Although no attribute should be exalted above another (i.e., none of God’s characteristics cancel out or over shadow another), the narrative of Scripture certainly casts special light on several. God’s holiness, sovereignty and love are good examples. An unbiased, simple reading of Exodus should leave any heart gasping for air at the wondrous terror of God’s omnipotent and righteous pursuit of His own glory in the salvation of Israel. And who could escape Hosea without a deep impression of God’s unconditional love for His people? Surely we have all been brought to tears by the prophet’s vision in Isaiah 6 – the thrice holy God manifesting Himself in the image of Jesus Christ (John 12:41).
When I was first awakened to the sovereignty of God in all things and the bottomless chasm of His love, I was swiftly confronted with a conundrum. Perhaps the reader can relate. If God is absolutely in control of all things, and if God’s love is immeasurably vast, then why does God damn people to hell? I found my answer in the justice of God. I realized that God is not only a loving God, but He is also righteous. God will always act in accordance with all of His attributes. Although He loves people, He will give people what they justly deserve. Because of God’s justice, He has prepared a real, actual place called ‘hell’ in which all the rebels of His Kingship will suffer His wrath forever.
This led me to another problem, however: the Scriptures clearly say that “There is no one righteous, no not one,” (Romans 3:10). If this is so, then how could God not send anyone to hell? I found my answer in the love of God. God loved the world by sending His unique Son to suffer the penalty of sins (John 3:16). He did not suffer the penalty for everyone’s sin, but for those who put their faith in Him, repenting of their rebellion and submitting to His reign. The love and justice of God meet in the cross of Christ: “For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of god, being justified as a gift by His grace through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus; whom God displayed publicly as a propitiation in His blood through faith. This was to demonstrate His righteousness, because in the forbearance of God He passed over the sins previously committed; for the demonstration, I say, of His righteousness at the present time, so that He would be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus,” (Romans 3:23-26). So God’s love is satisfied in the salvation of His people and the offer of grace to the lost. His justice is satisfied in the death of Christ on the cross and the suffering of the guilty in hell.
Dwelling on this for a few months led me to yet another question: is God pleased to damn people? I understood that hell was necessary for God’s justice but I was struggling with what it meant for God to be satisfied with damning people. Does God laugh when He throws men into hell? Does God delight at the thought of burning people in the flames of His wrath? If God does all that He pleases (Psalm 115:3), then in what sense is He pleased with the destruction of the wicked? How is this pleasure compatible with Ezekiel 18:23, “‘Do I have any pleasure in the death of the wicked,’ declares the Lord God, ‘rather than that he should turn from his ways and live?'”
Maybe you have pondered this as well. First, I believe it is important to affirm several truths.
1. God Does Not Love Like We Love
When we refer to “love” we often include feelings and ambiguous, fleeting affections. God’s love is not so. You cannot watch a Disney movie and attribute the love that Beauty has for Beast to God. God’s love is something He does. It is a commitment He makes. He does not “fall in love,” He sets His love on people. John 3:16 is a wonderful example of this: “For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only Son..” Notice so loved. This does not refer to the degree to which He loved but the way in which He loved (see the Holman Christian Standard Version). God loved the world in this way – what way? The incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. I challenge you to read the New Testament and pay particular attention to the references of God’s love for us. In most cases, you will see it referring back to an action or commitment of love He has made (consider also 1 John 4:19).
2. God Does Not Love All People The Same Way
One of the tragedies of superficial evangelicalism is the traditional idea that God loves all people the same way. You will not find this anywhere in Scripture. Does God love the reprobate, unrepentant man the same way He loves His church? Did Jesus have the same love for all of His apostles, or was not John the recipient of a special affection from Jesus (John 13:23)? What of the special affections He had for the family of Mary, Martha and Lazarus (John 11:5)? What of the fact that God has predestined only some individuals to salvation (Ephesians 1:1-14)? We constantly differentiate between the people we love. Should a woman love a stranger as much or in the same way that she loves her husband? Of course not. If we allow such differentiation among humans, why do we not allow it for God? We must clear our minds of tradition and approach Scripture critically. When we do this, the text makes clear to our hearts and minds that God does not love all people the same way.
Some argue that God loves all people the same way because He made all people. The argument seems to be that God loves us because He made us – but is this viable? God made the angels and Lucifer before they fell, and yet He extends to them no salvation. Does He love them? How does He, if so? As He loves His church? To go even further, does He love the Devil as He loves the persons of the Trinity? How on earth can we not differentiate between the love between the Father and the Son and the love He has for other beings? The case seems clear: God does not love all people the same way.
3. God Does Have Love For Those Who Will Never Repent Of Their Sins
Whatever form or extent it may be manifested in, Scripture advocate for God’s love of the eternally rebellious man. While this love is not of a salvific nature, it is authentic. Consider these texts:
“‘Do I have any pleasure in the death of the wicked,’ declares the Lord God, ‘rather than that he should turn from his ways and live?'” – Ezekiel 18:23
Say to them, ‘As I live’ declares the Lord God, ‘I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that the wicked turn from his way and live. Turn back, turn back from your evil ways! Why then will you die, O house of Israel?'” – Ezekiel 33:11
“This is good and acceptable in the sigh of God our savior, who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” – 1 Timothy 2:3-4.
4. God Not Only Hates Sin, But Also Individual People
“Love the sinner, hate the sin.” This slogan has probably done more to misconstrue people’s understanding of God’s wrath than anything else in the North American evangelical church. Like it or not, Scripture explicitly refers to God’s hatred for sinners, not just their sinful deeds. When all people are brought under judgment and God separates the sheep from the goats (Matthew 25:31-46), He will throw people into hell, not sin. Sin is an intangible object referring to our disobedience. It is tempting to embody sin as a corporeal thing, but as faithful exegetes we must resist this temptation. Sin refers to the disobedience of those rebelling against God’s kingdom, and it will be these rebels that God punishes. God’s righteous anger rests people because of their sin, there is no abstract object called “sin” that God is angry with. Consider these texts:
“Moreover, you shall not [n]follow the customs of the nation which I will drive out before you, for they did all these things, and therefore I have abhorred them.” – Leviticus 20:23
“The boastful shall not stand before Your eyes; You hate all who do iniquity.” – Psalm 5:5
“The Lord tests the righteous and the wicked, and the one who loves violence His soul hates.” – Psalm 11:5
“There are six things which the Lord hates, yes, seven which are an abomination to Him: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked plans, feet that run rapidly to evil, a false witness who utters lies, and one who spreads strife among brothers.” – Proverbs 6:16-19
“All their evil is at Gilgal; indeed, I came to hate them there! Because of the wickedness of their deeds I will drive them out of My house! I will love them no more; all their princes are rebels.” – Hosea 9:15.
5. God Does Not Hate Like We Hate
The hatred of God is not like our hatred. We should not see God as an angry viking in the heavens, ill-tempered and unable to control His thunderous wrath. His wrath is holy, controlled and always just. His wrath is the very definition of righteous indignation. The manifestation of His wrath is never needless or arbitrary, but always for the purpose of enacting justice in the pursuit and destruction of evil. In addition to the righteousness of His wrath, there is also a terribleness to it. The terribleness does not refer to a deficiency or evil characteristic within it, but rather to what it means for those who are its recipients.
“People will flee to caves in the rocks and to holes in the ground from the fearful presence of the LORD and the splendor of his majesty, when he rises to shake the earth.” – Isaiah 2:19
“A jealous and avenging God is the Lord; the Lord is avenging and wrathful. The Lord takes vengeance on His adversaries, and He reserves wrath for His enemies. The Lord is slow to anger and great in power, and the Lord will by no means leave the guilty unpunished. In whirlwind and storm is His way, and clouds are the dust beneath His feet. He rebukes the sea and makes it dry; He dries up all the rivers. Bashan and Carmel wither; the blossoms of Lebanon wither. Mountains quake because of Him and the hills dissolve; indeed the earth is upheaved by His presence, the world and all the inhabitants in it. Who can stand before His indignation? Who can endure the burning of His anger? His wrath is poured out like fire and the rocks are broken up by Him. The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble, and He knows those who take refuge in Him. But with an overflowing flood He will make a complete end of [b]its site, and will pursue His enemies into darkness. Whatever you devise against the Lord, He will make a complete end of it. Distress will not rise up twice. Like tangled thorns, and like those who are drunken with their drink, they are consumed as stubble completely withered.” – Nahum 1:2-10
“And they said to the mountains and to the rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb.'” – Revelation 6:16
With these truths in mind, I believe we need look no farther than Isaiah 53:10, “But the Lord was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief.” This is Isaiah’s prophecy concerning the death of Jesus Christ, and He explicitly states that God was pleased to crush Jesus. God was pleased to put Jesus to grief. Certainly we know that God did not have delight in flinging His wrath upon Christ – yet this seems to be the meaning of the text. I submit that God’s pleasure in Christ death was purely in reference to the satisfaction of His wrath against sin. We can think of a judge who is presented with his 33 year-old son in court. The son has murdered 12 young girls in cold blood and the judge knows what must be done. Because the judge delights in doing what is right and enacting justice for those 12 innocent girls, he will pass the death-penalty on to his 33 year-old son. However, who would deny that the judge would be grieved over flinging the wrath of America’s judicial system upon his son? The judge certainly would not be pleased in the sense that he delights in the grief of His son, as one may delight in playing sports or reading books. Rather, the judge certainly would be please in the sense that he delights in the satisfaction of justice for those 12 young girls.
All of mankind exchanged the truth of God for a lie, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator (Romans 1:25). We have all committed the greatest injustice by rebelling against the supreme authority in the universe and seeking to rob Him of the glory and honor He is due. It is our moral obligation to give Him such glory, and yet we have all turned aside (Romans 3:12). On the cross, God counted our sins to Jesus – He treated Jesus as if He had committed our injustice. Thus presented with His Son, guilty of the grandest injustice (the defamation of God’s name and thievery of His glory), God the righteous Judge was pleased to crush Him, putting Him to grief (Isaiah 53:10). He was pleased in the sense that He delighted in the satisfaction of justice, not in the sense that He delighted in the suffering of His Son as one delights in a hobby.
But what of people? The damned are not children of God, and so the analogy is not applicable, is it? Although not perfectly, I think it is still applicable, in light of several texts that explicitly communicate God’s ill-delight in the eternal death of all humans: Ezekiel 18:23; 33:11; 1 Timothy 2:3-4. We must understand these texts in light of Christ’s death and God’s pleasure in Isaiah 53. God’s ill-delight does not over-ride His eternal purpose of damnation in light of His justice. Just as His ill-delight in Christ’s suffering did not keep Him from satisfying His pleasure for justice in His death, so His ill-delight for the reprobate’s suffering does not keep Him from satisfying His pleasure for justice in their death.
So when we read such passages as Deuteronomy 28:63 (“It shall come about that as the Lord delighted over you to prosper you, and multiply you, so the Lord will delight over you to make you perish and destroy you; and you will be torn from the land where you are entering to possess it.”), we know that the pleasure being referred to is not a happiness as one has in biting into cold, vanilla ice cream or the delight that one has in playing basketball. God’s pleasure in the destruction of the wicked is the joy He has in glorifying His holiness in the appeasement of His wrath. He delights in the satisfaction of justice and the glorification of His attributes. God is not an impish torturer wringing His hands for more damned souls to confine within His wrath. He is the righteous, omnipotent judge of all things and His wrath is white, pure and holy.
Praise God that He is a judge of consistency and holiness, and not of corruption and cold, arbitrary decisions!