Does God Have Emotions?

November 4th, 2017 / 2 Comments

Some Christians believe God has no emotions. They believe this, in part, because they think only embodied beings have the capacity to express emotions. I think God can experience and express emotion.

In a series of previous blog essays, I’ve argued that God is relational. By that I mean God gives and receives from creatures. Classical theologians called this divine “passibility.” In this essay, I show the link between God being relational and God having emotions.

Bodiless God

Thomas Aquinas famously argued that God does not have emotions. “Every passion of the appetite takes place through some bodily change,” said Aquinas about emotions. “None of this can take place in God, since He is not a body.” Aquinas also erroneously thought God was unchanging in all respects.

Now, I do agree with Aquinas that God has no divine body. I’m with the Christian tradition, which says God is bodiless or incorporeal. On this issue, I differ from my Mormon friends.

I think there are strong biblical grounds to say God is an omnipresent spirit. As an omnipresent spirit at work in the world, God is incarnate.

Like most people, I think biblical stories that speak of an embodied God use anthropomorphic language. The dominant biblical descriptions refer to God as bodiless: ruach, pneuma, spirit, mind, soul, word, or wind.

Can Bodiless Beings Have Emotions?

So is Aquinas and others right? Are only embodied beings capable of emotion?

I don’t see how Aquinas or anyone else could demonstrate that a disembodied God cannot feel emotion. None of us knows what it’s like to be disembodied, so we can’t know that emotions require a body. Besides, the argument that God was specially incarnated in Jesus supports the view that an essentially bodiless God feels emotion.

Many Christians in yesteryear worried that emotions undermine reason, because emotions can be volatile. Greek gods and unscrupulous humans sometimes engaged in emotional outbursts that produced immoral behavior. Many early Christians, consequently, claimed that a perfectly moral God would not feel or express emotions. God is emotionless (apatheia), they said, despite ample scriptural witness to the contrary.

Biblical Authors Use Bodily Metaphors for God

In contrast to those who believe God feels no emotion, I believe God feels emotion and acts upon those feelings. But we need to make two qualifications to this belief to overcome legitimate concerns about divine emotions.

The first legitimate concern is that God expresses emotions using a divine body. Biblical writers might say, for instance, that God’s eyes cry tears when feeling sad. They might say God’s face shines in happiness. Or they might say God’s anger is red hot.

As I’ve already noted, I don’t think God has a localized divine body. But we can believe God feels the emotions of sadness, anger, and happiness without also thinking God has actual eyes that cry, an actual face that shines, or an actual body that gets hot.

We should believe, in other words, that biblical writers use bodily metaphors to describe God expressing emotions. Divine emotions can be real even if references to God’s body parts are metaphorical.

Emotions Never Overcome God

The second legitimate worry to overcome is the view that God’s emotions might lead God to act irrationally or immorally. This is the worry that I mentioned many early theologians had.

To overcome this worry, we should say God’s unchanging nature makes it possible for God to feel and express emotions without becoming irrational or immoral. God feels and expresses emotions in accordance with God’s wise and good nature. God’s nature is constant and unchanging, while God’s experience changes in relationship with others.

We creatures do not have unchangingly good and wise natures. Unlike God, we creatures sometimes feel emotions and respond irrationally or immorally.

Conclusion

For a host of reasons, we should believe God feels and expresses emotions. But we don’t also need to think God has a divine body or is thwarted by emotion. God can be trusted to love consistently and experience emotions in relationship with creation!

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Comments

Stuart Rose

Interesting as always, Thomas. But I’m really stuck on this question of how a noncorporeal being can have emotions. I have no intellectual trouble with anthropomorphic and anthropopatheic biblical language in principle. Maimonides’s view that this is the only language humans can use to delineate how G-D seems, to our embodied selves, to relate to us, and how we experience Him, works for me.

But I want to believe in a personal god, and that certainly would mean a god who has actual emotions. But I want to have more than a yearning to believe that. I want to have at least faith (‘faith’ as Sam Lebens defines it) in the rational plausibility of G-d having emotions. Your statement above that we can’t presume to know what it’s like to be disembodied doesn’t quite satisfy. Any elaboration would be appreciated.

Thanks, Stuart


thomasjayoord

Thanks for your great reply, Stuart. Here are two ideas that might help. I’m more inclined toward the first, but the second might work too.

1. One of the most interesting hypothesis of the 20th century came from AN Whitehead’s claim that all existing things have a mental and physical pole. This hypothesis solves a TON of problems. But few realize he applied this to God as well. Those who do know this often emphasize the “mental” side of God. It fits well with the ancient claim that God is the “soul of the universe,” for instance. But if God also has a physical dimension — albeit a physical dimension we cannot perceive with our five senses – this provides a nice basis for those who insist that emotions have a physical dimension.

2. Many have claimed that the universe is “God’s body.” I don’t think this view is literally true. If it was, it would be panetheism. And I don’t find panetheism plausible. But if the universe is God’s body in the sense that it generates perceptions to God, we might say it is the requisite basis for God’s emotions in relation to such perceptions.

Hope this helps,

Tom


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