Psychology of God: Do Christians Believe God Has Emotions?

Psychology of God: Do Christians Believe God Has Emotions?

Author: Valerie Tarico
Published: October 15, 2010 at 2:25pm UTC
Most religions posit the existence not just of a supernatural realm, but of supernatural persons, with loyalties, preferences and other human psychological qualities including 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 including emotions. 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 theologies 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 traditional monotheism, 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.

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 they usually 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 this I mean that understanding or pleasing God 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. -Albert Einstein

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. -John Shelby Spong

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 Christians might say. "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.

If you don't want to miss this series, you can email her at vt {at} with the word "Subscribe" in the subject line. 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.

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