This question originated from a young Christian girl in the children’s ministry I lead. At First Baptist Church, East Bernstadt, we encourage our children to ask difficult questions. Then, we answer them as best we can. The last thing we want is to limit the heart and mind of a child. Doubts only slip into unbelief when they are ignored. So, instead of shunning doubts, we welcome them. We do not have all the answers, but our desire is to be open about any concern about life, death, Christianity, the Bible, God, Jesus, or whatever else.
The girl that asked this question has been thinking a lot about eternity, and she has taught me to think more about eternity than I currently do. Her question comes from this conundrum in her mind: “If God loves everybody exactly the same way, then why do some people go to heaven, but others go to hell?” If God does love everyone in exactly the same way, then his love is no good for those in hell. So, if there is a difference in the result of the love, isn’t it possible that there is a difference in the way God loves. This girl is questioning the nature of God’s love (in a good and healthy way). Is it as simple as we present it to children–“God loves all the children of the earth!” Or, is God’s love a little more complex than that?
From Hate to Love
First, before we can fully appreciate and grasp the nature of God’s love for us, we must first realize another biblical truth. The Bible tells us that God hates sinners. What?! Yes, you read that right. God hates sinners. Don’t take my word for it. Take God’s: “The boastful shall not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers” (Ps. 5:5). The Bible doesn’t say that God just hates evil, he hates the one who does evil as well. Psalm 11:5 says, “The Lord tests the righteous, but his soul hates the wicked and the one who loves violence.” God doesn’t just hate wickedness, he hates the wicked one as well.
You see, it is not just my sin that God hates, it is me that God hates. This makes us uncomfortable. In fact, it was a little hard to write. But is this because it is an unfair treatment of God’s nature, or is it because we are so filled with pride that we cannot begin to see ourselves as deserving of hate? We have done evil by elevating ourselves above God. We have done wickedly by breaking God’s law and seeking satisfaction in everything but him.
It is so, so important to know that God hates you first, so that you can begin to understand his great love for you. If God did not hate you in your sin, his love for you in Christ would mean nothing. Jesus did not die for sin. He died for sinners! The tremendous hatred of God for sinners and the tremendous love of God for sinners collide in the cross of Christ. So, God hates all sinners in this sense.
God’s General Love for Sinners
But thank God the Bible does not stop there. The Bible also teaches us that God loves all sinners in a general way. Jesus puts it this way: “For he makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust” (Matt. 5:45). In James we see that “every good and perfect gift comes down from above . . . from the father of lights” (Jam. 1:17). Historically and theologically, this has been called common grace. Theologian John Calvin once said in The Institutes of the Christian Religion,
“[L]et that admirable light of truth shining in them teach us that the mind of man, though fallen and perverted from its wholeness, is nevertheless clothed and ornamented with God’s excellent gifts” (Book II.2.15).
God even loves those who will never repent and believe in Jesus in this general way. He cares for their basic needs by allowing even the most evil people to have families, friends, food, and shelter. He gives them abilities to play beautiful music. He gives them knowledge to discover mathematical and scientific truths about the world. This means that even though some people clearly do not believe in Jesus, they are still loved by God in his provision for them and allowance of good gifts. No one can claim that their abilities originated with them. Every good thing that anyone has is the gift of God’s general love or common grace.
Special Love for Not-So-Special People
However, the Bible also does not stop there, thank God. God also loves some sinners in a special way. This is not because they are more special themselves. Quite the contrary. The testimony of the Bible is that “God shows his love for us in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Rom. 5:8). In spite of how not-so-special we are, God loves some sinners in a special way. It is because he is especially gracious in sending his Son to die. For those sinners who repent and believe in Jesus, God loves in a special way.
This means that he not only gives them good gifts like family, friends, and food, he gives them the greatest gift of all, himself. It is from this special love that sinners are adopted as sons and daughters of the King of the universe. “The Spirit himself bears witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs—heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ” (Rom. 8:16-17). God loves his children in a special way, which is more than the general love that he shows to all sinners. We are not only given the ability to create or write or play music, we are given the eternal kingdom of God.
Certainly God’s love for those who are in Christ is greater and more special and specific than for those who are dead in their sin. The pivotal question here becomes, “What is the key to eternal destination? Grace or ability?” If we answer with “grace,” then we can see God’s love in both general and special terms. If we answer with “ability,” then we can see that God’s love is the same for all, but eternal destiny is up to our own abilities. I praise God the Bible seems to indicate the former. God loves some sinners in a special way, not as a result of their ability, but as a demonstration of his grace.
Here is a simple and imperfect illustration I hope helps you understand. I love all children. I would do anything I could to care for a child in need. However, I will love my child in a special way. I will do more for him than I would for children that are not my own. It is the same with God. God loves his children in a special way and will do for them eternally more than he will for those that are not his own in Christ.
Mathew Gilbert is the Children’s Pastor at First Baptist Church East Bernstadt. He is the author of the forthcoming book Come to the Well: 50 Meditations to Fuel Your Joy in God (CrossBooks). Mathew lives in London, KY with his wife, Erica, and their dog, Simba.