Scot McKnight wrote, “This post is by our friend, John Frye, and is a follow-up to his post last week [on the JESUS CREED blog].
LOVE MEANS NEVER SAYING THE WORD “HELL”
“Love means never having to say ‘I’m sorry’ ” is a classic line from the movie Love Story starring Ryan O’Neal and Ali MacGraw. This classic line has taken a theological twist. We now hear from some quarters of evangelicalism, “Love means never saying the word ‘hell’.” Ironically, the universalist-leaning thinkers and writers who are incensed about the misuse of scriptural imagery regarding hell, torment, and punishment coming from God, take three little Johannine words–God is love–and use them as a sieve. These novel “God is Love” proponents pour the whole contents of the Bible through their new found sifter and to their joyful wonder no condemnation, no hell, no judgment, no eternal fire, no rejection of one human being by a loving God makes it through. And they wonder at the misuse of the Bible by others! God is love and only love is the new good news.
A friend of mine remarked that the new defintion of God’s love means unconditional, endless tolerance and affection. Sweet, but so much wishful thinking. Discounting the perichoresis of the Trinity, the hard edge of love that compelled Jesus to voluntarily lay down his life for sinners is considered ‘bad parenting’ by God the Father, even divine child abuse. You can read it in many popular expressions of the new, soft, fireless, judgmental-less love. I think many of these new “God is love” proponents learned their definitions of love from Sesame Street rather than from the biblical text. What I think they mean when they say “God is love” is “God is nice.”
From the Old Testament term for love (‘hb), we cannot escape that, when used of God’s love, we have an encounter with the idea of election, choice. Love is an act of God and when God loves, God chooses and when God chooses, God chooses for a purpose. That is why the metaphor of marriage between Israel and God carries the weight of love. A choice, a commitment, a covenant purpose. The Ancient Near Eastern cognates for love also carry this same idea of choice and are also used of a marital relationship. When God loves, God enters into a purposeful, relational union. The hard edge of love is that it expects response. Yes, conditions are involved. Did I write ‘conditions’? I thought love was unconditional. Nope. In the Old Testament, when God loves, he forgives and he punishes. You won’t learn that on Sesame Street.
Israel fails as a faithful partner to God and Jesus enters history as God’s “beloved” whom God has chosen. These words were declared at Jesus’ baptism. As God’s Elect One, God’s anointed one, Jesus was on a mission. Love for Jesus had a purpose. A very hard purpose.
The New Testament’s combining God’s love (agape) with the “new covenant” (diathekes) ought to give us all a clue that choice and purpose are still driving love. Love is not democratic; it is monarchial. We don’t all get a vote; we are called to surrender. Some people don’t surrender to the love of God made known through the cross of Jesus Christ. Love will then take a hard edge. God does not wink at sin, does not tolerate the rejection of his Son, does not tolerate people living as their own kings when Jesus is King of Kings. Treason, mutiny, rebellion are not loved by God.
When we in our sweet attempts to make God nice read 1 John’s “God is love” without feeling the spikes in the hands and feet of Jesus Christ, we prostitute, we blaspheme the very idea of God’s love. God loves us not because he feels nice toward us but because God wants to radically change us. Love, God’s amazing love, is truly ineffable, yet it requires a choice. Always has, always will.
Hell is the hardest edge of God’s love. You can rant and rave about hell all you want. And I’m totally open to exploring all current ideas about judgment, hell, gehenna, hades, lake of fire and separation from God forever. What we can’t do is turn God’s love into grandma’s lap.