You may find the idea that God is only pure love, not a mixture of love and wrath, revolutionary if you grew up as I did with an idea of God as an angry old man in the sky constantly watching us so he could punish us for our sins.
Although I have grown beyond that image intellectually, the vestiges of it are still deeply planted in my brain and make it difficult for me to totally trust God. Even as an adult I used to think that, on the one hand God was purely loving, and yet on the other hand we had to maintain God’s “holiness,” by which we meant “hatred of sin,” and since sin has to be punished, God’s justice was always punitive and wrathful.
But what if God’s justice is only restorative not punitive, and God is forever only pure love? What if, as the Franciscan priest Richard Rohr always says, “Jesus came not to change God’s mind about us, but to change our minds about God.”
The best human being would do everything they could to fully understand and help others, not punish them. However, we live in a dualistic, tit-for-tat culture that divides people up into good and bad. The bad are your enemies and the culture tells us enemies are to be punished and destroyed.
This punitive cultural attitude even infects our churches and warps our theology. Jesus taught that we should love our enemies, but many Christians do not believe that God does this, God condemns sinners to be tortured forever in hell.
Jesus taught that we should forgive seventy times seven, that is, forever. But many Christians do not believe God does this, God sends people to eternal torment in hell.
Why would someone as great as God, who has infinite power, knowledge, patience, kindness, love, forgiveness, compassion, and mercy choose to eternally destroy infinitely small, vulnerable creatures because of the stupid things they do, usually out of their own ignorance and brokenness? Doesn’t that make God infinitely petty, unloving judgmental and angry – qualities we don’t admire in any human being?
Even in civil courtrooms, the length of the sentence must fit the crime – we don’t send people to lifelong imprisonment for stealing a loaf of bread for their family because they are food insecure. Eternal punishment therefore does not make sense. What could we possibly do that would warrant, not just imprisonment but torture, and not just for a lifetime but forever? Forever is an awfully long time, particularly if you are being tortured! This idea makes God a monster who is eternally vengeful, something we admire in no one. This idea makes atheists not believers. Surely, God is far greater, not far lower, than the best human being?
Maybe God’s holiness is God’s infinite and eternal love, forgiveness, compassion, and mercy? Maybe God’s holiness is like the story Jesus told about the father of the prodigal son who runs out to meet and embrace his son and celebrates his return, rather than punishing him for squandering his father’s fortune? Maybe God’s holiness is like Jesus who, when a woman is caught in adultery, rather than stoning her for her sin, as the elders wanted him to, says, “I don’t condemn you, go and sin no more.”
I think the idea of hell as a place of eternal torture is a projection of our worst fears onto God and religious leaders used this to control people. It is easy to control people who are afraid. I also believe though that there is a hell, not as a place but a state of mind. We create our own hell or heaven on Earth by the choices we make. I suppose it would be possible to make eternally bad choices and so condemn yourself to eternal hell, but I don’t think God condemns us. Rather, God would eternally pursue us until we gave in to God’s eternal love.
Of course, this brings up all the verses in the Bible about the wrath of God. There are good theological responses that give alternative ways of interpreting these verses, but I reserve my answers for another article. Suffice it to say for now, that the Bible is full of examples of God’s restorative not punitive justice. For now, let us merely consider and savor the idea that God’s holiness and justice are found in God’s eternal love not eternal wrath, that God is only loving not both loving and wrathful.
Bruce Tallman is a spiritual director and author of God’s Ecstatic Love (Apocryphile Press, 2021). See www.brucetallman.com/books