God’s Emotions 3: Do Christians Really Think that God Has Emotions?

Ye shall not go after other gods, of the gods of the people which are round about you;
(For the LORD thy God is a jealous God among you) lest the ANGER of the LORD thy God be kindled against thee,–Deuteronomy 6:14-15

And he will LOVE thee, and bless thee, and multiply thee: he will also bless the fruit of thy womb, and the fruit of thy land, thy corn, and thy wine, and thine oil . . .
—Deuteronomy 7:13

Most religions posit the existence not just of a supernatural realm, but of supernatural persons, with loyalties, preferences, and other human psychological qualities. This is true in the case of traditional Christianity, which asserts the existence of a whole realm of supernatural beings including angels, giants, demons, human souls,  and “God in three persons, blessed trinity.” 

What is a person?  A few years back, my daughter, then in the sixth grade, wrote an impassioned essay arguing for the personhood of chickens. Chickens should be considered persons, she said, because they are conscious, with feelings, preferences, and intentions. They experience pleasure and pain. They know what they like; they have distinct personalities. (She was arguing that they should be treated kindly and not have their beaks cut off.)

In an entirely different realm, Arthur D’Adamo’s book, Science Without Bounds, explores ontologies that historically have identified God as a person and contrasts them with others that have not. His treatment is deep and nuanced and I recommend it. But his starting definition of personhood is remarkably similar to Brynn’s. It includes awareness, intellect, and emotion (p. 210). The personhood of God, Adamo argues, is at the heart of Abrahamic theism, including Christian belief and practice.

Even when believers say they that they believe in the more abstract God of theologians, most don’t—at least not completely. In their day-to-day lives (and in a laboratory setting) they talk and behave as if they were relating to a human-like person god. For example, students who say that God is outside of time will still analyze a story as if he completes one task and then moves on to another (Barrett & Keil, 1996). Our brains naturally incline towards interpreting stimuli—rocks, ships, stuffed animals, clouds– in anthropomorphic terms, and gods are no exception.

When we are children, one of the ways that we acquire independence from our flesh-and-blood parents is by creating virtual copies of them in our minds.  Psychologists call these “introjected” parents.  There are developmental advantages to this.  When you can hear mom in your head saying, “Don’t cross the street alone,” then you don’t need her hovering over you lest you step a foot off the sidewalk.  The virtual mom takes over the work of the real-world mom.  The downside, of course, is that we often spend years of adulthood trying to get our parents’ voices out of our heads, but without this ability to have a relationship with a virtual authority figure, children would be stuck. There’s a natural flow from an introjected father to a heavenly father, and research suggests that whether a believer’s earthly father was kind or cruel, authoritarian or affectionate, helps to define the personality of his god.

Christian apologists, meaning defenders of the faith, argue for the possibility of the existence of a highly abstracted form of God that exists beyond the realm of human reason and the reach of science. But what many want is something more specific—to create intellectual space for their belief in the person-god of the Bible. In this regard they are similar to virtually all religious believers. Humans in a monotheistic context ask four basic questions about God:

  • Does God exist?
  • What is God like?
  • What does God want from us?
  • How can we get what we want from God?

In reality, the first of these questions tends to be interesting only in the context of the other three:  God is interesting only if he is knowable and has “hedonic relevance.”  By hedonic relevance I mean that by understanding or pleasing God I can make my life better or worse.

If God is defined at a level of abstraction sufficient to satisfy many scientists, philosophers, and modernist theologians, he becomes immediately uninteresting to most believers. Consider, for example, Albert Einstein’s statements:  “I believe in Spinoza’s God who reveals himself in the orderly harmony of what exists, not in a God who concerns himself with the fates and actions of human beings. . . . I cannot imagine a God who rewards and punishes the objects of his creation, whose purposes are modeled after our own.” 

Within Christianity, Bishop John Shelby Spong takes a stab at making this vision personally relevant: “I do not think of God theistically, that is, as a being, supernatural in power, who dwells beyond the limits of my world. I rather experience God as the source of life willing me to live fully, the source of love calling me to love wastefully and to borrow a phrase from the theologian, Paul Tillich, as the Ground of being, calling me to be all that I can be.”  But contrast this with the god of Evangelical Christians:  “God loves me. I have a personal relationship with Jesus. If I ask from God in prayer I will receive. People who die are going to heaven or hell.”

Understanding emotions is irrelevant to Einstein and Spinoza’s god-concept because the God of Spinoza and Einstein is not a person and does not have emotions. On the other hand, if one is trying to assess the Evangelical’s god- concept, understanding emotions is highly relevant. In fact, one of the defining attributes of the Evangelical’s God is actually an emotion, love.

Evangelicals call themselves “biblical” or “Bible-believing” Christians. Many are proud to claim the Bible as the literally perfect and complete word of God. (In fact, some modernist critics would say that Evangelicals and other biblical literalists engage in “bibliolatry” or text worship.)  Whether right or wrong, biblical literalists like Evangelicals pin their life priorities and hopes for eternity to the god-concept of the Bible writers, and the Bible writers thought of God as a person, who not only loves but manifests a whole host of emotions.

“That is ridiculous!” some might protest. “It’s obvious that when the Bible talks about God’s emotions it is speaking in metaphor.”  For several reasons, this argument is weak: 

  • Historians of religion and philosophy tell us that theology has a flow which can be studied in the historical record.  We have a tendency to project our own intellectual culture, including abstract god concepts back into history, However, during the Axial Period when the world’s great religions emerged, the gods (think Shiva, Zeus, Mithra, Yahweh) were typically person-gods.
  • If we look at the internal record of the Bible itself, it would appear that earlier documents were taken literally by later writers. The book of Matthew, for example, gives Jesus a literal understanding of Old Testament events.
  • Literalists say that the Bible was uniquely inspired or even dictated by God to the authors. In this case, claiming that in the Bible God’s emotions are simply metaphors makes God a bad writer. A good writer doesn’t use metaphors that he or she knows will be taken literally. Communication isn’t just about transmission—it is about knowing your audience. Today many, many Christians take the notion of God’s emotions literally, as have most of their spiritual ancestors. To say that God was communicating in metaphor through the Bible writers is to say that God needed communications training.

For the rest of this series, then, I’m going to assume that “Bible believing” Christians mostly mean what they say when they use words like, “God loves you.”  Or “God is disgusted by homosexuality.” Or “God is grieved by our sin.”  We owe it to ourselves to not play word games about life’s most important questions. And, barring evidence to the contrary, we owe it to other people to take their words at face value. And if we value honesty, integrity and truth-seeking, we owe it to the world to ask what those words mean.

Dig Deeper:

Art d’Adamo, Science Without Bounds.

Justin L. Barrett and Frank C. Keil, (1996). “Conceptualizing a Nonnatural Entity: Anthropomorphism in God Concepts” Cognitive Psychology, 31, 219–247.

About Valerie Tarico

Seattle psychologist and writer. Author - Trusting Doubt; Deas and Other Imaginings.
This entry was posted in God's Emotions: Why The Biblical God is So Very Human and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

1 Response to God’s Emotions 3: Do Christians Really Think that God Has Emotions?

  1. Pingback: God’s Emotions: Second Series Concerning the Psychology of Religion By Valerie Tarico | God Discussion

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