Since the first century, Christians have confessed that God is impassible—not subject to passions like we are. Yet, in the minds of many today, impassibility means that God has no emotions. And if God has no emotions, how can he be said to love or to have mercy? How can he suffer with us in our suffering? How can he understand emotional creatures like us?
These questions follow from a partially incorrect assumption about impassibility. At its heart, impassibility means God has no human body; he is Spirit (John 4:24). As a consequence, God has no bodily impulses, bodily affections, or bodily emotions. Impassibility is another way of saying, “God is not a human being but a supreme spiritual Being.” And the doctrine—rather than nullifying God’s love—ensures that God can lavish upon us stable, eternal, and unselfish love.
To deepen our understanding of impassibility and so God’s never-changing love for us, we need to consider how early Christians spoke about the doctrine, how Scripture does, how the human body works, and how Scripture speaks about God and Christ.
Ignatius (c. 35–108 AD) became the pastor of Paul’s sending church probably about 30 years after the apostle died. They could have known each other, although Ignatius would have been a young man during Paul’s ministry. No matter the exact history, we can discern that Paul heavily influenced Ignatius as is evident in his writings.
The Evangelist John also seems to have influenced Ignatius—both of whom ministered during the same period. John died in the 90s while Ignatius died by martyrdom sometimes in the early 100s. And Ignatius draws on the language and ideas that are found in John’s writings. So when we read Ignatius, we read someone who lived among some apostles and disciples of Jesus—being heavily influenced by both Paul and John.
His statements about impassibility, then, give some idea of how ancient and accepted the doctrine was amongst the earliest Christians. In his letter to the Ephesians, for example, he writes: “There is one Physician who is possessed both of flesh and spirit; both made and not made; God existing in flesh; true life in death; both of Mary and of God; first passible and then impassible — even Jesus Christ our Lord” (IgEph 7).
While describing Christ, Ignatius parses out his divine and human nature. According to his humanity, Christ was “made,” but according to his divinity, Christ was “not made.” The last comparison Ignatius makes is: “first passible and then impassible.” He makes this statement following his comments on Christ’s generation from both Mary and God. Regarding his generation from Mary, Christ is passible; from God, Christ is impassible.
Ignatius here represents the commonplace idea that humans have passible natures, while God has an impassible nature. Even Paul draws on this commonplace. In Acts 14:15, he says, “Friends, why are you doing this? We too are only human, like you.” The phrase “like you” translates the Greek work homoiopatheis. Even without knowing Greek, one can see the wording of “patheis” or pathos. The point being is that Paul and Barnabas affirm their humanity due to their similar passibility.
Granted, Paul uses idiomatic language here. So it is not exactly clear that he means passibility in the more technical sense. Still, the words he uses at least shows a similar idea to what Ignatius clearly affirms without an expectation that anyone would disagree with him. And Paul elsewhere describes God in impassible ways (e.g., 1 Tim 1:17; 6:16). In any case, Ignatius assumes that the Ephesians will know and affirm without explanation that God is impassible.
He makes the same assumption when writing to Polycarp, the bishop of Smryna: “Look for Him who is above all time, eternal and invisible, yet who became visible for our sakes; impalpable and impassible, yet who became passible on our account; and who in every kind of way suffered for our sakes” (IgPoly. 3). Once again, Ignatius contrasts the two natures of Christ. And once again, Christ according to his divinity is impassible but becomes passible through assuming human flesh.
And this latter point is the key to the whole thing. Human nature by definition is passible—divine nature is not. Put another way, human bodies have bodily passions. God has no body according to Jesus (John 4:24). He, therefore, has no human passions. He is impassible precisely because he has no body. “God is Spirit” (John 4:24). So God’s divine spiritual nature means that he has no human passions. Yet he, by becoming human, gains the ability to suffer, to experience passions, and to die (cf. Heb 2:14).
Scripture bears out this reality through its affirmation that God is neither a mortal nor a human body. In the first case, Hosea 11:9 reads, “for I am God and not a man, the Holy One in your midst, and I will not come in wrath.” Elsewhere, Scripture says, “God is not man, that he should lie, or a son of man, that he should change his mind” (Num 23:19). “And also,” Samuel records, “the Glory of Israel will not lie or have regret, for he is not a man, that he should have regret” (1 sam 15:29)
Scripture distinguishes God and man. They differ. Certainly, they differ in their moral quality from one another. But there is a more fundamental difference between the two. God has no body, no corporeal form. He is invisible, incorporeal, or simply Spirit. In Exodus 3, for example, God reveals himself in the fire. He again revealed himself in the fire on Sinai in Exodus 20.
Moses explains the significance of this fiery revelation: “the Lord spoke to you out of the midst of the fire. You heard the sound of words, but saw no form; there was only a voice” (Deut 4:15). God had no form. The fire represented his presence, yet only his voice proceeded from the fire. Fire as a burning, purifying, and translucent substance provides an earthly analogue to the nature of God.
That God has no form seems to underlie the prohibition against making images (Deut 4:16–24). As the lawgiver says, “the LORD your God is a consuming fire, a jealous God” (Deut 4:24).
Further, that God has no form distinguishes him not just from us but also from other gods: “there is no other besides him” (Deut 4:35). Other gods look just like us or like animals. They are really representations of creation. But God alone has no form—because he is, as Jesus says, “Spirit (John 4:24) or as Paul says, “invisible” (Rom 1:20) and one “who dwells in unapproachable light, whom no one has ever seen or can see” (1 Tim 6:16).
If God has no human body, then he cannot suffer exactly like we do. He has no hand to burn on the stove, no cancer to pain his body, and no lack of sleep to exacerbate mental illness. He simply is incapable of bodily ills. Has no body after all. That affirmation grounds the reality that God is impassible—he lacks human passions that the body mediates through hunger, tiredness, hormones, and much more besides.
By now, it may be obvious what it means for God to impassible. It means, at a basic level, that he has no human body. Today, this notion may mean very little to us, but to make this claim 2,000 years ago meant quite a bit. It meant, in the language of Ignatius, that humans were mortal, visible, passible. He knew what it meant and so did his audience.
Yet we have, on the whole, lost our ability to define human nature or even the divine nature. We have lost a body of knowledge about the human body. We know the biological systems of the body. We know about the brain, the stomach, the blood vessels, the hormones, and many other true and things about the body.
Still, we know little about the human intellect, will, and affections. Every person has an intellect—which means the ability to think, to imagine, and so on. The will puts our intellect to work by acting. The affections both flow from the intellect and will and feed back into them through the medium of our body. This sort of language has fallen out of common use, but it provides an essential complement to our biological descriptions of the body.
Such descriptions provide high-level descriptions of how our body experiences change. When we get cold, our body mediates the pain of coldness to our mind which then desires to warm itself up. Of course, this mechanical description oversimplifies matters.
Yet the point remains and helps us to conceive of human passions. Hunger, for example, often brings about anger, lack of sleep irritability, fatigue melancholy, and so on.
In contrast, God has no need of food, sleep, and rest. It is obvious that he never gains the human passions of anger, irritability, and melancholy. And since God has no body, he never suffers the pain of cold, heat, or bodily harm. God has no finger to cut off and so suffer the pain that would follow.
In sum, if our bodies mediate affections to our mind and will, then having no human body would mean that one does not have human affections. Put positively, since God has no human body, he is impassible. (I should note that impassibility also integrates into the doctrines of immutability and simplicity. Here, I am focusing one basic claim of impassibility).
The Bible everywhere talks about God in human language. Keith Schoville illustrates how often Scripture does so even in the opening chapters: “in Genesis alone God creates (1:1), moves (1:2), speaks (1:3), sees (1:4), divides (1:4), places (1:17), blesses (1:22), plants (2:8), walks (3:8), shuts (7:16), smells (8:21), descends (11:5), scatters (11:8), hears (21:17), tests (22:1), and judges (30:6).”
While the language cited above speaks of God as if he had a human body, God has no fleshly body that can move nor eyes to see nor feet to walk. These descriptions of God non-literally describe something true about God. They are metaphors. They help us to talk about God analogically. We have human analogs that explain God in human ways.
So when Scripture says that steam rises from God’s nostrils, it signifies his displeasure. When it says that God has raised his right arm in power, it means that God rules. This metaphorical language describes God in human terms such as having a nose or an arm in order to convey truth. Christians have called such examples anthropomorphisms.
And since such metaphors are obvious to all, how much more obvious should it be that God does not have human passions mediated through a human body? If God is Spirit, then he has no irritability caused by cold and lack of sleep. If God has no body, then no hormone imbalance causes a particular emotional response in his body.
We live this way precisely because we live in a human body. God does not. To say God is impassible means that God’s Being transcends all beings—his Being goes beyond what we can conceive of because God’s divine existence surpasses all human modes of existence. It is just that different.
Affections in God
So does God have emotions? God does not have the emotional states caused by or available in a human body—especially the sinful passions that we have like lust and malicious hatred. Yet John defines God’s nature as Love (1 John 4:8). Is not love an emotion?
It can be. Yet love often acts in Scripture. God loves us and so saves us. God loves us even while we were yet enemies, and so Christ died for us. In this sense, love fits better into the category of will. Still, we cannot deny that love has an emotional aspect as well.
Given the anthropology described above, however, this emotional aspect of love properly belongs to our experience in the body. God too has love—yet in a Spiritual and bodiless way. It is impossible to conceive of how God experiences the emotion of love—if indeed we want to use the language of emotion.
Probably a better word to describe God’s inner-life is affections. We can reserve emotion for human and sometimes sinful expressions of our emotive life. We can reserve affections for both divine and human positive feelings—like love. Yet even here, we have to affirm the principle of analogy. Our affection of love still differs from God’s affection of love.
Since we have no concept of what it means to be deity, we have no ability to say what this means with precision or with full understanding. Still, we can say certain things that love in God means by way of negation.
Hence, we can say that God loves without a body. We can say that God loves without needing love since he is Love itself. We can say that God has no need to protect himself or worry about loss since in him is all Wisdom, Understanding, and Power.
In this sense, we can affirm that God’s love is perfect. By nature, God always shares it without ever needing to protect himself. The love of God, therefore, is unmerited, undeserved, and unending. It is who he is.
Even in our suffering, God’s compassion can come to us fully without any need for self-preservation or fear. As Paul says, God is the “God of all comfort” (2 Cor 1:3). He has perfectly stable affections without variation or change (James 1:17). After all, it is not just that God has no human body, but he also has a divine nature—one which cannot change. He thus never stops being compassionate. He never stops loving. By nature, he is these things without fail.
Friends can sometimes love us imperfectly. God cannot. He knows us perfectly—all our needs and desires. He can, therefore, love us better than we can love ourselves. And his love has no pause due to the need for sleep or rest, nor does his love lessen or grow—it stably and always is the best and most complete love.
And God can love us in this way without fail because he has no ability to fear loss—he is life itself. God can love us always because he never changes—he is unchanging Love. It is not just that he has no human body; it also that he has a divine nature that can suffer no loss and by definition gives of itself to all creation. God is Love, and he will stably and without fail love us to the end because he is impassible.
In this way, God does have an affective life, but we must conceive of it in ways that befit his deity.
Out of God’s great and impassible love for us, he remained what he was (impassible) and became what he was not (passible). In the words of John, “He became flesh” (John 1:14). He emptied himself by adding humanity to himself.
He experienced mortality and corruption so that we might be clothed with immortality and incorruption (1 Cor 15:53–54). And rather than bestowing upon us flesh and blood as Adam did, Christ gave us the Spirit: “‘The first man Adam became a living being’; the last Adam became a life-giving spirit” (1 Cor 15:45).
The God “who alone has immortality” (1 Tim 6:16) shed his mortal blood (Acts 20:28) for us and for our salvation. The impassible God passibly died for us. He descended so that we might ascend. He became poor so that we might become rich. He humbled himself so that we might be exalted. Yet all this happens because Christ the first fruit first ascends, becomes rich, and is exalted. We follow him.
In Christ, God added mortality and its corruption to himself (but never sin or a fallen nature). He added passibility to himself and so suffered death on a cross. He did it for us. Our hope lies in following Christ in the resurrection to receive the transfiguration of our bodies into incorruption and immortality. And we become impassible according to our human capacities.
Augustine once said, “Our hearts are restless until they find rest in you.” And we have a rest waiting for us in Christ Jesus. “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God” (Heb 4:9).
We will enter into stability—where hunger, fear, sadness fade away because we no longer will be enslaved to our passions. We will gain a resurrection body that will allow us to have affective lives that are similar to God’s impassibility.
As much as it is possible for a human being to possess, we will have ordered and stable affections. At this time, “He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away” (Rev 21:4).
Whatever the final state will be like, we will still live in human bodies but glorified ones. We will still have affections but they will be perfected. They will be stable. We will not worry anxiously or weep due to grief. Our loves will be so ordered to complete the human person. Our minds, our wills, and our affections will receive perfection that will make our existence harmonious.
Peter says, “For you are a slave to whatever controls you” (2 Pet 2:19). Jesus says, “The truth will set you free” (John 8:32). And we will gain freedom from slavery to our passions so that we can enjoy godly affections like love, joy, and peace.
God has no human emotions. He does have affections, however. We too have affections. Yet we both share affections through an analogy—God has affections in ways befitting a divine being, while we have affections in ways befitting humans. We know the second quite well, but cannot understand the first.
What we can say is that God has affections apart from a human body and apart from a finite, mortal existence. In this sense, God’s affective life must be understood according to impassibility. Nothing outside of God can affect him nor make him suffer loss. No one can make God love less or love more—he only loves in one changeless way: perfectly.
And thanks be to God because he perfectly loves us, has compassion on us, and comforts us because he suffers no lack in any of these things nor ever acts out of self-preservation. And the impassible God became a passible human for us and for our salvation. He did so to crucify our sins, to conquer death, to crush Satan, to give us hope. Part of that hope entails the rest from all our labours—a rest from tears, grief, and enslaving passions.