Thursday, January 4, 2024

Post #30 The Doctrine of God P3 Divine Impassibility And The Question About Divine Suffering


    Does God ever suffer? As we further explore the Biblical doctrine of Divine impassibility in our current series "The Doctrine of God", we will endeavor to answer this most practical question. But first, review. 

    In the two prior posts, I've written on God's unchanging emotional life, otherwise known as "The Doctrine of Divine Impassibility" (DDI). Readers who want to review those posts may look here and here

    Divine impassibility is closely related to the doctrine of God's unchangeability or "immutability". In an illuminating quote, the 19th century Baptist theologian J.P. Boice summarizes God's immutability (and its related doctrine Divine impassibility) in chapter seven of his work "Abstracts of Systematic Theology",

"It (Divine immutability) is expressly taught by the Scriptures in the following as well as in other particulars. A few passages out of many are referred to in support of each."

    Boice's entire section speaks in detail of God's unchangeable nature with respect to His Divine life, nature, and will (interested readers may read the endnote at the end of today's post that features Boice's entire discussion.)1 To keep on point, I'll cite what Boice states concerning Divine impassibility. Boice continues under "point '(d)'" of His discussion....

"(d) His character is also said to be immutable, as for example his justice: Gen. 18:25; Job 8:3; Rom. 2:2; his mercy: Ex. 34:7; Deut. 4:31; Ps. 107:1; Lam. 3:22, 23; Mal. 3:6; his truth: Num. 23:19; 1 Sam. 15:29; Mic. 7:20; Rom. 3:3; 11:2, 29; 2 Tim. 2:13; Titus 1:2; his holiness: Job 34:10; Hab. 1:13; James 1:13; and his knowledge: Isa. 40:13, 14, 27, 28."  

    The reader will note I underlined J.P. Boice's mention of God's mercy and justice as emotional, impassible attributes in his discussion of Divine immutability. For here we will focus mainly on God's mercy and justice (with passing comments about God's love) as we make our way to the question about God's suffering. 

The unchanging mercy, justice, and love of God.

    These two attributes, along with God's love, are found at the cross. They also involve God's divine work and action in how brought about creation and redemption through the Son. The issue of Divine impassibility, suffering, mercy, and justice attempt to deal with whether a Divinely passible deity or the impassible God of Scripture is superior. 

Why a Divinely impassible God is superior to a passible deity when it comes to mercy, justice, and love.

    Divine mercy and justice are but a sample of God's emotional perfections. With God's unchanging justice, we have the expression of Divine wrath. Put another way, God always hates sin. In His omniscience, God always knew the Fall of Adam and Eve would occur. God's eternal justice would demand the punishment of the sin brought forth in history by the Fall. God as Trinity had eternally preplanned the cross as a consequence of the love of the Father for the Son in giving to Him redeemed sinners from the mass of fallen humanity (Acts 2:23-24; 4:27-28; 2 Timothy 1:9; Titus 1:2). The choice to send the Son to become incarnate was a consequence of the Father's unchanging, impassible mercy, shared with the Son and Spirit.

    Like mercy, God's justice has forever operated unvarying. God has always hated sin, since He knew it would begin in our world, and since it is opposite of His holy character. If God were passible, He would require provocation from something outside of Himself to act just. Also too, He would require something outside of Himself to convince Him to act mercifully. Consequently, the ground of redemption would no longer be the Triune Creator, but the creation (see Ephesians 1:11). This would result in a passible deity needing a "plan B" as a panic response to the Fall. As Adrian Rogers once preached, "The Trinity never has to hold an emergency session" 

    If Divine impassibility is denied, then God's justice and mercy would become potential emotions added to and subtracted from God. It would mean that at some point in eternity, God may not have had the level of opposition to sin He has now. If we deny God's Divine impassibility, and rather affirm God as "passible", then we have a God who is not constantly, immutably just, which is contrary to the Biblical revelation of the always just God (See Genesis 18:25; Psalm 89:14; Romans 3:26).

    The same problems plague a passible view of God's mercy. In Scripture, God's mercy is what issues from His very nature. We've argued in a prior post of God being by nature eternally merciful here

    God's mercy is extended to whomever He pleases (Romans 9:14-15). How does affirming Divine impassibility reveal that God's mercy is superior to us who are passible creatures? If God were a passible God, He would only show His mercy when moved upon by His creatures or their dire need. Whereas a constantly merciful God is always ready to show mercy upon those who undergo moral and spiritual humility as a consequence of contact and response to His Divine activity in their lives.

A God that could suffer by nature ends up being far less emotionally connected to our sufferings.

    To deny Divine impassibility makes for a deity that may had been indifferent to the plight of creatures whom He knew about in His natural knowledge of all possible histories, as well as our actual world known from His decree to create it. This surprising observation shows that contrary to those opposing Divine impassibility, it is the denial of the doctrine that makes for a lesser, emotionally connected God!

    When we look at what it means to suffer, the term "suffer" derives from the Latin verb "patior", whence our words "patient" and "passion". To suffer involves something happening to me for which I did not anticipate, have control, nor the emotional resources to react. 

    As passible creatures, we in this world undergo various forms of suffering (emotional, psychological, spiritual, and physical). This is why we can have "bad days". Bad days happen to passible, emotionally unprepared, and varying creatures such as ourselves.

    The Divinely impassible God of the Bible, on the otherhand, is always merciful, since mercy flows from the kind of God that He is (see Exodus 34:6; Lamentations 3:23-27; Romans 5:6; Titus 3:5-6). 

    Contrary to what many claim, the doctrine of Divine impassibility (DDI) does not weaken, but instead strengthens one's understanding of God's revelation of attributes such as mercy. For God, there is never such thing as a "bad day", since He is ever involved and ever knowing, always expressing the whole range of Divine emotions. 

    This is why God always has the appropriate emotion on hand to befit people and their situations. God is always "in-tune" with my sorrows, pain, and despair, since His eternal, emotional attributes are included in His omnipresence, omniscience, and omnipotence (see Psalm 139). 

Closing thought for today

    Divine impassibility affirms emotional excellence in God, meaning God doesn't just have mercy and justice, He is such by nature (See for instance Exodus 34:6; Psalm 136; 1 John 4:8,16). To say "God does not suffer" means His mercy, justice, love, and other emotions are not "put upon" or "made to respond", but instead are constant, always ongoing expressions. God's emotions flow from the kind of God He is. I close with a quote from author Barry Cooper commenting on Divine impassibility from a Ligonier podcast here,inevitably%20from%20the%20fact%20that%20God%20is%20unchangeable.

"the fact that God cannot suffer or be swept away by changing passions means that He is able to rescue us."

    In the next post of this series, I'll deal with how Divine impassibility (Divinely constant emotions) and human passibility (human varying emotions) operated in the two natures of the incarnate Son of God when He went to the cross. 


1. "(a) They declare him to be unchangeable in duration and life: Gen. 21:33; Deut. 32:39, 40; Ps. 9:7; 55:19; 90:2; 102:12; Hab. 1:12; Rom. 16:26; 1 Tim. 1:17; 6:16.

(b) They affirm the unchangeableness of his nature: Ps. 104:31; Mal. 3:6; Rom. 1:23; James 1:17.

(c) They also assert that his will is without change: Job 23:13; Ps. 33:11; Prov. 19:21."


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