The following is a guest post from Dr. Adam Harwood, Associate Professor of Theology at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary.
Does God hate sinners? Certain biblical texts in the poetic sections contain those statements. Consider, as examples (quotations from the NASB, emphasis in bold is mine):
- Psalm 5:5-6, “The boastful shall not stand before Your eyes; You hate all who do iniquity. You destroy those who speak falsehood; The Lord abhors the man of bloodshed and deceit.”
- Proverbs 6:16-19, “There are six things which the Lord hates, Yes, seven which are an abomination to Him: Haughty eyes, a lying tongue, And hands that shed innocent blood, A heart that devises wicked plans, Feet that run rapidly to evil, A false witness who utters lies, And one who spreads strife among brothers.”
- Hosea 9:15, “All their evil is at Gilgal; Indeed, I came to hate them there! Because of the wickedness of their deeds I will drive them out of My house! I will love them no more; All their princes are rebels.”
Consider also the words of the Lord Jesus in Luke 14:26, “If anyone comes to Me, and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be My disciple.” Do we read Luke 14:26 as a command to hate our parents, wife, children, and ourselves? No. Instead, proper hermeneutical methods lead us to an interpretation which is more faithful to the meaning intended by the original author. In this case, a command to hate our parents would contradict clear commands by God to honor our parents (Exodus 20:12). Similarly, a command for a husband to hate his wife would contradict clear commands to love her (Ephesians 5:25-33). Similar texts could be cited which contradict the notion of hating one’s children and yourself.
When seeking a faithful interpretation of any biblical text, it is necessary to recognize literary devices and types of literature. In this case, we understand hating our family to be a literary device which makes a statement of comparison—a call to be more devoted to God than to our family. This is the view of Darrell Bock on Luke 14:26: “Here ‘hate’ is a rhetorical term. It means that a person’s loyalty to following Jesus has priority over family or acceptance by them.” Bock affirms that the word “hate” is used in this verse as a literary device. If Luke 14:26, which states that we are to hate people, is better understood another way, then is it possible that the statements about God hating sinners in the poetic material is better understood another way?
The poetic material in the Bible is a type of literature which is a gift from God because in those texts, God accurately portrays human emotion. This gives us permission to be honest with God. In the poetic material, however, some statements occur which were not intended to be doctrinal affirmations or commands to obey. That is not the nature of this type of literature. For example, David asks in Psalm 13:1 how long God will forget him. Do we think David despaired because God had literally forgotten him? No. David closes Psalm 13 with praises to the God who saves him and has dealt bountifully with him (verses 5-6). Instead, we understand Psalm 13:1 to be David’s declaration that he felt as if he had been forgotten by God.
Similarly, the Psalmist prays a blessing on the one who dashes Babylonian infants on the rocks (Psalm 137:9, “How blessed will be the one who seizes and dashes your little ones against the rock.”). Do we read this as a command to be followed? Do we regard this to be a proposition concerning the nature of God? In answer to both questions, no. The poetic material includes community laments or imprecatory psalms, of which Psalm 137 is an example. This material captures the community’s grief expressed to God, but this text would not justify killing our enemies’ infants because of the many New Testament commands to love our enemies. These examples are not meant to imply that there are errors or that we cannot trust the Bible. Instead, these examples remind us that the Bible is comprised of a variety of literary devices and types of literature. We must recognize different types of literature and literary devices in the Bible and interpret them accordingly.
Rather than reading the statements of God’s hatred for sinners literally, they are better understood as instances of anthropopathism, a figure of speech denoting analogically a truth about God. As Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology explains, “Anthropomorphisms and anthropopathisms are figures of speech that transmit theological truths about God to humankind. Only when taken literally are they misconstrued.” The statements that God hates sinners are rare in the Bible, occur only in the poetic sections, and are misunderstood when they are interpreted literally.
It is necessary, however, to take seriously God’s righteous indignation against sin and sinners. Millard Erickson writes, “Although God is not the enemy of sinners nor does he hate them, it is also quite clear that God is angered by sin.” God’s wrath (orgē) is “revealed from heaven against godlessness and unrighteousness of men” (Romans 1:18, ESV). Notice that His wrath in these verses is not against godless and unrighteous people, but against their godlessness and unrighteousness. In this way, it would be accurate to say that God hates the sin, but loves the sinner.
According to Romans 3:25-26, the Cross of Christ demonstrates God’s righteousness. According to Romans 5:8, the Cross of Christ demonstrates God’s love, not His hatred, for sinners. In John 3, we learn that God sent His Son into the world to save the world, not to condemn the world (v. 17). God’s wrath is already on all people because of their sin; and only those who believe in the Son will have eternal life (v. 36). But God’s wrath should be distinguished from this idea that He hates sinners. Wrath is God’s settled disposition against sin, which flows from His righteousness and holiness. In this way, our condemnation is already set because of our sin. But out of love for these objects of wrath, God acted to rescue those who were already perishing and under His condemnation.
At the Cross, God judged His only Son, one who had no sin. He did so out of love for sinful people. These are the actions of one who loves sinners, not one who hates them.
Darrell Bock, Jesus According to Scripture: Restoring the Portrait from the Gospels (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2002), 279.
Baker’s Evangelical Dictionary of Biblical Theology, s. v. “Anthropomorphism.”
Millard Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2013), 552.
Adam Harwood is Associate Professor of Theology, Director of the Baptist Center for Theology & Ministry, and Editor of the Journal for Baptist Theology & Ministry at New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary in New Orleans, Louisiana. Previously, he served for 13 years in church staff positions in Oklahoma and Texas. He holds a B.A. (1996) in History Education from the University of Central Oklahoma and an M.Div. (2001) and Ph.D. in Theology (2007) from Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
This post originally appeared at adamharwood.com.
The views expressed by guest writers are their own and do not necessarily reflect the views of B&H Academic, LifeWay Christian Resources, or their employees.