Closeness with God

A Problem for Divine Impassibility


  • Ryan Mullins University of Cambridge, Faculty of Divinity.



Have you ever wondered what God’s inner emotional life might be like? Within Christian thought, there are conflicting answers to this question. The majority of Christian theologians throughout history have said that God cannot be moved by creatures to feel anything. God does not literally have empathy, mercy, or compassion. Instead, God only feels pure undisturbed happiness. This view is called divine impassibility. In the 20th Century, Christian theologians by and large came to reject this understanding of God in favour of divine passibility which affirms that God can be moved by creatures, and God can literally have empathy, mercy, and compassion. Yet the 21st Century has seen a renewed interest in this more historical understanding of God. How Christianity came to have two radically different portrayals of God is a puzzle, to be sure, but that is not one that I shall try to address here. Instead, my interest is in unpacking these two different conceptions of God, and briefly offering reasons for affirming divine passibility. The reasons that I discuss centre around a central theme within Christian thought—the goal of entering into a close, personal relationship with God. I start by defining some key terms, and then proceed to offer two arguments in favour of divine passibility. The first is the problem of knowing God well, and the second is based on the human desire for empathy.