Can God feel grief, pain, compassion? ...

The Suffering of God

Can God suffer? Does God suffer? How will His suffering help us in our own?

In January 1943, 91,000 German soldiers were taken prisoner by the Russians after the battle of Stalingrad. Only 5,000 survived to return to Germany after the war. It is claimed that a German soldier wrote this letter home from the battle to his clergyman father:

"... In Stalingrad to question God means to deny Him. I must tell you that, dear Father, and I am doubly sorry for it. You brought me up, because,I had no mother, and you always kept God before my eyes and my soul. And I doubly regret my words, for they will be my last. After this I will be able to speak no others which could compensate or reconcile.

"You are a clergyman, Father. In one's last letter one says only what is true or what he believes to be true. I have looked for God in every shell crater, in every destroyed house, in every corner, among all my comrades when I lay in my hole, and in the sky. God did not show Himself, when my heart cried out for Him. Houses were destroyed. My comrades were as brave or as cowardly as I. Hunger and murder were on the earth. Bombs and fire came from the heavens. But God was not there. No, Father, there is no God. I write it again, and know that it is terrible and that I cannot make amends for it. And if in spite of all there should be a God, then it will be only with you, in the hymnbooks and prayers, the pious sayings of priests and pastors, the ringing of chimes, and the smell of incense. But not in Stalingrad."

Letter 17, "Last Letters from Stalingrad." Translated by John E. Vetter, Coronet Press, 1955.

H. W. Robinson, 1939: Men have been tempted to think that philosophy moves ever on the same level in an endless circle, without ever reaching its center, or even some height from which it can view the whole. Yet we may believe that there is a spiral ascent by which human thought, apparently traversing the same ground, again and again does reach higher levels and does move nearer to the heart of things.

The doctrine of God is one great example of this spiral movement. We shall see that the theology of the Bible from beginning to end is "anthropomorphic", in the sense that it speaks of God as though He were man, whilst continually reminding us, in its later stages, that He is more than man. We shall also see that when Biblical religion passed into a Greek world, all such statements were dismissed as merely metaphors, and God was assumed to be wholly free from human emotions, and defined in philosophic terminology. Whilst this was the view of the Ancient Church in general, ("Patripassianism", see J. K. Mozley's book, The Impassibility of God,) modern theology has tended more and more to emphasize the "humanity" of God, His essential kinship with the human spirit which He has created. It is now much more widely admitted that the Biblical metaphors applied to God are more than metaphorical, and that they are the best expression of a truth about Him which has sound philosophical grounds. This is the argument of an important recent book, Dr Edwyn Bevan's Symbolism and Belief (1938). He shows convincingly that the religious use of such terms as "heaven" above us, of the "glory" of God as light, of the "Spirit" of God as breath or wind, and of the "wrath" .of God to express His attitude towards all that is evil, does not imply that they are "anthropomorphic" in the bad sense, but that they may have, and in fact, ought to have, metaphysical validity. They are symbols, but they are more than symbols. So we may come back to a higher anthropomorphism, of which we have no cause to be ashamed.

One cause of this change of outlook has been the re-discovery of the "Jesus of history", and the new emphasis on His humanity. The Christian conception of God necessarily centers in Him. This is not due simply or chiefly to the fact that He was the historical founder of the new faith, as was Muhammad the founder of Islam and Gautama the founder of Buddhism. Jesus occupies a place in Christian faith to which there is no parallel in Islam's thought of its prophet or in the original Buddhism, and He has occupied this place from the resurrection onwards. The definition of that place has taken many forms, but in general it has ascribed to Jesus Christ as the risen Lord a relation to God that is unique. He is held to be not simply the greatest of teachers, whose words about God convey the most profound truth, or the doer of mighty acts which witnessed to a unique human personality, but such a revelation of God that men could believe the words ascribed to Him in the Fourth Gospel, "He who has seen me has seen the Father".

It is obvious, therefore, that the personality of Jesus as known in the days of His flesh will profoundly influence the conception of God which we derive from Him. However we conceive the relation of the human to the divine in Him, His is at least the kind of life that can reveal God. One of its outstanding features is that it is a life of suffering in the years that are known to us, and of a particular reaction to that suffering. Whatever sunny years of silence may have preceded the public ministry, whatever inner joy and serenity sustained it, that ministry from first to last was one of suffering, physical and spiritual. Some phases of it and some incidents in it doubtless brought joy to Him, but from the day of the temptation to that of the crucifixion, the quality of suffering was predominant. It was a life of poverty, of public scorn and private betrayal, of disappointed hopes and misunderstood aspirations, which was crowned by a shameful and agonizing death. It was, so far, a life of failure, not simply by the standards of the world, but by those of Jesus Himself: "O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, how often would I have gathered thy children together!" There is a moment on the Cross when He declares that God as well as man has forsaken Him.

It is not surprising that a little book which describes the longing of an artist to paint a picture of "The Laughing Christ" (Pearson Choate) inspired by Franz Hals' picture of "The Laughing Cavalier", finally leaves the picture unpainted. When the mighty act of God in the resurrection had reversed the natural verdict of failure by the promise of a posthumous success, Christian faith had still to struggle with the paradox of a suffering Saviour.

The New Testament records some of the early ways of overcoming it. Paul boldly declares that the apparent folly of the Cross is the veritable wisdom of God, who was working out a divine righteousness through this death of His Son. The Epistle to the Hebrews, with equal daring, converts the suffering into a sacrifice and the sufferer into the Priest who offers it. The Fourth Gospel sees in the giving up of the Son to the death of the Cross the one adequate measure of the Father's love to the world of men.

In all this there is no direct transference of the sufferings of the Son to the Father, for the later problems of the doctrine of Christ's person and of the Holy Trinity are not yet on the horizon. But, on the other hand, it is assumed in the Bible (where volition is primary and intellect is secondary) that the personality of God is capable of emotion as well as of thought and will, the emotion of holy wrath as well as of holy love. The moral evil of the world moves God to anger, even though His love for men moves Him to costly sacrifice.

In this the New Testament is true to the tradition of the Old Testament. God is indeed transcendent in Israel's fully developed conception of Him: "I am God and not man". Yet He is also a God who carries the burden of His people, knows the failure of His purpose for them, sorrows over them with a love that prevails over wrath, and in all their afflictions is Himself afflicted. When the Fourth Gospel 3 speaks of the divine Word as "tabernacling" with men, the association was "with the Divine tabernacle in the wilderness, when Jehovah pitched His tent among the shifting tents of His people, and shared even in their thirty-eight years of punishment" (Marcus Dods, The Expositor's Greek Testament). This is the Hebrew thought of God, simple and direct and undeterred by those forbidding words, "anthropomorphism" and "anthropopathism".

But when the faith that was born in a Semitic cradle grew to manhood in a Greek world, when Christian theologians began to shape the outlines of their own religious faith, the tools that lay to their hands were those fashioned in Greek workshops, and to Greek ways of thinking about God their own thought had to conform. One of these Greek ways was to conceive God as "impassible", removed from any capacity to suffer, indeed to feel, as men do.

In Professor Edwyn Bevan's words, "Deity, every novice in Greek philosophy knew as an axiom, must be apathes, without disturbing emotions of any kind" (Symbolism and Belief, p. 120).

It was taken for granted by Christian theologians that the Biblical ways of speaking about divine emotion were no more than figures of speech.

"It is invariably assumed and repeatedly stated that impassibility is one of the divine attributes." (G. L. Prestige, God in Patristic Thought, p. 6. Cf. Mozley, The Impassibility of God, passim.)

As for the divine in Christ which apparently shared His human suffering, a sharp line came to be drawn between the human and the divine natures. The suffering belonged to the human side of Him, but not to the divine, for how could the divine suffer? The result was that the Ancient Church in general could have no place for the doctrine of the suffering of God.

Only in the modern world, with its revived interest in the humanity of Jesus, and its reaction from what has seemed to many the artificiality of this kind of distinction between the human and the divine, has there been a return to the language of the Bible. From the suffering Christ, and with more or less explicit emphasis on the unity of His personality as seen in the earlier Gospels, men have looked up to a suffering Father. It has seemed to them monstrous to think of God as unmoved by the sufferings of humanity, for some of which He is responsible in having created them. It has seemed that the very Gospel of grace demands that love be enthroned at the center of the universe, and they have professed themselves unable to conceive a genuine love that is not itself costly and sacrificial.

No one has put the issue more forcibly than Horace Bushnell:- "It is as if there were a cross unseen, standing on its undiscovered hill, far back in the ages, out of which were sounding always, just the same deep voice of suffering love and patience, that was heard by mortal ears from the sacred hill of Calvary." (The Vicarious Sacrifice, p. 31 (ed. 1866).

We may welcome the return to the doctrine of a suffering God as one inspired by a genuine religious interest. But we must not accept it lightly or unthinkingly, without due regard to the real difficulties which attach to the conception. Theology cannot turn its back on philosophy without ultimate disaster. Let us consider, then, what these difficulties chiefly are, putting them, as far as is possible, in non-technical terms.

Philosophical Objections to a Suffering God

The most obvious of all objections to the ascription of suffering to God is that suffering in man usually means some kind of frustration or limitation. This may spring from our environment, as when a starving woman with her baby sits down in some African forest to die in the darkness, as in a recent Congo famine. It may be due to some malignant growth in the body which slowly destroys an essential organ. It may be wholly spiritual, as in the unforgettable bereavement. But in every instance it marks our finite nature and dependent position, and such suffering is irreconcilable with any valid meaning to be attached to the term "God". This objection seems particularly to hold in regard to suffering, for all kinds of "feeling", even more than thinking or willing, seem to be linked to the physical bodies which are part of ourselves; how can we conceive the feeling of a purely spiritual being? Altogether, it seems that the attribution of suffering to God is unworthy of Him.

Even if we say that divine suffering is, after all, transient, something which God experiences as a necessary part of His purpose in creating and redeeming man, and that the final achievement of that purpose will bring Him perfect peace and joy, we seem to have entangled Him in the time-process, and to have conceived a changing God, moving like ourselves to something better. But religion instinctively demands the changeless as its fulcrum:-

"Change and decay in all around I see;
O thou who changest not, abide with me."

The time-element is indeed very closely interwoven with our human sense of suffering. As Professor Whitehead remarks, in a comment on the sun-dial inscription, Pereunt et imputantur, "The hours perish and are laid to account", - "Almost all pathos includes a reference to lapse of time" (Symbolism p. 55). How can a God exposed to such pathos be adequate to our religious needs, to say nothing of our philosophic speculation?

The philosophic difficulty becomes most acute when we are asked how we relate a suffering God to the Absolute. In ascribing suffering to God we are avowedly projecting human personality into God. All the general difficulties which attach to this projection affect the particular ascription of suffering to Him. Suffering makes Him relative to this or that part of His creation; how then can He be the Absolute, which philosophy has so often required, that all-comprehensive and self-existent Being, in whom and through whom all exists, and with whom alone the searching mind at last finds rest and consistency? Can God suffer without being less than the whole of things, a subordinate being who has vacated His throne in favor of the Absolute, or rather, has become One only, even if the greatest, amongst the appearances which have to be gathered up into some ultimate Reality?

These three difficulties - the apparent ascription of frustration, change, and limitation, to a God who suffers - are real, and negligible only by those who have not thought much about them. But an endeavor to meet them honestly can elucidate and enrich the idea of the divine suffering. In regard to the first point, viz., that suffering implies frustration, we must, of course, eliminate all thought of the suffering that springs from our physical bodies, since none of us supposes that God has a body like ours. Similarly, we can put aside the vast range of human suffering which belongs to moral evil, for the God of our faith is holy and righteous.

Yet there remains in our experience the fact of spiritual suffering, arising from no bodily frustration, but voluntarily accepted for the highest ends. No man can seek to serve his fellows without bearing this burden. His disinterested activities will have selfish motives read into them. His attempt to arouse others to meet some practical need will encounter indifference or even opposition, where vested interests are attacked.

In proportion as he rises above the average decency of others, he condemns himself to spiritual loneliness. What shall we say again of the suffering which springs from an intense sympathy with the sufferings of others, and is altogether escaped by the callous and brutal temperament? This moral suffering is something more than the mere imagination of the suffering of others, though that itself can bring anguish. The suffering of moral sympathy will be most acute in the most spiritually developed, those who are therefore most conscious of the

"Desperate tides of the whole great world's anguish
Forced thro' the channels of a single heart."

When to such sympathy there is added the strong purpose to go out and face the suffering involved in some great cause, when the philanthropist becomes the hero-martyr, we do not count it a frustration, but the richest fulfillment of life. But if the will to suffer vicariously can so enrich human personality, why should it be considered in itself to be a frustration of the divine, if on other grounds divine suffering is held to be conceivable?

The adequate answer to any difficulty that remains is naturally that of the self-limitation of God, His free acceptance of suffering to which in Himself He is not liable. If He is held to suffer automatically, and not of free choice, then He is indeed a limited and frustrated God, struggling with an alien environment. This would apply, of course, if the material world were not of His creation and He were gradually enforcing His will upon it, to reduce it to order. It would apply, also, if rebellious spirits in the seen or unseen world had so broken away from His control that He was powerless to do anything but wage war with them, something after the manner of Milton's "Paradise Lost". But neither applies, if God is the world-creator and the world-redeemer, voluntarily limiting Himself to a gradual creation of cosmos out of chaos, and to a redemption of rebels by grace, instead of an annihilation of them by force.

Now this is precisely the Christian conception of God and of His purpose. So far as it involves suffering for Him, it is an enrichment of that purpose, not its frustration.

But this brings us to the threshold of the second difficulty, which is indeed the greatest of all, that of the entanglement of God in the time-process. This must not be minimized, for it is the fundamental problem for philosophy, and therefore for philosophical theology. To discuss it adequately would require a volume, and when that volume was written, it would be but one more in a row of many like it, reaching back to the beginnings of man's intellectual effort to interpret the universe. But it is relatively easy to see where the paths diverge, and to recognize the choice which we have to make.

Is Time at last no more than a shadow cast by Eternity? Are we really content to say with Henry Vaughan? -

"I saw Eternity the other night
Like a great Ring of pure and endless light,
All calm, as it was bright,
And round beneath it,
Time in hours, days, years
Driv'n by the spheres
Like a vast shadow mov'd, in which the world
And all her train were hurl'd."

No one can doubt that that way of looking at life has its genuine religious value. But is it an adequate statement of our experience, and of the pre-suppositions of that experience? If Time were only shadow, without substance, if all our striving, our laughter and our tears, our temptations and our sins, our loves and our hates, were known to be illusory, in spite of their apparent reality, could it remain for us what we all in fact accept it to be - something of serious worth to ourselves, something to cling to, even to the last, something in which our choice of good and evil is indeed our own, and carries its own burden of responsibility?

Take from a man the deep-set conviction that life means something, and something of supreme importance, and you have paralysed all his higher purposes and activities.

But if this life in time does mean something to man, it must mean something to God, who made him and it. Just what it means to God can be expressed only in the language of time, and the expression is necessarily symbolic. But this does not necessarily mean that what is expressed is not more than a symbol. It may be - it must be, unless we are all victims of illusion - not so much a symbol of reality as a part of it. Time is then the most valuable of all our possessions, though it is that of which we are most careless.

Time is with us from birth to death, yet its definition is one of the most difficult problems of philosophy. Time may be so related to Eternity that it registers something from moment to moment which already has eternal significance and does not even depend on the final issue for its only value and worth to God. The time-process, as well as the time-result, may concern Him, in His own great way, as much as it concerns us.

It will be the path of His chosen purpose, which includes just this creation of spirits with their limited but real freedom of choice, and with all the possibilities of happiness and suffering, of joy and sorrow, which we know to be ours. As a part of that purpose, there must be a sense in which it adds something to God's universe, though it can add nothing to God Himself, save the manifestation of His grace, in the creation and development of spirits which can have fellowship with Himself.

If that is worth while for God, as it seems worth while for man, then we may believe that God's acceptance of the burden of the whole time-process, with all that its sin must mean to His holiness, and its suffering to His sympathy, is worth while to Him, though it be at the cost of much suffering. Doubtless, it is easier to conceive a static than a dynamic God, philosophically easier to detach Him from the suffering of the world than to involve Him in it.

But we may fairly ask whether the Gospel of the divine purpose can be derived from a static God at all. In that purpose we see the unchanging will of God, and in that sense He is the unchanging One. But the changes which are involved in the working-out of that purpose, the changes which make the very actuality of our human life, may be conceived as the utterance of the purpose itself in a richer language than that of the intellect. Traherne is putting this point when he says of God, "When all that could be wrought by the use of His own liberty was attained, by man's liberty He attained more" (Centuries of Meditations, IV,46).

The cost of that "more" to Him is something which we can but call "suffering", but it is suffering so taken up into His eternal purpose as to be transformed into joy, for we know that the suffering even of a man, for noble ends, can be so transformed.

But if God's relation to the world is conceived in the way indicated, does it not commit us to a God who is less than what philosophy calls the Absolute? Does He not become One amongst the many, instead of being the One and only source of the many? Canon Mozley is surely right when he insists on an answer to this question before we are free to assert that God suffers. Indeed, it is the same question as we have had before, though in anew aspect. The dilemma is that if we identify God with the Absolute, we leave no room for the religious values already indicated, whilst if we bring God within the Absolute He becomes too small a God, not only for philosophy, but also for religion.

We must set God in the highest place, if He is to remain God, and that means that He must be identified with the Absolute, when we are working with philosophical terms. God must be ultimate, in the sense that nothing beyond Himself is necessary to account for Him and for the world in which He is manifested. But if the religious values of our experience are to be justified, we must so relate the world to God as to make its apparent reality part of the ultimate being of God.

If it be said that any "relation" of the world to the Absolute, the unrelated, is a contradiction in terms, the natural conclusion is that the fault is in the use of the term Absolute at all, and that we must be content to assert that God corresponds with the philosophic Absolute in being the one and only and all-comprehensive source of all being, but that His being is itself seen in such a continuous outflow of creative activity as is exemplified in our world.

Cf. A. E. Taylor, art. "Theism", in the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, Vol. XII, p. 261: "From a theistic point of view it is, no doubt, proper to call God the being from whom all others are derived, the Absolute or unconditioned being, but only on the condition that the Absolute is not equated with all that really exists."

This is another way of saying again that time is in God, and not God in time. Our religious vocabulary must necessarily continue to address God and speak of Him as if He were in time, if not also in space. But even whilst we use such ways of speech, and conserve the realities they represent, we ought not to forget what is involved in saying that God is also the source of all that is, and that without Him it would not be. This also has its religious value, even though it be expressed in quasi-spatial metaphor, just as "divine purpose" is itself a quasi-temporal metaphor, though, as Pringle-Pattison suggests, purpose comes nearest of all our conceptions to express the nature of the eternal (The Idea of God, p. 358).

But we have been fighting a rear-guard action against certain types of philosophy long enough. Let us wheel and attack the doctrine of divine impassibility by asking what meaning there can be in a love which is not costly to the lover? We measure love by its degree of sacrifice; apart from the cost, it would be but idle sentiment.

The Christian Gospel of the love of God owes all its power of appeal to the manifested grace of Christ, a grace seen in the cost of love. We are not here concerned with the varying ways of interpreting the costly offering of the Cross, but with the simple fact that the constraining love of Christ is seen in history as a costly love. Just so far as we take the great leap of the Christian faith, and ascribe such love to God Himself, do we seem compelled to say that for God also, love is costly, involving suffering.

One evasion of this inference is found in the resort to the Chalcedonian doctrine of two distinct natures in Christ. His costly love is then relegated to the human nature, whilst the divine does not suffer at all. This is the usual method adopted by orthodox theology when it denies suffering in God.

As by von Hügel, in Essays and Addresses 2nd. Series, p. 209: "He has allowed real, direct Suffering to come as close to Him, in the humanity of Christ, as, in the nature of things, Suffering could come."

Jesus Christ by His human nature shares in the suffering of man, but by His divine nature in the unmixed joy of God. This is not the place to discuss the adequacy of such a Christology. The presentation of Jesus in the Synoptic Gospels gives no evidence of such a cleavage.

It may be sufficient here to urge that if the divine nature has simply appropriated that which cost the human nature so much, we have no warrant for saying that "God so loved the world". The giving of His Son upon the Cross cost Him nothing in suffering, and the human love is greater than the divine.

Here we may notice with interest a Rabbinical argument against the divine Sonship of Jesus. It is urged that if God could not bear to see Abraham sacrifice his son, He would not have looked on calmly whilst His own Son was slain" (J. H. Hertz, The Pentateuch and Haftorahs, p. 923). The argument, of course, is futile against those who believe that He did not look on calmly, but suffered in and with His Son, accepting the suffering as His way and His Son's way of Saviourhood. But it does remind us that we cannot have it both ways.

The more we appeal to the love of Christ for man, in life and in death, as revealing the love of the Father, the more we seem driven to ascribe the sacrificial quality of that love, its very essence and core, to the Father as well as to the Son. We ought to be able to understand the indignation of a modern theologians: - "Theology has no falser idea than that of the impassibility of God" (A. M. Fairbairn, The Place of Christ in Modern Theology, p. 483).

We do not reach the characteristic Gospel of the Christian faith until we see the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ, until we are brought to affirm that, in Calvary, God is commending His own costly love towards us. Apart from this truth, Calvary would not have dominated history; it would have remained an obscure, perhaps unrecorded event.

The terrible sufferings of crucifixion do not explain the centrality of Calvary, for countless others have suffered such physical agonies and are forgotten. The innocence of the sufferer will not explain it; again a countless host might have written on their graves the inscription on that of a French convict, afterwards found to be innocent, who died in the 23rd year of captivity:- "Here lies Vaux: he has gone to ask justice of God" (p. 277 of H. B. Irving's Last Studies in Criminology, where the case is described at length).

Nor is it enough to dwell on the manner of Christ's death - that He bore His sufferings with the courage and patience of a hero. That alone would simply put Him with Stephen, and with Socrates. The uniqueness of the Cross lies in what it achieves in the redemption of man, and that achievement is bound up with the costly love of God. The human love of Jesus was necessary as the effective language of the divine; is not the human cost inseparable from the love? But if this be true, is not that human cost part of the revelation of the divine cost of love in suffering?

Make every allowance for the difference of the eternal from the temporal; confess that none of our human language is adequate (which applies as much to "love" as to "suffering"); recognize that sorrow and suffering cannot be the last word or the dominant note for God; we are still left with the need for something in God that will correspond with the suffering of holy love in man, something that justifies our faith in God and His forgiving love when we look upon the Cross of Christ.

If we seek further confirmation of the suffering of God, we may find it through the doctrine of the Holy Spirit. The work of the Spirit, we are taught in the New Testament, continues and completes that of Christ. We may say, indeed that there is a second Incarnation, not confined to a single life, but extending through all the generations.

The Incarnation of the Holy Spirit has the same marks of God's ways. It is a kenosis, a self-emptying, like that of the Son which Paul describes in Phil. 2. It involves the acceptance of the lowliest conditions - how else can we think of the Holy Spirit indwelling such men as we are? It marks indeed a lowlier descent than that of the Son. For Jesus was the sinless among the sinful; in His consciousness there was no evil to grieve the Holy Spirit, and man's sin could but beat upon Him from without. But if we take seriously the doctrine of God's indwelling of the believer through the Holy Spirit, then God accepts a deeper humiliation, for who of us is sinless?

Such an intimate association of Himself with us cannot mean anything but continual suffering for God, even though it is a suffering transfused with the joy of sanctifying the sinful. This is recognized in the New Testament, where we hear of God as Holy Spirit being grieved by our sin (Eph. 4:30), insulted by wilful relapse (Heb. 10:29), teaching our infant lips to cry, Abba, and witnessing with our spirit that we are God's children (Rom.8:15f.), helping our weakness and making intercession for us (Rom. 5:26).

All these are lowly offices, as truly as that of washing the disciples' feet. They mean that the Spirit also has taken on Him the form of a servant, a suffering Servant. If that does not mean the suffering of God, then our whole Christian experience is based on an illusion. For that experience builds on the truth that we have to do, as directly as the time-process permits, with God Himself, God as known through "the Spirit of the Lord". We may, then, confidently accept the statement of such a theologian as Horace Bushnell when he says that God through the Spirit:-

"has His Gethsemane . . . if the sacrifices of the much- enduring, agonizing Spirit were acted before the senses in the manner of the incarnate life of Jesus, He would seem to make the world itself a kind of Calvary from age to age." (The Vicarious Sacrifice, p. 43, 47)

We may add the words of a philosopher - Pringle-Pattison - who ranks high in his understanding of the essential Christian truths, when he says, "if God is not thus active in the time-process, bearing with His creatures the whole stress and pain of it, the immanence of the Creative Spirit becomes an unmeaning phrase" (in The Spirit, p. 18).

The profound effect of the doctrine of the suffering of God on any doctrine of the atonement is obvious. The redemption wrought by Christ in sacrificial and costly suffering on earth will have its great analogue in the eternal realm, and every suggestion that the Son placates an angry Father will be swept away.

We shall have to consider whether some worthier conception of atonement is not necessary to replace this "transactional" theory. In the posthumous volume of sermons by H. R. Mackintosh, there is one on the text, "He that spared not His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things?"

The preacher reminds us that everything in Christianity goes back to the self-sacrifice of God, that the Cross is a window into the Divine heart, and then goes on to say some pregnant words about what is often called "the mystery of the Atonement":-

"We say, truly enough, that it is difficult to comprehend how forgiveness comes through the work and suffering of Christ, and how what went on at Calvary avails to save us. And often by our very manner of saying this, a suggestion is left that the difficulties are purely intellectual. If we were abler, if our minds were more subtle or profound, it is hinted, we should not find the Cross so unfathomable as we do. But doesn't the difficulty lie far, far deeper? I feel that the great reason why we fail to understand Calvary is not merely that we are not profound enough, it is that we are not good enough. It is because we are such strangers to sacrifice that God's sacrifice leaves us bewildered. It is because we love so little that His love is mysterious. We have never forgiven anybody at such a cost as His. We have never taken the initiative in putting a quarrel right with His kind of unreserved willingness to suffer. It is our unlikeness to God that hangs as an obscuring screen impeding our view, and we see the Atonement so often through the frosted glass of our own lovelessness." (Sermons, pp. 176, 177. For the theology behind this sermon; see The Christian Experience of Forgiveness, by H. R. Mackintosh (Nisbet, 1927).

By H. Wheeler Robinson, Principal of Regent's Park College, Oxford, 1939.


P.S. Yes, God was at Stalingrad and suffered there. He also suffered when Hitler was elected Chancellor, when Poland was invaded, when Operation Barbarosa was launched, and when Hitler committed suicide in his bunker. God allows us freedom of choice - but we cannot choose to do the wrong things, and then demand that God rescue us from the consequences.
"Your inquities have separated between you and your God, and your sins have hid His face from you, that He will not hear" (Isa. 59:2).
But, in His mercy, He may intervene.


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