What sense does it make to say God is love?
What does "God is love" even mean? Does the Bible support this interpretation? Let's explore a weird connection between God’s love and the Trinity.
Is God love? Christians delight in telling us that he is (1 John 4:16)—as if this cherry-picked verse is the obvious summary of all the Bible says about God—but what does this even mean? We can compare this to other New Testament declarations that God is truthful, faithful, and just, but these are adjectives. This doesn’t help us understand God’s relationship to love, which is a noun.
We can find “God is light” (equating God to a noun), but this sounds like a metaphor.
Is this phrase saying that “God” and “love” are synonyms? That makes no sense. Love didn’t destroy Sodom and Gomorrah or drown everyone in a global flood.
Or maybe the goal was to assign love as one of God’s properties. Why not then say, “God is loving”? And is love to God what love is to humans? If so, how can these relationships be equivalent when we wouldn’t say “Love is one of Mary’s properties”? No, we’d simply say, “Mary is loving” or “Mary is a loving person” or something similar.
Never mind. The original epistle was written in Greek, which gives Christians some ambiguity to play with as they create their own interpretation. Endless articles have been written about how fabulously loving God is, and I don’t much care how Christians spin “God is love.” What’s more interesting is the tangled tales apologists weave as they improvise their fantasy world.
Love and the Trinity
If God is not a Trinity, God is not love. For love requires three things: a lover, a beloved, and a relationship between them. If God were only one person, he could be a lover, but not love itself. The Father loves the Son and the Son loves the Father, and the Spirit is the love proceeding from both, from all eternity. If that were not so, then God would need us, would be incomplete without us, without someone to love. Then his creating us would not be wholly unselfish, but selfish, from his own need.
So Kreeft imagines the three members of the Trinity loving each other for eternity before the universe was created. The only thing in existence was the Trinity, but how would that work? There was no development, progress, or even change of any kind, so what would love mean in this static environment? The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit might as well have been marble statues. Where’s the love?
Keep these statues in mind as we think about how love works with humans. We’ll sacrifice for our beloved. We’ll forgive our beloved’s errors and trust in the same courtesy in return. We value a loving relationship because it is temporary and uncertain. We contrast loving relationships and feelings of loving bliss with the far greater number of ordinary relationships and periods of time.
None of this is possible for the omniscient, invulnerable, unchanging Trinity. So tell me again how “love” could describe the relationship between the persons of the Trinity (more on love and the Trinity).
WLC piles on
Apologist William Lane Craig has a similar take. Here he’s favorably comparing Christianity’s Trinitarian concept against Islam’s strict monotheism.
If I am right that love is of the very essence and nature of God then when there was nothing (when there were no human beings to love) then whom did God love? There isn’t anybody else to love other than God…. And this is, I think, a very good argument for a plurality of persons within God over against Unitarianism which says that God is just one person…. A Unitarian God cannot do that; cannot be essentially loving. This gives, I think, a very persuasive reason for thinking that there is a plurality of persons within God himself so that within the godhead there are eternal love relationships that have existed forever and now are manifested toward human beings with the creation of the world.
Uh huh. Show me that you got that from the Bible instead of your imagination. The biblical characters of Abraham, Moses, and even Jesus would have no concept of a religion that’s both monotheistic and Trinitarian.
The role of love
“Good” emotions like love and compassion and “bad” emotions like jealousy and anger each have their role. We categorize them as good and bad simply because we typically see too little of the good ones and too much of the bad ones.
The palette of human emotions that we have exists simply because it provided survival benefit on our evolutionary path. I’m sure Kreeft and Craig want to imagine that they’re grounded in something less arbitrary than evolution, but they have no good reason to say that or to elevate love to the pinnacle of emotions. The naturalistic explanation is sufficient.
Why imagine that love is that big a deal from a cosmic perspective? We think it is, but that’s our evolutionary programming talking. Our emotions and morals make sense to us because of evolution, but they’re in no sense objectively the best. If we were Romulans or Vulcans or Klingons or even Spartans, we’d think differently. Maybe honor would be at the top if we were Klingons, or maybe respect for wisdom if Vulcans. When competing Neolithic tribes had to fight for scarce resources, anger would’ve been valuable.
We can’t even agree among ourselves what the best moral actions are. Why then think our morals are universally correct?
It’s like the fable of the blind men and the elephant. Humans are like the guy who grabs a leg and says, “An elephant is like a tree.” Okay, from that perspective, it is. And for humans, love might be the pinnacle of human emotional expression. But let’s not take it any farther than that. In a universe that might have millions of independently evolved intelligent species, what is obvious to us is just a relative interpretation.
Continue: How God’s love works, apparently
We have just enough religion to make us hate,
but not enough to make us love one another.
— Jonathan Swift