The Good News of Apatheia, or Why God Doesn’t Need to be Unhappy Just Because We Are

This month Eclectic Orthodoxy celebrates its two year anniversary. The blog has been a great blessing to me. I hope it’s been interesting, at least occasionally, to others.

To help me celebrate I’ve asked Tom Belt of An Open Orthodoxy blog fame to write an article on a topic of his choice. He chose the topic of divine apatheia. Given that apatheia means something very different than the English word apathy, we are going to stick with the Greek word. Thank you, Tom, for sharing this article with us.

by Thomas Belt

16_Dorrien_FIG1I’m delighted to be invited to celebrate two years of Fr Aidan’s very fine blog contributions to the life and theology of Christian believers far and wide. Fr Aidan and I met online a few years back discussing theological issues. We remain friends today, and I’m grateful for the wonderful way the Internet has enlarged the circle of conversations like these.

I’ve been asked to describe some of the journey that led me to embrace divine apatheia (as I view it at least). Now, if I were Orthodox you might stop reading right here because there’s nothing unusual about an Orthodox believer thinking God’s essential happiness is neither improved upon nor diminished by anything that happens in the world. But I’m not Orthodox. I’m Evangelical. And worse still, I’m an open theist. Quite the fish out of water over here! And I’m well aware of the complexities involved in the passibilism/impassibilism debate, but I don’t intend here to enter into anything like a detailed defense of my position. I can only summarize the thinking that has over the past few years focused my interests eastward upon the debated notion of apatheia and why I’ve come to value it as I do.

I was drawn to open theism from day one (more than twenty years ago now). I became acquainted with several of its prominent writers and engaged in regular and extensive conversation. I didn’t embrace it immediately but gave myself several years to explore the pro’s and con’s. Eventually the pro’s won out. I won’t unpack these here since this post isn’t about open theism, but given the strongly passibilist view of divine vulnerability open theists are known for, you can appreciate where I’m coming from and why coming to embrace apatheia is so surprising.

I remember the moment I decided in earnest to explore the Fathers. I was in the first chapter of Denys Turner’s Silence and the Word, especially interested in his comments on Pseudo-Denys. I recall the appearance of a question that seemed to announce its arrival without invitation: “What if?” What if there’s something to this? I can summarize the positive effect this question has had upon my life in a single word — apatheia. No doubt this is an unusual claim for an open theist to make. It’s clear that I don’t endorse as essential to open theism the passibilism popularly associated with the view. But this may also raise questions for Orthodox readers, because there are features of classical theism I reject (e.g., actus purus as absolute immutability void of all unrealized potential) which I don’t view as essential to apatheia in spite of their being popularly associated with the view.

Several years into this now, I’m more invested in a vision of the fullness of God’s triune being as undiminished delight and joy than I am in open theism’s defining claim about God’s knowledge and future contingents (as important as open theism is to me). I do not mean to say I find apatheia to be ‘more true’ than open theism. I only mean that I find apatheia to be ‘more fundamental’ in the sense that it impinges most directly and immediately upon my deepest experience and perception of myself in God’s presence, upon the most intimate act by which I fundamentally ‘am’ at all. Open theism on the other hand follows only as an observation of the kind of world I believe we must be living in if this experience of God is truly the case. I’m close to believing, however, that if something very like apatheia isn’t true, we’re all screwed anyhow (pardon my French) and it wouldn’t matter what sort of world we lived in – open, closed, determined; take your pick.

For the record, I’m not particularly hung up on the word apatheia. I’d be happy to give it up if the consensus was that the term entails those features of classical theism I reject. “Equanimity” works equally well. As you read this you’ll see that what I’m describing doesn’t entail the view that God is either unfeeling or insensitive, that he doesn’t experience changing states of mind (as he knows the changing truth about the temporal world) or isn’t open to his will for us being frustrated. Let me emphasize also that it was not through any conversation with Greek philosophical commitments that I came to appreciate God’s triune life as unimprovable and undiminished beatitude. I found all I needed elsewhere and independent of the Orthodox sources that I came to appreciate later. One helpful source in this regard was (Christian philosopher and open theist) Richard Creel’s Divine Impassibility (1986). His chapter on impassibility of feeling helped tremendously. I can’t recommend it enough. The five principles of Viktor Frankl’s Logotherapy were instrumental as well. But by far the more decisive source of my convictions along this line has been Gregory Boyd. He was hugely instrumental in my journey eastward. As passionately as Boyd promotes a fully passibilist view of God today, it was his earlier work (Trinity & Process, 1992), critically engaging Charles Hartshorne’s Process metaphysics, that gave me contemporary categories for conceiving of God’s “unsurpassable aesthetic satisfaction” (quite a mouthful) and confirmed what I eventually saw in Orthodoxy. Take for example a few of Boyd’s conclusions in Trinity & Process:

“God’s being is defined by God’s eternal disposition to delight in Godself and the eternal actualization of this disposition within the triune life of God. It is the unsurpassable intensity of the beauty of the divine sociality – their shared love ‘to an infinite degree’….” (my emphasis)

“God’s infinite and complete antecedent actuality can be understood most fundamentally as the unsurpassable intensity of an aesthetic satisfaction. [W]e can conceive of this One’s antecedent actual existence—viz., God’s self-defining aesthetic delight—as being unsurpassable, self-sufficient, and as being ‘unconditioned’ and independent of the world.” (my emphasis)

“… God’s essential and necessary existence is … most basically defined by the unsurpassable intensity of aesthetic enjoyment which characterizes the triune sociality of God. God experiences Godself with an intensity which can under no circumstances conceivably be improved upon. As with Hartshorne, we are here most fundamentally defining God’s transcendence in terms of God’s aesthetic satisfaction.” (my emphasis)

These are not statements you will hear from Boyd these days, but you can hardly mistake the Orthodoxy of his essential point. Interestingly, he didn’t abandon this view of God’s necessary-essential fullness to become an open theist. He was an open theist when he made these statements. Consider this as well:

“The metaphysical necessity of God’s self-relationality means, I believe, that it is not possible to conceive of the death of the Son as anything other than an expression of the intense love of God’s inner life….[T]his means that all talk about a ‘breakdown of the relationship that constitutes the very life of the Trinity’ such as we find (for example) in Moltmann is, if taken literally, strictly impossible….”

The smelling salts are in the cabinet.treasure_in_jars_of_clay_by_saireba-d4pjkw2

If you follow Boyd at all (perhaps most here do not), you’ll know how very contrary these earlier (1992) statements of his are to his present position (which on this question is indistinguishable from that of Moltmann). In any case, for me the similarities between Trinity & Process and Orthodoxy (without ignoring their differences) were uncanny. Greg’s “…the unsurpassable intensity of the beauty of the divine sociality” sounded awfully like Augustine’s perfectissima pulchritude et beatissima delectatio (“the most perfect beauty and the most blessed delight”). And for both of these God’s self-constituting triune delight is fully actual and unconditioned by the world. Without engaging the Fathers at all, Boyd had confirmed an essential insight of the Church’s traditional view of God — not only is God essentially and fully triune and the world radically contingent and unnecessary, but what accounts for this is the infinite delight (or, unsurpassable aesthetic satisfaction) of God’s triune actuality, a satisfaction Boyd argued “is neither increased nor diminished by the contingent and temporal affairs of this world.” What Boyd went on to miss entirely were the Christological and soteriological implications, but that’s another story, and unfortunately Boyd has not continued to view transcendence in these terms.

Be that as it may, I stepped into the wider patristic conversation and became familiar with testimonies of saints and others whose sufferings were defined by this transcendent joy. Eventually I chose (alas, one must choose) to relate to myself and relate myself to God within the truth of God’s delight. I can’t recommend the experience highly enough. I do find this, however, to be particularly difficult for those with a more analytic disposition (like me) to accept. Its truth isn’t exactly propositionally demonstrable, though it generates no contradiction. No syllogism will get you there. One must choose to relate to God and one’s self within a framework of meaning shaped by intentionally embracing the truth of a delight that does not depend upon us for its fulfillment. And the choice to define myself in terms of God’s infinite delight continues to be painful work, at least for me, because every false self in me demands a recognition and significance which divine freedom of this sort will not provide.

Some have objected to imagining God to be “unsurpassable aesthetic satisfaction” on grounds that it turns God into the worst kind of narcissist. I can’t take this criticism seriously because the kind of delight I’m describing is too easily conceived in emotionally healthy terms. God’s beatitude does not preoccupy him or leave him so self-absorbed with his own beauty that he either doesn’t notice us or, if he notices, he has no regard for our well-being. Quite the opposite. Another objection to imagining God as unimprovably happy is summarized by Ronald Goetz (Christian Century, 1986): “My own view is that the death of God’s Christ is in part God’s atonement to his creatures for evil.” God suffers our pain and evil to pay a debt he owes for creating a world that became so hideously overrun with evil and suffering. In a real sense it is God who is redeemed, God who gets reconciled to us. Here passibilism becomes a cure worse than the disease.

Not long ago I was asked to imagine one of my children screaming out in the night, something most parents experience. You run to your daughter’s side and find her half-awake, trapped inside a nightmare. She cries out, “Daddy! There’s a monster chasing me!” What do you say? Do you say, “Run faster, Hunny! Faster!” or perhaps “Hide behind a tree or under the staircase!”? Do you confirm the reality of her nightmare in this way? Of course not. But perhaps you begin to pace the floor believing that you are threatened and alone as well. Will that help her? Certainly not. Here’s what you do. You hold her in your arms and say, “It’s alright my love. Daddy is here! Don’t be afraid,” and you gently rock her in your arms until her reality conforms to your reality, until your reality defines her reality by putting the lie to her nightmare. And even if you had to enter her nightmare (one way to imagine the Incarnation), you still save her from her nightmare by exposing it as false, not by letting it falsify in you the very experience she needs to awaken from her nightmare.

IMG_3515Just this last weekend I observed a young family enjoying a picnic. I watched one of the toddlers, a daughter, fall and scrape her knee. Unable to world-construct outside her pain, she let the entire park know of her suffering. Her father? As you might expect, his response didn’t include the slightest discomfort or loss of happiness. He turned to his daughter, moved in her direction, and with a big smile called her name and held out his arms. Why not meet her level of experienced suffering with some measure of suffering of his own? After all, love suffers when those loved suffer, right? Where’s the father’s suffering here? Shouldn’t he feel some slight dip in happiness? Some measurable loss of “aesthetic satisfaction”? We all know the answer is no, and we know why. He doesn’t suffer in the slightest because of his perspective on her suffering (assessing its consequences relative to what he believes to be her highest good and well-being).

What about other more serious instances of suffering? What about permanent disability? What happens with betrayal or torture? What happens with the chronic pain of a losing battle with cancer? What happens is that what we believe to be our highest good and well-being gets revealed. Let’s at least grant that much. And it’s precisely here where I invite myself to examine what I believe to be the highest good and well-being of creation and to consider what it would mean to world-construct within the framework of its truth. The question is, What do we identify as our ‘highest good’? More to the point, What is the summum bonum, that supreme and absolute good/value by which all other relative goods and values are measured? I suggest that passibilists are committed to locating the summum bonum outside the beatitude of God’s triune actuality since they admit this very actuality suffers deprivation, and it is good and beautiful and right that it suffer. But what makes it good and beautiful and right? What actual good measures the loss of divine beatitude to be good and beautiful? Indeed, what actual good can be the absolute value which establishes the relative value and goodness of all contingent experiences? It can only be the non-contingent beatitude of God’s own triune actuality (as Boyd had argued on his own over 20 years ago). This is precisely where passibilist kenoticists redefine the summum bonum as something other than God’s own triune actuality, and that is a position I’m unable to embrace. In what do they suppose this absolute value to obtain? I can’t say, but my guess is they would insist it include them.

Let me wind things down. In the end the philosophical problems of a fully reciprocal passibilism, widespread within open theism, in which God’s happiness is a ‘negotiated happiness’, the difference of an equation (‘reasons for rejoicing’ minus ‘reasons for grieving’ = God’s state of mind), proved to be too much. At the same time, the biblical plausibility of such a view of transcendence strengthened my confidence as well. Transcendence as apatheia (as David Hart has expressed it) or as God’s “unsurpassable aesthetic satisfaction” (as Boyd earlier defined it) is no mere philosophical construct. It can be biblically discerned. Whatever evils we suffer, God remains that which one day shall render all worldly sufferings comparatively meaningless (Rom 8:18’s “sufferings not worth comparing to the glory that shall be revealed in us”). But I urge you to ponder what it is about God to which earthly sufferings are not comparable. If no present suffering can possibly compare to the joy that shall be ours upon seeing God, what joy must presently be God’s who always perceives his own glorious beauty? And if the glory which God now is shall transcend all our sufferings in our experience of him in resurrection, what can these sufferings presently be to God who always and already is this glory in its fullness? Pondering Rom 8, I asked myself, “Is the divine nature itself subject to ‘decay’ and ‘groaning’ as well? Does God ‘await glorification’ along with us?” If not, then what must God’s present experience be? And must not this experience be that about God which renders the entirety of the world’s suffering comparatively meaningless? Passibilism just stopped making sense to me — biblically, philosophically, and existentially. I came to the conclusion that God is our eschatological hope because God is the eschaton.

To me this is the Good News. Others may wish or feel they need it to be otherwise, or they may feel the Cross a charade unless divinity is reduced to its horror. But I suspect this perspective is a nightmare from which we need desperately to be awoken. And the truth that has the power to awaken us is revealed in the Cross: Nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ because nothing can separate God from himself in Christ. The Cross doesn’t establish our separation and abandonment as a truth which God is or which he becomes. Rather, it exposes our separation and abandonment as myths, phantoms of the night, mere nightmares from which we awake to find (to possess) ourselves in the embrace of a delight that has always been the truest thing about us. Thank you Athanasius. Thank you Cyril. Thank you Chalcedon.

I have overstayed my welcome. Forgive the length, and let me thank Fr Aidan for the undeserved invitation to share a bit of my story and wish Eclectic Orthodoxy a very apathetic (!) second birthday. I leave you (shamelessly) with some final thoughts of my own adapted from elsewhere:

“The gratuity of creation is the grace of the gospel. But you only get that kind of absolute gratuity if God is, correspondingly, absolutely full. And grace that is this gracious, absolutely gracious, is hard because we want to be needed, not just wanted. But the only kind of wanting we know (despairing creatures that we are) is that wanting which is needing to possess what we do not have. That’s how we want. Imagine the existential rush that follows from believing that God wants you this way, i.e., because your existence fulfills him. Your existence can’t mean anything better than that. And so we weave into our narratives of redemption the fiction that God must be lonely without us, or diminished by our sorrow, or injured by our rejection, or ultimately perfected by our final glorification. But in recognizing God as a delighting love we can neither diminish nor improve, these self-serving dysfunctions and narratives are deconstructed and in their place we experience ‘his joy as our strength’ (Neh. 8.10) and come to possess ourselves in ‘an unspeakable and glorious joy’ as Peter wrote (1 Pet. 1.8), ‘receiving the salvation of our souls’.”

(Pictures here and here.)

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40 Responses to The Good News of Apatheia, or Why God Doesn’t Need to be Unhappy Just Because We Are

  1. tgbelt says:

    Reblogged this on An Open Orthodoxy and commented:
    Many thanks to Fr Aidan for his kind invitation to contribute a guest post in celebration of Ecclectic Orthodoxy’s two-year birthday.


    • Mina says:

      Hi! Thank you for this post. Definitely a lot of food for thought, and I had to read this at least 3 times to get most of what is said. In fact, the idea of passibillism and “open theism”, while I have read about these views, I never really knew what the labels are until this post.

      I do have a question. A notable Orthodox theologian named George Bebawi did a series of talks and notes that are available online on “God, Job, and the Enigma of Suffering”. In one of his talks, he claims that while God is omniscient, he “chooses not to know” at times, and claims this actually comes from St. John of Damascus. Dr. George would go on to teach that God deals with us in His mercy, but on judgment day, He will deal with us in His knowledge. I was wondering if this constitutes something of an open theist idea, and does that really help in understanding some of the suffering that is going on? Thank you!


      • tgbelt says:


        I’d be very interested in Bebawi’s notes. I’ll try to track them down. If you have the online source info, I’d be grateful to have it.

        What you’re describing would probably pass as a view on ‘the open future’. I don’t like the idea of God ‘choosing not to know something’, but I’d be interested in seeing his views.

        The ‘suffering’ (apatheia) part of it is differing. Open theists’ view of foreknowledge doesn’t have anything to do with whether or not God suffers. It just so happens that in developing what they feel to be an adequately ‘relational’ and ‘loving’ view of God, open theists argued that divine suffering would be part of the picture. If you love somebody, you hurt when they hurt. Anything else would be a less ‘relational’ view, or so open theists generally think.

        I don’t think loving relationality ‘entails’ the kind of suffering popularly promoted by open theists.



        • Mina says:

          Hi Tom!

          Thank you for getting back to me. There are actually two sources you might be interested in. Here’s “God, Job, and the Enigma of Suffering”:

          In this, if you click on the notes for Week 3, he mentions it very briefly. In that same week, he seemed to have not gotten to talk about it in the audio recording. However, it is mentioned here again:

          On Week 7, if you click on the audio, he starts talking about this on the 25th minute and talks about this for about 10 minutes. While he does discuss Mark 13:32, he does seem to imply that God in His own divinity, since He is not subjected to nature to us, but truly divinely free, He who can know all things can choose not to know.

          Dr. George Bebawi is a very fascinating man. He was born an Egyptian Jew, and then later was converted into the Coptic Orthodox Church, and became a deacon, theological professor, and scholar in the Coptic Church and the Arabic world, with notable spiritual connections with HH the late Pope Kyrillos VI, Fr. Matta al Maskeen, and the late Fr. Mikhail Ibrahim. Due to problems with certain Coptic clerics afterwards however (most notably HH Pope Shenouda III and HE Metropolitan Bishoy of Demiatta), He transferred over to the Russian Orthodox Church in Great Britain for some time under the spiritual guidance of His Eminence the late Metropolitan Anthony Bloom, and now He communes in the Orthodox Church in America. I find a lot of his talks and teachings very edifying. He is a notable scholar and theologian in the Arabic world, so he writes most of his stuff in Arabic (a language that I am sadly very poor at, but I heard many are trying to translate some of his writings), and does an Arabic blog called “Coptology”.

          If I get a hold of any contact info, I’ll let you know.

          God bless.


  2. parhelion says:

    Happy Anniversary, Fr. Aidan!

    Your return to blogging has been a blessing to me. I enjoyed Pontifications and I am grateful for Eclectic Orthodoxy.

    May you have many more anniversaries!



  3. mkenny114 says:

    Happy Anniversary Father – I too am grateful for this site, as it provides a platform for lots of interesting ideas to be compared and dialogues to be had, and am pleased to know that it has been here for so long and (hopefully) will continue to be so for a good while longer.


    I am very pleased to read about your embracing of the doctrine of divine impassibility*. I am curious though – how do you manage to reconcile this with your open theism? It seems to me that to acknowledge God’s lack of contingency and fullness of Being in this respect would inevitably lead one to acknowledge that His knowledge of (what are for us) future events also cannot be contingent on anything that occurs within creation, and thus lead one to reject the idea that He knows our future(s) as a series of possibilities.

    There is a very good chance that I am not doing full justice to what open theists actually believe here, or that divine impassibility doesn’t actually entail divine omniscience, but as the land lies so far I can’t see how this isn’t the case. Could you give me a brief explanation of how your reconcile your basic commitments as an open theist with this doctrine (if you don’t mind of course)?

    *Michael Ward, in an essay on patripassianism included in the excellent collection ‘Heresies and How to Avoid Them’ provides a great description of what this doctrine does and doesn’t mean (contra some of the common objections you mention above) here, which I’ve always found useful:

    ‘His love is an action, not a reaction, and of course it includes what we would call passion (that is, “strong feeling, emotion”), but it is not determined by “emotion”; it is determined by his entire, steadfast, loving nature, of which emotion is a part. A useful way of picturing this may be to think of God’s love as white light. White light by definition is colourless; but slow it down and refract it through a prism and you’ll see vivid colours…

    …What from the creaturely perspective seems colourless, is actually colour to the maximum. Similarly, God’s impassible love is love to the maximum. Well might we call it inhuman! It is not human, but divine: of uncreated, searing intensity, holy and unbearable. God dwells in unapproachable, unchangeable light, and in him there is no darkness at all.’


  4. tgbelt says:

    Hi Mkenny,

    Thanks so much for the comments and question. I can only offer a brief and incomplete answer to your question, but I hope it helps. I don’t take apatheia to entail God’s being actus purus in the sense of there being absolutely no unfulfilled potential in God. I take it to mean there being no unfulfilled potential with respect to God’s self-constituting happiness. God is pure act in the fullness and infinite intensity of the delight that is his on account of his own triune beauty, yes. God can have no unfulfilled potential with respect to this self-constituting perfection (ad intra). But this doesn’t (as far as I can see) prevent God’s having contingent self-expressive potential (ad extra) with respect to creation. If nothing God does in or by creating improves upon God’s essential triune aesthetic experience, then his choice can be truly contingent. I don’t see that God’s experience must be absolutely immutable in all respects for God to immutable in some required sense. So I don’t equate fullness of being with lack of contingency. To my mind, to say creation is contingent and unnecessary is to say God creates contingently and unnecessarily (since creation’s nature as contingent or necessary follows upon the nature of the divine choice that it create or not create), which would mean God has potential for contingent self-expression, expressions which neither reveal and express but which do not in turn essentially constitute God’s fullness.

    Open theists do generally take a strong passibilist view of God’s relationship to the world. But that’s not essential to the view per se. All that essentially matters is the genuine indeterminate nature of the world’s temporal becoming (and ‘truths’ about that world which are irreducibly temporal). In short, God knows the truth about the world, how it truly is (given its temporal nature). That would, open theists argue, mean God’s knowledge of the changing world would changes as well. God’s knowledge of the temporal world wouldn’t be mediated to him; rather, it would be co-terminous with the reality of the world God sustains. But to have coterminous knowledge of a temporal reality is to ‘know’ temporally. So God’s states of mind (or acts of knowing) with respect to the changing truths of the temporal world would change with the world he sustains. God ‘knows’ what’s going on in the world, he knows what time it is. I don’t see anything about the fullness of God’s triune beatitude undermined by God’s having temporal relations with the world. The world certainly does nothing to add to, improve upon or otherwise constitute this beatitude.

    Clear as mud?


    • mkenny114 says:

      Many thanks Tom for the reply,

      This does certainly explain the reasons you have for holding the two views together, but I am still not sure whether they actually do or not. Firstly though, I have to admit that I do personally find it very difficult to conceive of how God’s knowledge of the world could be co-terminous with the world He has created (i.e.; that He ‘knows’ temporally) without God therefore being subject to change or being dependent in some way on something other than Himself, and thereby becoming less than who God is.

      That God creates unnecessarily is a given yes, as is the fact that creation itself is contingent, but I do not see how this means that God Himself is subject to contingency – to suggest that He chose between two options (to create or to not create) seems to me to anthropomorphise His nature, as if God had a set of choices before Him and picked one rather than the other, as we might do. Contrariwise, I had always considered it to be part of God’s nature qua God that He is perfectly simple – i.e.; that there is complete integrity in all of His being – and that His being the Creator of time and space means that He cannot possibly therefore be contingent upon what He has created or in any way affected by (let alone have his knowledge depend upon) the creation.

      Now, the above just describes why it is that I could not become an open theist. However, I think it important for explaining why I can’t see open theism as reconcilable with divine impassibility too, insofar as divine impassibility describes precisely that non-dependence and non-contingence that God enjoys as God. To say that God can enjoy absolute happiness with no unfulfilled potential in that respect, surely entails that He enjoys absolute knowledge, for the happiness or bliss that He enjoys is the bliss of pure self-giving love, and to love perfectly is to know (and vice versa). If we say God enjoys Himself perfectly, it is because He loves Himself perfectly, and He can only do this if He knows Himself perfectly. And if He knows Himself perfectly, then He must know all there is to know about what He has created as well – to say otherwise would be to suggest that there is something that can be known outside of God, whereas God precisely is the ground and source of ALL being.

      This too is a bit too brief and incomplete to do full justice to the issue, but I hope that what I’ve written clarifies a bit more why I can’t see the two positions (open theism and divine impassibility) as holding together. Many thanks again for your reply!


      • tgbelt says:


        Thanks again for the feedback and the good points. Certainly a lot to think about. I have the bad habit of losing myself in this (when I should be mowing the lawn or working on my wife’s ‘To do’ list), but I’d like to share a couple of ideas relating to your points.

        1 By saying God’s knowledge of the temporal world is ‘co-terminous’ with the world I just mean his knowledge is (a) exhaustive and (b) immediate. God’s knowledge of the world isn’t mediated by some third party.

        2 But I do agree this involves God in some change (his knowledge about the changing world). I know divine temporalists (not all of them are open theists) do tend to express this in terms of God’s being “subject to” change. I can see how that could be misunderstood to mean God’s life and existence are “up to” others to decide or something like that. To me God’s changing states of mind (relative to the changing world) don’t “subjugate” God to time or the world. This is God’s free decision to create and he is responsible for the “rules of engagement” you might say. There are no surprises, no getting backed into a corner, no being victimized by creation. For me it just follows logically that the ‘knowing’ and the ‘known’ share the same modal status (either necessary or contingent).

        3 I appreciate why classical theists believe any change in God would entail God’s becoming ‘less than who God is’, but this would be where my disagreements with the classical tradition lie. A ‘contingent’ change would be just that—contingent. It couldn’t by definition affect whatever is ‘necessarily’ the case. If God’s unimprovable happiness is grounded in ‘who’ he is (triunely related), nothing about this is imperiled by acts which are best described as free self-expressions’ of this fullness.

        4 Apatheia, as I view it (and I may need to find another term if apatheia is too historically bound to other beliefs about God), requires that God’s necessary actuality, his self-constituting perfections, be independent of the world—and that includes perfect self-knowledge and triune disclosure (of love, acceptance, enjoyment, etc.). That can’t change. But I don’t see this knowledge changing if it includes knowledge of all the contingent ways this necessary fullness may express itself freely, ways which ‘reflect’, ‘reveal’ and ‘express’ this eternal fullness but which do not in turn ‘constitute’ it. This involves me in a denial of divine simplicity understood modally (i.e., divine simplicity means everything about God’s actuality must be characterized by a single modality…that of necessity). But I take simplicity to simply mean God is not composed of parts in the sense that there are no units or parts of divinity that compose divinity which are more fundamental than God as triune fullness of life.

        Back to my wife’s ‘To do’ list! Thanks!


        • mkenny114 says:

          Hi Tom,

          Many thanks again for getting back to me and responding to my queries. Also, thank you for responding in the form of a number of points, as I find this much easier to engage with myself! 🙂

          1. I certainly agree with you that God’s knowledge of the world is not mediated by any third party, and apologise if I gave the impression that you had suggested it was. The problem I had with this was the further step you took in saying that therefore God must know temporally, which is something that, as you agree, involves God in some change.

          2. I don’t see how God can be involved in change which comes about as a result of temporal contingent decisions and events that take place in His creation without Him therefore becoming subjugated to it or dependent upon it. I can certainly accept that God knows the events OF the temporal world, but I don’t see how He could know them in the same way that the world does without His becoming less than He is – in the same way that if there is suffering in God, our hope for eternal beatitude would be diminished (the darkness would ‘win’ to a certain extent if it were to find a place in Him), if there is any lack of Being in God at all (which is what ignorance about the created order, no matter how partial, would amount to) then our grounds for hoping for fullness of being in the hereafter, as well as a solid foundation for our existence now, would also be diminished.

          3. This leads into your third point – that contingent changes couldn’t affect what is necessarily the case. This I also agree with, but the reason that contingent changes can’t affect what is necessarily the case is because God is necessary Being, and it seems to me that to say that God is involved in contingency and temporality then means He no longer exists necessarily – there is part of His being that depends upon contingent events to be who He is. In this scenario the ground of all contingency has Himself become contingent (as I can’t see how He isn’t affected by the contingent changes if He grows in knowledge) and there is no ultimate necessary Being to ground existence in its entirety.

          4. As you say, apatheia requires God to have necessary actuality and perfect self-knowledge. Given what I’ve written above, can you see now how I find it hard to reconcile it with open theism? For perfect self-knowledge does not admit any growth in knowledge – if God were to grow in knowledge through events in the created order, this would contribute to His self-knowledge, as, being the ground of all Being, He has no other kind of knowledge. His knowledge and Being must ground all other knowledge and being. I would certainly agree that God’s knowledge can (and does) include all possible contingencies within creation – though I would add that He only knows them AS possibilities, not as actualities – but He does (in some mysterious sense – I prefer the idea of His seeing things in an eternal present) have foreknowledge of them, He does not depend on their becoming actual in order to know them. This all relates to divine simplicity in the sense that God is simple because He is perfectly self-consistent, with all His qualities integrated as one – His knowledge is His Love, which is His Being, which is His mercy, justice, goodness, etc, etc. Thus for Him to enjoy His own self perfectly in an eternal beatitude of Love is to know Himself perfectly, which is to know all things perfectly, as all things depend upon Him for their being.

          Hope that makes my point clearer. Thanks again very much for taking the time to reply to my question and giving such comprehensive answers. Very much obliged!



          • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

            “I would certainly agree that God’s knowledge can (and does) include all possible contingencies within creation – though I would add that He only knows them AS possibilities, not as actualities – but He does (in some mysterious sense – I prefer the idea of His seeing things in an eternal present) have foreknowledge of them, He does not depend on their becoming actual in order to know them.”

            These words caught my attention. I believe that the classical tradition, at least as expressed in Aquinas, would say that God does indeed know “future” events as actualities. He does not know them, of course, before they happen: he knows them in his eternity—at least that (I think) is how Herbert McCabe interprets Aquinas. I’m not sure if it makes any sense really to speak of God’s foreknowledge.


          • mkenny114 says:

            Fr. Kimel,

            Thank you very much for picking up on that! That was an error on my part – I had meant to write that God knows all ‘future’ events as actualities, but given that the ‘mind’ of God contains all things He would therefore also know any possible outcome of any event as well.

            However, given that He sees things in an eternal present (something which I mentioned in my response above) the sense in which He knows possible outcomes of anything is mysterious indeed – I guess we can only say that, as God contains within Himself all Being, that this would include in some sense all possibility. Nevertheless, it is certainly the actual outcomes of events that He knows in that eternal present.

            Thanks again – I seem to have expressed myself to the contrary of my intention there, and I am glad for your vigilance! 🙂


  5. tgbelt says:

    Typos. Hate them. Grrr.


  6. Pingback: The Good News about God’s Emotions. And Ours. | Political Jesus

  7. Tom…Larry Meza here.

    So here I am again, non scholar that I am, asking more annoying questions about things that are too far beyond me. Nevertheless I hope hope you will take a moment to respond to my questions or simply direct me elsewhere.

    Are jOy and the capacity to suffer necessary opposites within God? Does essential suffering negate essential joy or apatheia? We have all had experiences of great suffering that did not of necessity diminish ultimate joy. And in fact sometimes our joy as humans can even be greater in our suffering. Having said that, can’t that also be possibly true within the divine life?


    • tgbelt says:

      How’s it going Larry? Hey, nothing annoying about honest questions.

      I think in the present moment, believers (Col 1.11) “endure with joy.” James points out the same thing. So ‘joy’ per se isn’t incompatible with ‘suffering’ per se. My guess is we are all pretty much a mix. But you’ll agree that we’re destined ultimately for a joyful kind of existence free from all suffering. We (not God) presently ‘groan’ because we (not God) are ‘subject to decay’. Paul contrasts this with the incomparable glory that shall be ours when our experience of God is complete (whatever that means, right?). But the point is, God is not also a subject waiting for this same glorification to come to him. He ‘is’ it. So for me it’s not about whether joy and suffering can both occur in us. Of course they can. The question is whether we ought to conclude both are true in this way of God. God doesn’t just have eternal life as something he gives us. He ‘is’ eternal life. His life is life.

      We have to grow and ‘become’ and mature into the full version of ourselves God intends us to be. The risk of suffering along the way is part of that process. The question is, Are we to conclude God is subject to this process? If we also attribute to God the sort of personal improvement that comes to us through suffering then I think we’ve done the sort of projection of ourselves onto God that we ought to avoid. God is then just a big human being (minus the sin, we’ll give him that) who lives immortally; a slight improvement upon Zeus perhaps, but in the same genre of superhero.


  8. phillip says:

    Fr Aiden and Tom,
    Fascinating post and discussion. I have a question for whoever would care to respond.

    I have been pondering for some time the implications of the statement by St Irenaeus: “The glory of God is man fully alive.” What are your thoughts on this as it relates to the topic at hand? What do you think he meant? Perhaps it is quite out of context(?)



    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Phillip, you might want to take a look at Fr John Behr’s beautiful little book Becoming Human.

      Liked by 1 person

      • phillip says:

        Thank you for the book tip! I ordered it…looking forward to exploring this topic as it has been much in my thinking and discussions of late.


    • mkenny114 says:


      I don’t know if this is relevant to what you are asking, but I would like to point out that Saint Irenaeus’ statement does not primarily mean what it is often presented as meaning – i.e.; that God is glorified by our growth in the life of grace as we live more according to His will. What Irenaeus was primarily drawing attention to was that the life of the incarnate Word, Jesus Christ is His greatest glory. The Latin which we have (‘Gloria Dei est vivens homo’) is better translated as ‘the glory of God is a living man’, and Saint Irenaeus follows this with ‘vita hominis visio Dei’ or ‘the life of a man is the vision of God’ – i.e.; to look upon the life of THIS man, Jesus Christ, is to see God, and God is fully glorified (His glory is most fully revealed) in Our Lord.

      The secondary meaning, that we also glorify God the more we live in concert with His will and thus conform ourselves more to Jesus, the perfect Man, is certainly included in this, but I think it is important to draw attention to the fact that this was not what Saint Irenaeus was actually talking about, especially as the statement in question has also often been used to support a theology of self-fulfilment separate from the priority of God’s grace. You can read the quote in its full context here to get a better sense of Irenaeus’ meaning:

      Anyway, I think that this does therefore relate to the topic at hand, in the sense that it is precisely the Mystery of the Incarnation (and preeminently of the Cross) that raises the question of divine passibility in the first place. Saint Irenaeus’ drawing our attention to the fact the in Jesus we see the life and nature of God raises very important questions for us about who God is, how it can be said that He does or does not suffer, how it is that He enters fully into our experience, etc. All this is very difficult of course, and makes me very thankful that we have the Chalcedonian definition at hand to guide us!

      Hope this helps, and apologies if anything (or all) that I have written is superfluous!


      • phillip says:

        My apologies Michael for losing track of this conversation. I must have forgotten to check the comment notification box. I did order and read the booklet by Fr Behr which shed some light (thanks again Fr Aidan).

        Thank you for taking the time to further respond to my question. Very helpful. I appreciate this discussion although it simply reveals I have much more to consider regarding this topic(!) Btw, I am not very familiar with “the orthodox way” so can you direct me to the “Chalcedonian definition” you mention above?

        I am often comforted by the words “…be of good cheer, I have overcome the world.” Christ’s command to essentially, “Don’t worry; be happy” is quite startling in light of this “world’s tribulations.” Not sure if this means I am considering the impassibility of God but I think so.

        I read the context of Irenaeus’s quote…thanks for the link. Our church is considering it as a tagline so we want to understand and be clear about its meaning.

        I agree that “God’s glory=man fully alive” does not ultimately represent some sort of contingency (e.g., man’s progressive sanctification). I see it as representing a promise or creative command if you will. God’s glory IS man fully alive. In this way “man fully alive” is simply God’s stated eternal will and reality (“Let us make man”) as He “awaits” our minds to catch up in time (the grand metanoia). “…All the ends of the earth will remember and return to the Lord.”

        Would it be accurate to say that God’s glory is the Man in whom all humanity is united, Christ, the Vicarious Man? And as such “we behold Him as in a mirror,” as we gaze upon our true selves? In other words we don’t glorify God by trying to become more like God but rather by having our true identity revealed in the one true man, Christ… “as in a mirror.” So could it be more of an awakening and a remembering than a becoming where then God’s reference never changes, only ours?


        • mkenny114 says:

          Hi Phillip,

          Thanks for the reply! First off, the Chalcedonian Definition – this is something that you probably (hopefully) will recognise in substance even if you are not familiar with the term. It is the definition of who Christ is – true man and true God – that was agreed upon at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, and has formed the basis of Christian orthodoxy with respect to the Incarnation ever since (although at the time it was not accepted by a couple of the eastern churches, partly due to political reasons and partly due to differing over the language used). This is one translation (lifted from Wikipedia!) of the text:

          ‘Following, then, the holy Fathers, we all unanimously teach that our Lord Jesus Christ is to us

          One and the same Son, the Self-same Perfect in Godhead, the Self-same Perfect in Manhood; truly God and truly Man; the Self-same of a rational soul and body; co-essential with the Father according to the Godhead, the Self-same co-essential with us according to the Manhood; like us in all things, sin apart; before the ages begotten of the Father as to the Godhead, but in the last days, the Self-same, for us and for our salvation (born) of Mary the Virgin Theotokos as to the Manhood; One and the Same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-begotten; acknowledged in Two Natures unconfusedly, unchangeably, indivisibly, inseparably; the difference of the Natures being in no way removed because of the Union, but rather the properties of each Nature being preserved, and (both) concurring into One Person and One Hypostasis; not as though He were parted or divided into Two Persons, but One and the Self-same Son and Only-begotten God, Word, Lord, Jesus Christ; even as from the beginning the prophets have taught concerning Him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ Himself hath taught us, and as the Symbol of the Fathers hath handed down to us.’

          Re Christ’s counsel to ‘be of good cheer’, I do think this touches on divine impassibility yes. I think principally He is talking about the Atonement, which looms so close in the future at that point in the narrative, but yes, we can see the impassibility of God as an assurance that the tribulations and sufferings of this world will not have the last word, as it were. Because ‘God is light, and in him is no darkness at all’ we can be assured that evil and suffering will not have a place in Heaven.

          Yes, what Saint Irenaeus is saying is precisely that God’s glory is shown in Christ, the True Man, who represents both what we should be and also the nature of God Himself (which are both deeply interconnected, as Adam was called to be God’s vice-regent on earth, representing Him to the rest of the creation; Christ is, in part, the restoration and perfection of that original vision). So I think this sense of the famous saying must be given priority – it is only when we recognise that God is fully glorified in Christ that we know how we can also live to glorify Him (i.e.; by becoming more Christlike – which is also what it is for us to be ‘fully alive’).

          I am not quite sure what you mean when you say ‘we don’t glorify God by trying to become more like God but rather by having our true identity revealed in the one true man, Christ… “as in a mirror.”’. Sanctification IS theosis, which precisely is gradually becoming partakers of the divine nature, becoming more like God (in the sense of sharing in His will, which is self-giving Love); and we do this by becoming more like Christ, who is the very image or ‘mirror’ of God. If you mean that this process is itself a returning to what we were always meant to be, then I agree, but I am just not quite sure what your meaning is, if you see what I mean 🙂


          • phillip says:

            Again, I appreciate the conversation. All the above is very helpful. I had been quite impoverished by my evangelical background which left me with little understanding of the practical implications of the incarnation and trinitarian life of God. However I have been enriched by the “new trinitarian” movement which I know has been gleaning from the EO tradition ( etc.,).

            Let me rephrase… I would say, We glorify God as we reflect His image and likeness as it is revealed (mirrored) in Christ (2 Cor 3:18). And as the mirror reflects to us a present reality I would present Irenaeus’s quote as something objectively true “In Christ” for all mankind but not yet “remembered,” embraced and reflected by all (Psa 22:27). (So no contingencies just an unfolding of God’s Love Story.)

            Yes, I do mean “a returning to what we were always meant to be.” Though I am uncomfortable with language that implies a delay of the reality of our redeemed innocence and identity (“…Christ, the True Man, who represents both what we should be…” I’d say Christ represents what we are). While the “theosis” is indeed progressive and gradual in our experience, it does not appear to be progressive in God’s economy. We are presently “seated with Christ.” “We have the mind of Christ.” Reminding myself of what God sees and believes to be true of me as opposed to “trying to become” is a mindset that seems to make all the difference. Perhaps we are saying the same thing just a bit differently regarding this matter of sanctification but I personally need stronger language to keep my “mind set on things above” not on my own faith and efforts to “be more like Christ”(!)

            Thanks again for the opportunity to share a few of my thoughts : )


        • mkenny114 says:

          Hello again Phillip and thanks for your reply,

          First of all, I’d like to take a quick look at your reference to 2 Corinthians 3:18, as I think it may hold the key to what we are discussing here. In this passage, Saint Paul writes that ‘we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are changed into his likeness from one degree of glory to another’ – i.e.; he is talking about a process of development in us, that as we gaze upon Christ (which includes both worship of Him and our day to day discipleship) we become conformed to Him. It is the extent to which we do this, that we lose ourselves (or rather, the false self, a mixture of disordered desires and pride) and find ourselves, in Christ.

          So, in this sense I do agree that what we were always meant to be – our true selves – are ‘hid with Christ in God’ (Colossians 3:4), and that what we may eventually become is in some way already present in Him. But to say definitively that this is what we already are seems to me a little presumptuous (by assuming that we will definitely achieve that reality) and also perhaps conflates our temporal becoming with what is eternally true in God. There are truths about us that we do not know, which are already realised in God, but we are still seeing things in a glass darkly at this juncture, and I am not sure if it is helpful to say that we are all of us assuredly already seated with Christ, perfectly in union with the divine life. It also runs the risk of thinking that God loves us because of what we will become (or rather, according to your thesis, what we already are) and thus because we are loveable, which seems contrary to the biblical picture of God loving us despite our manifest unloveableness. We are, I agree, just seeing the same thing from different perspectives, but I do think that what perspective one takes here is quite important, for the reasons just given.

          Finally though, whilst I don’t know anything about your evangelical background*, I certainly wouldn’t let it worry you – however impoverished the teaching you received may have seemed at the time, you have certainly more than made up for lost time! 🙂 Out of interest, have you ever considered maybe joining one of the two historic churches (Catholicism or Orthodoxy), so that you could embrace traditional teaching at a deeper level, and see how all the different aspects of the wider theological tradition inform and enrich one another? This is assuming you haven’t done so already of course 🙂

          *P.S. I have to confess, I have never heard of the ‘new Trinitarian movement’ – what is this?


  9. Interesting post. I come from a Mormon background (I’m Orthodox now) and one of the main objections Mormons tend to have about traditional Christianity is that God isn’t anthropomorphic. Mormons are very committed to having a god that experiences emotions. Terryl Givens wrote a book about this commitment called “The God Who Weeps.”

    Anyways, it took me a while to accept the God of traditional Christianity.


    • Fr Aidan Kimel says:

      Seraphim, I share your concern. For many years of my ministry, I espoused an understanding of the suffering God (along the lines promoted by Moltmann) that came very close to anthropomorphism. I just took the God as depicted in the biblical story as a person who, like all human persons, is subject to passibility. After all, doesn’t the Bible describe God as grieving for his people, as becoming angry when his people sins, as changing his mind, etc.?

      It was really only after I started to read the difficult writings of David B. Hart that I began to reconsider my rejection of divine impassibility. I know long buy-in to the claim that the Church Fathers “hellenized” the God of the Bible; rather, like Hart, I believe that they simply thought very deeply about what God must be if he is the transcendent Creator of the universe.

      You may find of interest my series of blog posts on the anthropomorphic God.

      Liked by 1 person

  10. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    Another article to read on this subject, from the traditional point of view is “Does God Suffer?” by Thomas Weinandy.


  11. Fr Aidan Kimel says:

    My question for Tom Belt is this: Why believe in open theism at all? As far as I can tell, the motive behind open theism is the belief that the classical position compromises or denies human freedom; but that is a total misreading of divine eternity. God doesn’t know events “before” they happen; he simply knows them. At no point, therefore, are human beings trapped in God’s “foreknowledge.”

    Let’s assume, for example, that you affirm the traditional doctrine. What important things would that preclude you from saying in the pulpit?


  12. tgbelt says:

    @Mina. I found Dr. Bebawi’s website and emailed him (he gives his email on the contact page). But the email is evidently not current.

    @Michael. Thanks so much. I do indeed appreciate your points. I think your (3) and (4) are where we differ. And if the term ‘apatheia’, because of its history and connections, turns out to be more problematic than helpful for me to express what it is I’m trying to get at, then as I said I don’t mind dropping the term. Suffice it to say, my notion the—let us say—unimprovable and undimishing delight of God’s triune beatitude doesn’t rule out God’s having both necessary and contingent aspects. I agree, as far as Orthodoxy is concerned, that much is out of the question. But I don’t see that God’s perfect self-knowledge would be less than perfect if the self (pardon the crudity) that God knows perfectly possesses, as a feature of his own perfection, an infinite creativity to self-expression. The possession of this disposition for self-expression would be necessary. But its exercise ad extra would not be.

    @FrAidan. I think you’re right for the most part. A big motivation for open theism (at least as I see it) is ‘consistency’ (within a worldview that posits the contingency of creation and the freedom of responsible choice). Everybody has a different toleration level for mystery and paradoxes and different standards that a claim has to meet to qualify as a legitimate mystery. Philosophically speaking, the idea that the truth about all the contingent events and choices of the world is, in spite of being contingent, known necessarily to God (timelessly), doesn’t come across as a meaningful proposition at all or as being required by divine transcendence.

    Take Michael’s comment for example: “I would certainly agree that God’s knowledge can (and does) include all possible contingencies within creation – though I would add that He only knows them AS possibilities, not as actualities – but He does (in some mysterious sense – I prefer the idea of His seeing things in an eternal present) have foreknowledge of them, He does not depend on their becoming actual in order to know them.”

    I want to be careful to distinguish the legitimate sense in which we (apophatically) embrace God’s ineffable transcendence (on the one hand) from using transcendence as a kind of categorical “rug” underneath which we sweep paradoxical and meaningless claims about God in the name of transcendence (on the other). I totally agree that God knows eternal possibilities ‘as’ possibilities (with Michael). The logoi of created things would arguably be just such an example. But does God not also ‘know’ the difference between the “mere possibility” of contingent worldly events (eternally present to him) and their temporal “actuality” which by definition cannot be timelessly-eternally present to God. The temporal actualities are, after all, God’s creative expression. They don’t introduce any surprise into God and they don’t make up through becoming actual some imperfection that inheres in their mere possibility. There’s no threat to divine perfection in God’s coming to know what in truth comes to be. It rather instantiates the divine perfection to say God’s knowledge reflects the truth about the difference between the ‘merely possible’ (eternally present to God’s Logos) and the ‘actual’.


    • mkenny114 says:


      Just a quick reply to make a couple of points. Firstly, if you look under my earlier comment, you’ll see that Fr. Kimel had picked up on the part of my comment that you’ve quoted as being incompatible with the classical tradition, and in my reply to him I clarified that this was an error on my part, providing a correction to it. This doesn’t really affect matters that much – just thought I’d alert you to it though.

      Secondly, in your recent comment, it seems to me that you are saying that God cannot know the difference between possibilities of contingent worldly events and what actually occurs in time and space, and this because the possibilities are present to Him in His eternal present but the actualities cannot be present to Him in this way because they are temporal. Is this a fair assessment?

      If so, I think that this betrays a misunderstanding of what it means for God to be outside of time and in that ‘eternal present’ – the things that for us occur temporally are precisely what He sees in that vantage point from outside time. What you have concluded (if I interpret you correctly) seems to be that God cannot be in such a position and must be involved in temporality somehow in order to know temporal events. If this is so, why do you see that this need be the case? Surely as Creator of all that is, God stands outside everything that He has made, including time, and need not be involved in it to know it.

      Many thanks again for your replies, and I hope you got through the ‘to-do’ list okay 🙂



      • tgbelt says:

        Thanks Michael. I see Fr Aidan’s post. Right. I thought perhaps I had you in a corner! No fair tag-teaming!

        On your question—right, I don’t see how supposing God to be “outside of time” or “timeless” gives him timeless access to the entirety of the world’s temporal becoming. I understand that one can ‘say’ it and in supposing it to be true use it to upload the world’s timeline into God’s eternity. It just don’t know how to relate meaningfully to it. If however most physicists are right and the ‘block’ universe is the right model, then the entirety of creation’s timelines does co-exist, is all equally actual, and it would be to a being whose perceptions were not limited as ours are to the particulars. Open theism obviously depends upon a presentist ontology, so if the Block universe is true, open theism is wrong. But given the truth of presentism, I don’t at all see why God’s being the creator should mean it’s all equally timelessly present to God. Even if (per Acts 17) the entirety of its temporal become occurs in God (“in whom we live and move and have our being”), that would to me suggest some manner of divine temporality.


        • mkenny114 says:

          Thanks again for your reply Tom,

          I think perhaps the real difference here lies in what you say about our ability to relate to God’s timelessness, that ‘I understand that one can ‘say’ it and in supposing it to be true use it to upload the world’s timeline into God’s eternity. I just don’t know how to relate meaningfully to it.’

          I’m not quite sure what you mean by the inability to ‘relate meaningfully’ to God’s timelessness, but if you mean that we can’t really get ‘into’ it and fully understand how everything (including time) is present to God in an eternal present, then I’d agree with you – of course we can’t relate to it, as it is necessarily something outside our experience or anything we could experience. However (and again, this depends upon whether I am reading you correctly or not) I don’t think that everything about God’s nature and Being should have to be something we can relate to – quite the contrary!

          If on the other hand you mean that it isn’t a meaningful concept at all, then I’m afraid I can’t see this myself – it seems to me that it flows naturally from what we mean when we say God is Creator of all that is.

          With respect to the different philosophical views of time (Block Model vs Presentist), I am not sure how much difference this actually makes to God. If only the present is real, or if all points in time are equally real, as God stands outside of time it would not make any difference to Him, because however time should be construed for contingent, temporal beings, the very source of all Being, who created Time itself, cannot be bound by those conditions – to say that God must be dependent on any one model of time is to beg the question and presuppose that He must be limited by any theories of time we develop (regardless of how comprehensive or true to OUR experience that they might be). Ultimately, it seems to me that open theism doesn’t do justice to the fundamental difference between the Creator and His creation, particularly the fact that the creation is absolutely, totally, and continually dependent upon the Creator for all aspects of its existence, time included.

          This, to return to the original issue, is why I can’t help but see divine impassibility as leading away from open theism and towards the classical model. To recognise the absolute self-sufficiency of God in His self-knowledge and self-love, and to see that to allow any hint of darkness or suffering into His life would be to our detriment as it removes that sure and firm foundation for our own hope of beatitude and eternal joy, points very clearly towards the fact that all our existence requires God to be absolutely necessary Being, which includes not being involved in any way in the temporal process – He cannot be in any way limited by His creation, or the creation would no longer have the foundation it needs to be what it is, as well as God no longer being who He is.

          Anyway, I suppose all the cards are on the table now, so it probably just remains to agree to disagree! Thanks again though for all your responses – it has certainly made me think a bit more about the matter, and that is always a good thing 🙂


  13. Mina says:

    I think one of the things that I find fascinating is the mystery of God’s simultaneous immanence and transcendence. When we say God is everywhere present, that does not mean He is unable to make Himself present in one place or dwell in us fully. I think that is the beauty behind Christian theology. So when I think about it, I think it makes more sense to say that God, being the one who created time, can choose to dwell in time if He so pleases. I don’t think the physicists’ theories about time should matter one way or another about this (interestingly enough, theoretical physicists try to argue that their calculations lead to a cosmos that is self-sufficient, translate “non-contingent” as a whole, although I don’t buy it, since they use “infinity” in there somehow and explain it away as infinite multiverse, but let’s suppose that be the case). In a way, I feel His creation is a reflection of Himself, and possibly an infinite reflection of Himself. Because humanity has difficulty even conceiving of an infinite universe, but can mathematically express it, I would go as far as saying that God holds the infinite universe in the palm of His hand (an actual quote from 10-11th Century Armenian bishop and mystic Grigor Narekatsi, where he prays to God, “What is infinite for me, You hold in the palm of Your blessed hand.”), and yet can fully dwell in the infinitesimal. Because God is free by nature, He is not “bound” by the “laws of omnis” (omnipresence, omnipotence, omniscience, etc.). He even transcends those definitions.

    And it seems good that God is dynamic in that fashion, for it is a “fearful thing to fall into the hands of God,” and so by His love and grace, He limits His power for our sakes. I think at the very least that is a patristic idea. While I fail to find any patristic evidence on the knowledge part (I find it interesting knowledge and time seem to be dependent on each other here), since God is described as all-knowledgeable the whole way through (many Church fathers even went to the extent to say that Christ’s human brain was not ignorant or was omniscient in answer against the Agnoetae), I find that God “choosing” to be ignorant seems to put God in a position of showing forth that He desires our freedom and even goes to the extent of this desire by limiting His powers. He will condescend to us to ask us questions that He probably would know the answer, but therapeutically, allows us to answer the questions for our eventual comfort and joy in Him, or rebuke from Him if He sees our actions veering in a dangerous direction as He perceives in us (where we “grieve” or even “quench the Spirit”, an almost provocative statement to say about the Holy Spirit, and that leads me to the point I want to make at the end of this post). Truly, “what is man that God is so mindful of him?”

    So God, though not contingent by anything at all, seems to choose to make Himself contingent to our actions and feelings, whether it be within space or time. I could be wrong, but nonetheless, I think that is what Dr. George was trying to explain.

    I do want to get back to apatheia as well. The more I contemplate, the more I agree with you on your take about apatheia, that is it important for God’s beauty and equanimity to remain in that sense non-contingent, not crying or suffering with us, so to speak. On another level though I wonder, we do “grieve and quench God” by repeatedly faltering. When Christ says “I thirst”, as we have experienced the talks of theologians taking days contemplating on this short verse, we seem to see God not only having apatheia, but also taking a limiting position on Himself where He moves us to compassionately strive towards His apatheia.


  14. Clayton says:

    Thank you so much, Thomas, for this fascinating article about a topic that I’ve never thought about very carefully.

    I wonder if you could say a few more words about how you extend the nightmare/scraped knee analogy to more serious kinds of suffering (and to moral evil). In both cases you give, it seems like the father’s equanimity is the consequence of knowing that no serious harm is really occurring to his child and that he is fully able (and willing) to set things right. Do you think that is also true of our relation to God?

    What these analogies suggest to me is that either (1) God is really not very much like a good and loving human father or (2) there is something illusory about all of our suffering (and even our sins) or else (3) God really does suffer.

    You seem to suggest that there is a fourth option where we benefit from serious suffering by becoming aware of our highest good, but I don’t quite understand what that means. I don’t intend this as an argument or disagreement, but I would like to understand this fourth option better and any help you can give me would be much appreciated.

    Thank you again.


    • tgbelt says:

      Thank you Mina and Michael. The interaction helps clarify things for me. Appreciate it.

      Clayton, thanks for the questions too. Re: the daughter’s scraped knee, it seems to me that the father doesn’t suffer because he relates his daughter’s well-being to that of his own within an overall perspective that doesn’t admit any threat to his own happiness. His daughter’s suffering isn’t sufficient to manufacture a moment of negation within the father’s happiness. That might be an anally analytic way to say ‘her suffering wasn’t worth suffering over’ or ‘it wasn’t great enough to matter to the father’s happiness’ (which nobody doubts), but what it does is show the importance that ‘perspective’ has upon our experience of well-being and suffering.

      If we go beyond a scraped knee to something very serious, we all know the father will suffer. But that’s just to say that her suffering reached a place within her father’s perspective on things in which he too became unable to world-construct without loss of joy, i.e., he couldn’t integrate her pain into his overall personal meaning without some loss of experienced well-being. I’m not blaming human beings for this. It’s to be expected given the finitude of our perspectives.

      Enter God. How are we to imagine his experience of and perspective upon the world (albeit analogously)? He can’t die. His existence is life itself. He doesn’t derive his well-being and fullness from anything outside himself. And he is never separated from the truth of any of this. He world-constructs (to use that term) as the event of his own triune life and loving relations. That much ain’t changing about him!

      By comparison, then, our worst sufferings must (analogously) ‘mean’ to God what a girl’s scraped knee means to her father. God would integrate the event of the world’s suffering into his overall personal meaning without any loss of experienced well-being. WE rate suffering as more or less consequential (scraped knee vs Auschwitz) because we do so within the limitations of our finite perspectives. That’s just who we are. But I don’t know how the world’s sufferings (which however great remain ‘finite’) could generate a moment of negation within an infinite beatitude.

      This would be just good news for God but bad news for us were it not for the fact that our well-being is grounded or implicated in God’s well-being, our goodness in his. God has infinite positive regard for us, so like the father who knows his daughter’s scrapped knee doesn’t ultimately threaten any good he intends for her, I think God knows that no evil, however great, can threaten any ultimate good he intends for us, not because Auschwitz isn’t experienced as immeasurably more consequential than a scrapped knee by us, but because both are when compared to the divine beatitude equally incomparably insignificant.

      The Rom 8 passage encouraged me along this line of thinking, namely, that if the beatific vision will relativize all worldly suffering into comparative meaninglessness (as Paul says), what must those sufferings now mean to God who always world-constructs within (and integrates our existences into) the beauty of his own vision? I think God (like the father) just turns toward us in all our suffering, smiles and holds his arms out to pick us up. His beauty is THAT good.


      • Clayton says:

        Thank you, Thomas. That is very helpful.

        You say that all worldly suffering is finite and therefore insignificant from God’s perspective. Does your view then exclude the possibility of hell as endless torment (which, being infinite, presumably would be significant to God)? Or would God still be happy because God’s well being does not derive from anything outside himself?

        I guess another way of asking the same question is, which is the decisive consideration: the insignificance of our suffering or the self-sufficiency of God? Would God still necessarily be happy if all his creatures were tortured forever, or is God happy precisely because he knows this won’t happen to any of this creatures?

        Or is it possible that even infinite suffering is insignificant from God’s perspective because his infinity is somehow “bigger?” I know mathematicians categorize infinities of different “sizes.”

        I hope these questions makes sense.


  15. tgbelt says:

    Thanks Clayton!

    I admit I find eternal (irrevocable) conscious torment incompatible with our existence being grounded in God’s unconditional love.

    Clayton: I guess another way of asking the same question is, which is the decisive consideration: the insignificance of our suffering or the self-sufficiency of God? Would God still necessarily be happy if all his creatures were tortured forever, or is God happy precisely because he knows this won’t happen to any of this creatures?

    Tom: My sense is that the impossibility of irrevocable torment follows from the loving nature of God’s self-sufficiency; i.e., we can’t suffer irrevocably because God loves and values us irrevocably. The destiny of the contingent (creation) follows from the non-contingent (necessary) nature of God’s goodness. So the decisive consideration is God’s self-sufficiency (for me at least). What’s possible and not possible for creation is contingent upon who God is.

    Clayton: Or is it possible that even infinite suffering is insignificant from God’s perspective because his infinity is somehow “bigger?” I know mathematicians categorize infinities of different “sizes.”

    Tom: If irrevocable torment were possible, I’d have to rethink divine sufficiency (the loving, aesthetic nature of divine goodness itself). I don’t want to suggest that the infinite vs finite contrast between God and us is all about ‘time’. That’s important, but it’s more ‘aesthetic’ for me, that is, it’s about the unsurpassable beauty, goodness and love that God is which precludes any irrevocable loss of created sentient creatures.


  16. tgbelt says:


    A couple of comments up I said: “By comparison, then, our worst sufferings must ‘mean’ to God what a girl’s scraped knee means to her father. God would integrate the event of the world’s suffering into his overall personal meaning without any loss of experienced well-being. WE rate suffering as more or less consequential (scraped knee vs Auschwitz) because we do so within the limitations of our finite perspectives. That’s just who we are. But I don’t know how the world’s sufferings (which however great remain ‘finite’) could generate a moment of negation within an infinite beatitude.”

    I was thinking this morning of another analogy that might help with this. Think of the speed of light (186,000 miles per second). Scientists have come up with interesting thought experiments to describe the weird behavior of light. I’ve always loved one particular thought experiment. You’re standing still (relative to some source of light). A beam of light passes you (measured by you) at 186,000 mps. But were you to travel at 180,000 mps, you’d think you clock light at 6,000 mps. No. You still measure it at 186,000 mps. Even if you’re traveling at 185,900 mps, light still passes you at 186,00 mps. It’s constant, even to other speeds which are vastly different when compared to each other.

    Think of the delight God derives from his own triune self-contemplation (or however you want to describe it) as constant relative to all other finite beauties and delights, even to delights which are vastly different when compared to each other.

    (You scientists will have to confirm the science part of this. I could be wrong. But it’s been explained to me this way several times.)


  17. Clayton says:

    Thank you for this image. It will stay with me.

    I have to admit that the idea that God does not need me to be happy is a challenging concept, though it has a ring of truth. I imagine a happy family sitting together in a living room, and the child of the family experiences some perceived insult and storms away to his room, wanting others to follow and comfort and reassure him. That is a kind of emotional extortion. But he is only lonely in his room while the rest of the family remains perfectly happy. They know that the child will eventually have to return, humbled by the truth that life is not all about him.

    I know that Buddhism usually distinguishes between pain and suffering–pain is just the mere experience of a negative feeling, and suffering is all the obsessive, panicked activity we engage in to avoid pain. In Buddhism, equanimity does not mean that there is no pain, but only that there is no suffering even when there is pain. That is why, for instance, good meditators do not need anaesthetic for dental procedures. They still feel the pain, they just do not react to it. The deep insight here is that pain is not itself painful, but rather the panicked reaction to pain is what is painful.

    You say that God is not without feeling, and I agree. And I would go further (possibly further than you are willing to go) and say no one can know another person’s pain without sharing it to some degree, and that includes God. But because of his equanimity, God can share our pain without in any way falling into suffering. That, anyway, is how I make sense of what you are saying.

    Thank you so much for your thoughts and for a great discussion.


  18. mkenny114 says:

    I just watched an interesting paper delivered by the (always thought-provoking) theologian Karen Kilby which, whilst it doesn’t deal directly with divine impassibility, does touch indirectly on some of the issues discussed above:


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