Is it just me or do older people often seem to become exaggerated and sometimes inflexible versions of their former selves? Some become so mellow they see the good in everyone and are unwilling to find fault with anything. Others have fixed ideas about everything that’s wrong with the world and how miscreants should be punished.
These are extreme generalisations, of course. But it’s made me wonder whether, because we regard God as being very old indeed, we can subconsciously shoehorn him into an extreme version of one of these. We may see him either as entirely loving and forgiving or eternally wrathful against the tiniest infraction unless he is appeased by his Son.
The wrathful image appears to be confirmed when the Psalms speak of God’s hatred for sinners: ‘You hate all who do wrong’ (5:5); ‘the wicked… he hates with a passion’ (11:5). Given that we are all sinners, it sounds like God doesn’t love anyone! Perhaps, it’s no wonder then that some people reject these Old Testament verses in favour of the new revelation of God’s love in Jesus. But individual verses about God’s wrath are also found in the New Testament, for example, ‘whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them’ (John 3:36).
Actually, there are very few verses about God’s hatred of sinners in the Bible, and the two quoted above are the only ones in the Old Testament. It’s important to note that hatred is not necessarily nasty, it is sometimes the right response to something; especially in the way the Hebrews often used the word. In English, hate means the opposite of love, but in Hebrew and Greek it usually means ‘to love no longer’ or ‘to love less’.
When Jacob ‘hated’ Leah (ESV, KJV), he merely loved her less than bright-eyed Rachel (Genesis 29:3133). Paul referred to God’s hatred towards Esau (Romans 9:13), but he didn’t earn this hatred until his nation had plundered Israel (Malachi 1:1-3). In Genesis there was no hint of this hatred, only a prophecy that ‘the elder will serve the younger’ (Genesis 25:23). In the Gospels, the word ‘hatred’ can mean ‘less love’ (see Matthew 6:24; Luke 14:26).
All the verses in the Bible (apart from the above examples) that speak of God’s condemnation of evil reject the sin rather than the sinner. Augustine summed up the Bible’s message in the fourth century: ‘With love for mankind and hatred of sins’ (Letter 211, c424). Most preachers quote Gandhi’s paraphrase of this: ‘God loves the sinner but hates the sin.’ W
e are keenly aware of this distinction today. Teachers condemn bullying but are careful not to label someone ‘a bully’ (though that doesn’t stop the kids applying labels). We want to emphasise that everyone has the chance to change their ways. Of course, this is precisely the emphasis of the Bible. This is a rare instance in which society has incorporated some good Christian theology.
Being reminded about God’s wrath isn’t an entirely bad thing. It is too easy to fall into the opposite fallacy of regarding God as the ultimate pushover: someone who talks tough about sin but never actually condemns anyone for it or turns them away. But these, psalms 5 and 11, which we looked at earlier, remind us that there will be a time when God makes a decision and there’s no time left for reform. The two verses that talk about God’s hatred of sinners are speaking about judgement day: the sinners are ‘in your presence’ where ‘you destroy’; God is ‘on his heavenly throne’ where he ‘examines’ and prepares ‘fiery coals’ (Psalm 5:4-6 and 11:4-6). In other words, both psalms envisage God’s attitude on the day when things are finally fixed and the unrepentant are punished. At that point, the sinner becomes fused with his sin and both become the object of God’s hatred.
Paul tells us that the best way to treat those who are doing hateful things is to show them love. He turns round the verse about hated sinners being punished with ‘fiery coals’ by saying: ‘If your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head’ (Romans 12:20). In other words, show wrongdoers goodness and, if they don’t change, this is more evidence against them. This isn’t just a New Testament concept; Paul is quoting Proverbs 25:21-22. The whole Bible balances love and wrath, and always aims to bring sinners to repentance.
THE WHOLE BIBLE BALANCES LOVE AND WRATH
There is no contradiction between the God of love and the God of wrath portrayed throughout the Bible. God isn’t an old man who is fixed in his ways, but is more like a parent who is flexible in his response. His children sometimes need encouragement and pleading, though sometimes they will only respond to discipline and severe warnings. And, unfortunately, humans wander off the path more than they follow it. The prophets sometimes come across as nagging because they have to keep repeating the same warnings. God is consistently portrayed as the one ‘who wants all people to be saved’ (1 Timothy 2:4), and he doesn’t have hatred towards anyone until his offer of forgiveness is finally rejected.
The saddest thing about the meaning of the word used for ‘hate’ in the Bible is that it usually implies a former love. In ancient synagogues, a man would occasionally stand up and announce to everyone: ‘I hate my wife.’ At this point, his wife would stand up and state: ‘I hate my husband.’ It sounds like the beginning of a public shouting match, but it was actually the formal way to start divorce proceedings. (Some official records of this have survived from Egyptian synagogues from the fifth century BC). Similarly, when God said ‘I have come to hate’ Israel for her adultery with other gods, he had recently called her ‘the one I love’ (Jeremiah 12:7-8). God’s hatred is always like that: it is love that has been rejected.
God loves both the good and bad – everyone – but the Bible is clear that unrepentant hatred for him will eventually be reciprocated. When the final sentence is decided on judgement day against unrepentant evil, it will be correct to speak of God’s hatred for that sinner. But it will be hatred with a tear in the eye, not the dry-eyed hatred of revenge.