“God is heartless and cold.”
If you grew up in church, or if you ever studied theology for more than a few minutes, you’ve probably heard a lot of technical words used to describe God. Some of these are kind of negative. You know, words that start with “im” or “a” or something. A couple of particular ones stick out sometimes. For example, there’s “impassibility,” “immutability,” and “atemporality.”
If you haven’t heard those words before, here’s basically what they mean:
- “Impassibility” means “without passions.” The word “passions” here is similar to “emotions.” If this throws you off, I’ll handle it in a minute.
- “Immutability” means “without change.” God does not change.
- “Atemporality” means “without time.” God is not subject to time.
So, if you have heard these words before, or if you just heard them now, you may have gotten a strange impression. God has no passion? God is beyond time? Does that mean God has no heart and can’t move? It gives a lot of people the impression I quoted at the beginning of this post. These words sometimes give off the impression that God is heartless and cold. People think this means He is static, dead, or unloving.
This has led to a decent number of people leaving these words behind. It has become fashionable in some places to say that God is passible, mutable, and/or temporal. That is, to say that God experiences passions, can change, and is somehow subject to the processes of time.
This is a sad error. There are a lot more problems with getting rid of these traditional beliefs than with keeping them. But the problem is that many people, including some of the people who keep using these terms, misunderstand them. In fact, they think of them in almost the opposite way of what they should really mean.
When we say that God is impassible, we are are not saying that God has no kind of emotional life. We are saying that He is not held captive to the kinds of “passions” (and this word has changed in meaning) that we are; He can’t be pulled to and fro by emotions He can’t control. He doesn’t have a physical brain and hormones and nervous system like we do, so He can’t be automatically moved within.
This is the negative way of looking at it. But there is also a positive way. If God could become Jesus, then Jesus’ humanity represents God in some way. Jesus’ emotions do point back up to an emotional life in God. God’s impassibility means that He is not stuck with the complicated, physical, and uncontrollable emotional life that we experience, but He does have an emotional life of a greater kind which we simply cannot comprehend.
The same goes for immutability and atemporality. God cannot change, and God is beyond time. This doesn’t mean that God is stuck, that He is frozen, static, and lifeless. Instead, it means that God is eternally faithful, and He is always perfectly in tune with Himself. He can’t stop being God, or switch from being the God He is to being a different God. It also means that time can’t rule God. The past has no hold over Him, the present does not limit Him, and the future is not a mystery to Him.
None of this means God is static, though. Again, that God could enter time in the Incarnation proves that “time” is not just something God lacks, but instead something which points up to His reality, which is higher and better than time. We’re not talking about a God who can’t be dynamic, but a God who can be dynamic in His own way. His dynamism is more than time can hold.
So, my point is simple. God is not like us. He’s not subject to passions, time, or change. But this isn’t a limitation. It’s saying God is better. God is higher. God has all of the benefits we see in emotion, time, and change, but none of the problems and limitations.