The Personalist Project

I ran across this unfortunate object on the internet the other day.  

I don't know how compelling it might look to your run-of-the-mill New Atheist, but it does shine light on a common misunderstanding, rampant among Christians and anti-Christians both.

We seem to be sending a mixed message, and the most effective way to stop doing that is to get clear in our own minds what we believe.

So--Is God’s love unconditional, or isn’t it? 

If it is, why did he bother to give Moses 613 commandments?

Doesn’t unconditional love accept the beloved as she is?  What if your boyfriend claimed to love you unconditionally but was always pressing you to lose twenty pounds, or dye your hair blonde, or become more extroverted?  Is God that kind of guy, writ large?

If that’s who atheists think we worship you can hardly blame them from running screaming in the other direction, or at least backing uneasily away.  With some people, you get the sense that it's not so much that they disbelieve in God's existence. It's more that they don't trust HIm--don't like Him--wouldn't want to believe in someone like Him.  They're baffled that anybody would.

It doesn't help when some Christians try to have it both ways.

Atheists, understandably enough, object to the lack of logic, confirmed in their prejudice that the Christian position isn't even coherent enough to deserve a response.

Then again, some Christians don’t feel the need to salvage the “unconditional” part.  One series of articles and letters in the New Oxford Review rankled in my mind for years.  The author submitted that God not only doesn’t love everybody unconditionally, He hates some of us.  After all, it says so right in the Bible: God “hates,” “abhors,” and “despises”(depending on the translation) sinners, or Israel, or the wicked

.“God hates workers of iniquity” --Ps.5:5

"The LORD trieth the righteous: but the wicked and him that loveth violence his soul hateth." --Ps. 11:5

"When God heard this, he was wroth, and greatly abhorred Israel:" --Ps. 78:59

"Therefore was the wrath of the LORD kindled against his people, insomuch that he abhorred his own inheritance." --Ps. 106:40

How to explain that, much less reconcile it with unconditional love?

In fact, I don’t think it’s so mysterious anymore. I chalk a lot of it up to the sort of Semitic hyperbole that, granted, is probably more familiar to those of us who grew up in Jewish families with a penchant for domestic melodrama.  

I don’t think that accounts for it completely, though. Another key to understanding it is Bl. John Paul the Great, who points out that hatred is not the opposite of love: using someone is.  There’s also truth to Elie Wiesel’s idea that indifference, not hatred, is love's real opposite.

(The Westboro Baptist Church people use the same Bible verses to prove that God happens to hate all the same people they do, but I wouldn't want to imply that their ideas deserve a respectful point-by-point refutation.  George Kendall does have a thoughtful and thorough response to the New Oxford Review crowd here, though.)

So I can see why some atheists think that we like to pretend God’s love is unconditional but don't really mean it. Or that we believe that it is conditional, but that's OK, because we happen to be the good guys, the ones who enjoy His favor.

Can’t we make it clear that God’s love is unconditional, but His approval is not?  The closest thing on earth to unconditional love is probably a mother’s love for her child. 

Does that mean she approves of everything he does?  Of course not.  (Just ask my kids.)  Does it mean she won’t ever punish them?  Of course not.  (Ditto.) 

Does it mean she won't make and enforce rules for them?  Why would it? Unconditional love is not indifference. 

This seems like a classic either/or begging to be replaced with a both/and.

Am I missing something?

Comments (5)

Max Torres

#1, Feb 6, 2014 7:33pm

OK.  God loves me whether I break the commandments, or not.  He loves me even if vice prevents my happiness.  But, doesn't God, as our creator, set the conditions of my being?  He sets the personal parameters in which my acts will engender virtues and vices; within which I will be approved, or not.  Regardless of His approval or disapproval, can it be said that He loves conditionally, i.e., within the conditions He has set?

Devra Torres

#2, Feb 6, 2014 8:39pm

Well, husband, by "unconditional," I just meant "regardless of our response or lack thereof."  We all live and act within the "conditions He has set," if that means the way we're made, the kinds of effects certain personal actions will have, the kind of virtues or vices that will grow in us because of them.  

Or maybe you mean something else altogether?

(We're working on communication.  Give us another 23 years and we may make more progress...)

Katie van Schaijik

#3, Feb 7, 2014 1:33am

I've been contemplating a post to be titled, "Love, is unconditional; relationships have terms." You inspire me to get to work on it. I especially like the way you show how illogical and inconsistent Christians appear to the unbelievers who feel spurned and rejected.

Kate Whittaker Cousino

#4, Feb 7, 2014 8:29pm

An apropos quote from Henri Nouwen: "What can we say about God's love? We can say that God's love is unconditional. God does not say, "I love you, if ..." There are no ifs in God's heart. God's love for us does not depend on what we do or say, on our looks or intelligence, on our success or popularity. God's love for us existed before we were born and will exist after we have died. God's love is from eternity to eternity and is not bound to any time-related events or circumstances. Does that mean that God does not care what we do or say? No, because God's love wouldn't be real if God didn't care. To love without condition does not mean to love without concern. God desires to enter into relationship with us and wants us to love God in return. Let's dare to enter into an intimate relationship with God without fear, trusting that we will receive love and always more love."

Devra Torres

#5, Feb 7, 2014 8:39pm

"To love without condition does not mean to love without concern."  Yes!  I just recently got acquainted with Nouwen when I was translating Self Esteem without Selfishness--Michel Esparza quotes him a lot.  I wanted to write about this because even though it's such an elementary misunderstanding, and one that's so obvious once you see it, it's so widespread.

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