“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is from God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. The one who does not love does not know God, for God is love.” 1 John 4:7-8
If there is one verse, or at least part of a verse, that is better known than Psalm 23:1 or John 3:16, it is the phrase “God is love”. In modern America, no other statement about God would meet with more agreement, and yet what does that statement mean? Further, if God loves us, can He change? Is there a possibility that He will stop loving us?
A good place to begin is to consider the meanings of the word “love” in the original Greek that John used when he wrote. “Love” (ἀγάπη agapē) in the passage mentioned above refers to good will or benevolence. The Apostle Paul describes the word with great clarity in 1 Corinthians 13, revealing that such love, in its perfect form, is unlike any other love known to man. Agape is rarely used in secular ancient Greek literature, and can be considered a love of the unlovable. Brotherly love (φιλέω phileō) refers to the natural love for friends (John 20:2), family members (Matthew 10:37), one’s reputation (Matthew 6:5), and even one’s own life (John 12:25). Eros is another common Greek word for love, is not found in the Bible, and in ancient literature commonly refers to erotic, sexual, or romantic love, as personified in Eros, the Greek god of love. Plato defined eros as “the desire for something that I do not have or the desire never to lose what I now have.” It is a love of the loveable.
Classic theology, heavily influenced by Platonic philosophy, argues that God (or gods) needs nothing and therefore cannot love. If God is utterly perfect, He also cannot change, as change could only be in the direction of imperfection. The view that God does not love is unsupported by both the Old and the New Testament. Some contemporary theologians argue that since it is clear from Scripture that God loves, and since love requires some reciprocity between those loved, He must not be immutable; He must be able to change. Further, while there are passages that imply that God changes (Genesis 18:16-32, Exodus 32:14), there are other passages which clearly teach that He does not (Psalm 102:26-27, Hebrews 13:8).
A common pitfall in understanding the love of God is the assumption that human love is the same as the love of God. There are three ways of using “love” in this context: univocally, which means that when we say “man loves” and “God loves” we mean exactly the same thing, equivocally, which means that there is no continuity of meaning between the two statements, or analogically. The Bible seems to use “love” in the third sense, meaning that human love is similar to but not exactly the same as divine love. As noted above, Scriptures speak of God loving with the filial love of phileo (John 16:27) and with the benevolence of agape (John 3:16). It speaks of humans loving in the same way. Anders Nygren’s clear distinction between human love and divine love is not well attested by the Bible. We are therefore safe in assuming that God’s love is similar to human love, and as Kevin Vanhoozer suggests, in looking to the love of Jesus Christ, the God-Man, as the One who can best show us what God’s love really is.
John Feinberg addressed the question of whether God can change by suggesting that classical theology posits a “strong immutability”, meaning that He cannot ever change in any way or to any degree. It also suggests that since God is perfect, He must be without changing emotions, since His emotional state is perfect and anything else would be imperfect. He feels the same whether He sees human pain or pleasure. Open theists, rightly given the teachings of the Bible, object to this. Yet their version of an “incomplete” God who is neither all-powerful, all-knowing, nor eternal beyond time is unscriptural as well. Feinberg resolves this by suggesting that some things, like God’s moral character and His inherent attributes, cannot change, while some things, like His emotions and His relationship to people, can. Feinberg’s argument has some value in that it reconciles passages indicating the changing and unchanging aspects of God, but weakens when to do he tries to make God an inhabitant of time.
The issue of whether God can change or not is important to Christian theology. The God of the Classical Theists is too distant and uncaring to be Jehovah, the great I AM. However, the weak and confused god of the Open Theists is nowhere near the God of the Bible. Clearly, the best way to live is to believe the Bible. God is unchanging and changes in response to human activity. He is totally sovereign and yet man still has free will; we are responsible for what we do. A Bible professor at Biola, where I did my undergraduate work, once told me “A God small enough for our minds would not be big enough for our needs.”
However, I suspect that most people, and even most Christians, don’t care much about such academic debates on the character of God. They want to know that God is real, that He is good, that He loves them, and that He has the power to keep them in this life and in the hereafter. We see this in the perfect example of God; Jesus Christ. Jesus was real; the Bible is clear, and even the most hard core atheists, if they are intellectually honest, will have trouble denying that. Jesus was good; by standards from Mohammed to Gandhi, it is hard to argue that the man who taught such lessons and did such works, was not good. Jesus loves people; His very life amply attests to that. Finally, Jesus has the power to keep us in this life and in the hereafter…He did it for himself. The nature of God the Father is a valid area of study, but the person of Jesus Christ is, and must be, the focus of every Christian. In Him alone all the fullness of God dwells (Colossians 2:9).
In summary we know that God loves us in a way far beyond what we fully understand, limited as we are in using human love, always weak and fickle, to understand His love, infinite and unchanging. We know that His love will never fail; His compassion towards His people will never fade. How do we know this…because of Jesus.