What is the impassibility of God?

The impassibility of God deals with whether or not God can be emotionally affected, either externally or internally by something or someone other than himself.  It also concerns the relationship between God and people regarding our effect upon God as it relates to his emotions.  Can God thus experiences pain and suffering due to our sin?  How is he affected by our actions?  Does he react to us?  It is a complicated topic.

The doctrine has slightly varying views. 

  • "The traditional theological view that God does not change and thus is not affected by actions that take place in the world, particularly in terms of experiencing suffering or pain. It emphasizes that God is active, rather than passive or acted upon by other agents."1
  • "Sometimes in a discussion of God’s attributes theologians have spoken of another attribute, namely, the impassibility of God. This attribute, if true, would mean that God does not have passions or emotions, but is “impassible,” not subject to passions."2

Suffering can be either internally caused or externally caused. In regards to God, there can be no internally caused suffering since that would imply a weakness and imperfection in God. But what about an externally caused form of suffering? Can God suffer because of our actions? Since God is not a material being, any suffering attributed to him cannot be of a physical kind. We are left with a possible suffering that might be because due to emotions. We then have to ask if God has emotions. Yes, he does.

Does God have emotions?

According to Scripture, many emotions are attributed to God.

  • God loves, “For God so loved the world, that He gave His only begotten Son, that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have eternal life,” (John 3:16).
  • God hates, “The LORD tests the righteous and the wicked, and the one who loves violence His soul hates,” (Psalm 11:5).
  • God has compassion, “But he hesitated. So the men seized his hand and the hand of his wife and the hands of his two daughters, for the compassion of the LORD was upon him; and they brought him out, and put him outside the city,” (Genesis 19:16).
  • God grieves, “And the LORD was sorry that He had made man on the earth, and He was grieved in His heart,” (Genesis 6:6).
  • God expresses joy,“...Do not be grieved, for the joy of the LORD is your strength,” (Nehemiah 8:10).
  • God rejoices, “For as a young man marries a virgin, so your sons will marry you. And as the bridegroom rejoices over the bride, so your God will rejoice over you,” (Isaiah 62:5).

Okay, so we can clearly see that the Bible describes God as having various emotions. Of course, we do not know exactly how God experiences those emotions, and we also have to understand that scriptural revelation concerning God is for the large part, a condescension for our understanding. In other words, since God is so completely-other than what we are, the revelation of God in Scripture must be lowered to our level. Nevertheless, the Bible says that God loves, hates, has compassion, grieves, expresses joy, and rejoices. So, we must conclude that God has emotions.

All right, since we've established that we can now ask of God suffers emotionally. We see that in Genesis 6:6 God grieves. In Isaiah 63:10 and Ephesians 4:30 the Holy Spirit also grieves. Grief is by definition a negative emotion. It is associated with suffering. But, is our grief the same as God's grief? Again, I don't know.

Conclusion

It would seem that the idea that God does not feel emotions would be clearly un-biblical as the above verses obviously reveal. God does experience emotions. He loves, hates, grieves, rejoices, etc. But, can he suffer? Again this is a difficult question to answer because we do not know if "suffering" with God is the same as with us. But, in Genesis 6:6 it says that God grieved in his heart that he had made man on earth. We could categorize grief as a kind of suffering - at least as we understand it.

God has chosen to reveal himself in terms that we can understand. It says that he grieves and that he rejoices in these are responses to our actions. But of course, God from all eternity is ordained whatsoever shall come to pass and being able to understand how God can ordain something to occur and grieve and rejoice when it occurs is perhaps a paradox we may not ever be able to solve. But, we can rest assured that the word of God sufficiently and accurately represents God to us. He is not a distant un-relatable being who does not express himself in emotional ways. After all, we are made in the image of God (Genesis 1:26). Therefore, we must conclude that our emotions reflect the emotions of God.

 

 

Inside CARM

Does God have emotions?
Yes, God has emotions. Of course, when we say that God has emotions, we are saying He has emotions like we do. We have to understand that what we are seeing in Scripture is God relating to us in terms we can understand - and this includes God having emotions. This is anthropomorphism - God manifesting to us in ways that we can understand. So, we can say yes, God has emotions. He has revealed them to us in the Bible.  

 

Dictionary on Impassibility

"There are three respects in which orthodox theology has traditionally denied God’s subjection to ‘passibility’, namely (1) external passibility or the capacity to be acted upon from without, (2) internal passibility or the capacity for changing the emotions from within, and (3) sensational passibility or the liability to feelings of pleasure and pain caused by the action of another being. The doctrine was a regular tenet of philosophical theology among the Greeks, and its foundation in Christian sources is probably due to direct Greek influences. The human and Divine natures of Christ were often distinguished (e.g. at Chalcedon, 451) as passible and impassible. On the other hand, Hebrew religion freely ascribed emotions to God (e.g. Hosea 11:8)." (Cross, F. L., and Elizabeth A. Livingstone, eds. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. Oxford; New York: Oxford University Press, 2005.)

 

 

  • 1. McKim, Donald K.. The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms, Second Edition: Revised and Expanded (Kindle Locations 6020-6022). Westminster John Knox Press. Kindle Edition.
  • 2. Grudem, Wayne A.; Grudem, Wayne A.. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Making Sense of Series) (p. 165). Zondervan. Kindle Edition.
 
 

About The Author

Matt Slick is the President and Founder of the Christian Apologetics and Research Ministry.