Does God Have Emotions?
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.
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.
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!