The traditional Christian view
Traditionally, God is thought to be impassable. This means that God cannot experience emotion or suffering or pain and therefore has no emotions similar to human feelings. This is because God is traditionally thought of as immutable, meaning unchanging. The argument is that if God is a perfect being, then God cannot chance since a perfect being that changes necessarily changes away from perfection towards imperfection. Since emotions are fleeting; they come and go, this suggests that a being which can feel emotion must thereby change and thus cannot be perfect. So, it seems part of God’s perfection that he cannot be subject to emotional change. God could potentially display emotions such as anger or grief but only because a particular situation provoked that reaction from his underlying unchanging state of compassion and mercy.
Jesus is passible because of his human nature, whereas his divine nature is still traditionally thought of as impassable. This is also highlighted by God’s plan to overcome suffering and death with resurrection of our bodies without their current limitations on judgement day.
Prayer is typically thought by Christians to be an action that humans can do which can sometimes prompt God to do something he wouldn’t otherwise have done. Some argue that this shows that God can change.
Aquinas argues that Prayers aren’t directly responded to by God in time, however. “We do not pray to change divine decree, but only to obtain what God has decided will be obtained through prayer”. The function of a prayer is to make people feel psychologically closer to God or in order to gain the benefits that God has already designed the world, through his providence, to be the effect of prayer.
Arguably impassibility is a philosophical construct and not biblical. Transcendence seems biblical, but it’s hard to find solid biblical support for impassibility. In fact there is biblical evidence against it it. God seems to feel compassion for his people (Isiah 14:1), wrath against sin (Psalm 38:3) and feels pain when humans reject his love and grace (Luke 19:41-42).
Nonetheless, Aquinas would argue that our God-given reason allows us to know that perfection requires immutability, which when considering a mind (like God) would make it impossible.
Jurgen Moltmann: The Crucified God
Moltmann was reacting to the problem of evil and suffering. He said ‘Jesus Christ is the human face of God. And without Jesus Christ I would not believe in God.’ The catastrophes of history, such as the Jewish holocaust, and nature, would make it ‘unthinkable’ that there is a God were it not for Jesus ‘and his message and his suffering on the cross and his resurrection’. Jesus’ crucifixion gave him the understanding that God is present ‘in the midst of suffering’. This led to Moltmann challenging the traditional view that God is impassable.
Moltmann draws particular inspiration from what Jesus said while being crucified. “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me.” This is something humans who suffer can relate to. It is the sort of thing a human might feel and say in the face of suffering. Moltmann poses the question “What does the cross of Jesus mean for God himself?”. Moltmann thinks the answer comes when consider that the crucified Christ really is God:
“God is not greater than he is in this humiliation. God is not more glorious than he is in this self-surrender. God is not more powerful than he is in this helplessness. God is not more divine than he is in this humanity.”
“The Christ event on the cross is a God event”.
So, God experienced suffering, humiliation and death on the cross. Abandonment of Jesus on the cross by the Father takes place within God. What it means to be Christian and believe in Jesus’ sacrifice is to identify with the crucified Christ. From this, Moltmann drew the insight that God identified himself through Jesus with those that feel abandoned by him. Moltmann illustrates the significance of this with the account of a Jewish boy hanged in Auschwitz. Moltmann states that God was hanging with him on the gallows. His conclusion is that God suffers with those who suffer.
Anthropomorphism. Moltmann could be accused of projecting human experiences and feelings onto God, but since God omnipotent and omnibenevolent, that would just be anthropomorphism.
However, it’s not quite as simple as that God is divine. Jesus was fully God and fully human. Arguably Jesus as the Son of God incarnate, would feel pain and suffering because of his humanity.
It could be that this suffering did not affect divine nature however, but only his human nature.
But that would just undermine Moltmann’s whole argument – he needs it to be that God suffers.
Solidarity with those who suffer
The true meaning of Christian identifying with the crucified Christ is solidarity with those who suffer; the poor and oppressed. The power of the crucified Christ comes from the agapistic love with which Christ suffers. This is a solution to the problem of theodicy, because God himself protested against suffering in the death of his Son.
Moltmann suggests that the Church has attempted to give the cross a superficial attractiveness by stripping it of this, its true significance. E.g. the concept of the mass as a sacrifice may deny the finality of Christ’s death once and for all. Traditional Christianity is shying away from its responsibility to help the poor and oppressed. Today the cross means the hope of the resurrection.
In the middle ages the cross had a more mystical significance to people. God was recognised in the suffering Christ which was seen as God suffering with the oppressed.
Moltmann sees the resurrection as the theology of hope but claims you cannot have that without the theology of suffering; there would be no resurrection without the cross. As humans we suffer and feel abandoned, but we can see that God suffered for us and planned to overcome the suffering and death of the cross with the resurrection.
Arguably Moltmann’s God shows empathy and solidarity, which is an improvement, but is this enough to actually address and solve the problem of evil?
Moltmann’s theology is historically contingent. Arguably Moltmann’s theology of a suffering God was developed as a reaction to historical events like the holocaust and changing attitudes in recent centuries where people feel the need for a God that is capable of empathy. It could also be seen as a reaction to the rise of atheism and the problem of evil argument.