Three Types of Divine Love

Last month, I wrote a two-part post questioning whether God loves everyone. To review: after looking at examples from both the Old Testament (pre-flood people and the Amalekites) and the New Testament (Pharisees, false teachers, and godless men), I concluded that no, God does not love everyone. Within the past two weeks, I’ve had two extended conversations with two different people about this topic. These have spurred me to look more deeply into what theologians have written about it.

In last week’s post, I mentioned R.C. Sproul, one of my favorite theologians. He wrote (in Tabletalk magazine, May 2004) about three different kinds of love that God has. The first one is what he calls the love of benevolence, which means good will. We see this phrase in Luke 2:14, when the angels appeared to the shepherds: “Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men.” In Ezekiel 33:11, the Lord says, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live.” R.C. rightly said, “His judgments upon evil are rooted in His righteousness, not in some distorted malice in His character.”

The second kind of love is called the love of beneficence, which is kind actions. For example, Matthew 5:45 says, “He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.” When we put together the first two kinds of love, we can see that God’s good will is manifested in kind actions toward all people.

There is a third kind of God’s love that theologians call the love of complacency; because the meaning of this word has changed so much since Jonathan Edwards used it almost 300 years ago, perhaps something like “positional love” would be better. (Thanks to my wife for this term!) This love is the special delight and pleasure that God the Father first of all takes in Jesus and then extends to us who trust and obey Him. Zephaniah 3:17, for example, says, “The Lord your God is with you, he is mighty to save. He will take great delight in you, he will quiet you with his love, he will rejoice over you with singing.” (Thanks, Dennis Jernigan, for putting this verse to music; that’s what brought it to mind!) Notice that this is also saving love; it is thus conditional and not universal. This third kind of love is shown only to those who are God’s people. In contrast, the first two kinds of love are shown to all people, unconditionally and universally. When I wrote last month about whether God loves everyone, it was in reference to the special, third kind of love.

As I was studying and researching, I thought of the rich young ruler that Jesus spoke to; the encounter is recorded for us in Matthew, Mark, and Luke. Mark 10:21-22 says, “Jesus looked at him and loved him. ‘One thing you lack,’ he said. ‘Go, sell everything you have and give to the poor, and you will have treasure in heaven. Then come, follow me.’ At this the man’s face fell. He went away sad, because he had great wealth.” I was struck by the fact that Jesus loved him. What does that mean? I think it’s very evident when you read the entire account that Jesus had good will toward this man. I think it’s also clear that Jesus loved him in action by taking the time to talk with him; the man also strikes me as very earnest because Mark 10:17 says, “As Jesus started on his way, a man ran up to him and fell on his knees before him.” Now, did Jesus love him in the third sense, meaning that this earnest young man believed and was saved? It doesn’t appear so because verse 22 tells us that he went away sad. Some have hypothesized that this young man was Mark (the author of this gospel), Joseph of Arimathea, or even the apostle Paul, which would mean that he eventually came to saving faith in Jesus; however, this is only speculation. Ultimately, we will find out in heaven whether this man was saved.

In summary, we can say that God loves everyone in terms of His good will and kind actions toward the entire human race. However, there is a special kind of love that He has only for His people. And I daresay, that is the most important love of all.

Whatever Happened to Reverence?

When my wife and I were newlyweds, we had the privilege of watching a video series by R.C. Sproul called The Holiness of God. For those of you who are not familiar with the name, R.C. was one of the spiritual giants of the 20th century and on into the 21st until he went to heaven in 2017. In this video series, which is based on his 1985 book of the same title, he begins with Isaiah 6, where the Lord gives Isaiah a majestic vision of Himself in heaven. Isaiah’s response is in verse 5 of that chapter: “‘Woe to me!'” I cried. “‘I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.'” We have a somewhat similar picture of a man’s encounter with the Lord in Luke 1, except in this case indirectly; an angel of the Lord appears to Zechariah to tell him about the fact that he and his wife are going to have a son, who they are to name John. (As an adult, he becomes John the Baptist.) What is Zechariah’s initial response to this visitation from the angel? In verse 12 we are told, “When Zechariah saw him, he was startled and was gripped with fear.”

One thing that these two examples from Scripture show us is that when people have a direct encounter with the Lord or with one of his messengers, their initial response tends to be one of fear, which is quickly allayed. The Lord then gives them His message. When Scripture says “Fear God” or “Fear the Lord,” it has a somewhat different meaning than the fear that Isaiah and Zechariah had, but it is related; it means to treat the Lord with deep respect, to be in awe of His holiness, and to honor Him. That’s what “reverence” is.

There is a troubling trend in today’s American churches. I have frequently heard and read something like this: “Tell the Lord whatever you want even if you’re angry, frustrated… He can take it.” Usually, people who say this use it as an excuse to vent to the Lord anything they want. For example, people apparently like to tell the Lord that they are angry with Him, typically because their prayers haven’t been answered the way that they want. What does the Bible tell us? In Psalm 130:5 we read, “I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I put my hope.” This psalm, like many others, begins with the psalmist crying out to the Lord. In verses 1-2 of the same psalm we read, “Out of the depths I cry to you, O Lord. O Lord, hear my voice. Let your ears be attentive to my cry for mercy.” Another particularly striking example like this is Psalm 13, which begins, “How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I wrestle with my thoughts and every day have sorrow in my heart?” However, look at the last two verses of that same psalm: “But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, for he has been good to me.” The pattern in many psalms is that the psalmist pours out his negative feelings to the Lord, but then ends with affirming his trust in the Lord’s goodness. Shouldn’t we do the same?

Another troubling trend is people, even pastors, being irreverently critical of someone in Scripture, or even of Scripture itself. It’s easy to be critical of virtually everyone in Scripture (except Jesus and Daniel!), and we can certainly learn from the sins and weaknesses of characters in the Bible, but we still need to do it with reverence. Peter seems to be a favorite target of pastors, I suppose understandably; however, let’s not forget that the Lord mightily used Peter in the early church. Jonah is another character that it’s easy to be critical of. He is rightly referred to as the reluctant prophet because he initially disobeyed the Lord’s command to go to Nineveh. Then after he preached, the Ninevites repented, and Jonah was angry because the Lord relented from destroying them. (The Ninevites were enemies of Israel.) However, it’s one thing to be critical of Jonah; it’s quite another for someone, especially a pastor, to call Jonah a “turd.” (This is secondhand information, as it was reported to me by a friend.) This is basically the same as calling a person a piece of you-know-what. It’s never right, especially for a pastor, to resort to this kind of name-calling, but it’s exacerbated by the fact that Jonah, for all his faults, was still a prophet of the Lord!

Regarding being critical of Scripture itself: I once heard someone say (I hesitate to even write this), “The Old Testament law about stoning a rebellious child is stupid.” No doubt the person who said this was a rebellious child! You can read the law for yourself in Deuteronomy 21:18-21. For a little context, it does not sound like this passage is describing a young child because this is what the parents say in verse 20: “This son of ours is stubborn and rebellious. He will not obey us. He is a profligate and a drunkard.” Now, I will say that I am glad we are no longer required to do this! How many of us would have survived adolescence?! However, calling anything in Scripture “stupid” is very dangerous. The second part of verse 21 says, “You must purge the evil from among you. All Israel will hear of it and be afraid.” In other words, rebellion against the Lord is evil, and indeed, before we come to faith in Christ, that is what we are all guilty of. Thank the Lord for His mercy to us!

The trend towards people feeling free to “vent” to the Lord, being disrespectful of people in Scripture, and even critical of Scripture itself are all symptomatic, I believe, of a decreasing reverence for the Lord. Let’s be reverent in relation to the Lord and His Word!

How Can We Be Sure that the Bible Is the Inspired Word of God?

In my first post in early May, I mentioned that if you have a big question or issue that you would like me to respond to, please let me know. This week’s post is in response to a question, an excellent one, from one of the regular readers of this blog.

Let me begin with the assurance from Scripture itself, in 2 Timothy 3:16-17: “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.” The word “God-breathed” means “inspired.” In other words, although ~40 different men wrote the Bible, they did so under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit. I don’t know if you have ever read the Bible from cover to cover, but it is profound how unified and coherent it is. In the third chapter of Genesis, the first promise of a deliverer is given; we don’t find out until the first book of the New Testament that His name is Jesus. In Revelation, we find out more details about His second coming and the glorious future He has promised to those who love Him. It’s no wonder that in the second-to-last verse of the Bible, John (the author of Revelation) writes, “Come, Lord Jesus.” I have often thought and said those very words as I see our society, and the world as a whole, falling apart.

One of the main reasons that I came to believe the inspiration of the Bible early in my Christian walk was prophecies that were fulfilled. I still remember the first time I read Psalm 22, particularly the first 18 verses. King David wrote this psalm ~1000 years before Jesus was born, and it includes details of crucifixion that are jaw-dropping; this barbaric method of execution was not invented until 600-700 years after this psalm was written. Another chapter of prophecy that is jaw-dropping in its meticulous accuracy is Daniel 11, which was written 200-400 years before the events described. The first four verses give us a brief account of the breakup of the Greek empire; the “mighty king” mentioned in verse 3 is Alexander the Great. Verses 5-35 give remarkable details about battles between various kings of the South (Egypt) and the North (Syria), including the infamous Antiochus Epiphanes. If you have never read this chapter with the help of a good commentary, I recommend that you do so; it is absolutely stunning.

Another area of evidence for the inspiration of the Bible is various archaeological findings. For example, prior to 1928, Isaiah 20:1 had been challenged by critics of the Bible because Isaiah mentions an Assyrian king named “Sargon.” However, Sargon’s palace was discovered and excavated beginning in that year, confirming that Isaiah was right. Another example of this type is “Sanballat,” who was the governor of Samaria and an enemy of the Jews after they returned to the land of Israel from exile. Sanballat is mentioned in Nehemiah 4:1 and 6:1. Critics had said that Sanballat was the governor much later than the time that Nehemiah lived. However, we now know that several Sanballats from that time are known, so Nehemiah’s mention of Sanballat is historically accurate. Regarding archaeological findings, probably none is greater than the Dead Sea Scrolls, which were excavated in 1947. These scrolls have portions of every Old Testament book except Esther, and they were written approximately 1000 years before previous Bible manuscripts that we had. Comparisons of the Dead Sea Scrolls with these much-later Bible manuscripts give us a very high degree of agreement, again giving us confidence in the accuracy of the Bible.

Earlier, I mentioned the coherence of the Bible. Critics love to find what they consider “inconsistencies.” For example, much has been made about differences in details between the four Gospels, which had four different human authors. However, when you examine these differences, you find that the different accounts of the same events supplement each other rather than contradicting them. For example, after the resurrection of Jesus, Matthew tells us that Mary Magdalene and “the other Mary” went to the tomb; Mark adds another woman, Salome, for a total of three; Luke mentions “the women” who went to the tomb and then a few verses later mentions several women, including Mary Magdalene, who told the disciples what they had found. John mentions only Mary Magdalene. Critics, of course, regard these accounts as “inconsistent,” but notice that Mary Magdalene is mentioned by all four Gospel writers. The fact that John chooses to focus on Mary Magdalene is not inconsistent, especially when you read a few verses later about Jesus’ appearing to her; this was also after the disciples had left the tomb. Putting it all together, here is the probable chronology: a few of the women went to the tomb and didn’t find the body of Jesus; they returned to the men and told them; Peter and John ran to the tomb to see for themselves and then returned home; Mary Magdalene returned to the tomb, and Jesus appeared to her there.

In summary, the coherence of the Bible, the remarkable fulfillment of very specific prophecies in it, and various archaeological findings give us assurance that, indeed, the Bible is the inspired Word of God. Critics will always jump on supposed inconsistencies in Scripture, but careful examination and comparison will reveal a richness of detail in different accounts of the same events that is not immediately apparent.

What Will Hell Be Like?

For those of you who follow my blog, the title of this week’s post is probably no surprise. Last week I wrote about heaven, so this week, I’m writing about the other place–the one that people don’t like to talk or write about. However, given that the decision about your eternal destination is the most important one you will ever make, it’s vital to understand what the Bible teaches about hell.

Perhaps the images you have about hell include Satan as a ruler over the demons and people there, perhaps holding a pitchfork and standing in a barren cavern with fire all around. Here is what Revelation 20:10 says: “And the devil, who deceived them, was thrown into the lake of burning sulfur, where the beast and the false prophet had been thrown. They will be tormented day and night for ever and ever.” It is clear that Satan will not be the ruler in hell, but the image of fire is quite clear. I have recently read other opinions about hell which include ideas like, “Well, Satan and his demons will be in hell, but not people.” Here’s what Matthew says in Chapter 13 verses 49-50: “The angels will come and separate the wicked from the righteous and throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” Take a look at verse 7 in the book of Jude: “Sodom and Gomorrah and the surrounding towns gave themselves up to sexual immorality and perversion. They serve as an example of those who suffer the punishment of eternal fire.” Mark 9:43-48 also tells us about hell. In verse 43, the phrase “where the fire never goes out” is used to describe hell. The second part of verse 47 and verse 48 say this: “It is better for you to enter the kingdom of God with one eye than to have two eyes and be thrown into hell, where ‘their worm does not die, and the fire is not quenched.'”

The image of fire is pervasive in these verses; it is also clear that people who did not put their faith in the Lord Jesus Christ will be in hell forever. The idea that Rob Bell popularized in 2011, that hell is a temporary place for people because everyone will eventually get to heaven, is clearly not Biblical. Matthew 25:46 is another verse that teaches hell is permanent: “Then they [the goats, who are unbelievers] will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

There is another image used in the Bible to refer to hell. Three verses in Matthew refer to “darkness” (NIV) or “outer darkness” (ESV). Here’s one of them: “And throw that worthless servant outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” This is at the end of the parable of the talents; notice the phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth,” which is also used in Matthew 13:50 in relation to hell. Verse 13 in Jude is particularly striking in its imagery: “They [godless men] are wild waves of the sea, foaming up their shame; wandering stars, for whom blackest darkness has been reserved forever.”

I don’t consider this an important question, but someone reading this might, so: how can hell be a place of both fire and darkness? Let me answer it this way: have you ever made a campfire at night? If so, this is not hard to picture. You have fire shooting up several feet into the air and providing illumination, but except for other campfires and other small sources of light here and there, the campground is still enveloped in darkness. It’s also possible that fire and darkness in these Bible verses about hell are meant to be taken figuratively rather than literally. Regardless, it is a place of torment. How much of it is physical and how much is mental/emotional, I don’t know.

In summary, the Bible tells us that hell is at least three things: a place of fire; a place of darkness; and a place of eternal torment because it is separation from God. So far, I have only implied that very last part, but 2 Thessalonians 1:8-9 makes this eternal separation from God explicit: “He will punish those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. They will be punished with everlasting destruction and shut out from the presence of the Lord and from the majesty of his power.” Notice the phrase “shut out from the presence of the Lord.” Do you remember when Jesus was on the cross and He said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus was on the cross for about six hours; Matthew, Mark, and Luke all tell us that darkness came over the whole land for the last three hours. It was during these three hours that Jesus endured hell, or separation from the Father, so that we don’t have to. If you are reading this and don’t have saving faith in the Lord Jesus Christ, I pray that will change today.

What Will Heaven Be Like?

Maybe when you think of heaven, images of harps, halos, and people sitting on clouds come to mind. If so, those are cultural images which have nothing to do with the reality of heaven. (OK, maybe the harps!) In truth, prior to my discovery of the book Heaven (2004) by Randy Alcorn, I did not have a good picture of heaven, either.

One thing that used to puzzle me was the concept of the new heaven and the new earth, which John wrote about in Revelation. (For a glorious picture of the current heaven, read Revelation Chapters 4, 5, 7, 11:15-19, 14:1-7, and 19:1-16. This post focuses on the new heaven.) I imagined flitting between heaven and earth, for example. However, once I read Alcorn’s book and took a closer look at the first few verses of Revelation 21, I began to see it in a whole new way. Here is what Rev. 21:1-3 says: “Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Now the dwelling of God is with men, and He will live with them. They will be His people, and God Himself will be with them and be their God.'” Do you see it? The Holy City “coming down” and God living with us? Alcorn’s thesis is essentially that the new heaven and the new earth will be one and the same; in other words, we will literally have heaven on earth.

Alcorn wrote his enlightening book as answers to a series of questions. For example: What will it mean for God to dwell among us? How will we relate to each other? What will our bodies be like? Will we eat and drink on the new earth? What will the great city be like? (Revelation 21:9 – 22:5 gives lots of details in answer to that question.) Will animals inhabit the new earth? Will heaven ever be boring? Admittedly, some of Alcorn’s answers are speculative, but if you dismiss certain cultural images and presuppositions about heaven that you may have, you can let your imagination soar. If you look at the photo on my home page, you can see Delicate Arch, one of my favorite places on Earth. When I think about the new earth, I think of that. Among other things, I also think of some of my favorite waterfalls, the Pacific Ocean, and the two glorious total solar eclipses I have witnessed. Then I imagine something like these places and events on the new earth, only even better, that the Lord will prepare for us. If you don’t especially enjoy nature now, I think you will on the new earth!

I picture being reunited with my parents and other loved ones who were believers here. I look forward to talking with people like Charles Colson, whose books have contributed so mightily to my growth as a Christian. I imagine talking with Adam and Eve; I have so many questions about the Garden of Eden and other aspects of the time before sin entered the world. Speaking of sin: What will it be like to talk with people without any aspect of sin entering our conversation? And how about the ultimate: fellowshipping with my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ Himself?! What will that be like?!

My wife came across this on sayingsforchurchsigns.com (thanks, Jonas, for posting this!): “Will not need in heaven: clock, doc., lock, Glock, H&R Block.” Since “doc.” apparently refers to “documents,” I would like to add “doc,” as in “doctors.” You can have your own fun thinking of things you won’t need in heaven, even if they don’t rhyme!

Joni Eareckson Tada (someone else I look forward to talking with in heaven, especially if I never get the opportunity here!) is a well-known author, radio host, artist, and founder of an organization focused on the disability community. (She has been a quadriplegic since 1967.) She was once asked something like this: “What do you think your first experience of heaven will be like?” She referred to the following, which is the theme music from the movie Cast Away (2000): https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fMoFmICrISE. It makes me cry–in a good way–almost every time I listen to it.

This reconceptualization of the new heaven (and new earth) has whetted my appetite for it in ways I had never imagined. If you are reading this as someone who has trusted in Jesus as your Savior and Lord, I look forward to seeing you in heaven, too. If not, my prayer is that you will come to saving faith in Him.