In response to your “Jesus loves you” post, recently I’ve been hearing a lot about how God doesn’t love everyone (I’m still learning). And after thinking about it, it’s pretty true that God doesn’t give grace all the time (He owns entire tribes of people, Great Flood, etc) and does explicitly say that He hates certain people (God loved Jacob but hated Esau). How do I reconcile that, or more importantly, how to I tell non-believers that?
You know, I hear a question underneath the question here.
None of this will probably ever compute for a non-believer. When we isolate a few things from the Bible and dig into “Why-God-Why,” then we’re missing the point of what God is doing in history. Most people who bring up these things make it into a “Yeah gotcha!” — as if picking apart Bible semantics somehow erases what Jesus did for us. But I’ll play along and tackle the theology first.
Please allow me the grace to get pastoral-nerdy here. One day when I raise my future children, I will most definitely have to discipline them. This means time-out, fifty push-ups, mow the lawn, or I take away everything they own (which I bought them anyway). This temporal act of unpleasant discipline does NOT change the reality that I love them, but actually enforces it. At the moment they might think, “I wish I had a different dad,” but their bloodline and my father-status can never change.
God, who exists outside of time, often uses temporal acts that appear to be pretty dang rough. I’ve sincerely struggled with the Old Testament because it’s full of bloody, bizarre, outrageous acts of divine intervention that don’t always make sense. But in the greater context of each temporal action, God retains a timeless nature over us that is inflexible. He can also see the Bigger Picture, and His discipline is an eternal vision for our story. God in macro is love; God in micro does not always appear so.
As someone once said, “God often uses what He hates to achieve what He loves.” That’s a pat answer for cancer, car accidents, and earthquakes, but we also remember this broken world is not our final home, and God’s love is a finale that transcends our passage of time on this earth.
Let’s look closer at Jacob and Esau. Esau is called “godless” in Hebrews 12 (the book of Hebrews is a great commentary on the OT), and he rejected his birthright for a bowl of soup. Other translations say he is “unholy” or “profane.” Jacob was no clean kid either; he deceived Esau for both his birthright and blessing. The difference is that Esau outright disrespected the things of God, while Jacob was more or less open to them.
So now let’s bring in a little subtlety here: did God hate what Esau stood for? Of course. If God is God, then He hates injustice and perversion. But yes, in eternity God still loved Esau. When we’re told God loved Jacob, did God always take it easy on Jacob? Of course not. I’m sure there were times when Jacob found it impossible to believe God loved him.
Yet in Genesis 33, in a culmination of God’s gracious character, Jacob and Esau both reconcile after years of hatred and God shows grace on them both by a divinely awesome moment of brotherly love in our human history. It could’ve ended very differently: but God is giving us a preview of the restored family we were always meant to have. That’s the Bigger Picture.
Often we read the Bible with a “black-and-white” lens as if God Himself is not thoughtful, but any of the ancient Israelite audience would’ve immediately picked up on these particular phrasings like “God hated Esau.” Sometimes we wonder why Abraham was told to sacrifice his son Isaac, but when you read Genesis 22:2, there’s a tiny little phrase in there — “Take your son, your only son, Isaac, whom you love, and go to the region of Moriah.” The Israelite audience would’ve immediately made the connection: Abraham was idolizing his son over God. It was a test.
Let’s take those crazy genocidal wars. There’s no hint that God enjoyed these, but for Israel to survive, war inevitably had to be made against pagan bloodthirsty nations. It was kill or be killed; to worldly people, life was cheap then. And when disobedient tribes showed up in Israel, it could’ve destroyed the entirety of God’s people. Again, God had to use what He hates to achieve what He loves.
As hard as it might be to believe, I have just enough faith to trust that God would not allow anything that could not be used somehow for an eternal good. That’s a huge leap for some people, I know. But either God has no clue what He’s doing (then He’s not God), or God knows exactly what He’s doing. There’s no middle ground.
If God knows what He’s doing, then He has to consider every single frigging alternative and human twitch and halfway decision that every single person has ever made, ever. And we can get hung up on those temporal actions and semantic descriptions of “God hated Esau,” but that does not infringe on God ultimately being total love. We see things as they are; God sees them as they will be, in totality.
What I’m really hearing though is that theologians and non-Christians falsely use these particulars to convey the angry God they want to for their own agenda, or just to avoid the beckoning call of God on their lives. Accepting the work of Jesus on the cross actually requires us to respond somehow, and most people are way too comfortable to encounter an All-Loving God who has a totally different, life-shattering plan for them.
The life of Jesus himself is already proof that God undoubtedly loves us, and in that context we can interpret everything else that happens in the Bible. There are wicked men, and we need a Savior. We are in need of discipline, and Jesus comes to both love and lead. We experience hard times, but Jesus is with us the whole time. We begin and end every theological conversation with Jesus. His cross — that supernatural act of saving the world through his heroic sacrifice — casts its shadow over all of humanity.