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Impassibility of God


Impassibility is that divine attribute whereby God is said not to experience inner emotional changes of state whether enacted freely from within or effected by his relationship to and interaction with human beings and the created order. More specifically, impassibility means that God does not experience suffering and pain, and thus does not have feelings that are analogous to human feelings. Divine impassibility follows upon His immutabili ty, in that, since God is changeless and unchangeable, his inner emotional state cannot change from joy to sorrow or from delight to suffering.

Biblical basis. The Bible does not address the philosophical question of whether or not God is impassible. Nonetheless, divine impassibility is founded upon the same scriptural evidence as that of divine immutability. Summarily, God, within the Old Testament, reveals through his immanent actions within time and history that he is personal, knowing, and loving. He is the One God who is Savior, Creator, and Sanctifier. These immanent divine acts reveal that God transcends all else that exists. He is completely "other," and so He cannot be numbered among all else that exists. Thus, God is present and active within the created order of time and history as the one who, as the "Wholly Other," transcends it. Unlike creatures, whose emotional inner states change either through their own actions or by being acted upon, God as all perfect transcends this changeable created order. He neither can change his own inner emotional state nor can another effect a change in his inner emotional state, and thus He is impassible.

Within this Old Testament context God, nonetheless, is seen as displaying a variety of emotions. Due to his faithful love, God hears the cry of his enslaved people in Egypt and so "suffers" over their plight (Ex 2:2325; 3:18, 1517; Dt 4:37). Moreover, because of his love God equally grieves over the sinful disloyalty of his people and even becomes angry (Hos 11:14). Yet, his heart "recoils" within him and his compassion "grows warm and tender," and thus he will not execute "his fierce anger." The reason is, "For I am God and not mortal; the Holy One in your midst and I will not come in wrath" (Hos 11:89). While God's wrath rises in justice, it is always tempered by his forgiving, compassionate, and faithful love (Ex 32:1114; 1 Sam 15:11). Within the Old Testament then God is seen as "suffering" with, or on behalf of, or because of his people, and so he grieves with or over them (Ps 78:40, 95:1011). These various "emotional" states are said to cause God to "repent" or "change his mind" (Gn 6:67; Judg 2:18; 2 Sam 24:16; 1 Chr 21:15; Ps 106:45; Jer 18:8; Amos 7:3 & 6; Joel 2:13; Jon 3:19). In the end, God consistently acts with great compassion and mercy. "For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are your ways my ways, says the Lord. For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thought about your thoughts" (Is 55:69).

The traditional defense for God's impassibility, in the light of such passages, was to argue that the Old Testament is using anthropomorphic language, and so cannot be taken literally. Therefore, God does not literally "groan," "suffer," or "grieve," nor does his heart "grow warm." However, while the Old Testament is undoubtedly using anthropomorphic language, it is nonetheless saying something that is actually true about God. Such passages can only rightfully be interpreted if one keeps in mind that they are predicated of the Wholly Other, "the Holy One in your midst." The very superlative, extravagant, and even excessive, expression of the love, the compassion, the forgiveness and, indeed, the anger, accentuates that the one who displays all of this intense passion is someone who transcends what is beyond the merely customary and human. The Lord is "God and not mortal." God is supremely passionate but his passion is that of the Wholly Other, and he is able to express such depth of passion only because he is the Wholly Other. Therefore, there is a legitimate literalness to what is said, but it is a literalness that must be interpreted from within the complete otherness of God, for this is the manner in which this passion is expressed. If God were not wholly other, he would not be able to be as passionate as He is. Moreover, the various passions that are predicated of Godaffection, pity, mercy, compassion, forgiveness, anger, sufferingmust be placed within the primary attribute of God's unchanging, faithful, and allconsuming love. Thus, to speak of God's grief or suffering over the plight of his people or over their own sin is not to denote an emotional change within God, but rather to accentuate his unchangeable and all-consuming love. Even God's anger is an expression of his unchanging love. Such references to God's emotional changes of state are not then expressions of God actually experiencing first pleasure and then sorrow, or joy and then suffering; rather, they express the reality of his unchanging love which is experienced differently depending upon historical situations and circumstances. God's unchanging love is experienced as grief or even anger in the face of sin. Because of his love God is said to be jealous at losing his people due to their sinful disloyalty. His love is experienced as forgiveness and mercy in the face of repentance. Because of God's unchanging love, it is said that he suffers at the plight of his people.

Christian tradition. While the Fathers of the Church inherit the term "impassibility" from Greek philosophy, they nonetheless interpret it, for the most part, from within the biblical understanding of God's transcendence. Because God differs from created reality, in that He is eternal and incorruptible, justin martyr professes that Christians dedicate themselves to the "impassible God" (Apol., 1.13). Similarly, Irenaeus argues that because God as Creator is unchangeably perfect, He is impassible (Ad. Haer., 2.12.1; 2.17.3, 8). Tertullian states that because God is eternal, and thus outside of time, He does not change or suffer (Ad. Mar., 1.3, 8). Yet, precisely because God is perfectly and unchangeably good, Tertullian holds that creatures experience this goodness in differing mannersanger toward sinners and mercy toward the repentant (Ad. Mar., 2.13). Origen holds that one cannot interpret literally those passages which speak of God being subject to any humanlike emotion, for "God must be believed to be entirely without passion and destitute of all these emotions" (De Prin., 2.4.4). Nonetheless, because the Father is moved by our sinful plight, Origen can also state that "the Father is not impassible" (In Ezech. Hom., 6.6). God is impassible in the sense that He does not undergo emotional changes of state, but He is not impassible in the sense that He is devoid of passionate love. It is precisely because of His unchanging and abiding all consuming love that He comes to our aid. In attributing impassibility to God, then the Fathers of the Church are primarily denying of him anything that would place Him within the changeable created order, and thus, unlike human beings, He does not undergo emotional changes of state. Moreover, in their denial, they wish to enhance the absolute perfection of God's unchanging passionate love.

thomas aquinas discusses God's impassibility within the context of His will and love. He argues that God does not undergo passible emotional changes as do human beings. Human beings either tend toward a known good or attempt to avoid a known evil and in so tending or avoiding their sensitive (bodily) emotions and feelings are aroused, such as affection or fear. In contrast, God does not undergo this passible process. He neither possesses a body nor sensitive appetites, and "therefore, there is no passion in God" (S.C.G., I.89.2; see also I.89.17). However, God does possess intellect and will, and being pure act, He knows and wills in the one act that He himself is (Summa Theologiae, I.14.14; I.19.1). Thus God loves not in the human sense of arousing affectionate feelings or passions, but in that His perfect love is eternally in act, and in this sense God loves without passion (ibid., 1). However, God is passionate in the sense that His all-consuming and perfect love is fully in act, and so He can be said to be the most passionate of all beings. Moreover, because God's love is fully in act, unlike the love of human beings, all facets of his love are fully in act. His fully actualized love embraces goodness, kindness, mercy, compassion, justice, admonition, anger, correction, and so on. God need not undergo passible changes in order to lovingly reprimand the sinner or be lovingly merciful to the repentant. Thus God, within His fully actualized love, can even be said to grieve over sin, not in the sense that He undergoes an emotional change of state or experiences sorrow in the human sense of feeling bodily sadness, but because, in His love, He always is concerned with those He loves, even sinners. Moreover, God is merciful and compassionate, not in the sense that He "feels" pain or suffering, but in the sense that His perfect love embraces those who suffer. His mercy is primarily expressed by acting to alleviate the cause of the suffering, something that even compassionate human beings are often unable to do. For Aquinas God's omnipotence is ultimately expressed in His mercy, the alleviation of sin and death and in the outpouring of grace and the bestowal of eternal life (ibid., IIII.30.4).

The persons of the Trinity are equally impassible, though this has not been developed within the Christian tradition. The persons of the Trinity subsist as who they are only in relation to one another. The Father subsists as Father in that through the procession of the fully actualized Spirit of love he begets the Son. The Son subsists as Son in that through the same procession of the fully actualized Spirit of love, He equally loves the Father. The Holy Spirit subsists as Holy Spirit in that through proceeding from the Father and the Son as their fully actualized love He conforms the Father to be the loving Father of the Son and conforms the Son to be the loving Son of the Father. Thus, the persons of the Trinity need not undergo passible emotional changes of state, for they eternally and perfectly express and enjoy the bliss of their mutual fully actualized love for one another. Equally then, it is the fully actualized persons of the Trinity who embrace human beings, through Their redemptive work, within Their fully actualized love.

Contemporary issues. From the later part of the nineteenth century to the present, many Christian theologians have come to deny that God is impassible by specifically asserting that God must suffer. There are three reasons for this radical shift: (1) The experience of immense suffering within the world, exemplified in the Holocaust and similar horrendous events, produces an ardent yearning for the consolation of knowing that God suffers in solidarity with those who unjustly suffer. Only in a suffering God does one truly find a loving and compassionate God. An impassible God, it is asserted, is aloof to human suffering and thus indifferent. (2) The Bible bears witness to a passible and so suffering God. As seen above God, within the Old Testament, is said to suffer with, on behalf of, and because of his people. Moreover, through the incarnation, the Son of God must not only suffer as man but also as God. This divine suffering within the Incarnation discloses that God has always suffered in solidarity with human suffering. Likewise in the crucifixion, the Son not only suffers the loss of his Father, but the Father equally suffers the loss of his Son. (3) process philosophy, has fostered the notion that God's immanence within the world and its history demands that he changes and develops in relation to the world and its history. Thus he experiences time and changeable emotional states such as suffering.

In response to this denial of God's impassibility, a number of points can be made: (1) As seen above, to say that God is impassible is not a positive statement affirming that God is static, inert, and lifeless, and so aloof and indifferent. Rather it is a denial of those "human" characteristics that would make Him less than fully loving.(2) Moreover, God is impassible precisely because He need not undergo passible changes of state that would make him more loving. As pure act God is pure and perfect love in act. (3) Because God, both in His unity and in His triunity, possesses all his attributes fully in act, He cannot suffer the loss of any these perfect goods and so He cannot experience the suffering due to their loss. (4) If God did suffer, not only would His love not be perfect, but His love would also not be entirely altruistic and beneficent in the face of human suffering. He would be acting so as to relieve His own suffering. (5) Equally, while God is immanent within the world, He is immanent as the one who is wholly other than the world. He acts immanently within time and history as the One who transcends time and history. Thus, while God is in the midst of evil, the evil of the created order does not reverberate back into His divine being and so cause Him to suffer. As Creator, He exists in a distinct ontological order from that of the created order. (6) If God did suffer, it would mean that He was a member of the created order and so He would not be the Creator and thus, as a suffering member of that order, would Himself need to be freed from evil. Thus those who espouse a suffering God by necessity advocate panentheism, as exemplified in process philosophy, that is, that while God is more than all else that is, He nonetheless embodies and so experiences all that is, including suffering. However, having placed God within the created order, He can no longer be its omnipotent Creator since He himself is now dependent upon the finite order for His own development and growth. (7) Moreover, God could no longer be the omnipotent God of mercy who could act so as to surmount the causes of suffering such as sin, death, and damnation.

Similarly, a number of points can be made with regard to the suffering of Jesus: (1) The Church's doctrinal understanding of the Incarnation demands that, since the divine Son of God actually existed as man, all human attributes could truly be predicated of Him. The Son of God as man hungered, cried, suffered, and died; however, within His divine nature He remained impassible. (2) The assertion that the Son of God, within His incarnate state, suffers as God robs the Incarnation of its authentic salvific value. What is important is that the Son of God experiences authentic human suffering in an authentic human manner and not that He experiences human suffering in a mitigated divine manner. It is the Son of God as man who offers His human life to the Father as a sacrifice for sin that is salvific. (3) Moreover, on the cross, the Son of God as man may humanly experience being forsaken by the Father, but He equally trusts that He is not so forsaken and that the Father will come to His aid (Ps 22). As God, though, He was not forsaken. Nor does the Father suffer the loss of his Son. To place the suffering of the cross as an experience within the Trinity itself deprives Christ's suffering of its authentic historical importance and human value, and instead places it within an ahistorical and ethereal divine realm where what is transpiring is more significant for the Trinity than for humankind. (4) While the Father may judge that the crucifixion of his Son is unjust, yet the New Testament testifies not to His suffering but to His pleasure in what his Son is doing on behalf of humankind in accordance with his will (Mt 20:28, Jn 15:13, Eph 5:2, 1 Jn 3:16). Such pleasure is radically and dramatically manifested in the Father raising his Son gloriously from the dead. (5) While Jesus, as the Son of God incarnate, is now gloriously risen from the dead, yet as head of His body, He continues to suffer in union with His bodythe church. This is central to Paul's conversion experience. "Saul, Saul, why do you persecute me? I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting" (Acts 9:45, see 1 Cor 12:26). Augustine exemplifies this tradition: "For whatever he has suffered we too have suffered with him, and what we suffer he too suffers with us. If the head suffers in any way, how can the hand assert that it does not suffer? If the hand suffers, how can the head say that it does not suffer? and he is now ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father, whatever his Church suffers by way of this life's tribulations, temptations, constrictions and deprivations, this he also suffers" (Enar. in Ps., 62.2). This is what brings true consolation to human beings in the midst of their suffering, not that God suffers in his divine nature, but that Christ, who has conquered all evil, continues to suffer in union with His body so as to assure that It too will triumph with him. "For as we share in Christ's sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too" (2 Cor 1:5; see Phil 3:10, Rom 8:17, 1 Pt 4:12, 1 Pt 5:1).

Bibliography: t. aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I.20; IIII.30; Summa Contra Gentiles, I.8991. r. bauckham, "'Only the Suffering God Helps': Divine Passibility in Modern Theology," Themelios 9.3 (1984) 613. j. b. cobb and d. griffin, eds., Process Thought: An Introductory Exposition (Philadelphia 1976). r. creel, Divine Impassibility (Cambridge 1986). n. m. de s. cameron, ed., The Power and Weakness of God (Edinburgh 1990). m. dodds, The Unchanging God of Love (Fribourg 1985); "Thomas Aquinas, Human Suffering, and the Unchanging God of Love," Theological Studies 52 (1991) 33044. p. fiddes, The Creative Suffering of God (Oxford 1990); Participating in God (London 2000). t. e. fretheim, The Suffering of God: An Old Testament Perspective (Philadelphia 1984). j. galot, Dieu Souffre-t-il? (Paris 1976). r. goetz, "The Suffering God: The Rise of a New Orthodoxy," New Christian Century 103/13 (1986) 38589. g. hanratty, "Divine Immutability and Impassibility Revisited," in At the Heart of the Real, ed. f. o'rourke (Dublin 1992). a. heschel, The Prophets (New York 1962). w. will, "Two Gods of Love: Aquinas and Whitehead," Listening 14 (1979) 249265. john paul ii, Salvifici Doloris (1984). k. kitamori, Theology of the Pain of God (London 1966). j. lambrecht and r. f. collins, eds., God and Human Suffering (Louvain 1990). j. y. lee, God Suffers for Us: A Systematic Inquiry into a Concept of Divine Passibility (The Hague 1974). j. moltmann, The Crucified God (London 1974). j. k. mozley, The Impassibility of God: A Survey of Christian Thought (Cambridge 1926). m. sarot, God, Passibility and Corporeality (Kampen 1992). t. g. weinandy, Does God Suffer? (Edinburgh 2000). h. robinson wheeler, Suffering Human and Divine (New York 1939).

[t. g. weinandy]

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