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Why God Does Not Have Emotions

A good friend recently texted me the theme of a sermon he was giving. He is a great preacher, and I would have enjoyed hearing him speak. Considering that he knows I do not believe God has emotions, I figured he might be jabbing me when he texted me the title, ‘The Broken Heart of God.’ In other words, God has emotions and is moved by circumstances. I may have been reading into it. Whether or not I was, the phrase shines a bright light on how affirming that God has emotion reduces to the absurd. 


Before getting to how that is so, a little comment on ‘everyday’ language being used of God. The Old and New Testaments use common (for their times) everyday phenomenological language to talk of God. Since human beings experience emotion, it is not surprising that such feelings are projected onto God in ancient texts. However, the earlier pictures of a very emotional God are progressively replaced by a God with very little in the emotional arena in the New Testament. 


Sermons that include language about ‘God’s heart’ or the New Testament’s light usage of emotion are something I can live with. I don’t expect everyone to stop using common language for God. Not everyone desires precision when easy-to-find words get congregations the gist of something about God. Although referring to God in emotional terms indeed lacks the precision needed to remove contradictions, most people don’t care.  


A parallel between the two kinds of language can be seen in weather reports on the weather channel. When the weather person says, “The sun will rise at 6:36 tomorrow morning,” That phrase is said from an observational perspective, but is not literally true. The sun is not doing any rising. The earth is turning and now humans are seeing the sun once again. I do not need to force the person who is giving the weather report to use more precise language when most of the job is being done from an observational perspective. Sure, it is not technically true, but most people get the point. Those who affirm that God has emotion are saying that the sun rises and avoiding the more technical perspective (whether they know it or not).   


A quick anecdote. In my dozens of encounters with Pastors and believers (evangelicals and charismatics) on this topic, I have yet to meet someone who agrees with me about God not having emotions. Other Christians have responded more agreeably, but my interactions are fewer there. I must say that this is a bit unfortunate to me when many of the great representatives of the early centuries of the church were very clear that God does not have emotions.  


Potential Influences For Non-Acceptance 

I think the reasons for people having trouble with this are many. The following is not exhaustive but traces out some of what I think are influences opposing the more classical view. 


First, is a misunderstanding of what it means to be made in the image of God. Being thus made does not imply that God has emotions because we do. Animals have emotions as well. The image of God is having a will, being capable of reason, and thick relational possibilities. Not emotions.   


Second, there is nearly endless talk about being in a relationship with God, and very often Christians confuse relationality and emotionality. They are not the same thing. Third, the psychological outworking of the second point is that people often project their view of relationality on God. Projection is detrimental enough with people projecting their thoughts, values, and issues onto others. This is also detrimental when people do so of God. 


Fourth, there is a general lack of concern for logical consistency or concern for logic at all. I want to quickly point out that my friend does care about logical consistency, which is why I am hopeful I may win one convert to my side through this writing. 😊 


Fifth, some seminaries, Christian universities, and Bible Scholars promote a Postmodern story method of Scripture. This is by no means a simple admittance that much of Scripture is written in narrative form. This is the result of a movement that reads our culture as giving up its Modernist roots in favor of Postmodernism, which is the sixth error. The truth is our culture is still mostly Modernist. These thinkers reduce nearly everything to story to avoid trying to get more precise about God. I have also seen this view encourage people to live with their contradictions, since truth is not the goal so just ‘tell your story’ and ‘live in God’s story.’ So, there is a use for ‘story’ but there is another use of it that is faulty. If you want more information on this matter, check out William Lane Craigs thoughts on the matter Do We Live in a Post-Modern Society? | Reasonable Faith

 

Seventh, the well-promoted view (although non-historical and illogical) that Christianity gave in too much to the influence of Greek Philosophy when it declared that God was divine simplicity, divine unity, eternal, and thus non-emotional. Any reading of the Church Fathers will make it clear that these authors were concerned with the truth about such matters, not giving into Greek philosophy. Greek Philosophical categories that were true were gladly received to aid in and explain the Scripture and make sense of God. Moreover, it is a genetic fallacy to try and disprove an idea by showing how it came about. Even if the genesis of such ideas were originally found in Greek philosophy, they would not be untrue. Therefore, this view is false. 

 

There is a lot more that could be said, but time to evaluate the phrase. 

 

 “God’s broken heart/God’s heart breaks” 

Meaning 1 – Physical Heart - Does God have a physical heart? No. God is spirit (John 4:24). If we take the broken heart phrase literally, we will have to say that God has a body with a heart that pumps blood. Assume that God does have a physical heart. Could God’s heart be broken? No. Why? Well, assuming it was the God kind of heart, it would not be breakable. We are therefore left with several contradictions if we take this phrase literally.  

Meaning 2 – Heart of Emotions - Now, what if my friend meant “heart” to be taken in a way that conveys God’s emotions/feelings? This sounds good, right? No. Let’s ask the obvious question of the phrase. If the heart means emotions, then can God’s emotions be broken? Well, assuming God does have emotions, we would have to say that God’s emotions could never be broken because they are the God kind. Therefore, even this move to another meaning of the phrase is problematic. There is simply no 1:1 relation between breaking and God’s anything. 

Meaning 3 – God Feels Pain - Perhaps my friend only meant to say that God feels pain when our actions are grievous to him. Can God feel pain? All we must do is ask does God have a nervous system or a body? He does not. Therefore, feeling and pain also must mean something different than the norm. 

A nearby and related question is, can humans harm God? The whole idea of humans harming a being of endless power who can never be lesser than himself is splintered with contradictions.    

Meaning 4 – God is moved by human actions - Abstracting even further from the plain sense of the original phrase, perhaps the phrase is meant to say that “God is moved by certain human actions, issues, and problems.” This statement is a lot more precise than the original. Moreover, it has practical value making some sense of our interactions or experience with the divine. Once again, the weather person saying the sun rises comes to mind here.  

The phrase is still stuck in a quandary. Attributing movement to a non-physical being is contradictory if meant literally. Therefore, even “moved” falls short. Movement cannot be applied to a non-physical, non-spacial agent.

 

From what I have already written, it should be clear that all four meanings end up in contradiction land. To say that there is a 1:1 relationship between God and those statements would be technically incorrect.  


The reader is hopefully seeing the point. The emotional (and bodily) language of God presents one contradiction after another. The thinker, if logic is to be her guide, must admit the difficulty and move to higher ground. This higher ground begins by admitting that emotional language cannot be applied to God just as physical language cannot be applied to God in an ultimate sense. They could also find solace in admitting the difficulty of a perfect set of words to describe God, and at times still feel comfortable using such language to convey God being for something or against something, but all the while knowing that such use is limited.   


The truth is, that no matter what phase is used to affirm God’s supposed emotional life, contradictions will emerge.  


If That’s Not Enough, Endless Qualifications 

Once we understand God and once we understand emotions, there is no real connection between the two. In the many discussions I have had with others on this topic, I have noticed that the regular pathway for those affirming emotions is to keep qualifying what is meant by God having emotions. The number of qualifications becomes so many that the view dies the death of a thousand qualifications. To use another and more picturesque phrase, it has died the death of a thousand cuts.  

Q=Qualification 

C=Challenge 

C1 – If God has a bodily system, he might have emotions. God does not have a bodily system. Therefore, he does not have emotions. 

Q1 – Well, God’s emotions do not need a body. 


C2 – If God has emotions that would mean God can experience sadness. Therefore, could God, before creating, have experienced sadness? (At this point, any negative emotion could be substituted for sadness to create the same kinds of challenges. Madness, jealousy, etc.). 

Q2 – Well, no because I believe that God is complete in himself. It was only after the creation that he could experience sadness. Humans did not always do his will, and this saddens God.  


C3 – If God can experience sadness because his creatures are not doing his will, how sad can God get when wide swaths of his creatures oppose his will? Since God has emotions, it would mean that God could also get depressed from such regular creaturely disobedience. (If anger was the choice emotion, we could talk about fits of rage). 

Q3 – Well, God could not get depressed because his emotions are limited based on his good character. So, depression is not part of the range of his emotions.

  

C4 – Does not limiting God’s emotions oppose infinity? Why can’t an infinite God who has emotions experience such emotions infinitely or at a scale that is even beyond depression or fits of rage? Why do we limit God with our acceptable range of emotions? 

Q4 – Well, God’s love and justice keep his emotions within a certain range, because it would not be a good God who has fits of rage or bouts of depression. 

 

C5 – How do we know that a good God could not have a fit of rage or a bout of depression? Are all fits of rage evil? Are all bouts of depression wicked? I mean the time of Noah, where God regretted even making humans seems to be a good case for a high level of anger and a high level of sadness all at the same time. What is to say that God could not have an even worse situation and therefore obliterate the universe in a blink of an eye?  

Q5 – Well, he made a covenant that he would not flood the earth again, so I imagine that he would not do that either.

  

C6 – You are dividing God into parts and putting parts of God into the realm of potentiality. You mentioned earlier that God could not have been sad prior to creation, since he is complete. Therefore, it takes human actions to affect his emotions. This view divides God into parts. Namely, a part of him that is emotional and unaffected until a human causal activity revs his emotions up. However, you also affirm that his goodness, justice, and love are eternally the same and in no need of revving up or down. This divides God into the parts of him that are affected by creation and the parts of him that are not. However, God is a unity, undivided, and unaffected.

   

To keep going, when one divides God they (likely unwittingly) place some of him into the realm of potential and some of him into the realm of actual. This second error would mean that God is not complete in all of himself at all times. He would need something external to himself to affect a certain range of his emotions that were unaffected until creation. His emotions, or at least his negative emotions need external stimuli to use their potential or to be fulfilled.

  

This is where the great I AM passages in Scripture about God come into play. They mean that God is eternally always himself, pure actuality. (See this of mine and a friend on the topic for more information on this DEBATE: God with or without Emotions (recapitulate.org). For God to be complete, there should be nothing of him that relies on any stimulation whatsoever. To rely on stimulation would mean that God is not pure actuality, he is a mix of actuality (certain attributes) and potentiality (other attributes). The errors of division, incompleteness, and God being potential in some parts, are significant hurdles.     


Q6 – Well... 


I could go on and on. One qualification after another comes forth to try and protect the view that God has emotions. Also, in reference to C6, I have never been given a significant answer from the “God has emotions” side.  


God, Caring, Morality 

Reducing an idea to absurdity does not necessitate having to then show or even know the right idea. The method is only meant to force someone out of a particular false view. Still, the following is a light sketch of how to think about God.  

Although God does not have emotions, he is mind and has a will. Therefore, when we ask questions about how God loves if he has no emotions, we should answer them that he wills to love, which is based on his eternal goodness. This is better footing than if his love relied on his emotions. Emotions relate to input on the human side. Will, relates to an eternal pre-disposition.  


Another way of thinking about God being for or against something relies on God knowing all counterfactuals (possibilities). Namely, since God knows every potential thing that could happen, he already has a view of if something is good or not good.   

 

Mental States Toward All Counterfactuals.  

Prior to creating, God sees every potential (counterfactual). Based on his goodness he already has a view toward every possible action and outcome. Some generic examples would be:  

Possible Action A – God’s Mental State A 

Possible Action B – God’s Mental State B 

Possible Action C – God’s Mental State C 


We could break this down into more complex variations as well. By sharing four counterfactuals related to Peter. I simply title God’s mental states with the letter G and append a number to them. 

 

A1 - Peter will deny Jesus 3x’s in 32 AD – God’s Mental State Toward A1 - G1 

A2 – Peter will deny Jesus 2x’s in 32 AD – God's Mental State Toward A2 - G2 

A3 – Peter will deny Jesus 1x in 32 AD – God’s Mental State Toward A3 - G3 

A4 – Peter will not deny Jesus in 32 AD – God's Mental Toward A4 - G4 


Now, each of these could have millions of variations based on location, time, what kind of Peter would develop in different circumstances, and more. The point is to say that God has a view or mental state toward each circumstance that could happen. Therefore, when something happens, such as Peter denying Jesus, there is already a specific mental state that God has. The content of mental state might be numerous. It could contain God’s judgment of the goodness or evil of an action, perhaps how he will aid persons through their difficulties, and more. 

 

Another group that utilizes counterfactuals in situation planning is when the Navy Seals and intelligence officers work through dozens of scenarios for an upcoming mission. This enables them to have a course of action in advance if a given scenario takes place on their mission. Of course, sometimes scenarios take place that they never accounted for, but in God’s case, he can account for every counterfactual in advance.  

For God, when something happens that he already has a mental state about, we might say that God has already chosen how he will relate to every outcome, situation, and counterfactual. 


Therefore, when questions about God's care, love, or opposition toward something are in focus, the theist should draw from God’s knowledge of counterfactuals. Regarding the question, does God care, we can say easily that he does. His care is based on his will (formed through perfect character) as well as his mental state about all actions, and moral judgment about morally specific actions. Under these headings, there is no situation that God has not accounted for. Given all that has been said, we could say that God cares about his creatures eternally, since he knows his mental states toward all things.  


Mental States Works for Eternal God or Everlasting God 

I am a proponent of the view that God is eternal. There is another view that proposes God is everlasting. Each view has consequences regarding what God really knows and what God can know in advance or not. Everything that has been argued above works with either view. If God is everlasting (and not eternal), he still would not have emotions. Moreover, he would still know his mental states for every counterfactual.

  

My friend who wrote me the text that inspired this article, is a proponent of the everlasting view. Therefore, I want this point to sink in. I was not arguing in this article, “God is eternal; therefore, God does not have emotions.” The arguments above apply to both eternal and everlasting perspectives of God. In both cases, God has a will and he can pull from his knowledge of all counterfactuals and decide upon a mental state for everything that could happen. In both cases though, the counterfactuals of everything are already known in advance. In other words, God does not have to meditate on what he cares about and what he is for or against. 

 

In closing, a good, relational, intelligent God is grounded in mind and will, and not emotions.  

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