As we bring this series to a close, it is imperative we address what is for many the elephant in the room, so to speak. Inevitably, when talking about the love of God, the issue of divine wrath is raised, and rightly so, it can be difficult to square the central Christian claim “God is love” with the multitude of passages that seem to suggest anything but. As has already been established, love is not sentimentality attempting to meet some “felt need,” or an unconditional acceptance of all behavior. Quite the opposite, it is the constant pursuit of the greatest good as far as it can be obtained. If humanity freely submitted to love, agreed with the greatest good, and cooperated to move toward it, there would be no conflict. But we all know that is not the world we live in.
The obvious but hard fact we must face is that all humanity is affected to the core by our resistance to love. When we chose to rebel against the boundaries our loving Father put in place to keep us from harm, sin was born into the world. What was pure became tainted, what was holy became sinful, what was meant for life became subject to death. We were meant to rule selflessly over God’s creation with justice and righteousness, yet cruelty and injustice rule the day. We were meant to be in loving, selfless relationships with one another, yet men are tyrants and women are manipulative. From the children who will not share toys to the world leaders who abuse power, we are by nature prone to resist our own greatest good. But the love of God is stronger than our resistance, unyielding in our attempts to drive him away.
For those who resist love it can take on a multitude of expressions, anything from time out to world war. As a father of four and a combat veteran, experience has taught me the law of proportionality. When my children disobey or flat out rebel against me, a loving response must be proportional to their attitude and action. In other words, you do not drop a nuclear weapon on a child who hit his brother. That would be a disproportionate response, and unloving, for love’s aim is not to destroy but to reconcile and heal. Loving action in a combat situation requires the principle of escalation of force. While the goal is always to de-escalate, to seek peace as far as possible, if the opposite party actively continues to resist love, promote injustice, abuse themselves or others, and engage in evil, love responds proportionately to save. I promise, as a loving father, I do not want to harm my kids, even when they are in blatant rebellion. However, I do want to train them, and sometimes that requires pain. As Augustine said: “For in the correction of a son, even with some sternness, there is assuredly no diminution of a father’s love; yet, in the correction, that is done which is received with reluctance and pain by one whom it seems necessary to heal by pain.”1 Paradoxically, when the offense requires it, “love can sometimes smite, and even slay.”2
Consider the alternative. Is it not the allowance of injustice, abuse, evil, etc. to run free, unchecked by any stabilizing force which seeks the greatest good? Were someone with the ability to confront evil fail to do so, he would not be loving. When evil is left unchecked, we diminish our responsibility as image bearers to subdue the earth, thus we “retreat from the gospel proclamation of the universal rule of Christ and from the praxis of loving judgment.”3 If my wife was being assaulted on the street and I did nothing, I would not be praised for the mercy shown the offender. On the contrary, whatever love I have for my wife, myself, the general order of society, even the offender himself would be rightly called into question. What love requires in that specific situation is aggressive movement toward the offender. If a show of force causes him to yield, good. If not, physical intervention to restrain is required. If the offender resists being restrained, force must be used to subdue him. If he cannot be subdued and is a viable threat, lethal force may be necessary to protect those he seeks to harm. As Lewis said, “When the worst comes to the worst, if you cannot restrain a man by any method except by trying to kill him, then a Christian must do that.”4
Love takes on a different form in each phase of escalation. The goal never changes: seek the greatest good as far as it can be obtained. In the first three phases of escalation the greatest good of everyone involved can be achieved by subduing the offender, whether he cooperates or not. However, in the fourth phase of escalation, and only when loving action has exhausted all possibilities available in the moment, love looks like eliminating a threat. In each phase, judgment came because evil persisted; violence came because evil was defiant in the face of love. In this way, violence that purifies and restores order is not only acceptable, it is a unique expression of love. But love does not gloat over death; it is grieved that the offender’s decisions ultimately cost him his life. This is exactly what we see in God. In fact, if God did nothing in the face of evil, he would not be loving and would not be God. But God’s response to evil is not essential to who he is, it is a mere potentiality that becomes actualized in the presence of evil.
God is love, yet one could not say that God is wrath. In other words, love is a fundamental and eternal attribute of God, while wrath is no more than an outworking of God’s character in response to sin. Before creation God was love, and this love was active within the Trinity; but God’s wrath was no more than a potentiality.5
When evil manifests, God responds proportionally in an attempt to achieve the greatest good as far as it can be achieved in a situation filled with the meaningful choices of free creatures. When faced with evil, the love of God manifests itself as hatred for anything that would keep us from knowing his love, something we as children of God are commanded to do: “Love must be sincere . . . hate what is evil . . .” (Rom 12:9, emphasis mine). In fact, any “love that does not contain hatred of evil is not the love of which the Bible speaks . . . God’s love itself implies wrath. Without his wrath, God is simply not loving in the sense that the Bible portrays his love.”6
God’s wrath is the natural outworking of his love in a world determined to undermine everything good and beautiful. God hates evil as a doctor hates disease or as a surgeon hates cancer. We often think of God’s anger as arbitrary and out of control, the product of an immature, vengeful deity ready either to pounce or withdraw indefinitely. But that is not even remotely the picture we find in the Bible. “Love does not threaten to penalize us with its own withdrawal . . . [on the contrary], the challenge it issues to our complacency is always the challenge of a lover who cherishes us without limit. That is why it remains, finally, good news.”7 As we have already seen, the Scriptures paint a picture of Yahweh as a loving Father who labors with his people to be with them, ultimately reconciling all things. Disease is messy, but the Father has been in it with us all along, and in the most incomprehensible act of love ever shown, sent his own Son to become it, so that we might live. Love for us and for his creation drove the Father to send the Son (Jn 3:16). Love for the Father drove the Son to the cross, and on the cross the love of God was poured out (Jn 14:30-31). People like to pit the love of God against his wrath. This is a mistake. The wrath of God is his love poured out for us in Jesus, the only one able to absorb the sin of the world and kill it (2 Cor 5:17, Col 2:13-15, 1 Cor 15:54-57).
God’s wrath is not directed toward us, it is directed toward evil. In other words, God is not angry at us, he is angry for us. Angry at anything that would keep us from his love, or convince us he is not good, or that life is found apart from him. I am not saying God does not get angry. He does, but his anger is not quick or arbitrary, and it always seeks to restore: “As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel?” (Ezek 33:11; cf. 33:17; 18:23) The Lord is slow to judgment, enduring with patience those who stubbornly refuse to be loved, because he wants everyone to come to repentance (2 Pet 3:9; 1 Tim 2:4); but he will not wait forever.
The wrath stored up by those who reject him (Rom 2:5) will eventually pour out as evil is eradicated and God’s justice and mercy is proved right. God’s patience will run out not to extinguish human freedom but because of it.8 The love of God makes us free to choose, but we are not free to go on choosing forever. Because there are those who freely choose not to be loved regardless of what God does, they must fully and finally get what they want–“to lie wholly in the self and to make the best of what [they] find there. And what [they] find there is hell . . . the damned are, in one sense, successful, rebels to the end; the doors of hell are locked on the inside.”9
There is an awful point when those whom God loves, created in his own image, precious in his sight, in an act of eternal defiance, employ the awesome power of choice freely and finally to remove themselves from the love of God. In the end, in a final act of setting all things right, the eternal loving Father, the God who is love, agonizingly leaves them to their choice, having done all in his power to save.
In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell, is itself a question: “What are you asking God to do?” To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But he has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? They will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is what he does.10
We are wounded creatures who view God through a lens distorted by our own sin, the sin of others, and a theological narrative that has so diminished the love of God it would have us be ruled by fear. But “there is no fear in love . . . perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment” (1 Jn 4:18). The image of a punishing God is a lie. God does not want to bring punishment. On the contrary, from the moment of creation he has shown us incomprehensible love, and this is not something God has or does but is . . . God is love.
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