Impassibility: does God have emotions?


-by Trent Horn

“Biblical descriptions of God’s emotions are metaphors that describe how human beings relate to God, not how God relates to us

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and atheist whose writings are very critical of Christianity. In her essay “God’s Emotions” in the anthology The End of Christianity, she argues that emotions are a non-rational “evolved functional feedback response” found in higher-order animals. Therefore, the Bible’s depictions of God having emotions such as anger or regret reveal that ignorant nomads who “only had a superficial idea of what these words mean” wrote the Bible. According to Tarico, “It is a testament to our narcissism as a species that so few humans are embarrassed to assign divinity the attributes of a male alpha primate.”

Some people may say biblical descriptions of God’s emotions are nothing to be ashamed of because they make God more relatable to us. But although God did experience human emotions through the human nature He assumed through His Incarnation as Jesus Christ, God does not experience emotions as part of His divine nature. The Incarnation makes God more relatable precisely because, as the Catechism of the Catholic Church says:

God transcends all creatures. We must therefore continually purify our language of everything in it that is limited, image-bound or imperfect, if we are not to confuse our image of God—”the inexpressible, the incomprehensible, the invisible, the ungraspable”—with our human representations. Our human words always fall short of the mystery of God (CCC 42).

For example, the persons you and I know have intellects and loving qualities, but God is “intellect;” He is “love” (1 John 4:8). God is not a person or being who embodies these attributes; He is the perfect exemplification of them. This is similar to the fact that God doesn’t have “goodness” or “being,” but simply is “Goodness” or “Being” itself.

If this is hard to grasp, remember what God said about Himself through the prophet Isaiah: “My thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways My ways. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My ways higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts” (Isa. 55:8–9).

Emotions usually comprise our responses to unexpected or uncontrollable events. But nothing can surprise or overwhelm that which is “the infinite act of being,” so that means God lacks emotions. This doesn’t mean, however, that God is an impersonal force of nature. It just means that although God has qualities we see in persons, God himself is not a person, in the same way, humans are persons (similar to how God is not a being but just is being). According to Fr. Thomas Weinandy, a Capuchin priest and author of the book Does God Suffer?:

From the dawn of the patristic period Christian theology has held as axiomatic that God is impassible—that is, he does not undergo emotional changes of state, and so cannot suffer. . . . God is impassible in that he does not undergo successive and fluctuating emotional states, nor can the created order alter him in such a way so as to cause him to suffer any modification or loss.

When the Bible describes God as having emotions such as anger, regret, or pleasure, we understand that these are metaphors that describe how human beings relate to God, not how God relates to us. Saying God is angry at our sin or pleased with our obedience doesn’t mean God is reacting to something we did. It means we did something to alienate ourselves from God or to draw us closer to him. Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger put it this way:

The wrath of God is a way of saying that I have been living in a way that is contrary to the love that is God. . . . “The punishment of God” is in fact an expression for having missed the right road and then experiencing the consequences that follow from taking the wrong track and wandering away from the right way of living.

The Bible’s descriptions of God’s emotions also represent how ancient people conceived of God in light of their cultural context. In places such as the ancient Near East, deities were often compared to human kings, and the best kings were those who were strong and swiftly punished anyone, whether foreign invaders or domestic rebels, who threatened the populace.

Just as the Bible contains ancient, popular descriptions of the world that should not be equated with modern scientific descriptions of it (for example, descriptions of the firmament), the Bible also contains ancient, popular descriptions of God that are true if they are not treated as modern theological or philosophical descriptions of God.

Now, Valerie Tarico emphatically objects to the idea that the Bible’s descriptions of God’s emotions are not literal. She says, “A metaphor about something as deep as the human relationship to ultimate reality needs to be deeply accurate . . . but the Biblical descriptions of God have this backwards.” They are backward, according to Tarico, because emotions are merely physiological responses to weakness or stress. Saying God is angry or pleased would indicate that God is imperfect.

But remember that these descriptions of God are not obscure or “mere” metaphors. They are expressions, albeit in an indirect way, of real truths about God that ancient people understood despite their ignorance of the physiological causes of emotions. Though they lacked Tarico’s training in psychology, ancient people still knew that being angry at someone meant you had a negative relationship with that person, and being pleased with someone meant you had a positive relationship. These are not naïve or improper ways of describing how finite, sinful humans might stand in relation to God.

People who say that the God of the Bible has “all-too-human needs or desires,” as does Tarico’s fellow contributor to The End of Christianity, Jaco Gerike, fail to grasp this metaphorical understanding of God’s emotions. Or they outright reject it. Gerike says, “None of these divine psychological characteristics were in their biblical contexts understood as being mere metaphorical descriptions or the result of any supposed divine accommodation.”

But the whole point of divine accommodation is that God lowered himself to a level for the biblical authors to understand him. Just as these authors would not have considered their descriptions of the physical world to be popular descriptions accommodated to ancient sensibilities, but rather how the world appeared, they would have thought the same of the descriptions of God they penned in the Bible. Those descriptions are true, but not if we read them as modern, theological treatises.

Sometimes they even fail to grasp the literal truth behind these nonliteral descriptions. For example, Gerike says that God is “narcissistic and egotistic” because he prescribes in detail how to worship him. Gerike takes aim in particular at the elaborate instructions for constructing the Ark of the Covenant in Exodus 25-40 but fails to see that these instructions were for the Israelite’s benefit, not God’s. Human beings require custom and ritual in order to form their identities, and these rituals foster proper reverence for God. Just because they were tailored for what a resident of the ancient Near East would expect for pious worship does not make them evidence of God’s “narcissism.”

Finally, it is egotistical for creatures to demand to be worshiped, because they are not infinite in value like God. God, however, has a right to our worship, because he is “that which no greater can be thought.” Worship means we give someone his “worth-ship,” and so a being of infinite worth has a right to our unconditional obedience and adoration.”

Love & His love,
Matthew

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