On the Dying God

“For in self-giving, if anywhere, we touch a rhythm not only of all creation but of all being. For the Eternal Word also gives Himself in sacrifice; and that not only on Calvary. For when He was crucified He “did that in the wild weather of His outlying provinces which He had done at home in glory and gladness”. From before the foundation of the world He surrenders begotten Deity back to begetting Deity in obedience.” CSL, The Problem of Pain

I have been at pains to understand in what sense God can be “impassible” and also therefore assume flesh, suffer, and die on the cross. The dilemma seems to be precisely this. If God created time, he must therefore transcend it (otherwise he himself would be one more species of becoming that is itself subject to it.) And if he transcends time, there can be no before and after with him. Thus God must be unchangeable. Now, this is the classical understanding of God and I find nothing problematic with it so far. Yet what also follows from this idea is that God has a nature “of his own” which he does not gain or actualize from the creation itself. God is not “more God” in light of the fact that he created. He does not accrue some good that he would otherwise lack because of finite, contingent beings. Otherwise, how could he be self-existent? How would he not necessarily “need” creation? And so how would he himself not be just one more conditioned and contingent being among many? But if God were this, we would have to look for something outside of God to explain this particular imposition of limitation and contingency in him. Therefore, the classic theologians conclude, God must be in himself all that he is: a perfectly full existence that cannot be added to or taken away from. He thus cannot be “moved” and cannot suffer “passion.” He is then “impassible.”

Yet – and I am now finally getting to the real puzzle – if God is fully God with or without a creation, and if he cannot suffer “passion,” in what sense can the crucifixion of Christ tell us anything about the essence of God himself? The difficulty lies in the fact that if we conceive of God as existing in pure and unsullied bliss in his inner being, then even Christ’s crucifixion cannot as it were change or interrupt such a state. For nothing in the creation can supervene on or determine God’s own experience of existence. Yet if that is the case then Christ’s very passion itself – his agony, his self-sacrifice, his groaning and sorrow – cannot really tell us anything about God.

“Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friend.” These words are from Christ’s lips, but they point to a truth we already know from experience: to sacrifice one’s own self for the sake of another is the height of what it means to love. Insofar as the difficulty of such a sacrifice is greater, thus far is the act of love more intense. In fact to the degree that doing something is pleasureable that very thing can hardly be called a self-sacrificial act at all.

Imagine, then, that all acts of self-sacrifice – all acts of crucifixion, in their various forms – were simply deleted from the world and from our memory. Would our idea of Love be lessened? I think it would be. That idea of love which does not involve voluntary suffering seems to me a pale shadow of the deeper, pulsing fabric of reality we sometimes connect with when we actually experience Love. To think that Love cannot take on even pain and suffering and endure them if it would so choose would seem itself to be a defeat of Love. Is it not strong enough to endure pain – indeed even death – for the sake of what it loves? To deny this would be to equate love with simply “joy” or “bliss.” No doubt such things are lovely, and express a particular dimension of Love itself. But they are not exhaustive of the reality of Love as such.

But notice the curious thing that happens here if we really agree that self-sacrifice is a lovely thing. Since God is Love itself, and since his being and his goodness cannot be actualized by creation, it must therefore be the case that something like self-sacrifice exists in God’s very nature. Scripture says that the lamb was slain “from the foundation of the world.” Could it not be the case – indeed is it not quite ignorant to deny – that in God himself, along with our human experiences of Joy and Bliss, there exists an analogue to our human experience of voluntary self-death or Kenosis for the sake of the other?

I take it, then, that apart from creation God in himself knows – because he thus is – such a process, such an experience. In the same way as he knows the begetting of the Son, and the giving to him of all things, so he experiences in some way a denial of his own self for the Son, for the Other. The father in begetting the Son thus by the same act voluntarily dies to himself: he is no longer the only existing person. And the Son, having been begotten by the Father, straightway lays down his own life, surrendering all that is his, and thus in his own way perfectly imitates the Father.

We must remember that the various words we use to describe acts of God – begetting, creating, loving, dying, self-sacrificing – are all abstractions from our interaction with the material world. Thus the realities that the words expressed are always in our experience coupled with change. But in God there is no change. The words we use are only an imperfect grasp or conception of what is in itself impossible to be grasped by us in its totality.

“Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” I take it that Jesus came to show us what God is like. Therefore the acts of Jesus must somehow have some analogue to the very life of God as he is in himself. There must then be in the Trinity some sense in which voluntary submission, emptying, and self-sacrifice are experienced realities. Otherwise, the death of Jesus could tell us nothing about God. His Passion would be a meaningless revelation, since in God there would be nothing akin to suffering. The human nature which the Word assumed then, would not be a true reflection of the Word itself. It would have as it were useless facades. Christ’s pain, ignorance, fear, anxiety, sorrow – all these things would show us only a human being, but not God himself. What, therefore, would be their point? How then could Christ be God incarnate? How therefore could he have assumed our humanity? What would Christ hanging on the cross mean if God himself does not know what it is to suffer and die for another?

To all those who have come to believe in the beauty and power of a God who freely endures suffering for the sake of the other – to all those who believe that the crucifixion of Jesus shows us the nature of God – their faith would literally be false. For on such a view God himself never suffers, indeed cannot even know what it feels like to suffer or die, since in him these realities have no place in his life. So if we are comforted by fact that of the Incarnation, what occurred must have been a real incarnation. Otherwise, as far as I can tell the whole point of the Incarnation disappears. Why would God tell us Jesus is like him when his most defining act – laying down his life for others – is something that God cannot do at all?

With all this said, the doctrines of the Impassibility and Immutability of God are not therefore ones we have to give up. God’s existence as first cause and his complete possession of perfection entails that nothing ,so to speak, ever “happens to him.” That is, nothing affects God from the outside. I take it that is what the true import of passibility implies: i.e. that nothing moves God. Yet this does not mean that from the inside God does not know anything like what we call a passion or emotion. Certainly God experiences joy, love, happiness, etc. These emotions happen to us – they “move” us, and as such are passions. Yet in God they simply are his active reality that he is. And since these human emotions are in God (in a transcendent, changeless way of course), it seems to me necessary to say that, the whole process of self-death which gives way to life for the other is present in God’s being as well. That is, the idea of voluntarily taking on “suffering” (abstracted from the material things which are the means by which such a reality is experienced by us through sensation) must, it seems to me, be an essential aspect of God’s being, not itself actualized by creation but there necessarily in his Triune relations from all eternity.

With this idea in mind we can also remove another difficulty, which is in conceiving how God as eternal and immutable did not change by becoming man and being crucified. For the truth is that the Incarnation in a revelation of what is changelessly and eternally already in God’s very essence. God in becoming man does not take on some new, unexperienced reality. He knows self-emptying, humbling, submission and crucifixion from “before all worlds.” Not in light of creation – for that would make these realities of his dependent on something other than himself – but in light of his Triune relations. What happens is that in the Incarnation God reveals to us changing beings what in him is his unchanging divine life.

We must remember that this view of a suffering God does not of course lead to a “helpless” God, a God who is impotent or bites his nails anxiously. For the crucifixion cannot be separated from the resurrection and subsequent glorification. In the life of Christ we are connected to a divine pattern that seems to us to be many separate things. But in God, in whom there is no becoming, such a movement of one reality to the next cannot really be what is taking place. Rather in God the whole process is somehow his very Divine Life – the Divine Love – itself.



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