So we don't know why God permits evil; we do know, however, that He was prepared to suffer on our behalf, to accept suffering of which we can form no conception.i

Defenders of divine impassibility will say that when Christ suffered on the cross, he did so only in his human nature, not in his divine nature. I find that Muslims frequently fail to understand that on the Christian view Christ has two natures: his divine nature which he has possessed from all eternity and his human nature which he assumed at the moment of Mary’s conceiving Jesus in her womb. Defenders of divine impassibility say that Christ’s human nature has both a human soul and a human body, and it was in these that he suffered, not in his divine nature, which was and is impassible. If you want to hold onto divine impassibility, Mun, you can take that route and be a Christian. But like Prof. Plantinga, I think God is greater if He is not impassible.

2. What I have just said bears on your second question, too. The Christian view is that Christ died in his human nature, that is to say, Christ’s human nature died. He obviously did not die in his divine nature. The person who was from all eternity the second person of the Trinity didn’t cease to exist between the crucifixion and resurrection. God is, after all, a necessary being and so cannot cease to exist.

In fact, neither did Christ’s human soul or body cease to exist. What is human death, after all? It is the separation of the soul from the body. It is not the annihilation of the soul. Persons who die are in an intermediate, unembodied state until the day of the resurrection, when their souls will be re-united with their renewed bodies.

So it’s a mistake to think either that one member of the Trinity was somehow deleted when Christ died or that Christ’s human soul ceased to exist when he died. What happened is that his soul was separated from his body. The difference between what happened to Christ’s human nature and what will happen to ours someday is that God the Father re-united Christ’s soul with his body in advance of the general resurrection and raised Jesus to glory and immortality as the harbinger and guarantor of our own resurrection.

  • [1]

    Alvin Plantinga, “Self-Profile,” Alvin Plantinga, ed. Jas. Tomberlin (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1985), p. 36.

- William Lane Craig