This article was first published on May 7 2019 for the Family First NZ blog, which can be viewed here.
Some of the most powerful ideas are the ones that are not spoken. One of the most widespread assumptions in the Israel Folau social media saga is the idea that if someone thinks a particular person or type of person will ‘go to hell’, then they must necessarily hate them. The same goes for the application of the word ‘sin’ or ‘sinner’ to an action or a person: it is commonly thought that either of these words must necessarily carry with it an expression of hatred. Although there will certainly be cases where this is true, in many cases it is not, and it is certainly not a necessity.
There are a range of opinions among Christians on the fate of those without faith in Jesus after death. ‘Hell’ is just one of them. It is not universally held position among Christians, but for those who do hold to it, hell is not an unjust punishment in light of the appalling-ness of sin and the sacredness of the One who is sinned against. Laying aside the silly caricatures of hell based upon portrayals from lively medieval imaginations, hell is a seriously frightening prospect.
But to say someone will be going there does not mean that one hates them.
Christians do not suppose themselves to be the gatekeepers to heaven, although some of them no doubt act as though they were.
They do not regard themselves the rule-makers for human life, nor the determiners of morality, nor judges who hold the prerogative to condemn or acquit people.
That is not the case.
Instead, the case is that Christians believe themselves, and humankind universally, to be beholden to a higher Power that has created us all. They hold that human beings are designed and made to spec, and given the dignity of responsibility to live up to and in accordance with our purpose. They hold that this Creator is the Judge. It is he who condemns, and it is he who acquits.
For ‘hell’ to be ‘hate’ one would have to be saying it in such a way as to be wishing it upon someone, perhaps in the manner of a curse. Calling divine judgement upon someone is not something many people would do lightly. Jesus told off his disciples once for suggesting it (Luke 9:51-56), and elsewhere instructed them to love their enemies (Matthew 5:44). Christians will certainly disagree about many things non-Christians hold. That is simply part of living in a world of differing faiths and values. But disagreement – even strong disagreement – is not the same as hate, and hate is not something Christians should be inclined to do.
So if hell does not equal hate, what does motivate such speaking? I can think of three possibilities.
1. Hate. It is indeed a potential motivator. Unfortunately, there are groups and individuals who identify as Christians and who clearly do hate others. But this is not something we should expect from a mature and stable Christian.
2. Love and concern. Christians believe there will be a judgement of all people in a future point in time. To them, this part of a bigger reality that isn’t within their power to change. Given this belief, a concern for the fate of others and the loving desire to share the way of salvation should not be surprising. Even though this may surprise some people, most Christians are actually rather nice. They just don’t think they are able to change ‘metaphysical reality’ (i.e. God, and nor do they want to). They don’t want people to suffer for finding themselves on the wrong side of that reality.
3. Indignation. To the God that Christians believe in, ‘sin’ is offensive. People should be more surprised when Christians are not likewise indignant, rather than surprised when they are. True, Christian indignation should be tempered by humility, since they know that not one of them is free from sin. But nevertheless, what motivates this kind of indignation in Christians is that the good righteousness of God is not reflected in his creatures.
Christians often use the phrase ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’. It is clumsy language, because what someone does comes out of at least a part of who they are and what they love. Who people are and what they do are not so easily separated, even if that is the intention. However, motivations and intentions are important, even if misread. And the intention of ‘hate the sin, love the sinner’ is easy enough to grasp.
Allow me to wrap things up.
‘Hell’ isn’t necessarily motivated by hate. I acknowledge that it is usually interpreted as such, and sometimes this is correct. But normally the motivations of #2 and #3 above will be what is behind the use of such language: both indignation and love. It is not impossible. People can indeed feel simultaneous conflicting emotions toward the same person. Even when people commit the most despicable criminal acts they do not dispel the strong affections felt by their friends and family toward them. These people will care for them and love them all the while hating what they have done and knowing it comes from a part of who they are.
They do indeed hate the ‘crime’ but love the ‘criminal’.
Christians hold that God displays both love and indignation. There is a verse in the Bible that says “while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8). This verse shows a loving act (Christ’s sacrificial death on the cross), for people who are deemed ‘sinners’. No one supposes that God here hates people because they are called ‘sinners’. Instead, the giving of Christ for sinners is seen as a great act of offered love. People who have received such love should have the same such love to spare for others. Not simply for family and friends but for strangers and enemies as well.
Christians can love not just “because God first loved us” (1John 4:19), but also AS God first loved us. Those who are Christ’s are indignant toward sin – the sin that is in others as well as the sin that is in themselves.
But at the same time they can love those who sin, and direct them to the mercy they see offered in Jesus. They do this so that “hell” will not be the reality they someday face.
“Hell” isn’t a curse. It’s a caution.
This is why “hell” does not equal “hate”.