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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.

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God is wrathful because God is love

“I used to think that wrath was unworthy of God. Isn’t God love? Shouldn’t divine love be beyond wrath? God is love, and God loves every person and every creature. That’s exactly why God is wrathful against some of them. My last resistance to the idea of God’s wrath was a casualty of the war in the former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come. According to some estimates, 200,000 people were killed and over 3,000,000 were displaced. My villages and cities were destroyed, my people shelled day in and day out, some of them brutalized beyond imagination, and I could not imagine God not being angry. Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandfatherly fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators’ basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.”

Miroslav Volf, quoted by Dr. Christopher Wright in The God I Don’t Understand, p. 131

The Love of God

The great Princeton theologian Charles Hodge writes against the philosophers conception of God’s attribute of Love, concluding that the love of God is not thoroughly dissimilar to a human’s experience of loving another – that is, with feeling and emotion.

His thoughts on this express my own thoughts – only better. That is our understanding of the love of God must be commensurate with the picture given to us by Jesus Christ Himself; of a middle-eastern man who continually waits on his porch for his wayward son to return; who when he sees his son afar off runs to him (in context very undignified), throws his arms around him and kisses him; and who barely pauses for his son’s apology before calling for a big celebration (see Luke 15:11-31).

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Does God hate the sin but love the sinner?

“There is a small element of truth in these words: God has nothing but hate for the sin, but it would be wrong to conclude that God has nothing but hate for the sinner. A difference must be maintained between God’s view of sin and his view of the sinner. Nevertheless the cliché (God hates the sin but loves the sinner) is false on the face of it and should be abandoned. Fourteen times in the first fifty psalms alone, we are told that God hates the sinner, his wrath is on the liar, and so forth. In the Bible, the wrath of God rests both on the sin (Rom. 1:18ff.) and on the sinner (John 3:36).

Our problem, in part, is that in human experience wrath and love normally abide in mutually exclusive compartments. Love drives wrath out, or wrath drives love out. We come closest to bringing them together, perhaps, in our responses to a wayward act by one of our children, but normally we do not think that a wrathful person is loving.

But this is not the way it is with God. God’s wrath is not an implacable, blind rage. However emotional it may be, it is an entirely reasonable and willed response to offenses against his holiness. But his love … wells up amidst his perfections and is not generated by the loveliness of the loved. Thus there is nothing intrinsically impossible about wrath and love being directed toward the same individual or people at the same time. God in his perfections must be wrathful against his rebel image-bearers, for they have offended him; God in his perfections must be loving toward his rebel image-bearers, for he is that kind of God.”

D. A. Carson, The Difficult Doctrine of the Love of God (2000 Crossway books), page 68-69.

The mystery of the cross

Into this kind of self-centered, earthly kingdom, Jesus brought a different and dramatic – albeit radical – response to pain and suffering. His answer was a stumbling block then, and it is a stumbling block now. But only if it is properly and seriously understood can its beauty be seen amidst its obvious pain and hatred. I refer to the cross of Christ. The cross stands as a mystery because it is foreign to everything we exalt – self over principle, power over meekness, the quick fix over the long haul, cover-up over confession, escapism over confrontation, comfort over sacrifice, feeling over commitment, legality over justice, the body over the spirit, anger over forgiveness, man over God.

[I]n the cross alone, pain and evil meet in consummate conflict. In the cross alone are integrated love and justice, the twin foundations upon which we may build our moral and spiritual home, individually and nationally. It is theoretically and practically impossible to build any community apart from love and justice. If only one of these two is focused upon, an inevitable extremism and perversion follow. Throughout history, mankind has shouted its ideals of liberty, equality, and justice; yet the ideologies that have risen, supposedly in the pursuit of human progress, have left in their wake some very dastardly experiments that echo with the whimpering sounds of man, like a trapped animal. Rising above the cry of liberty, equality and justice is the more rending plea for that sense of belonging we call love. And love unbounded by any sense of right or wrong is not love but self-centeredness and autocracy. In the cross of Jesus Christ, the demands of the law were satisfied and the generosity of love was love was expressed.

Ravi Zacharias, Can Man Live Without God, Word Publishing (1994), pages 171-172.