A God of love? Or the God of horror?

‘If God exists, then he is horrible’. Atheists claim that the existence of such evils as war and suffering provide evidence against the existence of a good God.

‘If eternal hell exists, then God is horrible’. Universalists point to the existence of a God who is love as evidence against the existence of an eternal hell.

As humanists, atheists critique what the Bible makes known of God in comparison to what we know of human love. Without any other standard to measure reality against than themselves, they feel the existence of a loving God is incompatible with the existence of evils such as natural catastrophe and disaster.

Universalists, though vastly different in their starting point, end up doing something similar. Questioning the traditional understanding of that the Bible makes known about God, they compare the doctrine of hell against what we know about love from a human perspective. Again, without any other standard to critique God’s word against, they appeal to human reason to justify their position that the existence of an eternal hell is incompatible with the existence of a good God whose nature is controlled by perfect love.

Human love vs. God

Part I of this article explored the cost of human love demonstrated on the first Anzac Day, which has defined Australia. Human love – extraordinary human love – is perhaps the most inspiring of all human experiences. How does the love of God measure up against such an extraordinary story? How can a God who threatens retributive justice in terms of eternal conscious torture claim to love? Wouldn’t he, rather, be the God of horror?

The New Testament does in fact compare the love of God against human love. But it finds that in comparison even extraordinary human love does not come close, does not even compare, to the love of God. And the reasons tell us as much about ourselves as they do about the unique love of God.

A right to be loved?

We started in Part I by describing the essence of love in terms of giving. We measure the degree of love by the costliness of the giving to the giver in comparison to the worthiness of the receiver. The more it costs the giver and the less worthy the receiver, the greater the love.

It should not be surprising then that the Bible explains the love of God first in terms of our unworthiness to be loved at all. We have in fact lost all ‘right’ to be loved and actually incur his hatred. And the reasons might be as hard to accept for modern ears as any ancient truth.

Does God not have a responsibility to love all of his creatures? Don’t we all have a ‘right’ to the love of God as children to their Father? To be sure, the Bible does maintain the God has certainly loved all he has made.

But we need to start by asking whether love can be ‘deserved’. If love is in essence a ‘gift’, we might wonder whether love can be ‘deserved’ at all.

All relationships generate certain rights and responsibilities. And each different relationship in the world determines what different duties exist to give what gifts.

A married person has both the right to receive love and the responsibility to give love because of the promises they have made. Though the love given and received is indeed a free gift, it is nonetheless a duty to give it. But, if their spouse fails to love them in the most basic sense, such as by committing adultery, the covenant relationship is broken and they lose that right. In fact, the offended spouse has every right to divorce. In this case, failure to uphold the responsibility to love that this relationship generates creates in turn the right to permanently and formally ‘separate’. In fact, in the Law of God in the Old Testament, it might come as a shock to us to learn that such crimes would be deserving of death.

A Father has the responsibility to love his child. Likewise children have a duty to honour and obey their Father. But again, this relationship can be broken, if for example a son becomes rebellious and hardened against his Father. What lose of rights should his failure of responsibility incur on such a son?

Depending on our worldview and understanding of Fatherhood and what it requires, we will answer differently. As modern people, we might wonder, ‘what would I do as a Father in that situation?’ We aspire to be faithful fathers, and for us that might mean absolute tolerance, regardless of what our children do or become.

But how might ancient people and cultures answer? Failure to obey the voice of one’s Father in many ancient cultures was absolute dishonour. In this situation, the son will lose all ‘right’ to be loved by his Father and even to be called his son. In fact, it may come as an even greater shock to read that in the Law of God in the Old Testament, hardened disobedience of a son to his Father was a capital offence.

Deuteronomy 21:18-21  "If a man has a stubborn and rebellious son who will not obey the voice of his father or the voice of his mother, and, though they discipline him, will not listen to them,  (19)  then his father and his mother shall take hold of him and bring him out to the elders of his city at the gate of the place where he lives,  (20)  and they shall say to the elders of his city, 'This our son is stubborn and rebellious; he will not obey our voice; he is a glutton and a drunkard.'  (21)  Then all the men of the city shall stone him to death with stones. So you shall purge the evil from your midst, and all Israel shall hear, and fear.

What such references show us is that our modern concepts of such things as Fatherhood, even of Love, are unlikely to apply backwards to God. In fact, the Bible makes the claim that our Fatherhood is derived from God’s, not the other way around. If we want to think about God and his Fatherhood, and ourselves as his children, we need to reverse the order and make his revelation the starting point.

I have said elsewhere that where we arrive at in our reaction to what the Bible makes known about God will be affected by our view of Scripture in the first place. If we believe that the propositional revelation of the Bible is the authority in all matters, then no matter how hard we might find it to digest, we will believe that the true God is both the God revealed by the Bible and that this God is good. If we believe that God is transcendent – that his ways are vastly higher than our ways and so unknowable by ourselves – then we will not put our confidence in reason or natural theology. Our dependence will be on special revelation. If we believe in the Bible’s view of human sin, we will completely distrust our thoughts and desires and emotions which will always distort the truth about God because of our sinfulness.

The Bible tells us both what we would otherwise not know about God and also what we would otherwise not believe about God.

God as Father

The greatest of all relationships in the world is that which exists between us and God. The Bible makes God known as Creator and as Father. As Creator he is good and loving. As Father he is faithful but also Just.

And this is where we have a problem. Because we are disobedient children: stubborn and rebellious; corrupt, crooked and twisted.

Deuteronomy 32:3-6  For I will proclaim the name of the LORD; ascribe greatness to our God!  (4)  "The Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he.  (5)  They have dealt corruptly with him; they are no longer his children because they are blemished; they are a crooked and twisted generation.  (6)  Do you thus repay the LORD, you foolish and senseless people? Is not he your father, who created you, who made you and established you?

As wives, we would be unfaithful, adulterers; deserving only of hatred God would have every right to divorce us completely. As children, we deserve only death.

God then is not bound to love us at all; he owes us no right to do good to us whatsoever. As his creatures, as his property, we do continue to owe everything to him who made and owns us and continues to sustain our lives and give us many good things. Though we do not, we do have duty to love him, and a responsibility to serve him. But we all fail to do this in the worst of senses, with willful disobedience and dishonour of God as our Father.

Do we then deserve his love? We deserve only his judgment.

God as Judge

The passage above describes God first in terms of his justice, and his own faithfulness to that justice (Deuteronomy 32:3-6). By his nature, God brings judgment to ‘pay back’ what is deserved by our wickedness.

God’s judgment has been defined as his ‘just rectification of his moral order’. Justice which characterizes God’s judgment is not reconciliation to some universal norm, but it is an intrinsic expression of God’s own character (Deut 32:4)

Again and again the Old Testament portrays God as Judge (Ps 50:4; 75:7). But it also portrays him as the Father of us all, and often in the same context. Deuteronomy 32:3-6 is an example (compare verse 4 and verse 5-6).

God’s judgment is not in tension with his Fatherhood (e.g. 1 Peter 1:17). It might be to us, and it might be hard for us to imagine God as both Father and Judge. But because God is the Creator of us all, he is by origin both our Father – whom we owe every duty to honour and obey – and Judge – who will require repayment of just retribution for our failure to honour and obey him.

God as love

In view of this knowledge, it would come as a shock to us to learn that we had been loved by God at all. But that’s only the beginning.

In Romans 5:6-10 the Apostle Paul describes the enormous magnitude of the love that has actually been shown to us by God, which can only be understood firstly by contemplating just how ‘undeserving’ and ‘unlovely’ we are to him in the first place.  

Deserving hatred

The passage describes us as both ungodly (verse 6); sinners (verse 8); and in fact enemies of God (verse 10). As law-breakers; we are criminals before God because every day we break his holy commands. As rebels, instead of loving God as is our duty, we love other things instead.  And by living our own way to please ourselves, we treat ourselves as God in rejection of the very Father who bore us. We have become that senseless, corrupt rebellious son. And this makes us God’s enemies, in the worse of all positions: we are under God’s holy anger; we deserve only his ‘wrath’ (verse 9).

World War II
During World War II, after Germany had moved all the Jews who were living there into ghettos, ready to send them off to concentration camps, one of the commanding officers in the German army found a Jewish man still living in his original residence. So outraged was the officer that he took a grenade and  – with his gun pointing at the man lest he should flee – pulled the pin and stretched out his arm to throw it into the house.

But at that very moment the man pulled a rope from behind him that released a trap right under the officer, and as it grasped his leg the grenade flew straight up and exploded above the officer.

When the man came to stand over his enemy he found him still alive and his gun was still intact. Without hesitation he reached out and took the weapon from his enemy who was now blind, deaf and dumb, and without arms or legs.

The situation that officer was now in could be compared to our situation before God. In Romans 5:6-10 we are described as ‘weak’ or powerless before God (verse 6).

The officer no weapon in his hand; he had no hand to reach out; he had no words to beg for mercy; he had no mouth to speak; he had no leg to flee; he had no sight to see his predicament; he had no ear to hear and no way to respond to his enemy.

He now lay under one who was rightly filled with anger, and he weak and powerless can do nothing to save himself.

It is an illustration of the devastating position of our own weakness and powerlessness before the Almighty God – rightly angry – of whom we are nothing more than sinful, ungodly enemies.

The God who has loved us (already)

It’s only when we understand the Bible’s description of our utter unworthiness before God that we will be able to understand what the Bible claims about the love of God. What Romans 5:6-10 says is that God has demonstrated his love, he has proved it beyond all doubt, and he has shown it to end all question and suspicion. And he shows it in comparison to the pail dimmer of human love.

Romans 5:8:  “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.”

While we were still in that devastating situation before God, we were the most undeserving, with no right but to his hatred.

But what did God give us, his enemies? God gave a gift, and at the most expensive cost to himself. God’s gift to us is a person; it was Christ himself that he gave (verse 6 and 8); Christ the only Son of God (verse 6 and 10). God didn’t send prophets, or angels, who were of less value to him. He sent his Son – who is himself one with the Father. And so in Christ, God was giving us everything–His very own self.

But unto what did he give himself up to? He gave himself to die on a cross. God himself didn’t come to us in the person of Jesus and give us his sympathy, or advice. This was love in full action; this was a love that had God going further than we can really comprehend: The very life-giver himself, giving his life up to death at the hands of his own creatures.

And what type of death? His was not some painless, humane type of death. It was to a horrific Roman crucifixion on a cross – an instrument of torture reserved for the worst and lowest of all criminals.

Why? Why did Christ have to die? Was it because we were deserving; was it because we were lovely. We have already realised the contrary. But his death was for us what our sins deserved (verse 8) Christ died for us – who are sinners -- because sin and death must go together. Death is God’s penalty for our sin.

But here the sins were ours; but the death was his. His death, on the cross, was in our place; he was bearing the penalty that our sins deserve. He died our death, so that the penalty of sin on our heads could be paid, that God’s justice could be satisfied, and his anger and hatred removed, and we no longer be his enemies.

Now, by Christ dying for us, we can have peace with God. We again can receive the ‘right’ to call him Father. That is love. That is love without comparison.

Proof of God’s love

God has proved his love for this world in the death of Christ for world (John 3:16). It was God’s own demonstration. For although as unworthy as is possible, yet God himself gave us the most costly gift there is: He gave his own Son up unto the full fury of his own judgment against our sin. And in doing so, he -- who is the most worthy of all – gave us everything. And there is nothing left for him to give.

Where atheists and Universalists go wrong

God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us (Romans 5:8). Here is something absolutely, unimaginably, amazing: God has proved his love already; he has poured it out for the entire world. When we look at the cross and his death for the world, we can actually know for sure not only that God is love, but also the perfect extent of that love.

So we don’t need to doubt or question anymore.

Although the Bible does maintain that God is the God over war and suffering in the world (Romans 1:18), atheists need look no further than the cross to see that God’s love is compatible with these realities. For there was the greatest display of supreme love through suffering and death. It was in the horror that the unique and incomparable love of God was displayed.

And although the Bible does point to the existence and future reality of an eternal hell, it also points to proof of God’s love at the cross where Christ himself went through hell for a world that is headed there. He suffered the sentence of hell for enemies who will continue to reject his incomprehensible love demonstrated for them. 

By questioning the traditional understanding of that the Bible makes known about God’s eternal judgment, Universalists hope to see the supreme love of God displayed at the end of history when God will eventually empty hell of every remaining rebel.

But the Bible’s focal point is very different. The end of history came at the middle of time. Between BC and AD the God who is love shined the magnifying glass on one man dying upon a cross, and said ‘here it is; this is me’. There he gave everything, for there he gave himself; and there is nothing more that can be given.