Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Can God experience pain?

1. Every so often I hear a pastor or even a theologian say something like, "God knows what it's like to lose a son". That's supposed to be comforting in the face of tragedy. 

I bite my tongue when I hear statements like that because I think it reflects a flawed understanding of the Incarnation. The implication is that due to the hypostatic union, the divine nature experiences what the human nature experiences. As a result, the Incarnation is a learning experience for God.

But in reality, the Father didn't "lose" his Son. The Son qua Son didn't die. The Son was never inaccessible to the Father. 

Likewise, the human nature doesn't bleed into the divine nature. 

2. In addition, there are various mental states that God can't have. Due to divine invulnerability, God can't experience fear or longing.

3. That said, can God experience simulated sensations? For instance, I remember what different foods taste like. I can mentally summon the flavor of some foods. I can imagine tasting steak, lobster, pizza, pasta, chocolate ice cream, spare ribs, &c. It isn't as vivid as actually tasting food, but it's similar, if fainter. 

That's not the physical sensation of taste, but a mental simulation. 

Likewise, I remember what my favorite singers sound like. I can hear the timber of their voice in my mind. Same thing with actors like Gregory Peck, Johnny Cash, and James Early Jones. That's not the physical sensation of hearing a recording of them, but a mental simulation.

I can visualize colors. That's different from perceiving a colored object with my eyes. When I visualize colors, there's no external stimulus. 

I can remember/imagine textures. Or a rose scent. 

I can remember what it feels like to be thirsty. Or have cold feet. Not as vivid as the physical sensation, but similar, if fainter. 

Assuming that simulated mental sensations are immaterial, that raises the question of whether God can experience simulated sensations. 

4. One other illustration: although it's been a long time since I had this dream, on occasion I've dreamt about jumping off a cliff. A fun part of dreaming is that you can get away with some activities that would kill you in real life. Jumping off a cliff in a dream is exhilarating. 

However, when I've dreamt about it, it isn't painless. When I hit the ground, it's a hard landing, and it hurts the soles of my feet when they smack the ground after the long drop, even though I'm just dreaming. It's not excruciating pain. Rather, it's like the sensation of jumping from a 10-15 foot wall onto concrete. (Not that I've every done that, exactly.)

If it's possible to experience simulated pain, if simulated pain is mental (i.e. immaterial), then is it theoretically possible for God to experience what physical pain feels like? 

Nobody can inflict that on God, but can he voluntarily experience simulated pain? If so, can God know what it feels like to be crucified?  


  1. I have to wonder what difference it makes if he did feel pain. We tend to like other people who have similar experiences to us because it makes them relatable to us. That simply makes us feel more comfortable to be around them. So it's a pretty common thing to assign a subjective relatability to the condescension of Christ in the incarnation.

    Does that mean that he wasn't relatable before? So there are two directions here that we can see from Scripture:

    1. The condescension of Christ was necessary for knowing the Father. John 14:9

    2. The condescension of Christ was not necessary for understanding the Father in the sense that he had already communicated clearly through the Holy Spirit through the prophets sans the incarnation. Luke 16:31

    The thing about the whole relatability issue is that there is also a tension between Jesus being like us and Jesus being different than us. If he were completely like us so that we could relate to him then there wouldn't be anything special about him to warrant faith in him. So there has to be a point at which the relatable sameness ends and the transcendent otherness begins. The Bible tells us that Jesus grew in wisdom and stature. Many teachers of the Bible tell us that the reason is so that Jesus can experience being human so that he could be like us so that he can relate to us. However, this really isn't explicit in the text of Scripture. I can't look at the passage in Luke 2 and make an assumption of the meaning beyond that it was simply a demonstration that he was really and fully human. It's clearly an ontological statement, but not clearly a teleological one. If teleological, then primarily soteriological rather than epistemological.

    1. A common analogy is that what we want from a physician is not someone who can empathize, who personally knows what we're going through, but someone who can cure us. And a physician with emotional detachment can treat us better than someone who's emotionally invested, which is why surgeons don't operate on their own family members.

  2. You wrote in a previous post, "In principle, the Calvinist God could regret his inability to save every possible person." Here you wrote, "Due to divine invulnerability, God can't experience fear or longing."

    Why can God, in principle, "regret" something, but not experience "fear" or "longing"? Isn't regret longing for a different option or outcome?

    1. But I had a caveat. For instance, God may not be limited to instantiating one possible world, to the exclusion of all others. Perhaps he can and does instantiate multiple possible worlds, in a multiverse scenario where alternate timelines actually play out. I don't think God is unable to create parallel worlds with alternate histories. But whether he does so–God only knows.