In the Atonement, Did God the Father Suffer Along with the Son?
by Jack Cottrell (Notes) on Friday, March 9, 2012 at 2:40pm
QUESTION: We talk a lot about how Jesus suffered to accomplish atonement for our sins, but did not God the Father also share in this suffering? If Christ’s suffering was separation from the Father (Matthew 27:46 – “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”), did the Father not also experience the grief of this separation, this broken relationship? Thus it seems that not only did Christ pay for our sins, but so did the Father also.
ANSWER: This question rightly assumes that it is possible for God to suffer–something that has often been denied throughout Christian history. Traditional theism has typically affirmed the “impassibility” of God, a word related to our term “passion,” which comes from the Latin passus, a participle of the verb patior, which means “to experience, to suffer.” To say that God is impassible means that he cannot experience emotions of any kind, and especially that he cannot experience sorrow, suffering, or pain. (See my book, What the Bible Says About God the Redeemer, 509-511.)
I am glad to say that many have questioned and denied such an idea, and the Bible certainly does not support it. The heart of God is deeply grieved because of sin; see Gen. 6:6; Judg. 2:18; Isa. 63:9-10, 15; Jer. 31:20; Eph. 4:30. (See God the Redeemer, 511-514.) The primary example of divine suffering was the substitutionary death of the incarnate Logos, God the Son. His divine suffering took two forms. First, the divine nature of Christ himself suffered when he took our sins and our penalty upon himself on the cross. The incarnate Christ indeed had two natures, divine and human; but he was only one person, one center of consciousness. Whatever experiences passed through the consciousness of Jesus of Nazareth passed through the consciousness of God the Son. When Jesus experienced suffering and death on the cross, God the Son experienced suffering and death. “Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered” (Heb. 5:8). Particularly poignant was “the pain of his God-forsakenness” (Matt. 27:46).
Now, here is the main point raised by the questioner. There was indeed another form of divine suffering connected with the cross, i.e., the suffering of God the Father, the real pain he endured in sending his own Son to die on the cross. This is how Romans 8:32 puts it: “He . . . did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all.” His own Son! What could be more heart-wrenching than this? One point must be made clear, though. In reference to the cross, the Father did not suffer what the Son suffered, but because the Son suffered. The Father was not experiencing the agonies of Calvary; only God the Son was experiencing those. The Father rather was experiencing the agonies of a Father as he watched his only begotten and only beloved Son go through an ordeal unlike anything eternity had ever seen or will ever see again.
Here is where I believe the questioner goes off the track. ONLY the suffering of Jesus paid for our sins. His role as the incarnate Redeemer was unique among the persons of the Trinity. He alone “bore our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24); he alone became a curse for us (Gal. 3:13); he alone was sent by the Father to be a propitiation for our sins (Rom. 3:25; 1 John 2:2; 4:10). The essence of his suffering was much more than a broken relationship with the Father; the separation reflected in Matthew 27:46 was not the essence of the propitiatory suffering, but was the result of it. The essence of the suffering was to be vicariously identified as a sinner and to be enveloped completely within the infinite wrath of the Father.
Thus we cannot assume that if “God” suffers on the cross, then both God the Father and God the Son must be sharing the exact same suffering. If this were so, then Christ’s role as Mediator would be compromised. But the Father and the Son do not suffer the same thing. The Son suffers the eternal wrath of the Father upon sin, and the Father suffers to see his Son having to endure it. An analogy would be a convicted criminal being punished by life in prison, and the father of the criminal grieving over his son’s fate.
In other words, the suffering of the Mediator is still unique. The basis for making this distinction between how the Son suffers and how the Father suffers is the concept of the economic Trinity. This is the idea that with regard to the works of God, the different persons of the Trinity perform different works and different functions in their relationships with human beings, especially in the outworking of redemption. (See God the Redeemer, 159-161.)
I have seen others who do not make this proper and necessary distinction, e.g., the Japanese theologian Kazoh Kitamori, who in his book Theology of the Pain of God says, “God the Father who hid himself in the death of God the Son is God in pain. Therefore the pain of God is neither merely the pain of God the Son, nor merely the pain of God the Father, but the pain of the two persons who are essentially one” (p. 115). The same applies to Juergen Moltmann, who says, “In the passion of the Son, the Father himself suffers the pains of abandonment. In the death of the Son, death comes upon God himself, and the Father suffers the death of his Son in his love for forsaken man” (The Crucified God, 192).
We conclude, then, that the doctrine of divine impassibility itself must be rejected because it cuts the very nerve of the gospel of redemption. Kitamori is at least looking in the right direction when he says that the pain of God is “the heart of the gospel,” that “in the gospel the final word is the pain of God” (19, 47). The only way for God to be true to both sides of his nature—his love and his wrath—is through the suffering of God the Son for the propitiation of the sins of the world. Thus the very nature of the atonement as thus understood requires that God suffer as he did in the person of God the Son, in the divine nature of Jesus Christ. Only if Jesus suffered in his divine nature could his substitutionary suffering be infinite and thus equivalent to eternity in hell for the whole human race. God’s ability to suffer is thus the very presupposition of the atonement. (See God the Redeemer, 515-516.)