The Suffering God after Auschwitz, Gaza, and after Jurgen Moltmann

Auschwitz gate

It was not only the Jewish religion that recoiled and rethought things after the Holocaust. Jurgen Moltmann, the highly regarded German theologian who died this week aged 98, was of the generation of Christian writers who faced up to the evil of the Shoah.

The “Never Again is Now” meme used by Jewish commenters reflects a belief that the October 7 attacks by Hamas on Israel were Shoah-like in their intensity and terror. The ordeal of the Palestinians in Gaza also raises the question of “where is God in this suffering?” for many. Once again, Christians have to face the questions Moltmann spent his life, and several books, pondering.

In a dialogue with his wife,  Elisabeth Moltmann-Wendel, a feminist theologian, Moltmann said “My book The Crucified God was said to be a Christian theology ‘after Auschwitz’. This is true. It was for
me an attempt to speak to God, to trust in God and speak about God in the shadows of Auschwitz
and in view of the victims of my people.”

For Moltmann, the answer to Auschwitz was to see God as suffering with humanity. A much-quoted passage from The Crucified God shows Moltmann reflected on belief in the spiritual ashes of World War 2. “A God who cannot suffer is poorer than any man. For a God who is incapable of suffering is a being who cannot be involved. Suffering and injustice do not affect him. And because he is so completely insensitive, he cannot be affected or shaken by anything. He cannot weep, for he has no tears. But the one who cannot suffer cannot love either. So, he is a loveless being. Aristotle’s God cannot love; he can only be loved by all non- divine beings by virtue of his perfection and beauty, and in this way, draw them to him. The “unmoved Mover” is a “loveless Beloved.”

This response attacked a classical view of God known as Divine Impassibility, which is based on the idea that God is eternal and unchangeable.

“In modern theology, it has often been said that if God is personal love, analogous to human personal love, then he must be open to the suffering which a relationship of love can bring,” Richard Bauckham writes in a Themelios article examining the challenge of Moltmann and others to Divine Impassibility. “Traditional theology understood God’s love as a one-way relationship in which God exercises purely active benevolence towards the world, but cannot be affected by the objects of his love, but this picture of the impassive benevolent despot has tended to give way to pictures drawn from more intimate human relationships in which a love which is unaffected by the beloved seems unworthy to be called love, even if the term is applied analogically to God.”

Some supporters of the traditional view, such as Amos Winarto Oei in defending Divine Impassibility make it clear that God has emotions: the Bible speaks of God’s love, pity, and anger.

But that we can’t say they are the same as our emotions. God’s emotions don’t inhibit his functioning the way trauma affects human beings, for example. Just as the Bible says God has hands and feet, we don’t take that to mean God is like us with limbs. As humans we don’t fully understand our own emotions – sometimes our body knows better than our conscious understanding, what emotions we process.

So it is not unexpected that we will not understand God’s emotions or experience what he experiences.

For Moltmann the suffering God identifies with those who suffer, who face injustice, who are victims of human conflict. This places God on the side of the downtrodden.

As we respond to present day evil and war, whether we agree with the complex theology of impassibility – or take Moltmann’s view – we know that God sees what is going on on Earth and cares for human suffering. With the Psalmist we may ask where is God? (in his case as Israel suffered invasion) “You broke off your agreement with your servant, the king and you completely destroyed his kingdom.” (Psalms‬ ‭89‬:‭39‬ ‭CEV‬‬)

But also from the same Psalm “Our Lord, I will sing of your love forever. Everyone yet to be born will hear me praise your faithfulness. I will tell them, “God’s love can always be trusted, and his faithfulness lasts as long as the heavens.” (Psalms‬ ‭89‬:‭1‬-‭2‬ ‭CEV‬‬)

Whether we accept or reject Moltmann’s depiction of God as moved or changed by human suffering, we live in this tension. Gaza forces us to – shadowing Molnanns post WWII reflections. But we live in the knowledge of the God who loves this world and came to die for us. Our God did suffer.

Bauckham concludes: “The man or woman who lives within the pathos of the crucified God becomes capable of real love, which is concerned for others, sensitive to their suffering, ready for the pain of loving the unlovable, vulnerable to sorrow and hurt as well as open to joy and pleasure. If a cold and invulnerable self-sufficiency is not the divine ideal, it is a foolish idolatry to make it the human ideal.”

Image: Gate to Auschwitz I with its Arbeit macht frei sign. Image Credit: xiquinhosilva / Flickr