David McKay has raised two important issues about the idea of an impassible God that, I think, would naturally occur to many people confronted with the idea. And so we’re going to bump one of Martin Shields’s excellent concerns out in order to highlight another excellent issue raised by David:
One question I have is about the incarnation and exaltation of Jesus. I understand that one of the wonderful benefits of Jesus’ incarnation and exaltation is that God became Man and that Jesus remains forever an exalted Man. He is God but he is truly human. One of the things I take from Hebrews is that we have a great high priest who is a perfect man who is interceding for us. It is nice to know that he had the experience of being a man like us. He suffered and was tempted like us, but he was triumphant over all this suffering and temptation. He never sinned.
But I would have thought that it is important to know that he still feels for us now as an exalted Man. Has he retreated from sharing truly in our experiences and become impassible again? The more I think about it, the more this doctrine makes God to be cold and unfeeling.
Jesus: The perfect high priest
David very helpfully points us to the account of Jesus’ high priestly ministry in the book of Hebrews. He asks whether Jesus Christ is still the same one who suffered at every point like we do, and yet is without sin, and so is able to be merciful and gracious with those who flee to him to represent them before God. Is he still passible?
The answer is a resounding ‘Yes’. Throughout time, onto the End of All Things and for all eternity, Jesus Christ stands as the true perfect man, mediating between us and God. From the moment faith begins, we are united to Christ, and we will never ever be taken out of him. We will always be married to our Husband—always connected to our Head. The eternal Son of God has irrevocably united himself to our humanity, dealt with sin, and returned to the Father’s right hand. And in doing so, Christ has overcome sin and death, given us life, guaranteed the resurrection and exalted us to sit with him in the heavenly realms with his own Father. Even when the era of sin and death has been ended by God’s final judgement, Christ will continue to be our priest, ever gracious with us as he represents us before his Father. That is our faith and our hope. That’s what has been grasped for more than a millennia by Christian believers who confessed that God is, in the language of the Thirty-nine Articles, “without passions”.
But what I would suggest is that if God is passible, the argument of Hebrews that sets this hope and object for our faith before our eyes becomes a little strange at some important points.
Hebrews opens in chapter 1 by declaring the Son who is above all angels (Heb 1:4-14), the full radiance of the Father’s glory (Heb 1:2-3). The Son is paraded before us in his divine splendour. In chapter 2, we are informed of a momentous event: this Son has been made like us, taking on flesh and blood, and so becoming truly human (Heb 2:14). This is for a reason—to lead believers to glory, to save us from our sins (Heb 2:10, 14-18).
Part of what it means for the Son of God to take on flesh and blood is to experience suffering and temptation (Heb 2:17-18). This is a path that leads purposefully to the cross, and the whole package—taking on humanity, suffering, being faithful when tested and dying—is captured in Hebrews by the words “he … should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.” (Heb 2:10). He is not perfected as the word who stands even above the angels, but perfected as our Saviour, perfectly fitted to be our High Priest—to make sacrifice for sins for us and to represent us to God. In addition, an integral part of that high priestly ‘job description’ is that Christ is gentle with us: “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin” (Heb 4:15). Our faith is strengthened as the glory and strength of Christ’s saving power is set before us like this.
But if God is passible, then one of the ‘bits’ of the package that we most value becomes a bit of an odd man out. Why does Hebrews move in close and shine the spotlight on our high priest’s ability to sympathize with our weakness? Why is this held up as part of what happens because the word became flesh? If the great problem with an impassible God is that he is, to use David McKay’s evocative phrase, “cold and unfeeling”, then surely the great strength of a passible God is that he is warm and full of feeling—not feelings that run roughshod over us, but fellow feeling—the ability to sympathize with our weakness. In other words, the book of Hebrews holds out something to us in the ministry of Christ’s perfect humanity that is just obviously something God has anyway if he is passible. We don’t need a high priest who sympathizes with our weakness because the whole point of a passible God is that he can do that for us without the need for a mediator. In other words, a passible God just slightly weakens one aspect of how we look to Christ in faith for what we need.
Put positively, we put our hope in a high priest who is the eternal word and is also truly human, and therefore can sympathize with our weaknesses, and will do so eternally.
The God who meets our need
But let’s consider this issue of the terrible, “cold and unfeeling”, impassible God. Let me put the issue provocatively, and somewhat crassly: “What sort of God do we need?”
Our biggest problem is death and the judgement that follows it. We are mortal, and must pass through death. All other problems in life get part of their sting from the way they remind us of this greater grim reality; they are foreshadowings of the sweeping arc of the grim reaper’s scythe.
So imagine you face death up close, personal and just around the corner. You are on death row, scheduled to be executed in 24 hours. Or you are in the final stages of terminal illness, possessed of all your faculties, but informed by the medical staff that you are circling the drain, and the water will finally empty sometime in the next 24 hours. What do you need?
You need one of two things. Most of all, you need someone to deal with your death problem—to intervene, to rescue you from death’s clammy clutches. You need someone who can change your situation.
But if you can’t have that, you need the support of sensitive and compassionate people who can comfort you as your life comes to its inevitable close. You need people around you who love you and who treat you with dignity, and so ease your path as you fall to humanity’s great enemy. They can’t alter your situation, but they can sit with you as you go through it. It is the great thing we can offer one another as people powerless before death: comfort and support.
Of the two needs, which one do we need God to do for us? It should be clear that we need God to change our situation—to meet our need when the chips are down. Empathy we can get from other men and women; indeed, one might suggest that one of the reasons why God gives people to us is so that they’ll be there for us when we need them.
But, it will be asked, why does God have to be impassible to be able to make a difference to our situation? Why is it a choice between ‘warm, feeling and useless’ and ‘cold, unfeeling and useful’? Can’t God be both passible and useful?
The difficulty here, as I tried to suggest in the first post on impassibility, is that we make the issue of emotions the central issue. And impassibility, while it has implications for God and emotions, isn’t really about that. It’s about the fact that God is not stuck in the same situation we are in.
Take depression or grief. If you are overcome with depression or grief, is it really all that useful to hang out with another person overcome with depression or grief? Generally, no. In fact, it’s quite possible that, especially in the case of depression, it could make things worse for both of you. What you need is someone who is not depressed—someone who has the emotional resources to reach into the emotional pit you find yourself in. You need someone who is not going through what you are experiencing to genuinely help you through it when you facing the extreme situations in life. That’s what impassibility captures: God doesn’t go through what we go through, and precisely because of that fact, he’s actually useful. He can bring to bear resources that no human can bring, because every human is going through the same thing we are.
So you need someone free of the things that eat away and threaten your life. You also need that person to not be thrown by your emotions—your grief or your depression, in our example. They need to be comfortable with the emotions you feel, even though they don’t share them. Here again, impassibility is misunderstood. Whatever people think is going on in God’s ‘internal world’ (and people who believe in impassibility will give different answers to that question), he is not unfeeling or unemotional in the sense that we use that term. He created emotions. Emotions are part of God’s good gifts to us. And as God is the source of emotions, for he creates out of his own exhaustless riches and goodness, then even if you think that God, strictly speaking, doesn’t have emotions, that can only be because he has something even better—something that can only exist in God, and, when it is given to creatures—when it is expressed in a creaturely way—it manifests as emotions.
In other words, impassibility is not saying that God is a stereotypical Boomer picture of a Builder father—cold and emotionally distant. Nor is it saying that God is a robot—without emotions at all. It is saying that God transcends our emotions—either experiencing emotions impassibly, or having something so divine, we can’t grasp it, but which emotional language correctly describes because it is the source of our emotionality. Either way, our emotions aren’t a problem for God. He isn’t unfeeling in any meaningful sense in the way he relates to us. The emotional language of the Bible isn’t a charade.
What impassibility is saying is that God can make a difference because he is not like us. That difference is what we need. We are creatures, and as creatures, we are passible. We are profoundly open to what goes on around us, moved and shaped by the things that happen to us. That, in and of itself, is good. Passibility is not a problem; we’ll be passible even in the new creation.
But in the world under the dominion of sin, it’s a real issue. Adam’s sin determines our destiny in a very bad way. We go through life under the dominion of the devil, the flesh and the world. Sin and death are our masters. We are passible to them all—affected by them all. We are like little tiny boats adrift and rudderless on a sea in a storm, blown and tossed in every direction, about to perish at any moment. We are like people exposed on the side of a mountain as the mother of all cyclones hits. We are like refugees set upon by fanatics armed to the teeth, who take pleasure in inflicting suffering and death. To all these things, we are passible—we are affected.
And in all these things, God is impassible—unaffected. For those at sea, God is the rock to which they can flee for safety; the waves can batter themselves senseless, but they will leave the rock unmoved. For those facing the storm, God is the great tower that sneers at the wind and rain. For those escaping their enemies, he is a fortress against which unimaginable armies have attacked—armies whose efforts merely bring about their own destruction. Those biblical images of God as our rock, fortress and tower are the things that impassibility expounds and declares.
God is impassible to the things that threaten to overwhelm and destroy us. That’s the core message of impassibility. Furthermore, in that impassibility, we find a real and strong deliverance. God is not like you; he isn’t going through what you are going through. That is a good thing: precisely because what we’re going through can find no purchase in God, we can flee to God in Christ and find that God himself, in his very nature, meets our greatest needs. His salvation of us in his Son is grounded in himself. As Irenaeus put it, “For, as much as God is in want of nothing, so much does man stand in need of fellowship with God” (Against Heresies, book 4 chapter 14, Ante-Nicene Fathers translation).