Thomas Weinandy, in his book Does God Suffer?, asks the crucial theological quesiton of our time. Setting up his case, he cites Gabriel Marcel on the difference between a logical problem and a mystery. Problems have answers. Figure out the answer, and you're on your way to something else. Mysteries, on the other hand, are inherently unsolvable. They suck you in by intrigue and depth, but, like that eerie west-coast hotel, you can never leave. You never find an "answer," but you keep wanting more.
On the relation between God, suffering and evil, Weinandy's appropriation of Marcel is dead-on. We're not talking MIT, but Hotel California. There is no logical answer to the so-called "problem of evil." Theists aren't alone in this. Atheists have the opposite problem: the "problem of good." Solve that with a formula.
Atheistic critics of Christian theism have noted the logical difficulty of holding three truths together which want to burst apart from tension: God is good, God is powerful, and evil exists. Why would a good and powerful God allow evil and suffering in the world he created? The problem seems particularly profound, Weinandy points out, for the modern consciousness, which has seen the images of Auschwitz and Dachau. Where was God when millions were shoved helpless into gas chambers? Moltmann's answer: He was there in their suffering. Much of modern theology agrees with Dietrich Bonhoeffer that, "only a suffering God can help." In other words, the emotionally unaffected, or "impassible" God of classical theism (yes, that concept of God which dominated the theological landscape for at least 1500 years), offers no religious benefit for a world in which suffering and evil is a major theme of their most recent history.
The question Weinandy raises, in contrast to the now-prevailing theological consensus regarding the passibility of God, is whether a suffering God can help. His critique is that those encountering evil are not helped by a suffering God, but rather by one who is unaffected by evil and yet comforts the afflicted in the midst of their pain.
I plan to finish Weinandy's book and to post again on this central question. Does God suffer? and, Does a suffering God help? My initial hunch is that the new consensus regarding the passibility of God is based on a correct intuition. For too long, classical theology has been unable to provide a satisfactory link between God as he exists in himself and God as he exists in our midst. In other words, when the Bible seems to suggest that God has some kind of feeling and emotion in reaction to human beings and events of human history, must we simply chalk that up to "anthropomorphism," and say that God "essence" remains unaffected? What sense does "essence" even mean at that point? And then, of course, we have that awkward little blip in God's history called the incarnation. Didn't God suffer there...or was that just the human Jesus?