|Pompeo Batoni, Sacred Heart of Jesus (1767)|
Does God hate sinners? There’s a notorious Baptist group based out of Topeka, Kansas, that claims that He does: and specifically, that He hates homosexuals. They’re a radical fringe even amongst Baptist Calvinists, and other Calvinists have sought to distance themselves from them. But many of those doing the distancing don’t actually think that they’re wrong. For example, here’s GotQuestions’ objection: “While the Bible declares that God hates all workers of iniquity (Psalm 5:5), the Bible nowhere singles out homosexuals as objects of God’s hatred.” In other words, God hates homosexuals and all sinners! Matt Slick of CARM says the same:
The sobering fact is that God is so holy and righteous that He hates the sinner (Psalm 5:5; Lev. 20:23; Prov. 6:16-19; Hos. 9:15). Some say that we should say that God only hates the sin but loves the sinner. But, the above scriptures speak contrary to that. But it is also true that He is love (1 John 4:8). It is better to accept the love of God found in Jesus than to reject it and suffer His wrath.
This is nothing new. Calvinist predestination teaches that God created two groups of people: the elect, who He loves and guides to Heaven, and the reprobate, who He hates, and damns to hell. It is impossible to go from one group to the other: neither faith nor works play any role in your election (instead, they’re a result of your election). As a result, there’s no shortage of quotations from Calvin and his followers about how God hates sinners. These claims invariably rely upon appeals to a relatively small set of Biblical passages which, taken literally, seem to support their case.
So are these Calvinists reading the Bible correctly? Does God really hate sinners? No. To see why, let’s look at two things: I. the impossibility of God hating sinners; and II. what the Bible verses about “hate” are actually about.
A. Natural and Supernatural Love
Ancient Greek, the language of the New Testament, distinguished between four different loves (storge, philia, eros, and agape), which tend to get translated into English simply as “love.” C.S. Lewis wrote an entire book exploring the senses of each of these four loves. But here, we want to make a slightly different distinction — namely, between natural love and supernatural love.
First, Scripture speaks of the sort of natural love of which all of us (believers and nonbelievers alike) are capable. Such a love can be good or evil, depending upon its object. So, for example, “the love of money is the root of all evils” (1 Timothy 6:10). This kind of love doesn’t require grace (otherwise, it would take grace to be able to sin through love of money).
But there’s another type of love, which is only possible by the power of the Holy Spirit. St. Paul speaks of it in 1 Corinthians. He begins in chapter 12 by discussing a wide variety of spiritual gifts: the gift of tongues, prophesy, miracles, etc. But then he says, “But earnestly desire the higher gifts. And I will show you a still more excellent way” (1 Cor. 12:31). The next chapter is his exposition of the spiritual gift of love (if you’ve been to a wedding, chances are, you’ve heard it), and he concludes with this line: “So faith, hope, love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love” (1 Cor. 13:13). So love in this sense is not just a spiritual gift, but the greatest of the spiritual gifts: greater than the ability to work miracles or speak in tongues, greater even than the gift of faith. This kind of love is, by its very nature, holy.
B. The Universal Call to Love
In Matthew 22:37-40, after Jesus is asked, “Teacher, which is the great commandment in the law?” He responds:
And he said to him, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the great and first commandment. And a second is like it, You shall love your neighbor as yourself. On these two commandments depend all the law and the prophets.”
Here, Christ ties our love of neighbor in with our love of God. This is clearly a reference to supernatural charity, not just the fondness of ordinary human love. It isn’t enough for us to have natural love for God, and it isn’t enough for us to have natural love for our neighbor. We need the kind of love made possible only by the Holy Spirit.
This radical call to love extends to everyone, even our enemies. Jesus says as much in Matthew 5:43-48,
You have heard that it was said, “You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.” But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. For if you love those who love you, what reward have you? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? And if you salute only your brethren, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same? You, therefore, must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.
So we’re called to love both our friends and our enemies. Interesting, the model that Christ holds up for this is the Father Himself, who “makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust.” If Christ isn’t suggesting that the Father loves both the good and the evil, it’s hard to see why He would mention this. But we’ll leave that aside for now.
C. Calvinism’s Paradox
This leads us to a serious problem from the Calvinist perspective. In calling us to love everyone, Christ is calling us to love the evil as well as the good, to love even those who will ultimately be damned. He’s quite explicit about our need to love even the evil in Matthew 5, and in any case, it would be impossible for us to love only the ultimately-saved while hating everyone else, since God alone knows who will be saved and who will be damned. And yet, this holy love is possible only through the Holy Spirit.
By this logic, God hates Bob, but requires me to love Bob, and empowers me by the Holy Spirit to do so. But the Holy Spirit (who is God) doesn’t actually love Bob. What’s more, this love includes the Holy Spirit creating the desire in my heart for something contrary to the will of God: namely, Bob’s salvation. This result is logically impossible, because it results in an effect (my love for Bob) greater than the sum of the causes (the Holy Spirit’s love for Bob, manifested through grace).
More than that, it’s theologically absurd:
- If it is morally good to love Bob and desire his good, then you cannot hold that God Himself lacks this love of Bob and desire for his good without saying that God lacks a moral good. Worse, since I love Bob (somehow), you’re now saying that – in at least one regard – I am holier and more loving than God.
- If it is not morally good to love Bob and desire his good, then Christ is commanding something that’s not morally good in Matthew 5.
None of this works. 1 John 4:8 says that “he who does not love does not know God; for God is love.” If I refuse to love my enemy, it means that I don’t know God. But by that same token, if Christ refused to love His enemies, it would mean that He didn’t know God. That’s not an acceptable position, and it’s a position contradicted by Scripture, which shows Him forgiving His enemies, and interceding for them (Luke 23:34). And since God is love, it’s impossible to imagine a situation in which we love someone (in the supernatural sense of love) more than God does.
So as you can see, this position that God hates sinners results in serious theological problems, which end up detracting from God’s holiness and His goodness in ways that no Christian can hold in good faith. The Calvinist position literally cannot be right, and it’s theologically necessary that God loves everyone, including His enemies. There’s no other way to rectify Jesus’ clear teachings.
This still leaves us with a problem: what do we make of the various passages in which it seems to say that God hates sinners? For example, what should we make of Psalm 5:5, “The boastful may not stand before thy eyes; thou hatest all evildoers”?
There’s a straightforward solution to this: this “love” / “hate” language is a frequently-used Semitic expression to express favoring or preferring. In other words, it’s a figure of speech. We see this quite clearly in Luke 14:26, where Jesus says, “If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.”
If you were to take that literally, in the way that Calvinists have taken verses like Psalm 5:5, you’d have to hold that husbands must hate their wives, instead of loving them. But Scripture clearly teaches the opposite (Ephesians 5:25-28):
Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her, that he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by the washing of water with the word, that he might present the church to himself in splendor, without spot or wrinkle or any such thing, that she might be holy and without blemish. Even so husbands should love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself.
And you know who makes the point that this language shouldn’t be taken literally? John Calvin:
He does not indeed enjoin us to lay aside human affections, or forbid us to discharge the duties of relationship, but only desires that all the mutual love which exists among men should be so regulated as to assign the highest rank to piety. Let the husband then love his wife, the father his son, and, on the other hand, let the son love his father, provided that the reverence which is due to Christ be not overpowered by human affection.
In other words, Christ uses the language of love and hate, but what He really means is preference: to say that we love X and hate Y only means that we prefer X to Y. It doesn’t actually mean that we don’t love Y, or that we wish ill of Y.
This alone harmonizes Luke 14:26 and Ephesians 5:25-28. And this also harmonizes God’s love with the passages about Him “hating” sinners. These passages are saying only that God prefers the righteous to the unrighteous. That’s a message consistent with a loving God who desires the good of all of His creatures, particularly since the good of all of men is righteousness.