I wrote the other day about the disappearance of hell from much of Christian thought and preaching. It's being replaced by a more "loving" notion of God, rather than a God who is "judgmental". I think this is unfortunate, and we need, instead, to maintain a Biblical and balanced view of God. We are not to take a single one of God's attributes in isolation. God's love needs to be understood in view of his justice and holiness, for example, and God's judgments need to be seen in view of his other attributes, as well.
This is the second post in a series on the subject. Here, I want to point out an article by D. A. Carson on Distorting the Love of God which I recommend. (Hat tip to Macht in the comments on the last post). He points out that there are different aspects of God's love, and if we focus on just one aspect, we lose sight of what God's love really means. He also argues that God's love, when properly understood, is a difficult doctrine. It's worth reading in its entirety, but here are some particularly good points:
If people believe in God at all today, the overwhelming majority hold that this God — however he, she, or it may be understood — is a loving being. But that is what makes the task of the Christian witness so daunting. For this widely disseminated belief in the love of God is set with increasing frequency in some matrix other than biblical theology. The result is when informed Christians talk about the love of God, they mean something very different from what is meant in the surrounding culture. Worse, neither side may perceive that that is the case.
I do not think that what the Bible says about the love of God can long survive at the forefront of our thinking if it is abstracted from the sovereignty of God, the holiness of God, the wrath of God, the providence of God, or the personhood of God — to mention only a few nonnegotiable elements of basic Christianity.
The result, of course, is that the love of God in our culture has been purged of anything the culture finds uncomfortable. The love of God has been sanitized, democratized, and above all sentimentalized....
It has not always been so. In generations when almost everyone believed in the justice of God, people sometimes found it difficult to believe in the love of God. The preaching of the love of God came as wonderful good news. Nowadays if you tell people that God loves them, they are unlikely to be surprised. Of course God loves me; he's like that, isn't he? Besides, why shouldn't he love me? I'm kind of cute, or at least as nice as the next person. I'm okay, you're okay, and God loves you and me.
Even in the mid-1980s, according to Andrew Greeley, three-quarters of his respondents in an important poll reported that they preferred to think of God as "friend" than as "king." I wonder what the percentage would have been if the option had been "friend" or "judge." Today most people seem to have little difficulty believing in the love of God; they have far more difficulty believing in the justice of God, the wrath of God, and the noncontradictory truthfulness of an omniscient God. But is the biblical teaching on the love of God maintaining its shape when the meaning of "God" dissolves in mist?
Notice, Carson points out that in generations when people believed in God's justice, "the preaching of the love of God came as wonderful good news." Indeed, that's the very meaning of the word "gospel": The good news of salvation in Jesus Christ offered, based on his work, to everyone who will repent of their sins and trust in Christ. Before there can be good news, there has to be bad news: We deserve God's judgment, but God has provided a substitute to pay the penalty that we deserve for our sins, so that we can be saved if we trust in him.
But if God is primarily love, why is the gospel good news? Indeed, I spent almost the first 20 years of my life assuming that if God even existed, I would certainly go to heaven, because I was a pretty moral person compared to most of the people I saw around me, even nominal Christians. And since we all know God is love, well, of course he'd let me into heaven, right? Like Carson wrote, "I'm ... at least as nice as the next person," so of course he loves me.
See, the problem is, when we think God is only love (and we have a twisted idea of what that means), there is no need for salvation. Salvation from WHAT? If God loves me, surely he won't send me to hell. So, I didn't think I needed salvation from anything. Sure, if God existed, there was probably a hell reserved for people like Hitler, in my view, but not for nice people, like I thought I was. It was only when I began to read the Bible and find out about how God declares that he will punish the wicked, and I read his law and found out that, indeed, I was violating God's law and therefore deserved his punishment, that I started realizing that I needed salvation.
Until we understand what we deserve from God, we cannot rightly understand what it means when God says that he is love. As long as we think of ourselves as lovable, we are very far from understanding the reality declared in the Bible: God does not love people because his love is deserved. He loves even though his love is not deserved, even though we have been in rebellion against him. We read, for example, that Jesus said, "It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners to repentance." (Luke 5:31-33). And Romans 5:8 we read, "God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us." Ephesians 2:1,5 reads, "And you were dead in your tresspasses and sins, in which you once walked... But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ -- by grace you have been saved..." It's interesting that in these latter two passages, the understanding of God's love seems inextricably linked with an understanding of our condition. Imagine taking out the mention of trespasses and sins from those verses. What would be left? God's love, but it wouldn't mean much. To properly understand his love, we have to see that it means he loved us even when we were "dead in trespasses and sins". God doesn't love us because of our "good works" (indeed, "who has ever given to God, that God should repay him?", Romans 11:35), but in spite of our sins.
So, if Christian preaching and evangelism turns away from discussing what people deserve, it will also be turning away from declaring what God's love really means. Without understanding what we deserve, we cannot properly understand God's love, and thus we cannot understand the good news of salvation in Jesus Christ.
As an aside, in closing, it's worth pointing out that there is one thing that people may still want salvation from without understanding that hell is real, and that we deserve God's judgment. That one thing is problems in this life: Sickness or serious illness, financial problems, marital problems, etc. If Christ is the savior, but we don't believe in hell or God's judgment, what is left for Christ to save us from? Sickness, financial problems, etc. It's interesting, then, to notice how common health and wealth preaching is becoming. I've heard sermons when I visited other churches which said essentially, "Come to Christ and he will solve all your problems and make you rich. You'll have a great life. And if you're sick, you just need to believe, and he'll heal you." Christ is still seen as a savior -- but a savior from temporal problems, not a savior from our sins and the hell we deserve.