From God & Men by Herbert H. Farmer (New York, Abingdon-Cokesbury Press, 1947).
THE LOVE OF GOD
IT MIGHT reasonably be maintained that in all that I have set forth concerning God's holiness there was nothing peculiarly Christian—nothing, that is to say, springing from the distinctively Christian assertion of God's great and final act of self-disclosure and self-giving into the midst of the human personal world in Jesus Christ. Certainly long before Christ came, the Old Testament writers spoke of God as holy, in the sense in which we have expounded that word; and certainly it is still possible to believe in God's holiness in that sense without in the least committing oneself to the distinctive Christian belief concerning Jesus Christ, or to any statements about God which that belief might be held to imply; many in fact do so.
If, then, we ask what is the quite distinctive Christian doctrine of God's nature and purpose, as disclosed in Jesus Christ, the answer will be found in the doctrine that he is love. Yet—and this is the point I am now wanting to emphasize—this distinctive Christian doctrine of love of God, which we are now going to examine, must be kept firmly in the context of the divine holiness which we have already considered. There must be no separation between the two doctrines. Whenever we begin to think of God under the aspect of his love, we are always in special danger of bringing him down to the level of our small human selves, of trivializing and cheapening him in immature and childish anthropomorphisms, of losing hold of what we called the sheer "God-ness" of God.
This danger has at least three sources. The first is to be found in the many meanings which the term "love" can bear in English; the effect of this is that when the word is used by different people in discussion, they imagine they are thinking and talking about the same thing when in fact they are not doing so at all.
The second is that when we think of God as love, we instantly bring him, as it were, into the most intimate texture of our own personal existence. This puts us under constant temptation to think of God in a much too direct and uncritical way, after the image of our own personal relationships with one another. This temptation does not arise in connection with words like omnipotent, omniscient, omnipresent; in these terms the "otherness" of God lies, as it were, much nearer the surface, and can hardly be missed. None of us is likely to think of himself as omnipotent or omniscient or omnipresent but it is easy to think that we know well enough what it means to love and be loved.
The third source of danger lies in the fact that the thought of God as love, so to say, centralizes us as persons in the perspective of the divine will. To say that God loves us is certainly to say that we are of the highest importance to him; but this at once lays the truth of the divine love peculiarly open to the distortions of our sinful minds. For, as we saw earlier, it is precisely our egocentricity which lies at the very root of the wrongness of our life and being, and the beloved ego, in its own all-devouring demands, is certainly as capable of seeking to make use of God as of anything else. That is precisely what my ego in its sinfulness wants—to be at the center of the picture—and that accordingly is precisely the distortion of the idea of love which my ego always swiftly provides, namely, that love should do what I want, and if it does not, then it is questionable whether it can really be love.
Against these mistakes and aberrations there are two protections. The first is the one I have already indicated: We must keep the truth of the love of God and the truth of the holiness of God, the nearness and the distance of God, in quite inseparable connection with one another. We need to remind ourselves that when we say God is love, we do mean God, the Holy One, high and lifted up, whose thoughts are not as our thoughts, nor his ways as our ways. And if this reminder must not be pressed so far as to evacuate the word "love," as applied to God, of anything approaching its normal meaning—or so far as to make it appear as though God's love were something merely incidental, or secondary or peripherial in his being—it must nevertheless always be pressed far enough to keep a too human understanding of God's ways in check. The two things must be held together, the holiness of God—the "God-ness" of God—and his love.
The other protection is even more important and leads straight into the main concern of this chapter. It is that we must see to it that our understanding of the love of God is controlled all the time by the revelation given in Jesus Christ. This is but to be consistent with that fundamental affirmation without which Christianity has nothing distinctive to say to us about God at all—the affirmation that God himself has come into history in a unique and final and saving act of self-disclosure and self-giving in Jesus Christ. But to remain so consistent requires a continuous effort of mind—a continuous submission, and resubmission, of ourselves to that revelation. It is sin, as I have repeatedly insisted already, that blinds us to the realities of the personal world, and it is precisely in order to break through that blindness that the revelation in Christ was given.
It is perhaps worth while to dwell on this for a moment or two. Take the New Testament characterization of God as Father, a characterization which goes back to Jesus himself. "Father" expresses in concrete imagery the same truth about God as is expressed more abstractly in the statement that he is love. Now it is significant that the New Testament does not normally speak of God as "Father" without qualification. It speaks rather of "God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ." The qualifying phrase is indispensable. It not only keeps in check, in the way already referred to, the tendency to think of God too easily and uncritically after the manner of the human relationship of fatherhood, corrupted as this always is by sin; it also disposes of two suggestions which one sometimes hears made in this connection.
The first is the suggestion that, after all, the thought of God as Father is not, as Christians claim, peculiar to Christianity, but indeed is one of the commonest of the religious ideas of mankind. That is undoubtedly true so far as the mere use of the term is concerned. God is referred to in the Old Testament as the Father of Israel, and there are places where his fatherly tenderness is described in moving words. And even pagan writers refer to God as Father. Homer, for example, describes Zeus as the father of men; and in primitive religions the same idea certainly appears.
But obviously the mere use of the same term does not amount to much, though, I suppose, it could be argued that such widespread usage shows that there is in the hearts of men at least a dim apprehension of the truth of the matter. Everything, in fact, depends on the content put into the term, and the extent to which such content is able to grip and recreate the lives of men, to regulate and interpret their experience over its whole breadth, especially those elements in their experience which seem to make mockery of such a belief. The more I study the New Testament, in the context of the general history of religions, the more clear it becomes that the thought of God as fatherly love as this is revealed in the whole life and death of Jesus Christ—even more than in his teaching—is unique in its content, its profundity, its consistency, its challenge, its austerity, its power to enter formatively and creatively and in a self-authenticating way into the lives of men.
In passing we may say that nothing could be more superficial than the methods of some critics, who unearth parallels to fragments of Christ's teaching about God from other writings of the same—or a previous—period and suppose that by so doing they have finally disposed of any claim to uniqueness that may be made on Christ's behalf. As I once heard it put, doubtless at the time of the Trojan war there were some women with eyes as beautiful as Helen's, and others with hair as beautiful as Helen's, and others again with complexion as beautiful as Helen's; but there was only one Helen who united beauty of eyes, hair, complexion, and all the rest into one glorious harmony of beauty, and "launched a thousand ships." There is, I repeat, no setting forth of God as fatherly love which is in the least degree comparable, in its reach and depth and undiminished creative and recreative power, with that which comes to us from the whole personal being of Jesus, his words and deeds, his life and death. And after all, only Jesus Christ has launched—without any exercise of force and coercion—the "thousand ships" of the Christian Church.
The other suggestion which is disposed of by the New Testament thought of God as the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is the suggestion which is sometimes made by those who add a smattering of knowledge of Christianity to a smattering of knowledge of psychology—and how common these mixed smatterings are today! It is maintained that belief in God as Father is never anything more than a fantasy product of weak souls of weak souls who, feeling their inadequacy in face of life, and desperately wanting the support and protection of a beneficent power greater than themselves, revert unconsciously to their early childhood and take refuge in the imaginary arms of a great big celestial "daddy." It would be superfluous and out of place to discuss such a theory here—it has often enough been dealt with in other places. [As, for example, in my own Towards Belief in God (1942), pp. 168 ff.] As I have already indicated, I am not in the least concerned to deny that such disreputable mental processes are in ever-present danger, needing to be kept in check. My point is simply that nobody who had taken the trouble to enter at all deeply into the picture of God as Father given us through Jesus Christ could suppose that it was, or is, the mere fantasy product of feeble and half-defeated souls. The picture is much too austere, searching, demanding for that—it is, in fact, such that no weak soul would ever want to seek refuge in it.
Let us try now to set forth some of the central elements in this austere and searching picture of the fatherly love of the personal God as given us through Christ and the New Testament, even at the risk of saying what to some of us may seem trite and obvious. For certainly if our gospel is to have any convincing and regenerative power at all in this grim modern world, we must at all costs dispel the cloud of sentimentalism which has come to surround this central affirmation of the divine love; we must at all costs avoid giving the impression that Christian teaching in the modern world is little more than the spraying of rose water on a stableyard.
The first and most fundamental truth is that God's will of love is directed always to the fashioning of finite persons into worthy sonship to himself. God's purpose with men is that they should, under the conditions set by their finite earthly life as persons, have personal fellowship with himself—the condition of that fellowship being that they should will what he wills, value what he values, in short, be good persons according to the pattern of his own goodness. "Be ye therefore perfect," says Christ, "even as your Father which is in heaven is perfect"; Paul speaks of the creation's waiting "for the manifestation of the sons of God"; the writer to the Hebrews speaks of God's "bringing many sons unto glory."
That God's purpose should be conceived to be thus wholly directed toward making men good sons may perhaps, once again, sound a trifle soft; in our speech the word "good" as applied to persons—like the word "love" —is apt to have some sentimental overtones. It hints at the goody-goody. "Be good, sweet maid, and let who will he clever." But this only witnesses once again to the necessity of reinterpreting our terms in accordance with the revelation in Christ. Clearly, so reinterpreted, this is as far from being a sentimental truth as anything could be. That God intends above all things else that men shall be good is in fact a very solemn and startling truth; it introduces at once a note of severity into the loving purpose of God and his dealings with men. It cuts right across the hedonism of the natural man. It means that men have not been put into this world primarily in order to enjoy themselves. It means that God does not ever order men's lives merely to give them a good time and save them from trouble. On the contrary, the love of God is ready to put men through severe disciplines in order that they may learn to participate in that wherein alone the true blessedness of personal life is to be found, namely, in the doing of his will as sons.
It should be observed that I have just used the word "blessedness." It is an important word and I have chosen it deliberately. It would be wrong to take out of what I have just said the idea that according to Christian faith God has no interest whatever in men's being happy; that would be absurd. What Christian belief does say is that there is in the nature of things a condition attached to the achievement of happiness, a condition which God himself could ignore only by negating himself. The condition is that men should do his will. And furthermore, and much more important—for indeed it is obvious enough, altogether apart from Christianity, that happiness in this world is not to be had merely for the asking—the Christian faith, in accordance with the revelation in Christ, reinterprets and greatly deepens the notion of happiness, so much so that we have to find another word for it, such as the word "blessedness." The New Testament says frankly that the doing of God's will may involve a man in experiences which are most grievous and burdensome, but that nevertheless because he is walking humbly with God there will be—underlying and permeating them—a peace and a victory which go far, far deeper than merely happy feelings. God's purpose, then, is not primarily to make men happy; it is to make them good, and so to give them blessedness, in the doing of his will.
It is hardly necessary to illustrate this note of austerity from the Gospels themselves. Leaving on one side the fact that the life therein depicted as wholly surrendered to the will of God issued in an anguish of suffering so great that it was supportable at all only because it had at its heart the incommunicable blessedness of such dedication, there are sayings enough whose severity is veiled from us only by their familiarity. "If thy hand offend thee, cut it off"; "If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out"; "It is better .. . to enter into life maimed than . . . to go into hell." Jesus tells his would-be followers again and again, particularly when they flock after him in excited crowds, that they are in for stern times if they link their wills with the divine will; but he also tells them that they are in for stern times if they do not, the difference being that in the one case the sternness leads on to something infinitely worth while, whereas in the other case it leads on to nothing except ruin and despair. Upon all human habitations there beat storms and floods—God has provided no easy way, no short cuts to happiness, for any of us—but the house built on the rock of the divine will stands, whereas the house which is not so built tumbles down, and great is its ruin. This is certainly no milk-and-water view of the fatherly love of God; it is stark realism; and it accords with facts.
Second, God's fashioning of men into worthy sonship to himself is always through freedom and for freedom. This is of course but to say, again, that God's dealings with men are always in the last resort personal, and never merely manipulative and overriding. I say "in the last resort" and "never merely manipulative" because Christian truth does not call upon us to think that God, in the complex wisdom and patience of his dealings with men, never makes any sort of entry into their lives of which they are not aware and to which therefore, at the moment, they cannot relate themselves in a fully personal way. We must concede God the right to use, both through the interior access he has to men's souls—and has wisely denied to us—and in other ways, the plasticity which he himself has put into human nature; but the point is, if I may so put it, that he can be trusted never to use it wrongly, as we so often do in our own sinful dealings with one another. In all his dealings with men there will remain a central sanctuary of freedom which under no circumstances whatever will he violate. Never will he, so to say, machine-stamp men into what he desires them to be; always in the last resort a man must respond through his own illumined insight, and with the consent of his own will.
We have already spoken a great deal throughout this study of this central and indispensable aspect of the personal world, as distinct from the world of things wherein control by manipulation is necessary and in order. The point now is that Christian teaching, if it is to be true to the revelation in Christ, must take this respect for freedom right up into its doctrine of God and of his dealings with men.
It is impressive indeed to mark with what consistency this note of respect for freedom does enter into the mind and teaching of Jesus Christ. There is the often-repeated saying, "He that bath ears to hear, let him hear"—the truth must be presented, and the individual must hear and respond. There is his use of parable, part of the purpose of which seems to have been to elicit the hearer's own insight into God's purpose as this meets and challenges him in the daily situations of his life, in the events of the time, and particularly in Christ's own coming. There is his whole method of teaching and preparing his disciples—a study in itself—and, at the end, his commitment of his whole cause to them with little or nothing of precise instruction or planned organization.
In the fulfillment of his own vocation as the bearer and revealer of God's saving purpose in the world he decisively rejected once and for all the plan—attractive as it must have been to one so virile and so superbly equipped—to compel men's allegiance to himself by some portentous display of power; this the story of the Temptation makes clear. More than once he was asked to provide a sign from heaven to put the truth of his claims beyond doubt; he steadfastly refused to do so. "You are able to interpret the signs of the weather," he said in effect on one occasion; "why cannot you of your own selves judge what is right and read the signs of the times?" He was asked by his disciples to call down fire from heaven upon an inhospitable Samaritan village; he sternly rebuked them, saying, "Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of." He believed that the whole power of God was with him in the work he was sent to do; in that sense he could say that twelve legions of angels were at his disposal; but such power, he knew, was not to be exercised in the way that the unregenerate minds of men would naturally associate with such a metaphor—that is to say, through a display of coercive and overriding might. Therefore, in that sense at least, he would not call upon angels to assist him, even when he was in the power of his enemies. The readiness to go to Calvary was itself a final and decisive repudiation of any thought that God could or would seek to overcome the evil in men's hearts by such methods.
All of this sounds, even as one says it, somewhat trite and obvious. Nevertheless it is most necessary that it should be said. If we are to enter into the truth of the Christian revelation and to discover in increasing degree its self-authenticating power, it is most important to make up our minds to take really seriously this patient respect on the part of God for the freedom of his children.
It is most important for at least two reasons. The first is that the bias of our minds is set in precisely the opposite direction. I have referred to this more than once already. It is part of our sinful blindness to the true order of the personal world that we are always wanting short cuts with people; we are possessed with the will to power—"power" being interpreted fundamentally in terms of overriding force and control. And though we pay lip service to the ideal of freedom, deep down we are, far more than we realize, afraid of it. We are afraid of it sometimes even for ourselves, seeking for some infallible authority to direct us what to believe, or what to do—an infallible book, an infallible church, an infallible orthordoxy, an infallible leader. And we think in the same terms of God. We would like him to lay bare his mighty arm and blast wickedness, or at least the extremer forms of it, from off the face of the earth. We forget that we ourselves would come in for some of the blasting; it is the other man we want blasted. We do not see, unless we continually make the effort to see, that such an exercise of power would be a confession of weakness on the part of God—that is, if God is indeed fatherly love. It would mean, not that he is omnipotent, omnicompetent, but that he is not; it would mean that he is not able to do what in his fatherly love he purposes to do; it would mean that, unable to win men as persons, he can only manipulate them like puppets or swat them like flies.
This brings us to the second reason, which is that if we are not ready thus to rethink our notions of power in relation to God, if we are not prepared—I repeat—to take really seriously the truth that, just because he loves persons, he steadfastly honors their freedom, then it is impossible to get any light at all on the dark suffering and confusion of human history, and in particular on the problem of how, in the face of such confusion and suffering, a man may yet properly be called upon to believe in the goodness of God. I shall return to this again in the last chapter; all I want to say now is that, while of course the Christian revelation does not shed a complete illumination on this dread problem of evil, there is at least some light in the thought that whatever else human history is, it is, in Croce's phrase:' the story of liberty." It is because we do not see that liberty and love go indissolubly together, that we find it so much harder to see how a world like this and a divine overshadowing love can go together. It is most important to grasp the truth that there are evil things that God permits because he is love, not because he is not.
Third, God being fatherly love, his austere and freedom-respecting purpose never turns aside from, or deserts, any human person that he has made—no matter who he is or into what darkness and corruption of sin he may come. On the contrary, he seeks with undeviating patience, and at any cost, to bring every man back to that true personal life which is to be found only in fellowship with himself and in the doing of his will. Here we confront the most distinctive truth in the Christian doctrine of the love of God, a truth whose startling originality, so challenging and condemning to all our normal habits of mind, is veiled from us—who have lived in the midst of the Christian tradition—only by its familiarity, though it is still further obscured by the abstractly generalizing sentimentality with which it is not infrequently set forth.
How glibly, sometimes, do we announce that God loves all men—how little startled, apparently, by what we are saying! Surely such complacent utterance is possible only because the word "God" does not mean to us the ever-present, active, holy Will with which we ourselves—in every situation, in all our dealings with men—must settle accounts; because, too, the word "love" does not mean to us anything more than a vaguely benevolent sentiment of good will; because, most of all, the words "all men," "everybody" are impersonal abstractions lacking all sharp particularity in our minds. It becomes an altogether different proposition when, giving due thought to all its terms, we try to focus it upon someone who has done us bitter and irreparable wrong, or from whom for one reason or another we utterly recoil. Whatever our recoil, it remains true—unless the distinctively Christian doctrine of the love of God is wholly false—that God does love, let us say, the commandant of the Belsen concentration camp no less than he loves anybody reading this book --loves him, that is, in the austere sense in which we have been considering its meaning up to this point. Nothing that man—or anybody else—can do, or can become, can take him outside the scope of the undeviating divine purpose of good toward him; nothing whatever can make him worthless in the sight of God.
This unqualified universality of the divine love, which lights on a person simply because he is "there" as a person and not because he has this, that, or the other lovable quality, is so utterly different from anything that we know as love in our human relationships that it has become customary among theologians to use a distinctive term for it. And this is the more necessary because, as I have said, "love" is in English such an ambiguous and even degraded word. The distinctive word is the New Testament Greek word agape. Those who know Nygren's classic—if at times somewhat onesided—treatment of this matter [Agape and Eros (Eng. tr. 1932)] will not need to be reminded of the difference between divine love, agape, and what we think of as love in our relationship with one another.
With us love is a feeling-attitude or sentiment evoked in us by the qualities of a person, or by the fact that he stands in some special relationship to us; we love a person because he has winsome qualities, or because he is our child, or because he has been good to us and generously supplied some need. If he lacks these qualities or, still more, is characterized by their opposite, we do not love him—and, we are ready to add, cannot be expected to love him.
The divine love, according to the New Testament meaning of the term agape, is sharply contrasted with this attitude. Agape is free, spontaneous, and universal; it is a love which springs from the ultimate being and nature of the personal God, and goes out to every person he has created, irrespective of merit or worth—or, indeed, of any other quality which we would consider likely to call forth, or justify, love. So far, indeed, is it from being true that God loves persons because they are valuable that, to be accurate, we must reverse the proposition and say that persons are valuable because God loves them; the love is primary, the value is secondary and derivative. With us, on the other hand, the value—or what we consider to be such—is primary, and the love is derivative and dependent upon that. It is therefore never a complete Christian statement to say that a person has intrinsic value in himself; the complete Christian statement is that a man has value because God—who in his own nature is love—loves him, and loves him for no other reason whatsoever than that he is a man whom God has made.
It is hardly necessary to say that in our task of making clear to our contemporaries this distinctive Christian understanding of the love of God we shall not be able to use the word agape. Apart from its strangeness and ugliness, if it frees us from some of the debased associations of the word "love," it also deprives us of its nobler and warmer overtones of meaning and feeling. We shall need to go on using the more familiar word. But that only makes it the more urgent that the quite distinctive nature of the divine love—that which makes it not merely natural human love in an intensified and more universal form, but something radically different, something quite literally supernatural—should be made unmistakably plain to men, for three reasons at least.
First, because it is only as men can be brought to see the divine love in this its undiscriminating absoluteness and universality that they can be convinced of its reality. Its unmotivated universality, requiring no attractive qualities in a person to call it forth, does not make it unbelievable; rather it is precisely that which makes it believable—as an attribute of God. The doctrine of the divine agape is indeed another illustration of the steadfast refusal of Christianity, even when it is thinking of God in radically personal terms, to be merely anthropomorphic; and this refusal, while at the same time, it is keeping unwaveringly in the sphere of the personal, is, I believe, one source of its power over the human heart.
Second, without some vision of the divine love as agape no man can even begin to have a deep, sincere, and poignant awareness of his own sinful lovelessness, and of the need for, as well as the wonder of, God's forgiveness. Nowhere is the profound alienation of our minds from God more clearly shown to us than in the fact that even our highest self-givings in love are in fact so limited in reach and scope, so much under the control of purely natural instincts and desires.
Third, only by emphasizing the essential nondependence of God's love upon the qualities of the person loved can we dispose of the notion that the Christian doctrine of God as love really ascribes to him a weak and sentimental unrealism. It is because we can think of love only as reaching out to a person whose qualities give us some reason for loving him that we imagine that a love which reaches out to a monster like the commandant of the concentration camp can do so only by not seeing him as he really is or by pretending that he is other than he is. The divine lover thus becomes for us the divine dupe or the divine sentimentalist.
This leads me to say a word on the wrath of God, which of course is as much a New Testament thought of him as the thought of his love. It is clear that if we are not permitted to think of God's love after the image of our purely natural affections and emotions, we are certainly not permitted to think of the divine wrath after the image of our purely natural impulses of anger. We must tread warily here. Obviously if we are to speak of God's wrath at all, we must connect it with what was said earlier about the severe and disciplinary side of the divine love. In God's dealings with finite persons there is—there must be—a principle of judgment, a principle of the repudiation and annihilation of sin; a universe grounded in the holy will of God, and suitable for the fashioning of persons into harmony with that will in freedom, is not thinkable on any other terms. Sin must have, and does have, all those frightful consequences of which we spoke in an earlier chapter, and it can be no part of love to protect men from them in a merely soft and indulgent way. Such austere truths, we have insisted, are not alien to the Christian understanding of the love of God, but are rather part of its content. If God is love, then the lovelessness of men must bring dire results such as we see all about us today; men cannot go against the grain of the universe and not get splinters. The state of the world today does not prove that God is not love; rather it helps to prove that he is.
So far as we wish to guard against any obscuring or minimization of this aspect of the divine love, we may well use the word "wrath," as the New Testament does; but the ever-present danger is, as I have said, that we interpret the word too much after the image of our own anger. Anger with us is very apt to be a merely destructive and sterile emotion, seeking primarily to hurt and destroy the offending person—an emotion which for the time being blinds us to the fact that he never ceases as a person to have an inalterable claim upon us. Some thinkers, feeling acutely this danger of transferring our own angry feeling to God—with reflex effects on human behavior of a shocking kind, for it would seem at once to give divine sanction to all sorts of utterly merciless dealing with persons in the name of righteousness—suggest that we should avoid the phrase "the wrath of God" and speak only of the inevitable consequences which must attach themselves to any going against the divine intention and will. But that too has its disadvantages; for if we are not careful, it may subtly depersonalize, mechanize, the whole relationship; it may minimize what is the supremely important fact about sin from the Christian point of view, namely, that it alienates men as persons from the personal God. It suggests that the universe is just a sort of slot machine, which, if we put in our moral pennies, delivers the appropriate piece of chocolate, users of bent coins being liable to the stated fine. The word "wrath" at least keeps this central matter firmly within the sphere of the personal. It is indeed one mark of the mind awakened to the real nature of God, and of the personal world in which God has set us with himself, that it no longer feels the notion of necessary consequence to be by itself quite adequate, but begins to discern, through the suffering and confusion which inevitably overtake wrong-doing, a holy personal Will.
The only thing to do, if we do thus use the word "wrath"—and on the whole we are probably less open to error if we do use it than if we do not—is to be clear in our own minds that by it we are signifying one aspect of the more inclusive truth that God is agape. It is part of the continuous outgoing of his agape toward persons; it is the inevitable and spontaneous recoil of love from lovelessness, the steadfast setting of itself against it. Wrath is the burning, fiery heart of utterly pure love. It is love as "consuming fire"—never, therefore, separated from the profoundest possible concern over the fact that in the end the most bitter sufferer from sin must be the sinner himself. It is one undivided movement of love such as we in our disintegrated personal life only vaguely comprehend. It is a recoil from the sinner for what he is, and yet a holding onto him—not because of what he is, or even because of what he will be, but because he is "there," a person whom God has made. A man may sin himself into the wrath of God, but never out of his love: that is what agape means.
If now we ask what is the source of this Christian apprehension of the love of God as agape, running so completely counter to all our instinctive and natural ideas of love, there can be no doubt as to the answer: It springs from Jesus Christ. This is indeed "the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ"! It springs from his teaching about God, and about human relationship to God. He symbolizes God's universal, nonselective rule of love by the rain which falls on just and unjust alike, by a father receiving back—indeed going forth to meet, without questions asked or conditions imposed—the returning prodigal; by a shepherd looking for a lost sheep, a woman searching for a lost coin. And righteousness in men, or what they deem to be such, he says, constitutes no claim as of desert upon the love of God, for that love generously reaches out to them irrespective of their deserts; it does not work under the stimulus of desert at all. And for the same reason sin involves no forfeiture of it; righteous men are not loved because of their righteousness, and unrighteous men are not left unloved because of their unrighteousness. And, as for human relationships, these, he teaches, should themselves mirror and express the divine agape. Men also must love persons just because they are there—and even the fact that they are enemies must make no difference whatever. It springs, too, from Jesus' own attitude to men and women—Zacchaeus, the woman taken in adultery, Mary Magdalene. What startled and challenged his contemporaries more than anything else was that he received sinners and ate with them. Even the unification of love and wrath is to be discerned in him. He recoiled in anger from the hard cruelties that pious men, even in the name of God, practiced upon one another; yet also he wept over such men, for the weeping over Jerusalem was not over bricks and mortar, but over precisely these people who had slain God's messengers in the past and were now concentrating upon slaying him also. Most of all, it springs from Jesus' understanding and fulfillment of his own vocation as the one sent by God to be the divine agape itself in saving action toward sinful men. In accordance with that vocation he must lay down his life on the cross for men; his action in going to Calvary is the embodiment of the divine action, the divine agape, in history. "The Son of man," he said, "is come to seek and to save that which was lost—to give his life a ransom for many." [I find myself very reluctant at this point to pass over Christ's atoning work at Calvary without further treatment. Christ's atoning work, it is superfluous to say, has always been central in the Christian experience of God as personal, and gospel; and it has been the subject of profound reflection on the part of Christian thinkers through the centuries. But I have found the subject too vast and deep for the cursory treatment which a study such as this requires. I have chosen to illustrate my main theme by some aspects of the Christian doctrine of God, and to that I had better adhere. It is perhaps sufficient to say that the profundity of the Christian doctrine of forgiveness through the Cross of Christ matches the profundity of its doctrine of sin, and that even as its radical personalism is manifest—as we saw—in the latter, so also it is manifest in the former. In its insistence that the forgiveness of sinful persons constitutes a problem worthy of God, in its insistence on its cost, its difficulty, its cosmic significance, it once again puts the world of persons right at the center of the picture.]
There is, finally, a fourth element in the distinctively Christian conception of the divine fatherly love, as this is given to us through Christ and the New Testament. It is that, while the love of God lights upon the individual —and in so doing bestows indefeasible value on him—while it asks from him an individual personal response, nevertheless the end which it is seeking cannot really be even partially comprehended in terms of the individual alone. As surely as men are all the children of the one divine Father, and can fulfill the true end of their life only by being in fellowship with him, so also they are members one of another and can fulfill the true end of their life only by being in fellowship with one another. This is but to restate in another way what was spoken of in an earlier chapter, namely, that the personal world always has two poles, so that an individual is always related to God and his neighbor at the same time, and a new relationship to the one must also be a new relationship to the other. But the point I want now to emphasize is that the Christian doctrine of the love of God necessarily carries with it the thought that that love is set toward the building up of a community just as much as toward the salvation of the individual. Indeed these are not two ends, but one—a new individual means, in principle, a new community, and effective saving action on the part of God into the midst of history must therefore mean the bringing into existence of a new community the midst of history.
This is important, for it indicates the true basis of the Christian doctrine of the Church—a point on which so many, both inside and outside the Church, seem a little hazy. The idea of the Church is part of the Christian doctrine of God. The Church is not an optional addendum to the Christian way of life, and, as such, something which can be dispensed with. It is not something brought into existence by the social instinct of humanity, a sort of Christian get-together club. The divine purpose of love, in so far as it achieves its end of bringing human persons back to the real meaning of their life, calls into being, and must call into being, a new order of personal relationship. It creates a new fellowship of men and women which is both the realization and the organ of its purpose in history—so far as that purpose, which in the end must transcend history, is realizable on the plane of history at all. The distinctive mark of this new community is precisely that it is called to embody agape—that is to say, a love which, making no distinctions whatever, loves men because they are there, and because God so loves them. Thus the apostle Paul writes that in the Church there is neither "Greek nor Jew, circumcision nor uncircumcision, Barbarian, Scythian, bond nor free."
No doubt the Church has constantly fallen, and constantly does fall, deplorably far short of this ideal; but at least she recognizes herself to be under its judgment and rebuke, which is a great deal. The point I want to emphasize, however, is that the notion—still sometimes encountered—that it is possible to be a Christian and have little or no connection with the Christian Church is flatly contrary to the mind of Christ and of the New Testament. The doctrine of the Church, I repeat, is part of the distinctive Christian doctrine of God revealed as love in Jesus Christ—God the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. It is part also of its distinctive teaching concerning the divine-human personal world.
In view of all that has been said hitherto, we can hardly avoid some reference to the question whether we are entitled to believe that, in the final consummation of God's purpose, all persons will be saved.
It helps to prevent misunderstanding and unnecessary discussion if we make clear to ourselves how the question arises. It does not arise out of a merely speculative interest in matters which lie beyond our knowledge and responsibility; nor does it arise out of a merely sentimental aversion to those austerities of the divine judgment upon, and dealing with, sin which are plainly enough manifest in this world—altogether apart from what may happen beyond it—and which may be comprehended, as we have seen, under the notion of the divine wrath. It arises out of the whole Christian message concerning God and man, and out of the necessities of that new life of trust in God and love to men to which the Christian is called by God's message to him.
For Christian faith requires that God's purpose should be victorious; it urgently needs to affirm, and to rest on, the sovereignty and omnicompetence of God. It requires also that there should be no departure from the doctrine that God is agape, that his is a love which goes out to all persons merely because they are there as persons, a love which in its historic self-manifestation in Jesus Christ shows itself as seeking and saving the lost at any cost to itself. Yet how could the divine love be accounted omnicompetent and victorious, how could it be thought to suffer any other than the most grievous defeat if vast numbers of persons are finally lost in some sort of hell or —as some have suggested—by total annihilation? The same problem presents itself if we try to picture the state of the redeemed in the realized kingdom of God which we call heaven. The redeemed man is the man who has been brought to share the divine love for persons. How then can there be heaven for such a one if even one person is finally lost? The existence of hell surely makes heaven impossible. These are not dialectical points; they are, so to say, part of the logic of love in the Christian sense of that term. Anybody who does not feel the pressure of these questions must have completely failed to understand, or to accept, what I have been trying to set forth in the previous pages.
Why not, then, embrace without further ado a doctrine of the final restoration of all persons? Three things properly make us hesitate. I will state them and make one or two comments on each.
First, it is absolutely necessary, as we have more than once insisted, to preserve man's status as a person; in particular we must preserve his freedom, for without freedom he cannot be a person at all. Does not this necessarily involve the possibility that some men in their freedom may resist God to all eternity, or may reject him in some final way on which there is no going back? On this I make two comments.
For one thing, we must not allow ourselves to think of freedom in a way that in effect isolates a man from his world, especially that close-knit world of relationships with other persons, both human and divine, which his existence as a person requires just as much as it requires freedom. As I have put it elsewhere, [Towards Belief in God (1942), p. 221] to have the freedom of being a person is certainly not to exist in a vacuum of unrelatedness. It is manifest from our everyday experience that countless influences, pressures, appeals, compulsions of circumstances, and other things quite impossible to trace enter into all our choices and decisions; yet not so that the decision ceases to be in some real sense our decision, or to contain, so to say, something of our own causality. Sometimes, on looking back, we know that—though the decision was ours, and we must accept responsibility for it—we had in fact come to a point where we were, as the saying is, shut up to it; life had so unfolded, circumstances had so conspired, influences had so molded us, painful disciplines had so taught us, that we could not but see the truth at that point and walk in the way it directed; and thus an entirely new chapter in our personal history was opened up for us.
May not God, then, in his manifold wisdom bring even the most evil and recalcitrant soul to a situation, either in this world or the next, where the truth is presented with such compelling force and with such coincidental co-operation of internal conditions, that it cannot be resisted any longer—a situation where he can do no other than surrender at last?
Some such process, of necessity entailing much suffering—such as God in the austerity of his love does not scruple to allow and to use—we can indeed in some measure observe going on under our own own eyes in this present life. Anyone who has worked with sick and neurotic minds knows how often it is of the sheer mercy of God that, after running away from truth and reality for years, at last they find everything crashing about their ears; and, furthermore, what an important part in the process of profiting by the crash must be played by the personal help which they may get from one who skillfully under-stands, with love and candor, their history and interior life. And every Christian can look back on his life and marvel again and again at what little he can observe of God's wise and austere disciplining of him to new insights and responses all down the years—here a frustration or disappointment or failure, which at the time he would have done anything to avoid, there a chance meeting, somewhere else a coincidence of inner need and outward provision. And how much also there must be which is not observed at all. Yet never for one moment does he apprehend that there has been any infringement of his personal freedom. These things are the veriest commonplaces of the Christian life. They show that our freedom, without ceasing to be freedom, is so conditioned by inward and outward factors that God can and does save and sanctify us—often through great suffering.
This leads to the second comment. We are bound to believe that God does in fact find a way of saving some persons that does not infringe their status as persons. We are bound to believe, too, that their salvation is wholly of God, so that if free response is a factor in it —as it must be—then it is a free response which is nevertheless made possible and evoked by God's dealings with them. If, then, God is able to do this with some, there would appear to be no reason to think that he cannot or will not do it with all, unless indeed we are prepared to accept the Calvinist view that God arbitrarily selects some for salvation and rejects others. Such a view of God's dealings with persons so depersonalizes the whole relationship, and is so totally contrary to what I have tried to set forth in these pages as the distinctive essence of the Christian message, that I must be permitted to reject it without discussion.
The second consideration which makes many hesitant to accept a doctrine of the final restoration of all persons is that they judge that such a doctrine takes away the urgency of the Christian message. Does not the doctrine give men carte blanche to indulge themselves as much as they like and as long as they like, seeing that, whatever they do, it will all come to the same thing in the end, namely salvation for all? And does it not, for the same reason, remove the urgent necessity to preach the gospel? These objections appear, at first hearing, to carry considerable weight; nevertheless they spring, I believe, from a failure to grasp the distinctive Christian view of the nature of the personal world and God's purpose in it.
Let it be remembered that the Christian message does not merely announce God's saving work for men; it announces rather his saving work at infinite cost. At the heart of its message is the Incarnation and the Cross. Clearly, the man who could see in the ultimate triumph of the divine love at such cost an excuse for unlimited indulgence would merely reveal by so doing the utter darkness in which he dwells and his desperate need for a profound change of mind. And no shaking of him over the pit would bring him to that change of mind, for it would be but another appeal to the very selfishness which is already blinding his eyes. The most that the threat of possible damnation can do is to arrest the sinner in his evil ways; but in fact men are much more effectively arrested by immediate sufferings than by the thought of remote ones, however dreadful. To such more immediate sufferings in God's dealings with men we have certainly not denied a place; nevertheless even they cannot provide that positive illumination of the darkness of the soul which is the prime need. Some other way has to be found to bring home to a man the intrinsic urgency of the claim of God and his neighbor upon him. To this an appeal to the urgency of saving one's own skin will contribute nothing; it may indeed be a hindrance.
In a similar way the Christian believer who argues that without belief in a possible ultimate damnation there is no urgency to preach the gospel also reveals a failure to grasp the real nature of the personal order, and the claim of God and neighbor which meets us through it. The claim of my neighbor to my love, and God's claim on me through his claim, meet me as soon as I encounter him and merely because he is there as a person; it is contingent, so to say, only upon his presence, and not in any way upon what may or may not be his ultimate destiny. Furthermore, the fact that God will ultimately save all, if it is a fact, does not absolve me from responsibility in the matter; to suppose that it does is to have much too individualistic a view of the nature of personality. If all we have said hitherto about the bipolar structure of the personal world is true, then God's purpose of saving my neighbor cannot possibly be achieved merely by bringing him into a new relationship with himself; it can be achieved only by bringing my neighbor and me together into a new relationship with himself as well as with one another. In the restoration of that bipolar personal order to what God intends it to be I must therefore as a redeemed man play an indispensable part and to it I must bring an essential contribution; that part and contribution, so far as this present world is concerned, is the preaching of the gospel in word and life and deed.
The third consideration which makes many hesitant to accept a universalist view of God's saving purpose with men is that there are certain passages in the New Testament, notably in the recorded utterances of Jesus Christ [For example, Mark 9:43-48, Matt. 25:46] which seem to suggest or imply the contrary. It is not possible to discuss these passages in detail here; they certainly ought not to be taken uncritically and at their face value, for the right interpretation of them raises many difficult exegetical problems—such as, for example, the influence of contemporary apocalyptic imagery, the meaning of the Greek word translated "everlasting" in the English version, the use of hyperbole in Hebrew idiom in order to obtain emphasis, and so on. I will content myself with saying three things. First, even if we grant, as perhaps we must, that the New Testament passages referred to imply at least the possibility of a person's being finally lost, that still leaves it open whether in fact any person actually will be so lost. We may suppose—if this is not to picture the matter too anthropomorphically—that in creating an order of free persons God took the risk of hell, but that it is within the compass of his manifold wisdom and sacrificial love to circumvent the risk and to save all, as we must believe he has in fact saved some. Second, there are other pas-sages in the New Testament, notably in Paul's epistles, which seem definitely to suggest and imply a universal restoration of all men. [For references and discussion see C. H. Dodd, The Epistle to the Romans, "The Moffatt New Testament Commentary," pp. 183-84] Third, though the New Testament thus gives no clear lead on the matter, nevertheless it very plainly lays great emphasis on the tremendous importance of what men do here and now in history—particularly in relation to Christ—and on the repercussions of that in what lies beyond history. If the New Testament is joyously certain of the boundless grace and resources of God, it is equally certain of a man's power continually to resist God in the working out of his purpose, with serious consequences to himself and to his fellows; though as to the limits of that resistance it gives, I repeat, no clear guidance.
sum up: There seems no conclusive reason why we should not follow the logic
of our belief in the love and sovereignty of God and affirm the restoration
of all into unity with God and with one another; but if we do affirm it,
we must not regard the bare idea of restoration as an adequate description
the final con-summation. We are bound to add that it will be a restoration
which contains within it both an infinite cost to God and also the unimpaired
significance of human choices and decisions in time. Or, to state the matter
the other way round, we must affirm the crucial importance of the soul's
confrontation with Christ, so that it is true to say that if anyone ever
did finally reject
Christ, that would mean to be finally cut off from God. Yet we are never
able to know whether anyone ever has, or ever will, finally reject Christ;
being so, we are ready—knowing what God has achieved in our own lives
in spite of what we have been and are—to commit every-one in trust
and confidence to him. To adapt some words of Althaus: We must think of every
with both types of thought at the same time. By so doing we show that we
are not in the realm of merely abstract, theoretical considerations at all,
in the realm of the
living breath of our Christian life—its rest and its unrest, its peace
and yet its struggle, its fearful sense of the tension of decision yet its
confidence in the complete victory of God. This is the polarity of all thought
about the final consummation—we take our stand in the eternal, in that
which lies beyond the struggle, beyond the still undetermined possibilities
of history, as though they were already determined; and yet at the same time
we are immersed in history with all the cares and the worries and the responsibilities
of choice for or against the rule
of God. [Die letzten Dinge (1933), p. 188]