Can God the Father also suffer? This article is about the relation of the Father to Jesus Christ's suffering.

Source: Clarion, 2002. 2 pages.

Who Suffered?

In the month of March, as the church calendar leads up to Good Friday and Easter, we consider the suffering and death of the Son of God. He came into this world for that very purpose: to suffer and die. This is clearly one of the most important works He had come to perform on earth. The four evangelists all devote a considerable part of their gospels to a description of the many things Jesus Christ had to suffer during his capture, trial and death on the cross. And the epistles of the New Testament explain further the importance of this crucial event in the history of this world. The Bible presents Christ’s suffering and death as one of the main purposes for which He had come from heaven.

The church has recognized this at an early stage. When the creeds speak of God the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, they do not assign the suffering to all three divine persons. Rather, they mention in the section on the Son of God, Jesus Christ, that He came down from heaven to suffer and to die. The Apostles’ Creed summarized this in the words: “He suffered under Pontius Pilate,” elaborating on that in the following words: “He was crucified, dead and buried.” The Nicene Creed expresses this somewhat differently. It first says that He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate, and continues with the words: “He suffered and was buried.” The Athanasian Creed is very brief on Jesus Christ’s life, but it does say that He “suffered for our salvation.” This reminder that our salvation was the purpose for the coming of the Son of God forms a valuable addition to the confession of Christ’s suffering. The creeds may differ slightly in formulation, but on the main issue they are quite clear: it was the Son of God, who became a man and who suffered. That is one of the main tenets of the Christian faith.

This teaching is continued in the Reformed confessions. This could easily be shown from Lord’s Days 14 (the last part) and 15 of the Heidelberg Catechism. This is most familiar to us because it is frequently discussed in the afternoon worship services. I will refer to the Belgic Confession, which also speaks clearly about the suffering of Jesus Christ. In article 20, it says:

We believe that God, who is perfectly merciful and just, sent his Son to assume that nature in which disobedience had been committed, to make satisfaction in that same nature; and to bear the punishment of sin by his most bitter passion and death.

This article deals with the incarnation, the fact that God’s Son assumed our flesh and blood. There was a reason for this. He had to become like one of us in order to undergo the punishment we deserve. The Son had to come into the flesh in order to make satisfaction for our sins. Our Saviour needed to be fully human, just like we are. That Saviour is the Son of God, who became man to suffer and to die.

Did the Father Suffer, too?🔗

There is another view which is not found in the early creeds and in the confessions, namely, that not only Jesus, but also God the Father suffered in the crucifixion and death of Jesus. This thought became popular after the Second World War, particularly in German theology. In this view, God’s participation, his solidarity in our suffering was emphasized. This is a great change, for the suffering is now placed within God himself. It would also mean that God was subject to suffering, just as we humans are subject to suffering.

Think of the suffering of God’s Son on the cross. The Son is not the only one who suffered as a result of the cross; the Father suffered with Him, for He forsakes his Son on the cross. In doing so, the Father forsakes himself as a father. And both suffer alone. The Son suffered when He was given over to the suffering on the cross. At the same time, it was the Father who gave Him over to that suffering, which was a terrible thing to do for a father.

Taken in this way, the suffering of the Father and that of the Son was different. The Son suffered in dying on the cross, humiliated and condemned as an innocent person. The Father did not die, but He suffered the pain of having his Son die. For the very reason that He is the Father, He suffered when his Son died.

This view has important consequences for God himself, the triune God. If the teaching we just described were true, that would mean that both God the Father and his Son Jesus Christ stand side by side in undergoing pain and suffering. Suffering is placed within God himself. The fact that the cross brings suffering on both the Father and the Son means that suffering affects both of them. From here, it is only a small step to saying that God suffers in the suffering of the people in the world. The fact that the Father can share in the suffering of his Son would mean that in principle, He can be involved in the suffering of any person.

Scripture on Christ’s Suffering🔗

This thought is so foreign to those who have grown up with the Apostles’ Creed that the question must come up in our minds: How is that possible that God can suffer? Does God not sit enthroned above the circle of the earth? And are the inhabitants of the earth not like grasshoppers? (Isaiah 40:22). Who can touch God to such an extent that God would suffer?

We need not go into all kinds of explanations how it would be possible for God to suffer. The most important issue here is whether this idea that the Father suffered when Jesus Christ suffered and died has any ground in the biblical description of Jesus’ death on Golgotha. The only source we have for this is the gospels. We need to look at the way his suffering and death is described there.

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