Christians claim God is impassible—without passions. For example, the Westminster Confession of Faith affirms, God is “without body, parts, or passions” (2.1). For most people, this seems to affirm God has no emotions under the reasonable assumption that passions are emotions.
But such a teaching, although everywhere present in the history of Christianity, seems at variance with biblical teaching. The Bible often says God is angry, for example. Does this mean God is a passionate and emotional God?
To answer that question, I want to reargue key reasons why Christians hold God to be impassible. Afterwards, I will answer the question, Does God have emotions?
First, God has no body
The first argument is that God has no body. Jesus says, “God is spirit” (John 4:24). And the ways in which God revealed himself bear out this claim: as fire, cloud, and thunderous voice. The second commandment forbids making images of God since God has no created form. (Note though that Paul calls Christ “the image of the invisible God” in Colossians 1:15).
Since we have a body, we get tired and so short-tempered. We get hungry and so (h)angry. When someone wrongs us, an impulse of anger overcomes us. We call such anger an affection since it affects us. Someone affects us, changes how we feel, because they harm us. We can be harmed because we have bodies, bodies are able to be hurt.
Anger takes over us. We are said to be “beside ourselves” or we say, “I don’t know what came over me.” The normal experience of life is that we are vulnerable, able to be overwhelmed by either hunger, tiredness, or a host of other ailments; deep fear and anger can come upon us in a flash. It affects us.
God has no body. He does not get tired. He does not get (h)angry. He has no vein, skin, or nerve to harm. He fears not their loss. Since he knows the end from the beginning, no event surprises him and causes him to be overcome by anger or fear. God cannot be “beside himself” with anger because he is everywhere present.
Now, for these biblical reasons, we can see one reason why Christians call God impassible.
Second, God does not get overwhelmed
As noted above, anger or fear or some other emotion overwhelms us. We feel beside ourselves, outside of our normal feelings. Sometimes, our hormones can be imbalanced. Sometimes, our emotional well-being becomes weakened by stress. In many such cases, passions boil up within us. Anger feels like heat in our hearts. Heartbeats rise. Faces get fleshed.
Paul speaks of the passions being located in our body: “passions, aroused by the law, were at work in our members” (Rom 7:5). Paul elsewhere speaks of the “flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal 5:24). This is the norm for Paul who can speak simply of “the passions of our flesh” (Eph 2:3).
These passions in our flesh are like a law that makes war against us (Rom 7:24). Passions like lust, anger, fear, and more besides are located, according to Paul, in the body. Hence, Paul can say, “I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand” (Rom 7:21). It lies in his members, his body.
God simply cannot have this experience of internal turmoil, not simply because he is Goodness itself, but because he has no flesh, no body, no vein, no cartilage, and no nerves. Nothing overwhelms him. He simply is not of the created order. He transcends it. Nothing can surprise or overwhelm God.
For this reason, we can also see why Christians call God impassible.
Third, the Bible describes God metaphorically
And yet the reason why this doctrine is not obvious to everyone on their first read of the Bible is because the Bible often talks about God passionately. In an oracle against Nineveh, Nahum declares, “Who can stand before his indignation? Who can endure the heat of his anger? His wrath is poured out like fire, and the rocks are broken into pieces by him” (Nah 1:6).
Now, “the heat of his anger” describes physiologically the experience of being “heated,” of our bodies feeling warm and full of passionate intensity. Can this description of God be accurate?
Scripture teaches us differently. God has no body, no flesh, where the passions lie. He transcends created passions. Could Nahum describe the heat of God’s anger in order to communicate something true about God metaphorically then? I suspect that’s the case.
In the Bible, God says, “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm” (Exod 6:6). But God has no arm, nor created form. Based on who and what God is, it is clear to see that “arm” here signifies the power of God.
God himself reveals himself to us in human ways. How else could he do so? If God is infinite, then revealing himself in infinite ways to finite creatures would be, frankly, impossible.
In other words, both statements—“I will redeem you with an outstretched arm” and “the heat of his anger”—refer to bodily aspects, to capacities of the body. In Nahum, it’s evident that the heat of his anger refers to the intensity of God’s vindicating justice.
In short, when the Bible talks about God’s arm, his nose, or his leg as often does, it communicates something true about God using language appropriate for humans. The metaphorical language here communicates truly about God.
The same sort of thing happens when the Bible talks about the anger of God. The Bible communicates to us in a human and comprehensible way, that is, in a metaphorical way.
Does God have Emotions?
Whatever else the Bible says, we have to read it according to who and what God is. For this reason, we must affirm with the whole history of Christianity that God has no passions.
To provide two examples, the Westminster Confession of Faith says, God is “without body, parts, or passions” (2.1). The 39 Articles likewise affirm, “There is but one living and true God, everlasting, without body, parts, or passions” (Art. 1).
These two confessions follow a long history of Christian thinking. To claim that God has passions places one outside of the Bible’s teachings. When the Bible describes God in bodily ways, it does so metaphorically.
An emotion in our current definition of the term seems to be something very similar to how the Bible speaks of passions. Whatever the Bible says of God’s emotional life, insofar as those emotions map unto our created and bodily capacities, can only be understood metaphorically. Such passages speak truly of God but use language that we can understand.
Now, no one can peak into the inner life of God because he is infinite. We are finite. We don’t have the capacity. So I cannot say what it is that God experiences in terms of emotions. He cannot have human emotions since he is not a creature. Whatever it is that God feels, it must be felt in accordance with who and what he is: immortal, invisible, infinite, unchangeable, and incorporeal.
God has no human emotions, yet he loves us. While I cannot tell you what that means for an infinite, eternal, all-powerful being to have divine emotions (or even if that is appropriate to say), I know that God loves us and I know that “God is love.” The beauty of the doctrine of impassibility is that no created thing, no bitterness, no tiredness, no power or anything else can prevent God from loving us.
God showed us what his love meant in terms we can understand. He sent his only Beloved Son. The Word of God took on human flesh. And he has made God known. If you see the Son, you see the Father. And this act of Incarnation is a supreme act of philanthropy, the love of humanity.
This side of heaven, that’s how we most clearly see God’s love. And as Gregory of Nyssa reminds, we come to God with wonder in our eyes. Tolkien too describes the ancient language of Tom Bombadil as one of awe and wonder. Were we able to say more about God’s inner life, he would not be the God of the Bible.
Gregory of Nazianzus tells us we honour God with silence, since we cannot name fully what he is. But we know him sufficiently for our salvation. We know in part. And one day in full. That day is not today, and still today is the day that we must affirm the impassibility of God because the doctrine is biblical while also confirmed by the lesser authority of theologians across the ages.
Tl;dr: God cannot feel emotions as we know them. If he does, I cannot figure out what they are. And that’s okay. I don’t have to figure it out.