Does God have feelings?

Does God have feelings and, if so, how do they relate to human emotions?

GOD'S EMOTIONS IN SCRIPTURE

Certainly Scripture speaks of the emotions of God. It states that God “sets his affection” on people,[1]  delights in people[2]   and rejoices over people.[3]  The psalmist writes: “The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love.”[4]  He is pleased with obedience.[5]  On one occasion the Lord “could bear Israel’s misery no longer.”[6]   On another occasion God says to his failing people: “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, Israel? How can I treat you like Admah? How can I make you like Zeboyim? My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused. I will not carry out my fierce anger, nor will I devastate Ephraim again.”[7]  God can be grieved and we are urged not to “grieve the Holy Spirit of God.”[8]

He was angry with his people at times.[9]  Genesis tells us: “The LORD regretted that he had made human beings on the earth, and his heart was deeply troubled.”[10]  “The word of the Lord came to Samuel: ‘I regret that I have made Saul king, because he has turned away from me and has not carried out my instructions.’[11]  He hates all who do wrong.[12]  He hates hypocrisy “with all his being”.[13]  His anger can be aroused.[14]   In fact, his anger can be fierce[15] and, at times he “became exceedingly angry,”[16]  his anger burns against people.[17]  On one occasion “He unleashed against [his people] his hot anger, his wrath, indignation and hostility.”[18]  The NT frequently speaks of the wrath of God.[19]  

However, are these statements to be taken literally? After all, Scripture also speaks of the eyes, mouth, hands and arms of the Lord: “The eyes of the Lord are continually on [the land] from the beginning of the year to its end.”[20]  They “range throughout the earth to strengthen those whose hearts are fully committed to him.”[21]  “He observes everyone on earth; his eyes examine them.”[22]  “The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous, and his ears are attentive to their cry; but the face of the LORD is against those who do evil.”[23]  Zechariah speaks of “the seven eyes of the LORD that range throughout the earth.”[24]  The mouth of the Lord speaks to us.[25]

We are in God’s hands.[26]  His hands provide satisfaction[27] or apportion suffering.[28]  Jesus sits or stands at the right hand of God.[29]  The Lord scatters his enemies and gives his people victory with his strong arm.[30]  “He rules with a mighty arm.”[31]  His “arm will bring justice to the nations”[32]

THE TRADITIONAL INTERPRETATION

The early fathers of the church believed God, as God, was impassive [or impassible, without emotions], as did most of the church until the 20th century. They believed that God cannot be affected by the world and to say he can is to undermine his deity. God is unchangeable. He says to Israel: “‘I the LORD do not change.”[33]  He is “the Father of the heavenly lights, who does not change like shifting shadows.”[34]  They argued that for God to suffer would mean he was changeable. But God is “pure actuality” – he is completely fulfilled not like us who have a potential for fulfilment (which comes about through change). He is completely and eternally blessed. There is no place for change or suffering in him.

Jesus suffered, but only in his humanity, they argued. God could no more suffer as God than God could die as God. In order to taste death Jesus had to be made lower than the angels. “We do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honour because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.”[35]  If God can suffer as God, why did the incarnation happen?

The Council of Chalcedon in AD 451 referred with approval to a letter of Archbishop Leo which “expels from the assembly of the priests those who dare to say that the divinity of the Only-begotten is passible” [able to suffer].[36]

St Anselm (Archbishop of Canterbury 1033-1109) wrote that God is compassionate in our experience because we see the effect of that compassion. But he is not compassionate in his own being because he does not experience the feeling of compassion.[37]

John Calvin writes about the wrath of God in 1536: “Now the mode of accommodation is for him to represent himself to us not as he is in himself, but as he seems to us. Although he is beyond all disturbance of mind, yet he tes¬tifies that he is angry toward sinners. Therefore whenever we hear that God is angered, we ought not to imagine any emotion in him, but rather to consider that this expression has been taken from our own human experience; because God, whenever he is exercis¬ing judgment, exhibits the appearance of one kindled and angered.” [38]

In 1646 the Westminster Confession of Faith explicitly asserted that God is “without body, parts, or passions, immutable.”[39]  In 1662 the Church of England Book of Common Prayer in Article 10 similarly stated: “There is but one living and true God, Everlasting; without body, parts, or passions.” By “passions” they meant “feelings.”

It should be noted, however, that the Fathers of the church were not saying that God was cold and unfeeling. They were concerned to affirm the unchangeable, perfectly (passionately) loving, transcendent nature of God. They were denying that God has feelings like human feelings. This is an important point.

THE REACTION AGAINST THE TRADITIONAL INTERPRETATION

In early 20th Century some of the terrible suffering in wars, including the Holocaust, encouraged a reaction amongst theologians against the traditional view that God is impassible.  This includes well-known theologians such as Karl Barth, Richard Bauckham, Hans Küng, Jurgen Moltmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg, Richard Swinburne and Keith Ward. They affirmed:

a.    To be incapable of feeling is to be incapable of love

Jurgen Moltmann wrote: “Were God incapable of suffering in any respect, and therefore in an absolute sense, then he would also be incapable of love.”[40]  Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote on a piece of paper smuggled out from his Nazi prison cell: “Only the suffering God can help.”

b.    If God cannot suffer, the cross cannot be a real revelation of God

Dennis Ngien writes: “If the attribute of impassibility is ascribed to God, there can be no real incarnation of God in Jesus. If God is denied suffering, then the Cross cannot be a genuine revelation of God.”[41]

c.    If Jesus only suffered in his humanity the atonement is undermined

The cross would be just the death of the man Jesus, not the death of the Son of God. Consequently, his death would not achieve salvation.

d.    The objections to God having feelings also apply to God having knowledge or will

Charles Hodge wrote: “The schoolmen, and often the philosophical theologians, tell us that there is no feel¬ing in God. This, they say, would imply passivity, or susceptibility of impression from without, which it is assumed is incompatible with the nature of God…. Here again we have to choose between a mere philosophical speculation and the clear tes¬timony of the Bible, and of our own moral and religious nature. Love of necessity involves feeling, and if there be no feeling in God, there can be no love…. The philosophical objection against ascribing feeling to God, bears, as we have seen, with equal force against the ascription to Him of knowledge or will.”[42]

THE REACTION FROM THE TRADITIONALISTS

The traditionalists respond that:

a.    The biblical references to the emotions of God are not to be taken literally.

These passages are saying that God is compassionate and forgiving. He grieves over sin and is angry. However the change is not in God but in people, who fall into sin. God’s love and justice are consistent and unchanging.

b.    God is perfectly loving and holy and therefore cannot become more so when circumstances change

God is perfectly passionate and compassionate in his love, and therefore cannot become more passionate or compassionate when circumstances change. He is perfectly angry against sin and so cannot become more so when circumstances change.

c.    God’s love remains the same but human beings experience it differently in different circumstances.

When they suffer they experience God’s love as compassion. When they sin they experience God’s love as disapproval. When they repent they experience God’s love as forgiveness. But God’s perfect, infinite love remains the same in all these circumstances.

d.    Passages speaking about God changing his mind are not to be taken literally

The literal truth is found in Num 23:19 “God is not human, that he should lie, not a human being, that he should change his mind.”

e.    The absence of suffering in God means God’s love is completely altruistic

If God suffered this could lead him to self-love in order to relieve his own suffering. C. S. Lewis distinguishes between “gift love” (agape) - a free, self-giving love, and “need love” (eros) - a self-seeking love. God’s love is, of course, the former.

f.    In order to identify with humanity Jesus must only have suffered in his humanity

Had he suffered in his divinity that would have meant he was suffering in a fundamentally different way from human beings and this would undermine the incarnation.  “He had to be made like [humans], fully human in every way, in order that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in service to God, and that he might make atonement for the sins of the people.”[43]  The atoning sacrifice of Christ had to be a real, historical event, not just a symbol of a more important suffering in God’s being.

GOD'S FEELINGS ARE FOREKNOWN AND CHOSEN

We have seen that the traditional view on the impassibility of God and we have noted the 20th century reaction against that response (although there has been a move back towards impassibility).  There are good points on both sides but some of the arguments seem too abstract and philosophical. There seems to be too much of the idea that we can get a complete understanding of the nature of God in these respects. Yet surely in dealing with such deep matters there will be elements of mystery and paradox. It seems that God is both impassible and passible.

As Creator and Lord of the universe God is infinitely joyful, perfectly at peace, totally unchanging and absolutely without needs. Hence he is impassible. Yet he has freely chosen to be influenced by humanity in certain clearly defined ways which fulfil his purposes for creation. He is therefore passible within the restrictions he has set on that passibility.

So God is both impassible and passible – a mystery just as the union of God and man in Christ is a mystery.

God is certainly not insensitive or indifferent to human suffering. On the contrary, he empathizes with human pain. But the important fact is that God is never a victim of human behaviour. As Jim Packer puts it “God’s experiences do not come upon him as ours come upon us. His are foreknown, willed, and chosen by himself, and are not involuntary surprises forced on him from outside, apart from his own decision, in the way that ours regularly are ..... Let us be clear: A totally impassive God would be a horror, and not the God of Calvary at all. ...... If, therefore, we can learn to think of the chosenness of God’s grief and pain as the essence of his impassibility, so-called, we will do well.”[44]

So God’s wrath is not like human anger, a loss of temper caused by external circumstances. It is an expression of his love in the face of sin. It reacts against anything which spoils our relationship with him.

Karl Barth writes:
“.... the personal God has a heart. He can feel, and be affected. He is not impassible. He cannot be moved from outside by an extraneous power. But this does not mean that He is not capable of moving Himself. No, God is moved and stirred, yet not like ourselves in powerlessness, but in His own free power, in His innermost being: moved and touched by Himself, i.e., open, ready, inclined (propensus) to compassion to another’s suffering and therefore to assistance, impelled to take the initiative to relieve this distress. It can only be a question of compassion, free sympathy, with another’s suffering. God finds no suffering in Himself. And no cause outside God can cause Him suffering if He does not will it so. But it is, in fact, a question of sympathy with the suffering of another in the full scope of God’s own personal freedom. This is the essential point if we are really thinking of the God attested by Scripture and speaking only of Him. Everything that God is and does is determined and characterized by the fact that there is rooted in Him, that He Himself is, the original free powerful compassion, that from the outset He is open and ready and inclined to the need and distress and torment of another, that His compassionate words and deeds are not grounded in a subsequent change, in a mere approximation to certain conditions in the creature which is distinct from Himself, but are rooted in His heart, in His very life and being as God.”[45]  

The great mystery is that the impassible God has chosen to suffer in Christ. He has chosen to allow himself to be open to the suffering of others and to suffer with them.  God not only suffered in Christ but died in Christ. As Charles Wesley put it, “’Tis mystery all: th’Immortal dies.”

Luther wrote: “If it were not to be said [if these things were not true], God has died for us, but only a man, we would be lost. But if ‘God's death’ and ‘God died’ lie in the scale of the balance, then He sinks down, and we rise up as a light, empty scale. But indeed He can also rise again or leap out of the scale; yet He could not sit in the scale unless He became a man like us, so that it could be said: ‘God died,’ ‘God's passion,’ ‘God's blood,’ ‘God's death.’ For in His nature God cannot die; but now that God and man are united in one person, it is correctly called God's death, when the man dies who is one thing or one person with God.”[46]  

Alvin Plantinga wrote: “Christ was prepared to endure the agonies of hell itself; and God, the Lord of the universe, was prepared to endure the suffering consequent upon his son's humiliation and death. He was prepared to accept this suffering in order to overcome sin, and death, and the evils that afflict our world, and to confer on us a life more glorious than we can imagine.”[47]  

God chose to suffer as man. John Stott wrote: “There is good biblical evidence that God not only suffered in Christ, but that God in Christ suffers with his people still. … It is wonderful that we may share in Christ's sufferings; it is more wonderful still that he shares in ours.”[48]

FOOTNOTES

[1] Deut 10:15
[2] Deut 30:9, Psa 18:19, Isa 42:1
[3] Isa 62:5, 65:19 cf. John 15:11
[4] Psa 103:8; 145:8
[5]1 Kings 3:10, Prov 16:7, Php 4:18, Col 3:20; Heb 11:6
[6] Jdg 10:16.
[7] Hos 11:8-9
[8] Eph 4:30
[9] Jdg 2:20; Psa 95:10-11, Heb 3:10, 17
[10] Gen 6:6.
[11] 1 Sam 15:10-11.
[12] Psa 5:5
[13] Isa 1:14
[14] Dt 4:25; Jdg 2:12
[15] Dt 13:17
[16] Num 11:10; 22:22
[17] Dt 6:15; 7:4; Josh 7:1; Jdg 3:8; 10:7
[18] Psa 78:49.
[19] Rom. 1:18; 2:5; 9:22; 12:19; Eph. 5:6; Col. 3:6; 1 Thess. 2:16; Rev 6:16-17; 14:10, 19; 15:1, 7; 16:1; 18:15
[20] Deut. 11:12 cf. Amos 9:8.
[21] 2 Chron. 16:9.
[22] Psa 11:4 cf. Genesis 6:8; 1 K 15:5; 2 K 12:2; 14:3; 15:3; 15:3, 34; 16:2; 18:3.
[23] Psa 34:15-16 quoted in 1 Peter 3:12 cf. Prov. 15:3; Jer 5:3.
[24] Zech 4:10.
[25] Deut 8:3; Isa 1:20; 34:16; 40:5; 58:14; 62:2; Jer 23:16; Matt 4:4.
[26] Eccl 9:1.
[27] Eccl 2:24.
[28] Job 20:21.
[29] Acts 7:55-56; Rom 8:34; Col 3:1; Heb 10:12; 1 Peter 3:21-22.
[30] Psa 89:10, 13 cf. Psa 44:3.
[31] Isa 40:10-11 cf. Isa 52:10; 53:1; 62:8; John 12:37-38.
[32] Isa 51:5, 9.
[33] Mal. 3:6
[34] James 1:17
[35] Hebrews 2:9
[36] See http://www.dailycatholic.org/history/4ecumen2.htm
[37] “BUT how art thou compassionate, and, at the same time, passionless? For, if thou art passionless, thou dost not feel sympathy; and if thou dost not feel sympathy, thy heart is not wretched from sympathy for the wretched ; but this it is to be compassionate. But if thou art not compassionate, whence cometh so great consolation to the wretched? How, then,
art thou compassionate and not compassionate, O Lord, unless because thou art compassionate in terms of our experience, and not compassionate in terms of thy being. Truly, thou art so in terms of our experience, but thou art not so in terms of thine own. For, when thou beholdest us in our wretchedness, we experience the effect of compassion, but thou dost not experience the feeling. Therefore, thou art both compassionate, because thou dost save the wretched, and spare those who sin against thee; and not compassionate because thou art affected by no sympathy for wretchedness.” Anselm Proslogion chapter 8 see http://www.ccel.org/download.html?url=/ccel/anselm/basic_works.pdf .
[38] Calvin, Institutes, Vol 1, Ch 17 The knowledge of God the creator, p. 227. See http://books.google.co.uk/books?id=eABeezea4dwC&pg=PA227&lpg=PA227&dq
[39] See http://www.reformed.org/documents/index.html?mainframe=http://www.reformed.org/documents/westminster_conf_of_faith.html
[40] The Crucified God: The Cross of Christ as the Foundation and Criticism of Christian Theology by Jurgen Moltman p. 230.
[41] The God Who Suffers by Dennis Ngien. Professor of Systematic Theology. Tyndale University College & Seminary. See http://www.christianitytoday.com/ct/1997/february3/7t2038.html
[42] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology (1871-73; reprint, Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 1989), 1:428-29
[43] Heb 2:17.
[44] J.I. Packer, “What Do You Mean When You Say God?” Christianity Today (Sept 1986): 31 (27-31).
[45] Karl Barth, ‘Church Dogmatics’ II.1, p. 370.
[46] The Solid Declaration of the Formula of Concord,  VIII. The Person of Christ, para 44. See http://bookofconcord.org/sd-person.php
[47] Alvin Plantinga, “Self-Profile,” Alvin Plantinga, ed. Jas. Tomberlin (Dordrecht: Reidel, 1985), p. 36.
[48] John Stott, The Cross of Christ, IVP, 2009, p. 326.