I was presented with a question recently by a friend, “If God is love, and I agree that God is, how do we reconcile God’s love with the very obvious passages in scripture of God’s judgment? How do we hold those two truths at the same time?” He wasn’t trying to argue with me, just curiously wondering how do we preach love and judgment to the same group of people. At the time I gave an answer, but I was never completely satisfied with the answer I gave. I’ve continued to ponder that question and I present here in an open letter, my answer. It is still a work in progress and I invite feedback below.
God is love. Love is God’s very essence and it is the bond that holds together the relationship of the Trinity. Love, understood as constant dedication to the other, is what builds the unity of the Trinity. As John 17 indicates, the Father loves the Son, the Son loves the Father, the Spirit loves the Father and Son. For love to be complete it must be outward focused. The Father must love the Son and the Son the Father or love is incomplete. It is this essence of love that allows the Father to create. Because the Father loves the Son and has opened himself up to the other, the Father becomes a creating God. God shares love between the members of the Godhead, and that sharing of love has made love stronger. The only thing that can enhance that love even more is to share the love outside of God-self with an “other.” Just as the love between a husband and wife can be made stronger by sharing the love with a child, God creates as a way of making the love shared between the members of the Trinity stronger. The Father creates the world through the Son by the power of the Spirit as an expression of the love shared among the Trinity. The world is created in order for God to share love with the creation.
God’s love does not stop with humanity’s sin. Sin distorts God’s good creation and separates humanity from God’s good blessings. However, even though sin creates a divide between God and humanity, God is not content to watch humanity walk away. Instead, God begins the mission to seek and restore what was lost at the fall. God’s love compels God into the mission of redemption and reconciliation with creation; with humanity. God’s love means that God will continue to pursue relationship with humanity even during humanity’s rebellion.
While I could go on, I hope it is clear that love is a foundational attribute of God. Most people would agree that God is love. What individuals struggle with is God’s judgment. How can a loving God send someone to hell? If God loves me, why does God ultimately turn away and allow me to suffer? If God is love why is there so much death and destruction in the Bible, especially in the Old Testament, that seems to be commanded and initiated by God? And in a culture that embraces love and acceptance and shies away from strict judgement against others, how do we preach judgment and love at the same time?
The mistake may be in our understanding of love. Often, our definition of love is too narrow. We often think of love in very individualistic terms. God loves me. God protects me. Even when we think of God loving a group of people, our family, our church, our nation…it is still individualistic because we are apart of the group God loves and God’s love is directed toward us. But God’s love is communal. It is for all people at all times. God is concerned with the other just as much as God is concerned with me. We, as humans, often have difficulty seeing beyond our own understanding of reality, but God does not have this problem. God can see and understand all angles at the same time. This is because God is communal, and is not just concerned with what is going on in my life but in the lives of all people, because God cares for all.
Activities by one person in communal life affect all others in that communal life. Because God’s love is communal, when God reacts to one situation in the world it affects all other people. A simple example, God’s protection from harm for one group may mean God’s judgment on another group. This situation is evident in the first chapter of Nahum. Nahum is an oracle against Assyria, a country that had taken the northern tribes into exile and was threatening the southern tribes. Nahum begins by declaring God’s wrath, or judgment, against Nineveh. Nineveh will be punished for their sins. In the same chapter, God tells Judah not to worry, God will protect them and save them. It is an example of God’s love for Judah. It is the same action by God, but to one group it is judgment, to another it is love. The two are at times opposite sides of the same coin.
God’s love is communal, which means that it is more than just God’s favor directed toward me or my particular cause, but is God’s favor directed toward all people; the entire creation. Because God loves the entire creation and seeks restored relationship with the entire creation, God wants the entire creation to flourish. God’s blessing and love are directed toward making the entire creation flourish. Because God wants the entire creation to flourish and to be blessed, God has designed a way for humanity to act that leads toward the entire creation flourishing. If I, or another, act outside of what is best for the entire creation, God’s love requires God to judge me for the sake of the whole. It would be unloving on God’s part to love me more than God loves others in creation. God judging my actions, or the actions of another, does not nullify God’s love for me. To proclaim that God will judge the actions of individuals which go against God’s plan to bless the creation in no way lessens God’s love. In some ways it actually shows the completeness of God’s love. God’s love is for everybody. God seeks the restoration of the entire creation. Anything that hinders God’s love directed toward the entire creation must be confronted and judged. Otherwise, God’s love is not communal for all people.
Thus, if God is love, judgment is necessary. They are interrelated.