How do non universalists interpret the

declaration that God is love?

(referencing I John 4:8 & 16)


When we begin to discuss the qualities of God, we must realize that while other beings may have these qualities -God is these qualities. Only the characteristic varies when applied to a finite being. Since finite beings are restricted by their nature of finiteness, it is not unusual for them to describe a necessary infinite Being by comparison and analogy. Therefore, things are like God in their actuality, but not in their potential, since God has no potentiality. In drawing an analogy between the finite and the infinite, we must isolate the univocal attribute or quality that both share in order to understand how the attribute relates to God. Thus when I say "I love" and that "God is love" I must be careful of my definition of "love" lest my meaning be not understood as I hoped to convey it. Therefore, when we speak of God being love, we must ask ourselves the question of what kind of love? Is it a brotherly love? a sexual love? A covetous love? Or a moral love?

I would say that when it is said that God is love, that the Scriptures are speaking of a moral love. A moral love that doesn't describe God as an attribute He possesses, but rather is. Certainly Scriptures tell us there is none more holy than God, and that God cannot sin.

A moral love is something that non Christians have difficulty understanding. A moral love is a love without sin, without blemish, and without misrepresentation. For example I have a moral love for those whom believe in universal reconciliation­yet at the same time I do not love the errors that they promote. Another example: I love my neighbor whom is a murderer, but I do not love his sin.

A moral love is that which loves the sinner but not the sin. Therefore when a moral love is applied onto God Himself; we begin to understand both the holiness of the Lord in heaven, our own depravity, and the need to separate ourselves from sin. Since we are all sinners, and in this temporal life sin is inevitable, we on our own accord are completely unable to separate ourselves of sin. When one is born from above, he is brought into a standing which never afterwards varies: he is "accepted in the Beloved." His sin and also his sins have all been imputed to Christ, and now the righteousness of Christ is imputed to him. He enters into the blessedness of a man unto whom God imputeth righteousness without works, saying, "Blessed are they whose iniquities are forgiven, and whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man to whom the Lord will not impute sin" (ref. Romans 4:5-8). Thus, by what some have called "the higher ethic of the cross," the righteous God was able to impute His own righteousness unto His sinning people (2 Corinthians 5:19, 21).

When we discuss a moral love we understand this love to be a confluence between two paradoxical impulses: the hunger for the desired object and the desire to do good for that which is loved. One impulse takes and the other impulse gives. In kione Greek the passion to possess is called eros, whereas the self-sacrificing love is called agape. These two functions of love are held in tension in all human love. Any attempt at separating these two dimensions of love will result in an incomplete understanding of love, for they both work together to strengthen each other. Catherine of Genoa astutely observed that both aspects involve a prizing: eros prizes the object of love so longingly that it cannot rest without possessing it, yet at the same time agape cannot withhold any gift or service from the beloved. One is self-serving, the other, self-sacrificing. Both eros and agape involve a yearning: eros seeks self fulfillment through another, whereas agape seek the object of love's fulfillment even at personal cost (Catherine of Genoa, Purgation and Purgatory, pp. 71-72).

Discussing God's love towards humanity, the differences of eros love and agape love and their union in God, Thomas Oden concluded, "God is love in these two senses­enjoyment of the beloved, and self giving for the beloved's good­in perfect fullness, balance, harmony, and completeness. God feels the worth of creatures and longs to do them good. Because God loves in both of these ways in full and fitting balance, we say that God is love" (Thomas Oden, The Living God, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, p. 121, emphasis his).

The Scriptures reveal that God desires to possess, and indeed will have, a people to call His own that willingly love Him. Therefore when a universalist argues for the eventual salvation of all from God's omnipotence, I would be remise in my stewardship if I did not raise two points in response. First, God's attributes do not operate in contradiction to each other. God is internally consistent in His nature. This is why the Bible insists that "It is impossible for God to lie" (Hebrews 6:18). This is also the reason that God's power must be exercised in accordance with His love. That is, God cannot do what is unloving. Second, it is unloving to force people to love Him. Forced love is a contradiction, and God cannot do what is contradictory. Love cannot work coercively but only persuasively. And if some refuse to be persuaded, as the Bible says some will, then God will not coerce them into His kingdom. The Universalist would have God do exactly this by having God "condition sin" out of the wicked in the lake of fire or in some transcendent reality of ages to come. Therefore, even when one argues for free-will and universalism, I must come to the conclusion that free-will cannot thrive if universalism were true­for it would not be a moral love God would exhibit if resistance to His will was futile, rather instead it would be rape. For example: if I were to place you in conditions that were of your greatest dislike, with the idea that all you needed to do to remove yourself from these conditions was to accept something that was contrary to your nature, then my motives for placing you in such a situation would be contrary to the nature of a loving God regardless of the outcome of your response. God doesn't force Himself upon people, for if He did, there would be no room for self-determination. Further, if there were no room for self-determination and all was predetermined, then why would God hold us accountable for things which are beyond our control? If that is indeed the case, then God would be violating His loving nature (God Forbid!).

Thomas Oden writes of love, "The one who best understands that it is more blessed to give than to receive (Acts 20:35) is the one who learns truly to love" (Thomas Oden, The Living God, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, p. 120). Yet it must be observed that completely unreturned love, even a love that never ceases, is still love, for love is not dependant upon its being reciprocated. Hence love never does fail, but love is not defeated if it is never returned because God is not dependant upon the love of His creatures. Nevertheless, the circle of God's love is completed only with the answering love for Him by His beloved. It is at this time when the heart of man and his life joyfully reflect the beauty and image of God's holiness.


Eric Landstrom

©2001, Eric Landstrom

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