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Monday, October 02, 2006


There are times when I feel the emotional burden of the evil in the world. These are usually times that overwhelm me, and it is usually triggered by a specific instance of evil and pain that leaves me particularly disturbed. It may be the abuse of a child or some other innocent victim who is destroyed by the evils of mankind.

It is at this point that I sometimes begin to consider all the evil in the world. I consider the fact that these instances of evil happen quite literally every day. Evil men oppresses and abuse the innocent.

Again I looked and saw all the oppression that was taking place under the sun: I saw the tears of the oppressed- and they have no comforter; power was on the side of their oppressors- and they have no comforter.
- Ecclesiastes 4:1

Qohelet (the writer of Ecclesiastes) understood this fact and wrote about it several thousands of years ago. This simply shows us that such abuses have been taking place for ages on end, with no end in sight.

There are times when all of the pain and suffering weighs heavy upon my soul.

These reflections of mine do not happen all that often because, frankly, I don't think that I could handle it if it did. But it is at this point that I sometimes start to think about God: How does God deal with his knowledge of all the evil and pain and abuses in the world?

I wonder how God emotionally deals with pain. This, of course, begs the question about whether or not the word emotional is even an adequate term to ascribe God. Is God an emotional God?

There are instances in Scripture where God seems to display God's emotions. One that particularly stands out to me is Genesis 6:5-8

The LORD saw how great man's wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time. The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. So the LORD said, "I will wipe mankind, whom I have created, from the face of the earth-men and animals, and creatures that move along the ground, and birds of the air-for I am grieved that I have made them." But Noah found favor in the eyes of the LORD. (NIV)

Is God experiencing an emotion here? The passage states that God was grieved, and even more so that "his heart was filled with pain." What does this mean? Does it mean that God had the same type of emotional experience that I've been describing?

The question of whether or not God has emotions is an intriguing one. It is a mystery, of course, exactly what God feels, and whether or not those feelings are the same kinds of feelings that you and I experience. But perhaps we can be content with a little mystery and simply call them "God-feelings."

I doubt that God has the same type of emotional experiences that I have because, afer all, he is God. But on the other hand, God may actually experience emotions on a deeper and more intense level. If God has more power than anyone else and if God knows more than anyone else, is it possible that God feels more than anyone else? I don't know the answer to that. So, for me, I'll be content to speak of God-feelings. And maybe someday I'll get a chance to ask God how he's feeling. Maybe I'll ask the Son if he remembers some of his feelings while he walked the earth...speculations and questions...

Now the question of God-feelings raises another issue: Is God actually affected by his creation? Traditionally the doctrine of Impassibility has answered with a resounding, "No"! But a word of clarification is needed here.

The doctrine of Impassibility does not, necessarily, mean that God does not somehow experience emotions. Rather, Impassibility asserts that God's experiences are not "involuntary surprises."

Consider J.I. Packer:
[Impassibility is] not impassivity, unconcern, and impersonal detachment in face of the creation; not insensitivity and indifference to the distresses of a fallen world; not inability or unwillingness to empathize with human pain and grief; but simply that God's experiences do not come upon him as ours come upon us, for his are foreknown, willed and chosen by himself, and are not involuntary surprises forced on him from outside, apart from his own decision, in the way that ours regularly are.
(From "God without mood swings" at: http://www.spurgeon.org/~phil/articles/impassib.htm)

Another quote by Philip Johnson goes right to the point:

God is the sovereign initiator and instigator of all His own affections-which are never uncontrolled or arbitrary. He cannot be made to emote against His will, but is always the source and author of all His affective dispositions.
(From "God without mood swings" at http://www.spurgeon.org/~phil/articles/impassib.htm)

So, in other words, God is not at the whim of us. His "mood" or "emotions" do not swing back and forth based upon what we, his little creatures, choose to do or not do.

The point of the doctrine seems to be to preserve the greatness and transcendence of God. God is big. God is great. God is not affected by wee mortals, like us.

However, one problem with the doctrine of Impassibility that we notice right off the bat is that Scripture actually presents God as reacting to his creation. We do not see a God who planned out his experience, but a God whose experience was related to our experience. This is how the narrative of Scripture presents God to us. As such, we ought to take it somewhat seriously.

Now, those who assert Impassibility will simply say that God is not being presented as he truly is, but that this is a presentation of God in human terms, for our benefit. As Calvin said, God "lisps" to us kind of like a nursemaid to a little child. So, according to Calvin and others who assert Impassibility, the Scriptures present God in human terms so that we can get an understanding of who he is, even if what we see in Scripture isn't quite exactly who God is.

This, of course, is a fine response. I don't know that it is entirely true, but neither can I falsify it. After all, how do I know for sure whether God planned out and initiated his emotions, or whether he is going with the flow like the rest of us? It seems to me to simply be beyond me.

But for now I will stick with my quaint little term: God-feelings. God seems to be experiencing something in his Being. We bear his image in some strange way. And when we feel the pain of the abuses and evil in this world we can know that in some way we are mirroring our God.


Anonymous said...

Why did I think that Solomon wrote Ecclesiastes?

Perhaps not God, but can we say that Jesus feels are pain the way we do, since he was a man in the flesh?

Jonathan Erdman said...

Well, the voice of the book identifies himself as Qohelet, which means either "The Preacher" or "The Teacher." The book then identifies Qohelet as the King in Jerusalem, son of David, who was greater than all the other kings. As such, some have traditionally ascribed authorship to Solomon. However, most scholars today assume Ecclesiastes was written by a third century Jew.

Oh, yea, and to make this conversation even more interesting there is another voice at the end of the book that wraps things up and tells us to take the words of Qohelet to heart and to fear God.

Some have assumed that these are different authors or redactors. Others (Michael Fox) put forth that all the voices are the work of one and the same author. I'm not quite sure where I stand, probably agreeing more with Fox that the whole book had one author, but that's just guess work for me!

Jonathan Erdman said...

Yea, I would definately say that Jesus feels pain....and I would say that God feels pain as well - except I'm not quite sure how God feels pain...Actually, there are several things about God that I'm not quite sure of....

Anonymous said...

So if we have emotions and God doesn't, then we've got something that God hasn't got. Does that mean that emotions are evil, or the result of the Fall, or a consequence of our being limited to the space-time continuum; i.e., that having emotion is something less rather than something more?

The passage of linear time makes it possible for change to happen. That includes the creation of new things; it also includes coming up with new thoughts and having new reactions to things that happen in a changeable universe. It also includes makes changing moods and emotions possible. If I were God, I think I'd regard linear time as an improvement over eternity.

I'm the same guy (more or less) even as my moods change. Can't God manage the same trick?

Jonathan Erdman said...

I'm the same guy (more or less) even as my moods change. Can't God manage the same trick?

"Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever" (NIV) Hebrews 13:8

What does it mean in this passages that Christ is "the same." We typically assume that this means without any change. However, as you point out we often refer to ourselves both as changing and remaining the same.

I am the same person I was when I was an eight year old trying to organize football games on the playground at recess on the endless plains of South Dakota. However, because I am the "same" in this sense does not mean I haven't changed. In fact, I have changed so much that sometimes I wonder if I can even call myself the same person!

In any event, Open Theists have done us a favor by opening up these passages again to re-examine what it means for God to be "the same" and if this excludes the possibility of any change, whatsoever.

Is non-change really better than change?? For me the jury is still out.

Incidently, William Lane Craig believes that God existed outside of time ("sans time") until he created time, and when God created time he became a part of time, but not necessarily a part of time in the same way that you and I are a part of time...I hope I am summarizing Craig correctly, here!

If I were God...

I'm sayomg a silent prayer that this event never occurs!!!

Anonymous said...

As for what God was up to before linear time began, as far as I can tell the Bible doesn't say.

I've got a feeling that prayer will be answered.

Anonymous said...

This idea of camping out in one book and living it -- I think it's a good plan. Sometimes there's too much systematizing sitting up over the top of everything, making it conform to precoceived notions of what the writer should be saying. To see the world through the Preacher's eyes has to be a little disconcerting, but it should make for an exotic voyage.

Unknown said...

I am in an OT theology class right now and we just talked about this. My teacher is a big Biblical theology guy, so he falls more on the side of God having emotions and reacting to our actions rather than the systematic impassibility. I tend to agree with him, it is important to take what the Bible says very seriously, and systematics just doesn't have a really strong defense of the immutability of God from Scripture. The passages often cited for immutability are simply about the unchangeableness of God's character. I don't think I've said anything new that hasn't already been commented, but I wanted to put in my own comment. I like this post.

Jonathan Erdman said...

Hi Will,

Thanks for stopping by and dropping a comment.

Your profile is set to private, so I couldn't go check out your blog or anything - darn!

At what school are you taking OT theology?

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