The Bible says that “God is love.” Clifford Goldstein reflects on what that means.
In his novel Suttree, set in the early twentieth century American South, author Cormac McCarthy puts these words into the mouth of one of his characters: “I ain’t no infidel. . . . I always figured there was a God. . . . I just never did like him.”
Never did like him? For those who know God and have experienced not only the reality of His existence but also His love, such a sentiment is hard to sympathise with. On the other hand, God is so big, so powerful and so complex that He’s easily misunderstood by shallow, sinful fallen creatures such as ourselves, who are deceived even by the most obvious things. After all, not until 500 years ago did most humans finally realise that it was the earth moving around the sun, not vice versa!
Nevertheless, if people would open their hearts and minds, they would know for themselves the reality of God’s love. Though God’s creation testifies to that love, our world is fallen and so the message it presents can be (and often is) distorted. That’s why, whatever other evidence we find of His love, or whatever experiences we have of it ourselves, the greatest revelation of it is found, now and forever, in the death of Jesus on the Cross. One of the most famous texts in the entire Bible says that, “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son” (John 3:16, NKJV).* This act on God’s part proves, beyond any question, that He has a love so great that no matter what our circumstances, we can find hope and solace in it.
The Nature Of Things
The natural world itself presents powerful evidence, not just that God exists, but of His love. The ancient sage Job wrote, “Now ask the beasts, and they will teach you; and the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you; and the fish of the sea will explain to you. Who among all these does not know that the hand of the Lord has done this, in whose hand is the life of every living thing, and the breath of all mankind?” (Job 12:7–10).
Besides the beauty and majesty of these created things, modern science is continually revealing to us new levels of complexity in even the simpler life forms—a complexity that the human author of these words could never have even begun to imagine. If people in the Bronze Age could, even with their limited scientific resources, marvel at the wonders of God’s creation, how much more so should we do the same in this age of information?
But nature isn’t all sweetness and light. There are famines, floods and earthquakes. Children are born with diseases, and new strains of viruses arise that wreak havoc on our immune systems and ignore our most potent pharmaceuticals.
How can these things happen if God is love? As Jesus said in another (though definitely related) context, “An enemy has done this” (Matthew 13:28). Our world is in the midst of a universal conflict between Christ and Satan, good and evil. And, like all war zones, our planet has felt its devastating effects. Though there’s still much in nature that testifies to the Creator’s love, the damage has been done; and so the created world doesn’t provide us with an unvarnished testimony.
Only the Cross does.
The Crucified God
A sceptic once said to a Christian, “In just one sentence, tell me what you believe.” The Christian responded, “I believe that the Being who created the entire cosmos, all the stars, all the galaxies and even all the space that contains them and everything on them—I believe that this same Creator ‘shrank down,’ took upon Himself human flesh and in that flesh bore the punishment of sin and evil that should have fallen on each of us.” Or, as the apostle Paul expressed it, “Let this mind be in you which was also in Christ Jesus, who, being in the form of God, did not consider it robbery to be equal with God, but made Himself of no reputation, taking the form of a bondservant, and coming in the likeness of men. And being found in appearance as a man, He humbled Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross” (Philippians 2:5–8).
In contrast, if the common atheistic view of Creation is true, then the universe in which we find ourselves is a cold, uncaring place and the same cold, uncaring forces that created us by chance will devour us by chance as well. In the biblical view, as expressed by Paul, the universe is a friendly, loving place because it was created and is sustained by a friendly, loving God, whose love for us is so great that He willingly abased Himself, becoming even “a curse for us” (Galatians 3:13). God, in the person of Jesus Christ, carried in Himself His own punishment for our sin and our evil. Rather than punish us for our evil, He punished Himself. God so loved us that, instead of leaving us to the fate of certain death due to our sins, He suffered that death in the willing sacrifice of Jesus.
“Greater love has no one than this, than to lay down one’s life for his friends” (John 15:13), which is exactly what Jesus did. And there’s more. The apostle Paul said, “God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). In other words, Christ died even for those who were His enemies, not just for His friends.
God does, indeed, love us; all through the Bible, the Old Testament and New, He speaks words of love to His people. The climactic revelation of that love comes not only in the appearance of Jesus but especially in His death.
A message of love can also come as a warning, such as when someone who loves you warns you about an impending danger. In such a case, if the danger is real, it wouldn’t be love if they did not sound a warning.
Hence, we find in the book of Revelation an end-time message that begins with the “everlasting gospel” (Revelation 14:6), the great news of Jesus dying on the Cross for our sins. It then gives us a call to “worship Him who made heaven and earth, the sea and springs of water” (verse 7), in contrast to those who worship “the beast and his image” (verse 9).
This means that as the universal conflict between Christ and Satan reaches its climax in these last days, God calls all people to render faithfulness and obedience to Him, and thus spare themselves the terrible fate that awaits those who become aligned with forces that mean them only harm.
All through sacred history God has called people to cast themselves into His arms of love and thus have the security and protection that a loving Parent offers His weak and trembling children.
To know God—to get even a glimpse of His true character—is to understand something of His love. What is His love like? Well, it reached across the vast expanses of the creation and embraced this sorry, dying planet in a clasp so strong that it endured the torment of the Cross in order to give us the opportunity for something we don’t deserve and that most of us don’t even care about, which is eternal life in Him.
That’s what His love is like.
* Unless otherwise noted, all scriptures in this article are from The New King James Version, copyright © 1979, 1980, 1982, Thomas Nelson, Inc., Publishers.