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:
- “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.
- “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.
- “Sin” is a shorthand way of talking about sinners in the context of their actions. Following on from  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.”