A parishioner asked me whether God loves everyone. She was discussing this with a friend. The friend insisted that God doesn’t love everyone — he only loves believers. My parishioner’s gut reaction was to disagree. This was my response:
That’s a question I’ve been thinking about for many years. I used to agree with your friend. But through further study, I’ve come to a different view.
The problem is that there are Scripture passages which speak of God’s wrath and hatred towards the wicked — Psalm 11:5 comes to mind. But there are other passages which speak about God’s all-encompassing love for his creation — Psalm 145:9 is an example of that, also John 3:16.
Scripture tells us that “God is love” (1 John 4:16). Love is an attribute of God. All of God’s attributes are true of him eternally. But that raises a question: love always requires an object, so who did God love before creation? The answer is with the persons of the Trinity. Eternal, holy, infinite love existed between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. When it comes to the love of God, that’s where we need to start. This intra-Trinitarian love is ultimate and primary.
When it comes to his creation, God does have a universal love for all that he has made in general. But we can also speak of a love that God has for all human beings in virtue of the fact that they are created in his image. John Calvin spoke about that in his Institutes. But just like a husband can love his neighbours while also having a special love for his wife, God loves elect human beings in a special way. They become beloved children of the Father, and part of the bride of Christ for which he died.
So what about what Scripture says about God’s wrath and hatred for the wicked in places like Psalm 11:5? We have to conclude that there’s some sense in which God loves his rebellious creatures, while at the same time hating them in another sense. He loves them in virtue of the image which they still bear (his image) and the fact that they are his creation. But his intra-Trinitarian love means he cannot overlook the way these human beings have grievously offended. For example, because the Son loves the Father with an infinite love, he hates those who offend the Father. Because of his love, he will uphold justice. It is because of his holy love that “our God is a consuming fire” (Heb. 12:29). The reprobate do not go to hell despite God’s love, but precisely because “God is love.”
Where does that leave us with our evangelism? There is a well-known evangelistic catchphrase: “God loves you and has a wonderful plan for your life.” One problem is that such a statement leaves room for misunderstanding. The unbeliever doesn’t understand the distinction between God’s general love for his creation, his love for human beings made in his image, and his special love for the elect. Human nature being what it is, the unbeliever makes a mental jump to something like the last category. Then: “If God loves me, then surely he wouldn’t send me to hell. Why would a loving God do that? If he loves me just the way I am right now, why would I need Jesus to go to heaven?” You suck the urgency out of the gospel message with this approach. Another problem with such a statement is that we don’t know if the last part is true. We don’t know God’s decree for each person we meet. It would be accurate to say, “Satan hates you and has a terrible plan for your life.”
It’s better to follow the approach of the apostles and early church in the book of Acts. They simply preached the gospel along with the call for people to repent and believe in Jesus Christ. The word “love” isn’t used at all in the book of Acts, and we certainly don’t hear the apostles telling unbelievers that God loves them. In his love, God does send his church out into the world to proclaim the gospel. But as we do that, we have to make it clear that the good news God sends in his love is only so good because the bad news is so bad: God is holy and just and he will not overlook sin. He will punish it eternally. He has an infinite love for his own holiness, justice, and glory. Once the Holy Spirit helps a sinner to understand that, he’ll repent and turn to Christ and experience God’s love in the most beautiful way possible.