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The significance of modern teaching about a suffering God

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Before tackling the question, it is important to have an understanding of what ‘modern’ teaching regarding a suffering God entails, and similarly what ‘traditional’ teaching entails. Up until the twentieth century, Christian theology in general stated that God was not capable of suffering. The twentieth century, however, saw a huge change in theologian’s views regarding the nature of a suffering God – indeed, there was a complete reversal of previous opinions. For centuries, the orthodox view of God was that he could not suffer. There were (and still are) compelling reasons to hold this belief.

The idea of God suffering has certain negative connotations. In order to suffer, there must be a cause for suffering, and if God can be affected, and hurt (for the idea of suffering certainly entails the idea of hurt) by some other being or event, surely he is not all powerful. The idea of suffering also raises the question of whether it means God changes, and how that fits with the Christian belief that God is perfect. In traditional Christian thinking, God is considered the perfect being, or entity. Now, if a perfect being changes in someway, surely this indicates a change away from perfection.

The very notion of suffering involves change. There is a point before you were suffering and a point afterwards. As humans understand suffering, it involves an emotional change in a being. This notion of suffering would seemingly undermine the Church’s teaching on God. Yet another problem a Christian theologian might find with the notion of a suffering God is that suffering is usually forced upon somebody. We rarely, if ever, choose suffering as an option, and this presents problems with the notion that God is all powerful. Surely an all powerful being cannot have suffering forced upon him?

If, then, we are presented with such a series of problems concerning the idea of a suffering God, why was there such a swing in the teaching of the Church during the twentieth century? Let us examine why this change in Christian beliefs occurred. In 1914, as the twentieth century was still finding its feet, World War I ripped Europe, and much of the world, apart. The world stood and watched as human life was wasted on a larger scale than had ever been seen before. Millions of men gave their lives in what appeared, on the face of things, to be a meaningless war. The horrific events of the war caused a movement known as ‘protest atheism’.

How could a God who is all powerful, all knowing, and all good allow this to happen on his earth? These protest atheists claimed that God must not exist in order for such a tragedy to come about. The Christian Church at the time spoke of a God who could, and did, not suffer. It was forced to re-examine its beliefs when confronted with the atrocity of the war. The German theologian Jurgen Moltmann asked the question, ‘if God did not share the suffering of his people, was he still relevant in a world full of suffering? ‘ This same idea had been raised earlier in Tolstoy’s novel, ‘The Brothers Karamazov’.

The Church needed to tackle this uncomfortable question of relevance in a modern world. This argument also raised questions concerning the empathetic nature of God. In order to be empathetic, God must share our suffering with us. This a major change in theological thinking, but there are problems regarding the nature of such a change. It could be said that the Church was simply changing its doctrine in order to accommodate a changing world. The Church must be careful not to change for the wrong reasons, as it would undermine its influence, and the respect it has.

In the twentieth century, theologians also undertook the restudying of the Old Testament. New conclusions were drawn regarding the nature of God. He was seen, in the Old Testament, as a ‘passionate’ God, who understood the needs of his people and responded accordingly. He is seen to be angry at times, and is capable of punishing those who anger him. These are all seemingly emotional capabilities, and seem to indicate that God is able to relate to his people because he actually feels what they feel. This meant the Church had to reassess how they looked upon the nature of a suffering God, especially in relation to the study of the bible.

Another significant problem raised during the twentieth century is that of religious plagiarism. Examining the basis of their belief, the Church came to the conclusion that many of their beliefs had been overtly influenced by Greek philosophy. The notion of an impassible God had come about in the early days of Christianity when it first came into contact with Greek philosophy. It took the idea that perfection stemmed from the ability to be self sufficient, and unchangeable.

As suffering indicates change, the idea of an impassible God fit in with this definition of perfection. The writer Philo stated, what greater impiety could there be than to suppose that the Unchangeable changes” The Christian Church had adopted this philosophy in the past but, with the dawn of the twentieth century and everything that came with it, it was clear that the Church would need to take a fresh look at its teaching. Theologians were presenting an new idea of God, which was not limited by the previous beliefs drawn from Greek philosophy. This was a huge step for the Christian Church, and we should not downplay how significant this change was. During the twentieth century, theology as a whole showed itself to be a dynamic force.

That is, it is a constantly evolving body, and still has important contributions to make for mankind. Theologians were showing that beliefs regarding God were not ‘set in stone’ and that the Church could admit it was wrong in the past. This tie in with the rediscovery of the work of Martin Luther towards the end of the nineteenth century. Luther was a reformer of the church during the sixteenth century. Whilst studying the bible, he realised that many of his beliefs were moving away from those held by the Roman Catholic Church at the time.

He put forward the idea that God demonstrated his power through his suffering, and the secret of a meaningful life through Christ’s death on the cross. These beliefs were known as the ‘Theology Of The Cross’, and caused uproar in the Church at the time. Now, over four hundred years after Luther put forward this idea, the Church was ready to take it on board. Theology had effectively, if slowly, evolved over time. The question of whether the Church was just finally succumbing to pressure from its followers has to be asked, though. This is, after all, a massive change in the belief system of the Church.

It is also important to examine the argument concerning the nature of, and connection, between emotions. Christians often talk about God loving his people. The human perception of love is of an extremely strong emotion, and one that invariably involves suffering as well. If God is not capable of suffering with us, modern theologians said, surely God cannot be capable of experiencing love for us. Love will always involve suffering, and God must understand this emotion in order to love. The change in theologian thinking appears to have made God’s love for us seem more certain than before.

There is one more counter-argument to the modern teaching regarding God’s impassibility. Christians believe God to be perfect, but if God is perfect, yet still suffers, is there any hope of a life free from suffering? Perhaps this new teaching could be considered as damning humans to a life of suffering, rather than giving them the opportunity to believe in a life free from pain. The change in the Church’s teaching regarding a suffering God has undoubtedly seen a huge change in theology. It has shown itself to be a constantly changing and evolving thing, and has seemingly shown God to still be relevant in a modern world.

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