Is God Empathetic?

My colleague, who has suffered quite a bit in his life, told me that suffering gives his life meaning. In his view, suffering provides the contrast we need to really enjoy the good things in life.

I responded that in my view as a Christian, suffering was never God’s ideal for humanity. However, the Bible promises that all suffering will ultimately be redeemed. I also offered that Christ’s death is an example of God’s willingness to partake in our suffering – the ultimate demonstration of empathy.

My friend did not agree with this, pointing out an apparent logical inconsistency: If all things hold together in God, and God is omniscient, how could he have contributed meaningfully to his body of knowledge by personally dying on the cross? In other words, does Christ dying on the cross show empathy at all? Shouldn’t God already know what it feels like to suffer in this way – God is the source of all things and omniscient, after all.

I am ashamed to admit that I did not have an answer for my dear friend, and I am hoping you can help steer me in the right direction. How can an omniscient God experience something for the first time? Did I mischaracterize Christ’s identification with our suffering when I called it an act of empathy?

The assumption behind your friend’s objection seems to be that Christ’s experiencing the suffering of crucifixion and sin-bearing requires that God learn something new. I don’t think that’s true.

In my Defenders 3 lectures on the Doctrine of God: Omniscience, I explain the helpful distinction that philosophers have drawn between propositional knowledge and non-propositional knowledge. Propositional knowledge is knowledge of facts: knowledge that _, where the blank is filled by some sentence. Non-propositional knowledge includes knowledge how, such as how it feels to suffer or be crucified oneself. Now omniscience is defined in terms of propositional knowledge: for any person S and true proposition p,

S is omniscient if and only if S knows that p and does not believe not-p.

As an omniscient being, God must possess all propositional knowledge. But that does not imply that He possesses all non-propositional knowledge. So while God must know such facts as Being crucified is suffocating, Being crucified is excruciating, Being crucified is humiliating, etc., omniscience does not require that God knows how it feels to be Himself crucified. That leaves it open to say that in the incarnation and crucifixion of Christ God does come to new non-propositional knowledge, even though His propositional knowledge remains unchanged.

Moreover, your friend seems to assume that if God does possess non-propositional knowledge of how it feels to be Himself crucified prior to the incarnation, then He cannot empathize with us. This is a really strange objection! People who have themselves suffered from some illness or infirmity more easily empathize with those who suffer similarly because they know what it feels like! It would’ve been more plausible for your friend to say that because God lacks such non-propositional knowledge, He cannot empathize with us. But God’s taking such suffering on Himself solely for our sake shows incredible empathy on His part.

As for your question, “How can an omniscient God experience something for the first time?”, the answer is, by undergoing it for the first time. Even if God has prior to the incarnation non-propositional knowledge of how it feels to be Himself crucified, nevertheless He actually experiences crucifixion for the first time when Christ is crucified.

Finally, let me say that your answer to your friend’s claim that “suffering gives his life meaning” because “suffering provides the contrast we need to really enjoy the good things in life” seems to go off on a tangent. Isn’t the better response to point out that this provides at best a subjective meaning to his life but not an objective meaning? On atheism, his suffering is ultimately meaningless, as are the good things in life that he enjoys.

William Lane Craig

Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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