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Does God Hate the Sin but Love the Sinner? Part 3

I have argued for this saying by breaking down each constituent part and seeing the evidence for each. God hates the sin, and God loves the sinner. 

However, there are those who say that “God hates the sin, but loves the sinner” is an unbiblical notion, even though adopted by many Christians today. These look at the conjunction used between the phrases, the ‘but,’ which they say make it appear that God doesn’t hate sinners also. They would say that at the same time as loving them, he also hates them. They quote Bible verses that say “God hates evildoers:”

Before looking at these verses, let us first examine the ‘but.’ This conjunction is used to clarify the phrase precedes it by denying an apparent implication. In this case the implication is that God, as a result of their sin, has no love for the sinner, only hate. By clarifying, “but God loves the sinner,” we clarify the distinction between the behaviour or life-style (which God hates, which will bring them condemnation), and the person (whom God loves – loves enough to see past their behaviour and rescue them from the consequences of their sin). 

Pastorally, the purpose of saying this is to emphasise God’s love for people to those that tend to conflate the person with the person’s behaviour or life-style, and already feel the condemnation. People already feeling condemnation don’t need to encounter God’s hatred, they need to encounter God’s love for them. So there is no good that is being accomplished by pointing out God’s dual feelings towards the sinner.

Theologically, what critics of this slogan actually want to do is add “…and hates the sinner too.” Instead of seeing the implication that is actually there, they see another which is not because they’re focused on their pet theological agenda which is not being catered to. We should realise that slogans have limited capabilities. They’re quick and easy in order to pack a punchy message into a tight space. But their brevity means they’ll loose nuance and exclude addendums. What this slogan does is give priority to the Bible’s own emphasis of God’s love and mercy for all people – even sinners. 

At best God’s hatred of sinners is a minor theme in the Bible. At worst, it’s untrue. In fairness, there are a number of verses that tell of God’s hatred towards sinners. 

“You hate all workers of inequity”

Psalm 5:5b

“The Lord tests the righteous and the wicked, and the one who loves violence His soul hates.”

Psalm 11:5

See also Leviticus 20:23; Psalms 5:6; Proverbs 16:5; Hosea 9:15. 

However, we must remember that the Bible is not a text on Christian philosophy or systematic theology. This means two important things. 

First, its a reminder that the Bible is a conglomeration of different genres; narrative, poetry, biography, didactic letters, apocalyptic literature, etc. This means they’ll be difficulties such as the contradiction these verses pose. Does God love sinners or hate them? We have verses which affirm both. The answer to this difficulty lies in part in the recognition that we need to interpret the difficult verses in light of the clear verses and arguments such as the ones provided. These few verses are the difficult ones. They don’t therefore necessarily overrule or undermine what is elsewhere clearly established.

Second, this means that sometimes the Bible speaks from a human perspective, with all the colourful narrative techniques of a masterful work of the storyteller’s art. This means that these verses could possibly be understood as poetic expressions or prophetic utterances denoting God’s attitude towards sin and all its consequences rather than teaching He literally hates the sinner themselves. These verses could well be teaching the chief consequence of sin is God’s judgement or wrath, which separates the sinner from God and ultimately destroys the person. That these verse are found in a genres known for its poetic expressions goes some way to confirm this.  

Given these considerations, combined with the paucity of verses stating God hates sinners compared to the amount of verses which only note God’s hatred of sinful behaviour, there is good reason to think twice about God’s hatred towards sinners.

Advocates of the idea that God hates sinners as well (and not just their sin) say that God punishes sinners and not sin itself. Sin doesn’t exist ‘out there’ as a force on its own, waiting to be judged. The objects of his wrath are people who become the occupants of hell. Good points!

Yes, God punishes the sinner – because it’s impossible for man to separate himself from his sin. However, this just points out that the sin and the sinner are closely related, not that there is no distinguishing between them. The heart has a left ventricle and a right ventricle, and one bad ventricle makes for a bad heart altogether. You can’t separate one ventricle from another (without killing the person, that is), but you can distinguish between them to see where the problem is coming from. So too for the sin and the sinner. The problem is coming from the sin, and the sinner is caught up in the trouble that sin creates.

“But,” they say, “Sin is not sinful except as committed by sinful hearts” and “Sinful volitions are owing to sinful hearts.”[1] This is tautological. Like saying “If you can’t fix something that kills you, you’ll be dead,” or “But a square has four equal sides.” This is no surprise. Do we blame a four equal-sided polygon for being a square? Tautologies can sound good, but are actually nothing profound. They’re circular, and are used to make a claim seem more credible or convincing than it actually is. Likewise, do we blame a sinner for having a sinful heart? If you can’t rid yourself of your record of sinful behaviour, you’ll have a sinful heart. Everyone excepts this. 

The point of saying so was to say that sin is not a force ‘out there’ awaiting judgement. However, sinful behaviour actually can be abstracted as a concept – we call it ‘sin.’ Sin as an abstract concept actually is evil, but it only counts as an offence against God when a person actualises the sin in the concrete world with their behaviour. 

And yes, the objects of his wrath are people. However, the idea that the people who sin receive punishment is evidence that God is just, not evidence that He is hateful in some sense towards them as people. They become the objects of God’s wrath, not because he is hateful towards them, but because God is repulsed by sinful behaviour and despises its consequences; separation from his life-giving and loving self. “Hatred” is a way that human beings can understand that repulsion. It is simply the idea that God is Holy and He must punish sinful behaviour by banishing sinners from the Edenic garden of his life and love.

In order to substantiate the notion that God simultaneously both loves and hates the sinner, these theologians have to distinguish between two different types of hatred. “Hate can be intense loathing of a quality, or hate can be beyond that — the intense intentionality to destroy.”

However, the Lexical grounds for this assertion (of two types of hatred) are shaky at best. The Hebrew does have two words for hatred that signify a varying degree of intensity. Like my saying “I hate broccoli (but will tolerate if its placed on my plate for the sake of being polite)” and “I hate those who put my children in danger (and will intentional about avoid those who do).” The idea of destruction is part of neither word. Secondly, drawing this distinction entails that God hates some sinners with a hatred that intensely seeks to destroy them. How this squares with the didactic verse God is not willing that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9) is difficult to grasp. 

Third, it is difficult to see how advocates of God’s hatred toward sinners are not doing so to support a presupposed theological system which demands it. Calvinism, which includes an unconditional election with a limited atonement, will entail a double-predestination where both the saved and the unsaved are determined for salvation and destruction respectively. This entails God’s extreme hatred towards some sinners (the unelect) – an intense intentionality to destroy them.

Such a system has an internally coherent logic. It is however unnecessary. The choice for people is whether they allow the paradoxical love/hate relationship between God and sinners, or to be without the paradox by interpreting the “hate sinners” verses literally rather than as poetic expressions.

Footnotes
[1] John Piper, https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/god-loves-the-sinner-but-hates-the-sin

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