By Travis James Campbell
Does God genuinely and savingly love everyone? Many theologians say no. However, there are good and substantial biblical reasons to think that God not only loves everyone (in the sense that he does good things for all), but also that he authentically desires every human to enter into a loving and eternal relationship with himself. This blog post will explore two good reasons to embrace the universal divine love. Also, we address one objection1 and offer a practical application of this wonderful truth.
Biblical-Theological Arguments for Universal Divine Love
Scripture tells us:
For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. (John 3:16–17, NRSV)
Notice also the following passage:
Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. (1 John 4:20, NRSV)
True, in context, John is speaking about a Christian’s love for fellow Christians; yet in his Gospel he illustrates how Christ loved unbelievers (John 4:7–42). Jesus’s idea of loving one’s neighbor is to love literally anyone who comes across our path (Luke 10:29–37; cf. Leviticus 19:18). Thus, consider the following argument:
- We emulate God only insofar as we love (1 John 4:7–12; 16–17);
- When we hate anyone, the love of God is not in us (1 John 4:20–21; cf. 1:5–2:6);
- But a God who hates specific persons while commanding us to love everyone we encounter is a God who wants us to be more loving than he is! (1 John 4:8, 10, 16); therefore,
- God loves everyone and hates no one.
God Genuinely Desires Every Person to Be Saved
Our first argument establishes the fact that God genuinely loves everyone. However, it does not secure the idea that God genuinely desires the salvation of every person. Of course, there are quite a few texts that speak of God’s desire that everyone experiences salvation (see Ezekiel 18:23, 32; 33:11; 1 Timothy 2:1–4; 2 Peter 3:9). Let us consider what is perhaps the best example among the texts cited: “The Lord is not slow about His promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). This verse seems clear enough—God does not want anyone to perish, and he wants everyone to come to repentance and, thus, be saved.
What Does “Any” Mean?
Of course, some theologians have pointed out that the major issue in interpreting this text is establishing the antecedent of “any,” as in, “. . . not wanting any to perish.” In the words of theologian R. C. Sproul:
What is the antecedent of any? It is clearly us.2 Does us refer to all of us humans? Or does it refer to us Christians, the people of God? Peter is fond of speaking of the elect as a special group of people. I think what he is saying here is that God does not will that any of us (the elect) perish. If that is his meaning, then the text [of 2 Peter 3:9] . . . would be one more strong passage in favor of [Augustinian] predestination.3
This reading of the text is accepted by a good number of other scholars and writers, including James White.4 White argues that the letter is written to those who have “received a faith of the same kind as ours” (2 Peter 1:1, NASB), indicating that believers (not unbelievers) are the recipients of the epistle. Also, in the immediate context of the third chapter of the epistle, Peter contrasts those who scoff at the coming of Christ with those who look for the coming of a new heavens and a new earth (3:13), indicating that the “any” and “all” of 3:9 is “you” (i.e., the recipients of the letter).5 White concludes: “There is no reason to expand the context of the passage into a universal proclamation of a desire on God’s part that every single person come to repentance.”6
What Does “You” Mean?
We have the utmost respect for this common interpretation, along with the scholars who endorse it, for it has much to commend it. The strongest argument in its favor is that the antecedent of “any” is “you”—presumably, the recipients of Peter’s second letter. There are two ways to interpret “you” in this context. First, one could follow the exegesis of writers such as White, agreeing that the “you” here refers to the elect. But on that assumption, we have good reason to think God’s desire is that everyone, elect and nonelect, repent. In other words, the reason God is patient toward the elect is the same reason he is patient toward everyone—he does not want anyone to perish but desires the salvation of all. Similarly, one could see Peter’s promise as an a fortiori (stronger) argument—to wit, since God is patient toward literally everyone, how much more should you trust in his patience toward you, his own people? At the very least, these insights suggest that, even if this interpretation of the passage is correct, it in no way mitigates the conviction that God wants literally everyone to be saved.7
A second approach, which is our own understanding of the passage, is to insist that the “you” is not limited to the elect, but literally refers to anyone who comes across the epistle. Indeed, why would Peter emphasize the fact that he doesn’t want the elect to perish? That would be redundant, to say the least! In other words, Peter seeks as wide a readership as possible, implying that anyone who receives this letter is to know that the reason the Lord waits is because he is patient, not wanting anyone to perish but for all people to come to repentance. Or, in the words of New Testament scholar Thomas Schreiner, “A thousand years are like one day to Him, and in any case, the interval before Christ’s coming gives people opportunity to repent.”8 Thus, according to Schreiner’s interpretation of 2 Peter, God’s delay allows people in general—not just the elect—to have an opportunity to repent.
And so theologian Samuel Storms concurs with us when he insists that 2 Peter 3:9 is “universal in scope, encompassing every person, both elect and non-elect.”9 Not only so, but even John Calvin agrees with our interpretation, writing:
So wonderful is his love towards mankind, that he would have them all to be saved, and is of his own self prepared to bestow salvation on the lost. But the order is to be noticed, that God is ready to receive all to repentance, so that none may perish; for in these words the way and manner of obtaining salvation is pointed out. Every one of us, therefore, who is desirous of salvation, must learn to enter in by this way.10
Does God Hate Some People?
Perhaps the best argument against the universal saving love of God is that the Bible contains several texts suggesting that God actually hates specific persons. Indeed, there are no less than sixteen places in Scripture where we are told explicitly that the “boastful will not stand before your eyes; you hate all evildoers” (Psalm 5:5, NRSV), and the “Lord tests the righteous and the wicked, and his soul hates the lover of violence” (Psalm 11:5, NRSV).11
What, then, do we do with texts like these Psalms, which speak explicitly of a hatred that God has toward some persons? Medieval theologian St. Thomas Aquinas answers in the following way:
Nothing prevents one and the same thing being loved under one aspect, while it is hated under another. God loves sinners in so far as they are existing natures; for they have existence, and have it from Him. In so far as they are sinners, they have not existence at all, but fall short of it [since the sin or evil in them is a privation of the good or nature]; and this in them is not from God. Hence, under this aspect, they are hated by Him.12
The fact that most of us have heard of love-hate relationships may illustrate Thomas’s point. Indeed, “hatred” and “love” are not contradictory ideas, and so God can love and hate every sinner at the same time as long as he does it in different ways. In light of what we have established so far, we maintain that God loves all people insofar as he creates them, sustains them, and genuinely desires their salvation; and yet he hates them insofar as he allows many to perish: “They are like a dream when one awakens; on awaking you despise their phantoms” (Psalm 73:20, NRSV).
Thus, I think it is truly appropriate to say, with most modern Christians, that God loves the sinner and hates his sin. As Thomist philosopher Peter Kreeft says,
God practices what He preaches to us: love the sinner and hate the sin. God loves even the being He created in the devil, but not the lack of being in the devil’s sin. St. Thomas is not saying that sinners have no existence, but that they lack the fullness of existence that comes from loving the good. Vice and virtue have an ontological dimension as well as a moral one; we diminish our being when we sin and augment it by the virtues.13
How Does God Love Us?
God loves everyone. And he genuinely desires their salvation. This should come as a wonderful message for anyone who is honest with himself about his immoral actions and sinful heart. God need not love us. After all, he is an eternal and triune being, whose love for himself as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is self-sufficient and infinite. Hence, God loves us wholly and solely from his grace.
There are many points of relevance and application we can walk away with in this brief study. Here we will concentrate on two. First, because Scripture and sound reason confirm for us that God truly loves everyone and desires their salvation, each one of us can be assured of God’s genuine and saving love for us. That is, if God loves everyone, I must conclude that God loves me. Hence, we should never conclude that, whenever we sin, doubt, or even fall away from the faith for a season, that God is in any way causing us to do this. Indeed, he tempts no one to sin (James 1:13), and wishes no one to doubt (James 1:5–8). Thus, whenever we sin, doubt, or fall away, we must recognize that these actions are wholly self-determined on our part.
Second, because God truly loves everyone and desires the salvation of all, the Christian should never see a nonbeliever as his enemy, but as someone God wants to be saved. As apologists, we ought to recognize that there are many different types of people and, because God desires their salvation, he has reasons available to draw them to himself. To the rationalist, we offer rational arguments for the faith; for the empiricist, we offer science; for the historian, we offer evidence from the Bible; for the artist, we offer beauty. The universal love of God should encourage us to be ready to offer different kinds of reasons for the hope within us (1 Peter 3:15).