Does God Change His Mind?

“When man began to multiply on the face of the land and daughters were born to them, the sons of God saw that the daughters of man were attractive. And they took as their wives any they chose. Then the Lord said, ‘My Spirit shall not abide in man forever, for his is flesh: his days shall be 120 years.’ The Nephilim were on the earth in those days, and also afterward, when the sons of God came in to the daughters of man and they bore children to them. These were the mighty men who were of old, the men of renown.

“The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually. And the Lord was sorry that he had made man on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart. So the Lord said, ‘I will blot out man whom I have created from the face of the land, man and animals and creeping things and birds of the heavens, for I am sorry that I have made them.’ But Noah found favor in the eyes of the Lord.”

- Genesis 6:5-7

The writer of Genesis tells us some things about the Lord in those verses that surprise us. We are told of the Lord’s repentance, or His sorrow that He had made man. We are told of His grief and sadness. This has raised questions about God’s impassibility. Simply put, for God to be impassible means that he does not experience emotions. For generations orthodox theologians simply assumed the impassibility of God. The assumption was that in order for God to be unchanging (immutable) then he must be free of emotions or “passions”. But I believe the assumption that immutability depends on impassibility is flawed. Certainly, for fallen man emotions will send us all over the map, as it were. But must this be so for God?

Does Scripture allow us to make God’s unchanging nature dependent on His being free of emotions? The answer seems clear enough. The Bible is rich with language depicting the emotional life of God. Perhaps the traditional idea of impassibility arose from the fact that human emotions are so often linked with frailty and sin. The idea of impassibility then became a way to defend the immutability of God. While we must be careful to affirm that God is unchanging in his nature and perfections we must not deny what Scripture makes plain about His emotions. The way forward then is to affirm God’s perfections and His passions (or, emotions). This is a big leap for us because we have no frame of reference for emotional perfection. Imagine such a thing!

In his wonderful book on the attributes of God, Behold Your God, Scottish theologian Donald Macleod writes, “[God] cannot be the victim of mental conflict, or a prey to anxiety, discontent, envy, depression or any other neurosis. He can never lose His composure or show the symptoms of stress or agitation. Nor, again, can there be in God any merely passive suffering. He can never be a helpless victim, falling into pain or overtaken by it. Whatever occurs, occurs by His own arrangement and remains under His control” (p. 31).

The next hurdle me must negotiate is whether or not God changes his mind or “repents.” The above text clearly says twice that God was sorry for having created man and thus determined to blot out humanity as well as every living creature. This is certainly akin to our idea of repentance – a change of mind producing a change of behavior.

But any language that God changed his mind or repented of a previous decision is an example of anthropopathism which is an ascription of human emotion to God. Anthropopathism is akin to anthropomorphism which is an ascription of human physicality to God like hands and eyes. Both anthropomorphisms and anthropopathisms are used to help finite sinful beings understand an infinite and perfect God. They are linguistic tools in order to explain that “God is like this, but not exactly.”

In the case of Genesis six God’s sorrow in creating man is not the same kind of sorrow we experience. In other words, God’s sorrow over creating man is not the sorrow that comes from making an error. The anthropopathism is used in order to emphasize the strength of God’s disgust over man’s sin. It does not mean that God changed His mind the way we change our minds. It does not mean that God was caught off guard or surprised. It does not mean that God made a mistake that He wish He hadn’t made.

Elsewhere in the Old Testament, the writers are emphatic that God does not change His mind, that God does not make mistakes, that God does not repent in the human sense of that term. For example, I Samuel 15:29 says, "The God of Israel will not lie or change His mind for He is not a man that He should change His mind." That type of realization in the Old Testament prophets is not unique to Samuel. Time and again in Jeremiah, Isaiah, Ezekiel, and elsewhere it is emphasized that the Lord does not change His mind.

The language of Genesis six helps us understand that God does not get some kind of sadistic kick out of judging. He is grieved over man’s sin as well as the fact that sin makes judgment necessary. God’s judgment comes only after repeated warnings and calls for repentance. God is not thrilled by the exercise of judgment but in it He is glorified. God prefers mercy to justice but His glory is not diminished when He judges for God is equally glorified in the display of His justice as He is in the display of His mercy.