God as Passible and Impassible – A Defense of Qualified Divine Impassibility

By | October 4, 2023

As I remarked in my previous post, there are roughly two main views on divine impassibility.

  • According to the “unqualified” view, which came to predominate in Western Christianity, God is absolutely impassible in the sense that He cannot be affected by creation in any way. Intrinsically considered, God is absolutely indifferent to creation. He remains exactly as He is regardless of what happens in creation, and even regardless of whether there is any creation.
  • According the “qualified” view, which came to predominate in Eastern Christianity, God is impassible in the sense that His intrinsic infinite bliss cannot be diminished by anything in creation. Creation has no power to emotionally blackmail God, so to speak.

Many and probably most Christians nowadays vehemently reject the very idea of divine impassibility, mainly because they associate the term with the unqualified view, which entails that, intrinsically considered, God literally cannot care about creation. Extrinsically considered on such a view, God may be said to “care” about creatures by providing for their needs, but such “care” cannot be an expression of focused intrinsic concern on God’s part. According to unqualified impassibility, therefore, all Biblical depictions of God as mad, sad, or glad about creaturely events must be understood as anthropomorphisms (depictions of God in human form) or, more precisely, as anthropopathisms (depictions of God as having human-like emotions). According to unqualified impassibility, even the pathos of the God–Man Jesus, who cried over Jerusalem (Luke 19:41) and the death of his friend Lazarus (John 11:35), must be attributed solely to His human side. Given these consequences, it’s easy to see why the idea of impassibility has fallen on hard times.

Like such Christians, I categorically reject the unqualified conception of divine impassibility. But I also affirm qualified impassibility. My goal in this post is to explain how to make sense of qualified divine impassibility.

First, qualified impassibility is compatible with qualified passibility, the idea that God can be affected by creation, but not in all respects (hence, the “qualified” modifier). God’s existence and perfect goodness, for example, are not subject to creaturely veto, nor would we want them to be. Any notion of divine passibility worth affirming has to be qualified.

Second, I affirm that God is essentially both perfectly loving and perfectly rational and, therefore, that God has appropriate emotional reactions to creation. To be perfectly loving is, among other things, intrinsically to desire and actively to promote the true good of the beloved. As perfectly loving, God loves creation and every creature in it perfectly, to the maximum degree appropriate for the type of creature in question. God also perfectly loves Himself. As perfectly rational, God’s emotional reactions to creaturely events are always perfectly informed by objective reality. An emotion, as Ryan Mullins puts it, is “a felt evaluation of a situation”. So, if the situation is objectively bad, then God will evaluate it as such and have a corresponding negative emotion (anger, sadness, etc.). And if the situation is good, then God will evaluate it as such and have a corresponding positive emotion (pleasure, happiness, etc.). In each case, the strength of God’s emotional response will be proportionate to the degree of goodness or badness in the situation. Since God Himself is the supreme Good, the ultimate infinite source of all goodness everywhere, God’s emotional evaluation of Himself will be infinitely positive.

Third, to reconcile the possibility of God’s having negative emotions with qualified impassibility, according to which God’s intrinsic infinite bliss cannot be diminished, we need to make two distinctions:

  • Compartmentalization: Unlike us, God can perfectly compartmentalize His emotions. If He evaluates situation A as really bad and situation B as really good, He doesn’t let His emotional response to one “bleed over” or “color” His emotional response to the other. So God can remain perfectly happy in His evaluation of Himself and also be intensely angry at sin and saddened by suffering.
  • Extensive vs. Intensive Concern: There are two orthogonal axes to God’s emotional concern. We might think of them as “horizontal” and “vertical”, respectively. Extensively or horizontally, God is concerned for the “big picture”, which includes all of creation plus Himself. The biggest part of that big picture is God. Even if creation consists of an infinite multiverse, God is still infinitely bigger. And so, extensively considered, God’s concern for creation and whatever negative emotions it includes, is like a finite drop in an infinite ocean. It’s infinitesimal compared to God Himself and so cannot, in any significant or measurable way, diminish His intrinsic infinite bliss. On the other hand, as perfectly loving, God’s intensive or vertical concern for each and every creature is unfathomably great. God loves us more than we can comprehend, enough according the Bible to send His Son to become incarnate as one of us.

In sum, God’s concern for Himself and for creation is both extensively and intensively infinite. Extensively considered, God’s intrinsic bliss utterly swamps whatever negatives He feels toward this or that part of creation. This is qualified impassibility. Intensively considered, however, God is genuinely and deeply angered and saddened by the bad stuff that goes on in creation. This is qualified passibility. Both can be true at once because (a) God is infinite and because (b) He can compartmentalize.

Finally, some may suppose that the sort of qualified impassibility / qualified passibility I’ve described here is inadequate on the grounds that some of the bad stuff in creation is so bad that God’s intrinsic bliss should be diminished by it. God’s intensive concern, on this line of thinking, should affect His extensive concern. The two should not be orthogonal. In response, I reject this idea for the same reason that C. S. Lewis does in chapter 13 of The Great Divorce, namely, that it would give Hell a “veto” over Heaven. It would enable creatures to emotionally blackmail God. To want God’s intrinsic bliss to be diminished because some creatures somewhere are suffering and/or sinning intensely, is either to want God not to be God or to want creation to be on the same level as God. We should not think so highly of ourselves. And we should not think less of God. We are very small indeed. He is very big. It should be more than enough for us that the infinite God loves us with infinite intensity, as demonstrated by the incarnation of His Son.

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