Sunday, April 20, 2014

G8. God loves everything he has created.

Here is the next installment of my theology in bullet points.
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G8. God loves everything he has created.

That is not to say that God loves everything we do or even that the creation is the "best possible world." [1] One of the ways that God showed his love for the creation was by giving it a degree of freedom and creativity. He created a world where it is better to love someone freely than to love under compulsion, and thus he created a world where we might choose to love him or choose to ignore him.

As part of this freedom, the creation and humanity has often gone the wrong way. But God still loves his creation, even when it sins or errs. "God is love," John the elder told his congregation (1 John 4:8). Like a parent that loves a child who has strayed, God loves the world. Indeed, "God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us" (Rom. 5:8). "For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life" (John 3:16).

This is not a love merely for those he has chosen to return to him, as the Calvinist might say. This is a love even for the person who will never return. When Jesus tells his followers to love their enemies, he uses God as the model, who "causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous" (Matt. 5:45). So also, "Therefore, just as your heavenly Father is complete in showing love to everyone, so also you must be complete" (5:48, CEB).

What is love? Jesus defines it very practically, "in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets" (Matt. 7:12). Paul put it in this way, "Love does no harm to a neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law" (Rom. 13:10). When we say God is love, we mean that he wants good for us--wants good for everyone. God wants to help us. If God allows us to experience pain, it is for some greater good. If God allows the evil to prosper for a time, it is because the overall benefit is greater.

Good is not the same as pleasure. God's love for us may bring us pain for a season so that we can experience a more lasting happiness. And God's love for the many may sometimes trump the pain of an individual. His love is only reckless when it brings good, not when it indulges our selfishness or brings pain to others in order for us to have pleasure.

The best biblical picture of the kind of "prodigal" love God has is in the Parable of the Prodigal Son in Luke 15. The father allows his son to leave. The father allows his son to fail. The father wants the son to come back but recognizes that the son must make this decision for himself, for that is how God has made the world. The father would have let the son die in the far away country.

But the father welcomes the son without anyone needing to pay. There is no sense that justice must be satisfied. The father has the authority to forgive the son outright, and he eagerly does so. He is looking for the son's return. And so God's justice fits within the overall context of his love, rather than his love fitting within the context of his justice. "Mercy triumphs over judgment" (Jas. 2:13).

It thus will not do to play games with the meaning of the word love. Some would like to define the word circularly, "Since God is the definition of love, anything God does is loving." This is a clever trick to try to make an unloving picture of God fit with the truth that God is love.

But it just won't work. When the Bible says God is love, it uses the word love in its ordinary sense. There must therefore be an explanation for any passages in the Bible where the picture of God does not seem to fit with the ordinary meaning of the word. At times, our understanding of love can be anemic. Love sometimes brings pain because it leads to a greater good. Justice does not contradict love, although there is a loving way to be just, as we will argue in the next article.

Passages or verses where God seems unloving may be unclear. Or they may involve cultural or anthropomorphism in their portrayal of God. At times the understanding of God is imprecise or less complete than later in Scripture. At times rhetoric may be involved to make a quite different point. In such cases we must follow the lead of Christ and Paul not to let the unclear details obscure the clear center point of revelation.

Here we remember that the earliest parts of the Old Testament do not distinguish between God as tempter and Satan as tempter. Job and 1 Chronicles, arguably both written after the Babylonian exile of Israel, introduce the role of Satan as tempter in situations where the earlier parts of the Old Testament pictured God doing the tempting. [2] God is in control. God signs off on what Satan does. God allows it but does not directly cause evil. [3]

This distance between specific acts of evil and God, who allows but does not directly command it, helps us understand how God can be loving and yet allow evil to take place. It will not do simply to say, as some traditions, that we deserve any evil that befalls us, as if this would sufficiently explain God taking a blind eye to atrocity. A truly loving being does not enjoy suffering and evil even when the object of suffering deserves it.

Of course the greatest instance of divine love is the incarnation and atonement God provided by becoming human and dying on the cross for the world. We will argue that God could have forgiven us on his own authority. He could have miraculously healed us by his divine power. Yet it better fit the order of the world he created and it was more powerful for us that he suffer himself as we suffer.

God therefore chose to suffer and die on the cross. Jesus in his humanity chose to suffer and die on the cross. Jesus died for everyone, not just a certain limited number. Jesus died for those who would stay his enemies forever, not just for those God knew would turn to him. In a sense, Jesus willingly wasted some of his blood on those whom God knew would never respond.

God loves everything he has created, even those who will never choose to serve him.

Next week: G9. God's justice fits within the context of his love.

[1] As Gottfried Leibniz, a Christian philosopher of the 1600s, thought.

[2] Compare 1 Chronicles 21:1 with 2 Samuel 24:1. Job may picture a patriarchal situation, but this in no way means that Job was written during the time of the patriarchs, a fact that the Hebrew of Job would militate against. Thus where 1 Samuel 18:10-11 speaks of an evil spirit coming from God and driving Saul to throw a spear at David, we should take this as very imprecise language that only imprecisely understands divine agency in relation to evil. God allowed an evil spirit to drive Saul to throw the spear.

[3] The case of God "hardening a heart" such as Pharoah's must be taken in a very general sense. God certainly uses evil for good. God sometimes redirects the direction of evil. God may abandon someone to evil to where their evil is amplified or Satan accentuates evil. But God does not make Pharaoh evil in the first place.

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