Does God hate the sin but love the sinner?

In the comment thread of ‘What happens to those who haven’t heard the gospel?’, I told a commenter, Elizabeth, that God does not love sinners in hell. Stuart disagreed, saying:

I disagree with Bnonn on the idea that God does not love those he has to punish. The wrath and hatred of God is reserved only for sin, and humans are caught up and are complicit in it, for which they suffer the consequence on the merit of their own choices. Therfore, God may still love the people in hell.

This is a pretty important topic, because it has huge consequences for what we tell unbelievers in apologetics and evangelism—so I want to bring it out of the comments and respond in a new post.

1. “God hates the sin but loves the sinner”

This is the popular refrain Stuart seems to be echoing. But I don’t really understand what it means to claim that the wrath and hatred of God is reserved only for sin. There are only three options I can see:

  1. “Sin” is some kind of object or property with which God is exclusively angry. But that doesn’t sound very biblical. Not to mention that it’s irrational to get angry at an object or property. One hates and gets angry at people, not things. So this option doesn’t seem feasible.
  2. “Sin” is just a shorthand way of describing what sinners do. Their actions. This seems biblical. But to say that the wrath and hatred of God is reserved only for people’s actions doesn’t make sense either, because actions are not independent things from the people who perform them. If I go out and steal my neighbor’s plasma TV, God isn’t angry at the physical process of a given human being removing a particular piece of hardware. He is angry at me.
  3. “Sin” is a shorthand way of talking about sinners in the context of their actions. Following on from [2] above, this is the only option that makes sense. To say that God hates sin is really just a quick way of saying that God hates people for doing evil things. In other words, to say that God’s wrath and hatred is reserved only for sin is actually to say that God’s wrath and hatred is reserved only for sinners.

Let’s double-check that against the Bible, though, just to make sure:

What the Bible says

The boastful shall not stand before your eyes;
you hate all evildoers. (Psalm 5:5)

The Lord tests the righteous,
but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence. (Psalm 11:5)

So, God hates evildoers and the wicked. That is, God hates sinners. Thus, even if it makes sense to speak of God hating the sin itself, he also hates the sinner. The Bible says so plainly. And these aren’t the only two places:

There are six things that the Lord hates,
seven that are an abomination to him:
haughty eyes, a lying tongue,
and hands that shed innocent blood,
a heart that devises wicked plans,
feet that make haste to run to evil,
a false witness who breathes out lies,
and one who sows discord among brothers. (Proverbs 6:16-19)

Lemme take a moment to point out that what God is hating here is not eyes and tongues and hearts—these are metaphors for specific kinds of sinners. The point of the proverb is to use representative examples of sinners to show that God hates all sinners. One more:

Every evil of theirs is in Gilgal;
there I began to hate them.
Because of the wickedness of their deeds
I will drive them out of my house.
I will love them no more;
all their princes are rebels. (Hosea 9:15)

God began to hate people because of their sin, and promises to love them no more. Notice he doesn’t say he began to hate their sin. He hated them, and explicitly promises to stop loving them.

“But wait—isn’t God love?

That’s what the Bible says, innit—”God is love”, 1 John 4:8. And doesn’t he love the whole world—John 3:16? And isn’t it true that he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust—Matthew 5:45? Yes. But God being love means at least two things:

Firstly, it means he desires what is best for everyone. For all sinners. That is part of what it means to be loving: to want the best even for one’s enemies. And make no mistake: sinners are God’s enemies (James 4:4 for example). So God’s grace extends to all people for a time. They have generally good lives, they appreciate beauty, enjoy pleasure and so on.

But this can’t last, because, secondly, that God is love means that God desires what is right. His love is a holy love; not a wicked love. He doesn’t love evil, but good. “Holy, holy, holy is the Lord of hosts,” cried the seraphim in Isaiah 6:2. “The whole earth is full of his glory!” And the foundations of the thresholds shook at the voice of him who called, and the house was filled with smoke. And Isaiah said: “Woe is me! For I am lost; for I am a man of unclean lips, and I dwell in the midst of a people of unclean lips; for my eyes have seen the King, the Lord of hosts!”

So while God sends his blessings on the whole world for a while, in order that those he has called to everlasting love may repent and be saved, these blessings won’t last forever. His general loving benevolence towards all people who are made in his image does not mitigate his greater love for what is holy. Put another way, his general loving benevolence towards all people does not mitigate his hatred for them as evildoers who have irreparably corrupted the imago Dei.

This is what the Bible tells us: that God is not a God of Wuv. He is a God of Love. Aslan is a not a tame lion. Hebrews 10:31: “It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.”

11 replies
  1. UpAndAtom
    UpAndAtom says:

    Can I just say from an outside perspective that, much like the Rob Bell thing, christianity can go down either Bnonn’s path or Stuarts path, the only real question is whether it wants to be relevant – that is Stuarts path – for there is nothing other than relevance. It is all fairies and pinheads, so you may as well be relevant.

  2. D Bnonn Tennant
    D Bnonn Tennant says:

    On the contrary, @e3377eb5718a07c1d97d3b90f70ddf90:disqus, the issue is not relevance, but truth. A false doctrine is of no use whatever, no matter how relevant it seems. Whereas the true doctrine that we are under God’s wrath and that he will punish us forever in hell could hardly be more relevant to every single one of us. Unless, of course, you don’t think your eternal destiny is relevant to you…

  3. Stuart McEwing
    Stuart McEwing says:

    Option 4. “Sin” is, like evil, an absence of a good which should be there: a privation.

    Such that God loves all people at all times as is his nature, yet is constrained by his holiness and justice to eliminate sin and therefore must deal out the consequences for those caught up in the sinful world. This I believe makes sense of the full range of biblical data with respect to the “hate” and “wrath” language.

    To take the biblical hate passages in reverse order… The prophet is anthropomorphizing. The psalms are a poetic genre, and so will use hyperbolic language. The Proverbs is doing the same -using metaphorical language as you noted. But we need not understand the things the Lord hates to be specific kinds of sinners. It could equally mean specific types of sin (absence of good qualities) committed by people. In general you’re not employing a good hermeneutic before extracting doctrine, but jumping to doctrine too early.

    The of point of difference between us is subtle. God does not, as you say, hate sinner because of what they do. He hates what they do which makes them sinners. In other words, God loves all that he has created at all times, but hates that which means he and his creation must be existentially estranged. Judgement is direct and immediate consequence.

    Theologically, we need to find a way to hold both the love of God and the holiness (ergo, judgment) of God together in equal tension, and that is the way I do it. I think the way you do it (and the Calvinism you are committed to) overemphasizes the holiness of God to the detriment of his love.

  4. D Bnonn Tennant
    D Bnonn Tennant says:

    Stuart, I don’t believe the holiness of God is separate from his love. God is one. His love is his holiness, his wrath is his holiness, his hate is his holiness. A theology which separates God or insists on “tensions” is not a good theology.

  5. Craig
    Craig says:

    Interesting discussion here. I am simply an outsider looking in, always interested in such discussions. I became hip to the blog from an email I received. While I am not thoroughly taking one side or another on this, I do think there are some very important points to further address. While Bnonn has done, I believe, pretty much what Stuart has proposed in reference to “In general you’re not employing a good hermeneutic before extracting doctrine, but jumping to doctrine too early.” I think the problem is much easier to decipher by rightly understanding the language than by first approaching philosophy. Indeed, the word “hate” as we would use the word today in modern English, does mean something different in the context of Old Testament Hebrew. In essence the word more accurately means to have a higher preference for something else. In other words, God hates evildoers in comparison to His love for all that is holy, or all those whom He has saved, etc. It is NOT, however, an anthropomorphism as Stuart suggests, nor is it hyperbolic. It is simply in relation to something that we, all too often, fail to grasp, God’s holiness, righteousness, sovereignty, judgment and perfect will. God’s hate of the evildoer is not in and of itself damning, in that God has chosen to save a great many of us so-called “evildoers.” Where there is seeming tension is in our finite minds. This tension can most certainly be relieved, as we rest in the sweetness and glory of His grace. This is where I think that men like Jeremiah Burroughs and Jonathan Edwards do the Christian community a wonderful service, even in our time. To realize that what seems to be a capricious decision on God’s part is in reality, a holy and wholly exemplification of His grace bestowed upon us, His elect, is what is at stake here. That God can hate anyone or anything that He so chooses, is really not the issue at all. It’s our perception of God that’s the issue. Is He holy, righteous, sovereign, King of Kings, or not? Once we settle on this, then we can rightly begin to dig at semantics and take note of our hermeneutics, whether they are of convenience or to neatly package His Word, or perhaps meant to jar anyone of us into a shocking reality that we ARE DEAD without Jesus Christ. Nice to meet both of you. I look forward to visiting again soon. May God grant us all an unrelenting hunger for Him.

  6. Allan
    Allan says:

    I haven’t seen this site for a while because, to be honest I got a bit bored with the subjects under discussion at the time, but I’ve come back, and I wonder if anyone would confirm for me that the consensus (on this site) is that God created all the angels, rather than their eternally co-existing with him?. (I have a followup question in mind, but I’d like to be sure I underrstand the basics first.)

  7. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    Hey Allan, yes, God created the angels. Nothing eternally co-exists with him; he is the only self-existent being (and I think necessarily so).

  8. Allan
    Allan says:

    Thanks Bnonn. I was going to argue the case that God hates the sinner, along the lines that Satan is clearly a far better being, morally, than many people we read about in the news every day, yet God hates him, when I suddenly realised it’s by no means clear that God does hate him. Is this question in the same category as “Does God hate the (human) sinner?” or is the answer more clear-cut?

  9. Bnonn
    Bnonn says:

    Hey Allan, Scripture doesn’t talk about Satan all that much, but it’s hard to see that God loves him.

    We have to be careful comparing God’s attitude toward demons and his attitude toward people though. We don’t know enough about the demons to really comment in that regard. Are they made in God’s image in the same way we are? That would be a deciding factor, I would think. Are they given the same kind of volition we are? Or are they more like automatons?

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