In this article, I’ll be reflecting on the idea that God is love, drawing upon some personal experience as well as some Scripture quotations. I hope my reflections will be thought-provoking and interesting.
The first scripture that comes to mind in relation to this topic will be familiar to many Christians:
So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him.1 John 4:16 (ESV)
When we talk about love in everyday life we cannot help but talk about relationships. We might think about the love between a husband and a wife, or the love a parent has for their child. This is not so much a feeling which can come and go; it’s more of a commitment. Love in this context is a kind of stance we take towards another person — it is a promise to treat another person kindly.
The scripture I quoted above from 1 John gives the impression of a rather more mystical kind of love. The idea that whoever abides in love abides in God is an interesting concept. It certainly accords with my understanding of God’s omnipresence. If God is omnipresent, and God’s nature is love, then there is a sense in which we are abiding in God and abiding in love at all times. I’m not sure this is what the author of 1 John was intending to convey, but it’s how I personally make sense of the ideas ‘abiding in God’ and ‘abiding in love’.
Some Christians talk about there being love in the Godhead because from a Trinitarian perspective there is a relationship between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, which demonstrates love. These Christians use this argument to defend free will, suggesting that God is a ‘God of relationship’ intrinsically, and that we have been given free will so that we can choose to enter into relationship with God without any compulsion. The argument is that if we were compelled to love God, this would not be real love.
Those familiar with my writing will know that I do not believe we have free will. God’s absolute sovereignty means that if we do love God, it is through His acting in our lives, not through any free choice. We are merely puppets under God’s control, and we are not free to make the decision of whether or not to follow God; God guides whoever He will in whatever way He wishes.
In any case, I find the idea of love within the Trinity to be a very confusing concept — Jesus as God loving God the Father who is really Himself in some way and the Holy Spirit being a person even though it’s difficult to perceive of spirit being a person — the Trinity is certainly not a straightforward concept to fathom and I don’t think the argument for free will based on love within the Godhead is logical or convincing.
Returning to the quote from 1 John, which I referred to as feeling rather mystical, I have had a personal experience which has contributed to my understanding of what it might mean to say God is love. Long before I read the Bible properly for the first time I was very interested in Eastern spirituality and used to meditate regularly. In my book The Philosophy of a Mad Man, which is a kind of spiritual memoir, I describe how for the most part my meditation practice was frustrating, but at times I experienced a kind of expansive feeling of peace; I might even call it bliss.
What this led me to consider is whether the feeling of bliss I experienced in deep meditation actually reflects the fundamental nature of God — that God is in essence perfect bliss. Perhaps when we meditate deeply we can in a certain way draw closer to the way God experiences reality: perfect bliss at all times. I’d be the first to admit that this is conjecture and that I don’t have any idea at all how God experiences reality. People who are drawn to Eastern spirituality, in which it is often understood that we have an ‘I-it’ relationship with God rather than a ‘I-thou’ relationship, may relate to this idea better than most Christians.
Returning to our discussion of love in Christianity, it’s appropriate to quote the famous passage from 1 Corinthians in which the apostle Paul describes love in a rather beautiful way:
Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.1 Corinthians 13:4-7 (ESV)
In the above scripture, Paul gives a detailed explanation of how love is to do with attitude. This relates to what I was saying above about love being understood in terms of relationship. Those who have a very high view of Scripture might argue that Paul’s description of love is inspired by the Holy Spirit, as all Scripture is (2 Peter 1:21). Therefore, if God is love, then we could trust that the kind of love God demonstrates would accord with Paul’s definition of love.
In my book God’s Grand Game, I detail and defend my understanding that God is in control of everything that happens (I touched upon this above). If this is true, it means that not only does all love come from God, but all hate also comes from God. This can be a hard way of seeing things for Christians, who are understandably keen to defend the idea that God is omnibenevolent (that all His ways are loving and kind).
I do believe that God is ultimately a kind, merciful, and gracious God. This is not incompatible with the suggestion that God causes evil as well as good. We just have to understand that God uses evil as a means to an end; it is a way of Him unfolding the game of life in the way that He pleases. Creating evil as well as good allows God to give expression to different aspects of His creativity, and to unfold intricate and complex storylines in creation, such as the story of Christianity over the last two thousand years (which of course couldn’t have existed without sin and evil).
Perhaps the biggest challenge to the idea that God is love is the concept of hell. There are three main views of hell within Christianity. The most severe view is that of eternal conscious torment. In my understanding, this idea is so extremely terrible that I believe it would be too severe a punishment for even the worst of human crimes. There are a couple of scriptures in the book of Revelation which support the idea (Revelation 14:9-11; 20:10) and there is the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in the gospel according to Luke which many Christians use as evidence for the idea of eternal conscious torment (Luke 16:19-30).
Alternative views in relation to the doctrine of hell include annihilationism and universal reconciliation. Annihilationism is the view that suffering in hell is only temporary, and after suffering for a time the personhood of each individual will be annihilated. Some scriptures which can be seen to evidence this view are Psalm 1:6, Psalm 37:20, Psalm 92:7, Matthew 10:28b, John 3:16, Romans 6:23, Philippians 3:19, 2 Thessalonians 1:9, and James 4:12a. These scriptures either explicitly or implicitly point to the idea of eternal death and the cessation of consciousness as the ultimate fate of the damned.
The final of the three main views of hell found in Christianity is that of universal reconciliation. This is the idea that eventually all people will be saved. Pastor Curt Parton has produced an in-depth study of this perspective in the form of a 10-part series on his blog, and this is highly recommended reading. One of Curt’s main arguments (which he supports with Scripture citations and exegesis) is that universal reconciliation best reflects the character of God as revealed in the Bible as a whole.
Interestingly, in Islam, hell is discussed as being a ‘lasting torment’ and very severe, but not (to the best of my current knowledge) as eternal conscious torment. So our discussions of these three views of hell are relevant to Islam as well as Christianity and Judaism. Nearly every surah in the Qur’an begins with the words, ‘In the name of God, the Lord of Mercy, the Giver of Mercy’. And I do hope that God is ultimately merciful to all sentient beings. Suffering can be a truly terrible thing and I know God understands this better than we do.
God’s love is also linked to justice. According to the Abrahamic Scriptures, there will be a judgement day when everyone will be repaid for their deeds, both good and evil. Part of God’s love is that He promises not to be unjust; the Qur’an embodies this sentiment very well and very clearly. While in Islam we find the idea that our good and bad deeds will be weighed and we will be judged accordingly, in Christianity, faith in Jesus is often understood to be the key to our justification (our right standing with God).
I will end with a closing reflection. If God Himself is love, and He experiences perfect love at all times, it seems to me that He would have no motive for causing great suffering to sentient beings. I know that people often argue against religion on the grounds that there is so much suffering in the world, but we must remember that God is all-powerful, and could, if He wished, put us all in perpetual agony. He chooses to be much more merciful, and most humans will acknowledge that their lives consist of not only bad times but also good times (sometimes very good).
In any case, the Scriptures teach that we all have the hope of spending eternity in paradise if we humble ourselves before God, repent, and ask for His forgiveness — this is a central idea in all three of the major Abrahamic religions and should therefore be taken very seriously.