Question and Answer

How Can a Loving God Condemn?

Question:

I am in college and dealing with a house mate who just recently posed a question to me: If God is Love, how can he condemn millions of people who are not the elect to hell? I felt that my answer was insufficient and I was hoping that you could help.

Answer:

Why ask an easy, shallow question when you can ask one that goes right to the bottom of things? I don't know, of course, what your answer to your roommate was—it may be better than you thought. But here are some truths to consider.

First, we cannot reduce the living God to just one of His attributes. In His Word He does say, "God is love" (1 John 4:8), which is manifested to us in the sending of His Son to make propitiation for our sins (vv. 9, 10). God is also almighty, sovereign, holy, just, wise, truth itself, etc. All of these are attributes which God reveals in His Word to be true of Himself.

Second, in seeking to understand the persons and character of God, we must begin with what He says about Himself and His attributes and actions. It is dangerous to take an attribute, such as "love," assume that we know what that must mean, and then deduce conclusions about what God must do or must not do if he truly is "love." We run the very real risk of telling God who He must be and what He must do if He wants us to credit Him with being what He says he is—skating very close to blasphemy. We run the risk of creating an idol, a false image of God created from our thoughts of what we think must be true and right.

I often hear non-Christians object to the gospel by saying, "I can't believe in a god who would send people to hell, or allow children to suffer, etc." They have decided what a god must be for them to deign to believe in it—pretty brazen when you think about it.

The proper stance is: "Lord, You are God and we are Your creatures, creatures who have sinned against You and whose minds are not only small but also clouded in their thinking by our sin. Help us to understand and believe what You say about Yourself in Your Word to us, so that we may worship and honor You aright. By your Holy Spirit help us to recognize where our thoughts about You are wrong, to repent, and to believe the truth about You."

It is, therefore, for God to tell us what His love moves Him to do, and not for us to tell Him. Out of love He sent His Son to die for sinners; our of love the Son came from heaven to be a lowly man, a humble and obedient servant, and to give His life on the cruel cross to atone for sin. Out of love God in eternity chose those for whom His Son would do this:

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight....(Eph. 1:3-8, English Standard Version)

All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never cast out. For I have come down from heaven, not to do my own will but the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I should lose nothing of all that he has given me, but raise it up on the last day. (John 6:37-39, ESV, Jesus speaking)

Your question implies, I think, that you are not questioning the Bible doctrine of God's sovereign and eternal election of those whom He will save, but rather that you are looking for ways to communicate that helpfully to your roommate with her objection. So I won't spend time marshalling the biblical support for the doctrine of unconditional election.

The point here to grasp is that we should not wonder that God's love does not embrace every human being with His salvation. Rather we should wonder that God's love would embrace even one sinful human being, especially when we see what His saving love cost the Father and the Son. Another way to put it: God's election of some sinners for salvation is not His way of keeping people from heaven; it is His way of getting evil and undeserving sinners to heaven.

This leads to a fourth thought. Particularly against the backdrop of where modern evangelicals tend to focus their attention, it seems to me that a big reason the doctrine of election is so hard to grasp (especially in connection with God's love) is our shallow and unbiblical way of understanding man's plight. We're told that people need Jesus because they are adrift and lack direction, because they are separated from God and need to get Him in their lives, because they are consumed with earthly and material things that give not real meaning and purpose to their lives, because they need hope and love, etc.

All of that is true, but the Bible talks about the Fall, sin, rebellion against God, enmity against Him, slavery to sin, being dead in sin, and of God's response to sin—out of His nature as holy and just - in holy revulsion, just wrath, and righteous anger. If we think that people are messed up and confused, we might think that a loving God should be understanding and offer His remedy to everyone.

But when we come to understand that we really are a stench in His nostrils, that our sins are an offense to His whole being, that His broken Law calls for just punishment, that our every willful or deliberate act of sin and rebellion is a great and ungrateful slap at all of His daily mercies and goodness, that sin pollutes every fiber of our being (all of which in one place or another is how God's Word speaks of us and our sin), then we ought to wonder that God would love any sinner at all.

God does not owe a single sinner His love. He is not obligated to love us. There is no inner compulsion or necessity for Him to love sinners. The perfect unity of the Father, Son, and Spirit in all eternity provides to God the perfect and perfectly satisfying "community" within which to give and share His perfect love.

So this brings me to a final thought (there may be more, but this is my final thought for now, anyway): God's love is His to give, not ours to demand as a right. The thinking of so many is unthinkingly confused by our cultural "democratic ideals". God must be "fair." If He loves, He must love all alike. He says He is love and that He loves. Therefore, the argument goes, He does love all alike.

But this is not what God says. See, for example, the following:

For you are not a God who delights in wickedness; evil may not dwell with you. The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers. You destroy those who speak lies; the LORD abhors the bloodthirsty and deceitful man. But I, through the abundance of your steadfast love, will enter your house. I will bow down toward your holy temple in the fear of you. (Ps. 5:4-7)

I have loved you," says the LORD. But you say, "How have you loved us?" "Is not Esau Jacob's brother?" declares the LORD. "Yet I have loved Jacob but Esau I have hated. I have laid waste his hill country and left his heritage to jackals of the desert. (Mal. 1:2-3)

But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but "Through Isaac shall your offspring be named." This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. For this is what the promise said: "About this time next year I will return and Sarah shall have a son." And not only so, but also when Rebecca had conceived children by one man, our forefather Isaac, though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad--in order that God's purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of his call-- she was told, "The older will serve the younger." As it is written, "Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated." What shall we say then? Is there injustice on God's part? By no means! For he says to Moses, "I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion." So then it depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy. For the Scripture says to Pharaoh, "For this very purpose I have raised you up, that I might show my power in you, and that my name might be proclaimed in all the earth." So then he has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills. You will say to me then, "Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?" But who are you, O man, to answer back to God? Will what is molded say to its molder, "Why have you made me like this?" Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honored use and another for dishonorable use? What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction, in order to make known the riches of his glory for vessels of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory-- ...? (Rom. 9:6-23)

God's love is God's to give, as He sees fit. A simple illustration: If I walk into the poorest urban neighborhood with a bag full of 20 dollar bills, I can walk right through and keep the whole bag (it's mine), I can climb to the top of a building and throw the contents into the wind for whomever to scramble for (mob scene ensues), I can hand bills in whatever amounts I choose to whomever I choose (see Matt. 20:1-16, the parable of the workers in the vineyard).

The point is, the money is mine and the people I encounter have no claim upon it. Whether to give it, how, and to whom, is entirely my choice. So it is with God and His love and grace in Christ. We might wish He had consulted us on the matter, but He is God and He did not do so.

Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways! For who has known the mind of the Lord, or who has been his counselor? Or who has given a gift to him that he might be repaid? For from him and through him and to him are all things. To him be glory forever. Amen. (Rom. 11:33-36)

We, who deserve nothing, should be grateful to receive anything; but what He has chosen to give is Himself in all His fullness by the giving of His Son and Spirit. Who are we to presume to tell Him that He gives amiss if He gives to some sinners who deserve Hell and not to others?

These are not "just doctrines"—as some say. What God says about Himself and His ways, He says so that we may give Him the honor that is due to Him and worship Him according to truth.

I hope this is of help to you and your house mate. Please feel free to come back for clarification on any point or with any further questions you may have.

The Lord bless and guide you in your studies and in life.


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