Monday, December 09, 2019

Anonymous Asks (70)

“Does God love everyone?”

The answer to this question may initially seem so obvious as to render further commentary a bit pointless. If there is a better-known Bible verse than John 3:16, I cannot think what it might be. Maybe a line from Psalm 23.

In any case, as the Lord told Nicodemus, “God so loved the world.”

There you are. God loves everyone. Full stop.

Or does he? And if he does, in what sense does he love everyone, and what does that mean for the objects of his love?

Hatred with a Passion

Believe it or not, there is an opposing argument to be made, and it is not without solid biblical evidence behind it. The Psalmist tells us:
“The Lord tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked.”
Not just the behavior, the thought processes or the lifestyle of the wicked. Not just the example they leave for others. Not just “hate the sin and love the sinner.” No, the soul of the Lord hates the wicked — the people themselves. The NIV says, “Those who love violence, he hates with a passion.” That seems to be the sense of it.

David was a prophet. If we insist he was wrong in this statement, we’re going to have to throw out a lot of other very important things he wrote too, probably including Psalm 23.

More Grist for the Mill

If this were the only reference in the Bible to God’s hatred of individuals, we might try to find some clever-clever theologian to interpret it away for us. Unfortunately, he’s going to have a few more to explain when he’s done:
“The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers.”

The Lord abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man.”

“You shall not walk in the customs of the nation that I am driving out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I detested them.”

“Every evil of theirs is in Gilgal; there I began to hate them.”

“I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated.”
So it’s not just David and it’s not just the Psalms, where we might get away with calling “hate” a figure of speech because “it’s poetic”. It’s Leviticus, and Hosea, and Malachi. It’s in the Law, the Psalms and the Prophets. God hates certain people, not just the things they do.

Feelings and Actions

Part of our confusion stems from the fact that the way we use the words “love” and “hate” is not precisely the same as the way the writers of these passages use them. For us, both words primarily describe our emotions. When we say, “I love you,” more often than not we are saying, “I feel affection toward you.” When we say, “I hate you,” more often than not we are also talking about our feelings. However, if you examine each of these passages in context, what you may notice is that in each case where we read about God’s “hatred” of individuals or groups, the writer or God is really talking primarily about the way he was obliged to treat them because of their sinfulness.

In Malachi, hatred is an action word: “I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert.” Same thing in Hosea: “Because of the wickedness of their deeds I will drive them out of my house. I will love them no more.” In this context, “love” and “hate” are divine shorthand for blessing or punishment. Same again in Leviticus: “Therefore I detested them” essentially means “This is why I am booting them out of Canaan and giving it to you.” In the Psalms, the statement “You hate all evildoers” is bookended by the consequences of that hatred. It is not only followed directly by “You destroy those who speak lies,” but also immediately preceded by “The boastful shall not stand before your eyes.”

In every case where God says he “hates” a wicked person, the main force of the statement is this: that God has judged them, is currently acting in judgment toward them, or will shortly do so. In such cases, to spend a lot of time speculating about the precise nature of God’s feelings toward any or all evildoers is really to miss the point.

Loving the Wicked

When we read that “God so loved the world,” we are also missing the point if we get caught up in thinking it means “God loved every single individual on the planet personally and uniquely.” That may or may not be the case. It is the action, not the feeling, which is of primary importance. What is most significant is that God expressed his goodwill toward mankind corporately in giving his Son. The “whosoever” suggests that there are those who benefit from this loving act, and also those who will not benefit at all. They will not believe. They choose to remain objects of wrath.

So does God love everyone? With respect to his emotions, that seems highly unlikely; phrases like “hates with a passion” and “I cannot endure iniquity” make God’s visceral revulsion toward evildoers and their evildoing pretty plain. However, with respect to actions, God has expressed his love-nature in such a concrete and universally-accessible way that anyone at all is perfectly free to respond to it.

Even the wicked cannot complain that they have not been loved.

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Original photo courtesy Tony Alter, Newport News [CC BY 2.0]

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