Toward a Systematic Theology of Love

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A while back, I wrote a post entitled “On Picking and Choosing.” In it, I talked about the lenses through which people read and interpret scripture.

A few years ago, informed both by scripture and my personal experience of God, I decided I would always read the Bible through the lens of love. After all, Jesus said love was the greatest commandment and the peg upon which hung all of the Law and the prophets (Matthew 22:36-40). I figured I couldn’t go wrong with that.

But I have to admit, the love lens messed me up. It tore to shreds my belief in a hell of eternal conscious torment. It convicted me deeply of my tepid generosity toward the poor. It made me reconsider the Church’s condemnation of LGBT people.

Love always exacts a toll.

Some people, of course, now accuse me of ignoring the whole of scripture. What about the Bible’s condemnation of the wicked? What about repentance? What about Jesus returning to earth on the back of a war horse to wage the Battle of Armageddon? What about Romans 9?

Well. Let’s talk about that.

What happens sometimes is that we’ve been listening to the standard biblical interpretations for so long that we let them pass without protest. The pastor reads a scripture and tells us what it means, and we nod along. After all, he would know, right? He’s been to seminary (we hope) and studied the classical biblical scholars. He can lay out a systematic theology that appears to make sense–as long as you share his lens.

But what happens when you change lenses? Suddenly, you’re thrust into an unfamiliar landscape, and you’re back to asking the root questions like, “Who is God, really?” “What did Jesus actually do on the cross?” “What happened in Eden?” “What does it mean to repent?” “Does hell exist? And if so, who goes there?”

So now you’re back at the beginning, holding onto this lens that you feel confident is the right one while your faith unravels like a roll of toilet paper in a toddler’s hands–and all of the people confident in the old theology are yelling at you to come back to the comfortable fold. Some do go back, simply because the dissonance is too much. However, you may be one of those who can’t go back. The new lens has illuminated something so profound that there is no letting it go. From experience, that is not an easy place to be. You spend a lot of time thrashing about in the dark, staring into the one sparkling beam of light that you can see. You don’t want to stay there forever. Too much time in the dark, and you’ll lose hope.

So what do you do? You develop a new theology.

To show you how this works–how my new lens has changed my view of scripture–I’m going to go through a series of statements commonly made by evangelical ministers and provide an answer to each one.

S1: Repentance means to turn away from sin.

A: Repentance means to turn toward God.

In the Gospels, Jesus kept telling people to repent, including the Pharisees. If you think about it, it was an odd thing to do. The Pharisees were the religious leaders. They knew the Law better than anyone and followed it to the letter. If anyone was considered blameless before the Law, it was the Pharisees. So why did Jesus tell them to repent? It was because the Pharisees were looking unto the Law for their salvation, not God. The Law had become an idol that they worked so hard to please that they ignored the Spirit of The One who had provided the Law. The Law was important, but its purpose was to lead mankind into fellowship with God. Apart from God, the Law resulted in spiritual death.

I’m going to say something truly radical here: Simply turning from sin does not save you. If you turn from sin without also turning toward God, you are committing idolatry in which you declare yourself redeemed by your own efforts. Repentance is not just declaring that we need to be saved, but that we require a Savior.

S2: God is love, but He is also holy and just.

A: God’s holiness and justice are rooted in love.

Many evangelical ministers will lead you to believe that there are two seemingly conflicting sides to God: one side that is loving and compassionate, and the other that is angry and bent on punishing sin. I no longer see these sides in conflict. God is holy because He is loving. He seeks justice because it is an act of love to rescue the weak from the oppression of the wicked. God’s righteous anger (which is slow and full of patience) flows out of His deep love for His creation–those He has declared worthy of ransom by his Son.

S3: God cannot tolerate sin.

A: Because sin is a rejection of love.

I read somewhere that someone once summed up the Golden Rule by saying, “That which is detestable to you, do not do to your neighbor.” That’s what sin is: treating others with less consideration than you give to yourself. It is selfishness, negligence, disrespect and active harm. It is rejecting God’s command to love Him and your neighbor. So of course it is something He cannot tolerate. How well do any of us tolerate the abuse or disrespect of a friend, spouse, or child? If you read the Levitical laws with an eye toward loving God and others well (and their purpose in revealing our need for a Savior), you’ll see them in a whole new light.

S4: Jesus is returning to wage war on the wicked.

A: Yes, amen!

My view of who is wicked is probably vastly different from your average preacher’s. I don’t think of “the wicked” as simply people who haven’t yet accepted salvation. I think of the “insolent God haters” described in Romans 1. I think of people who are unruly, who know what they should do but don’t do it; people who oppress others for their own selfish gain, who trip the blind and mock the disabled, who steal from the poor and hungry, who sell children into slavery, and who give no thought to anyone but themselves. They know there is a God, but they do not care.

Jesus defeated this wickedness at the cross, but he is returning someday to wholly claim that victory. My heart once trembled at the thought, but now it sings. On that day, all oppression will cease. There will be no more abuse or human trafficking or racism or theft or fraud or exploitation or wars or murder. All who declare Jesus their Savior will receive justice and peace. All of those who refused to love will be judged accordingly.

With my love lens on, I see a God who pursues mankind, who seeks him for relationship and fellowship. I see a God who wants to redeem us from sin, who longs to lavish upon us the riches of His boundless grace. I see a God who is angered by injustice and eager to bring His kingdom into the world through humble, meek and broken people. I see a God who is glorified not through what we say or do, but by who He is.

This is how I’m building a systematic theology of love. It’s not perfect by any means, but that’s ok. My certainty lies not in intellectual exercises, but in The One who has embraced me.

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21 responses to “Toward a Systematic Theology of Love

  1. I’m curious where that leaves non-believers like me in your view? I try to be loving and honest and work against oppression and for the uplifting of my fellow men. But I don’t believe in god. Just curious what your opinion is on us. Thanks!

    • Well, I think there are a few possibilities:

      1. Upon death, everyone will have an opportunity to see God face-to-face. If a person was not a believer in life, he or she will be given an opportunity to choose eternity with God. Those who are truly wicked will not be able to endure the presence of God and will perish.

      2. The wicked and unbelievers will simply sleep in their graves or cease to exist. The lake of fire is not eternal torment, but instant annihilation. There will be no pain or awareness of this event.

      3. Jesus paid the price for everyone to be saved, so everyone will be saved. The wicked, being unable to endure the presence of divine love, will experience agony before God.

      I personally lean toward the annihilation view (#2). But as I believe the scripture that says God desires that none perish, I believe He will extend mercy to those who genuinely wish to spend eternity with Him.

      • Yeah but. What if the people come into the presence of God and discover that he is the “Attack of the 50-Foot Woman” version of that crab-faced alien called “The Predator” or something that looks far, far, far, far, far more horrifying to the average human—and He, She, It beckons: “Come now—those of you who will—and join with my oozing sliminess.” What do we do then?

  2. Whether I like it or not (remember that dissonance you mentioned?), I’m right there with you. It’s frustrating. And yes, one of the worst parts is realizing half your family and friends would think you’re a heretic or even unsaved for thinking like you do.

  3. April, this is one of the most exciting posts I have read in the last few months. I began as a fundamentalist and have traveled to a place very near where you are.

    You expressed everything exceptionally well. However, I differ a bit on one point: ‘All who declare Jesus their Savior will receive justice and peace. All of those who refused to love will be judged accordingly.’

    I think that each person will come to a point, perhaps after death, where they see everything clearly and without obstruction, and I believe most will change and accept God’s gift of eternal life no matter how evil they have been. God’s forgiveness and acceptance is never withheld.

    For those who might still reject a peaceful, loving eternal life with God, I think they will simply cease to exist–their choice. This is called conditional immortality.

    But even with that small difference your post is tremendously exciting!

  4. Very thought-provoking, April! I have certainly revisited much of my “systematic theology” after 30 years of abuse and how the church’s stance on it kept me bound for so long. I do want to bring up this issue of “repenting after death.” If jesuswithoutbaggage’s premise is correct, then doesn’t that free anyone up to do anything they want (abuse, traffik, fraud, etc) and still come out smelling like roses? If this premise is correct, then why all the fuss and warning in the Bible? Why repent NOW if you can just do it later after you have exploited the people and resources to your advantage while living in the world? How does a Holy God administer “justice” when by its definition, a person must “pay” for what they have done wrong to another? Are you saying that Jesus’ death on the cross pays for all sin, whether it is repented of in life or not? That all they have to do is wait until they die, get a front row seat to glory so there will be no hesitation or confusion (or hard-heartedness or pride) and say, “Oh, yes, ok, I see now, yeah, this is WAY worth saying sorry so, hey sorry for selling all those kids into the sex industry so they could be raped repeatedly by 20 men every day. My bad!” It is a beautiful thought that every single human on earth will be saved but that doesn’t seem to jive with scripture at all. It sounds like the issue is trying to see the “judge” side of God, as if to judge precludes love. How can you “love” a rape victim by letting the oppressor off scott free? Sounds loving/merciful to the rapist, but what about the victim? If your child was murdered and the perpetrator was caught and you are standing in court for the sentencing, are you looking for a judge who will be merciful and loving to the killer? Or are you looking for a judge who will be merciful and loving to the innocent? Maybe a post delving more deeply into this aspect would be helpful. Always an eye-opening experience to read your posts and rattle my well-entrenched doctrines 🙂

    • Well, those are certainly thought-provoking questions.

      I want to make it clear that I haven’t yet studied this topic in depth. However, here is how I see it at the moment…

      We’ve always been taught that God cannot tolerate the presence of sin. But I think that works in reverse as well: sin cannot tolerate the presence of God. If God does, in fact, offer repentance upon death, I believe the truly wicked person will reject it. They cannot abide by God’s established order whereby the first shall be last and all are heirs of the kingdom. In that case, they shall face annihilation.

      There are some other interesting theories on this. One is that the wicked who are allowed into eternity will face a painful cleansing process, where they will feel the weight of their actions and learn to live according to the new established order. In the presence of divine love, it will feel as if they are being burned by fire.

      I do not think God’s justice includes letting the wicked off scott-free. But you must realize also that the justice God is seeking is much greater than our individual actions. He is undoing the deception that occurred in Eden, leading mankind back into His intended purposes of fellowship. I think whatever God does, it will be astonishing in its wisdom and fairness.

      • Personally, just me (and I sure ain’t God), it seems to me that God would not rest until He reconciles everything and everyone to himself. If he is indeed a perfect God, there is no final victory and no satisfying final solution when even one lamb is still missing from the group—even if that lamb is Satan. All must be reconciled and brought into a proper and loving relationship with God. The storm must be totally calmed. Every windblown piece of creation must take resume in its proper place. I am not a universalist—but I am getting close. On CNN one night, while Billy Graham was still lucid, Larry King (Jewish) asked him if God would eventually save everyone. Billy responded, “I certainly hope so, and my sense of that moment was that he (Billy) had moved there too—by some additional things he said. But even Keith Ward admits that some souls might reject eternal love in Heaven. He does not see why anyone would. But as he said, “Some might.”

  5. Nicely said. When I was reading M. Scott peck’s the road less traveled, sitting in my sunroom, I read the phrase, (paraphrased) “In that sense, we are all Jacob/Israel struggling with God” —a mighty choir blasted through my senses, knocking me out of my chair, sounding, “REJOICE! rejoice! Emanuel has come to thee, Oh Israel.”
    The struggle, as I remember it, was a four stage space–disorganized, organized, questions/struggle and the fullness of the awareness of love.
    When people start moving towards the questioning space out of the organized (law) space, it feels like backsliding to those who are still comfortable there. It’s a spiral, parts get revisited from a different level until everything is rexamined and brought to light/love. The we see more wholly. That’s my rather wild and crazy journey in a nutshell. We are love, coming home to the realization that that is all we are.
    The original saying was, “Do NOT do unto others what you would NOT want done to you.”
    That cover it much better. Sexual incidents are easier to understand coming from the not space–child abusers are convinced the sensual, seductive (natural and winning) behaviors of children are an invitation to DO what they want to do. Never true, but that twist, “Do unto others as you would want them to do unto you” makes for tons of confusion…just a side note. People with out love who follow the law are willing to beat the sin out, at least in my childhood church. That is because they know not love and want to keep themselves under control, so work to control it in others. I pray constantly for all beings, that they may have God come to them (Emanual’s meaning) and end the struggle….
    I love following your awakening….

  6. April. Walking independently along separate paths in life, you and I both ended up in approximately the same theological place How did that happen? Can you explain it—given the fact that I never knew you for all of my life—until now.

    I was not raised in Christian fundamentalist and conservative evangelical churches like you were—and I often did not go to church as a child because my parents did not go. I think they blamed God for the death of my little sister, their extreme poverty, their assorted physical sicknesses, and their badly broken lives. “Why did a loving God not intervene?” That was probably the biggest question on their minds.

    In the 5th grade, I began reading the Bible on my own and all by myself. I promised God a page a day for the rest of my life—but only kept that promise for a short while—but it was long enough to read nearly all of the Bible. The thing i did not understand is that a person cannot really read the Bible like that and truly understand it, so it was probably a good thing that I quit as a child. However, reading the Bible made an indelible impression on me. In the 1980s, I found myself in a Southern Baptist Convention church for about three years—huge mistake. You see. I have an almost photographic memory—not quite there—but a lot better than most other people. In church and Sunday school, the pastor and Sunday school teacher would say that “A” is the most important thing—and my mind would immediately say, “Yeah, but what about these three other Bible verses that seem to contradict that?” I finally reached the point where I could no longer take the dissonance between the Bible I remembered from my 5th grade reads and the Christian faith tradition I was being taught. The two tipping points for me were:

    1) The Sunday school teacher who read John 1:1; raised her Bible high in the air above her head; and said, “See this!!! THIS IS GOD.” It looked a lot like a book to me. Something inside was telling me that a book is not God. God is much bigger than that book, and He exists apart from it as well as in it..

    2) The morning my pastor preached a sermon encouraging us to hate Catholics and the Roman Catholic Church. He called it a “worldwide system of evil.” The problem I had with that is that people in churches believe a lot of different things, and all of the Catholics I had ever known were really nice and faithful people who took God seriously and lovingly—and they were really committed to loving their neighbors with soup kitchens, clothing drives, etc. Yes, I do indeed rant and rave about the Christian fundamentalists and conservative evangelicals—but I do not want them sent to Hell. I am willing to allow them to believe whatever they wish to believe. Like I said, people believe all sorts of things in the full range of the historical Christian faith sphere. My principal problems with them are their desire to take over government institutions so they can use their power to coerce people into their faith sphere and the way they use their faith as a destructive weapon to assault and destroy their fellow man—often heartlessly and without pity—all in the name of supposedly saving him.

    Well, in the 1980s, I ended up in that dark spiritual place you thought you were in with God a couple of years ago. It was a place saturated in clinical depression—the deep, abiding, life-destroying kind of depression. I tried reading self-help books from Christian bookstores, but they only made me feel more despondent and sink deeper into depression. Somewhere in all of that that nonhomogeneous religious mess, my soul cried out to God: “Something is wrong here in this place God!!! Something is terribly wrong!!! There is nothing but misery, hatred, and depression in this place!!! The Bible says you are a God of love, but all I see in this Southern Baptist wasteland and these Christian bookstores is a mean-spirited, judgmental God that is nothing like the God i sensed in those 5th grade days when I was reading a page of the Bible per day. I WANT TO KNOW AND FOLLOW THE REAL YOU. I WANT TO KNOW AND FOLLOW THE REAL CHRISTIAN FAITH!!! I WANT TO GO TO THAT PLACE WHERE YOU AND YOUR LOVE ARE!!!.”

    No huge voices rang out from on High—just this overwhelming sense inside that I had been heard and that I was being beckoned to the trailhead of a long and overgrown trail that few men or women find and have a chance to walk. The trail beckoned. I sensed love there. I started walking the new trail. I am not at the end of that trail and may never be in this life. However, it is clearly the same trail that you are walking—-and I was so amazed to find a few people like you who were shown this same trail—and every few feet along this trail—there is a tree blazed with paint that says, “I love you.” That encourages me to keep on going, and I always have this feeling that at any moment I will be shown something amazing that few women and men have ever seen—and those amazing things do pop up along the trail. Epiphanies are there. I am not sure where the trail is going—meaning where it ends—because all trails end……………….or do they?

  7. Pingback: The Best Blog Posts I Read in March-April 2016 | Jesus Without Baggage

  8. Wonderful post! I’ve been thinking about different lenses for understanding philosophy and theology a lot. It’s hard for me to decide what to make of different perspectives and of my own faith, but like you, I’ve found that when a different lens reveals something that just has to change your ideas, it’s hard to go back.
    I’ve been thinking a lot about theology through a lens of human physicality, especially pain and suffering. A bit dreary, to be honest, but I have a chronic pain condition so it’s very personal to me. I’d love to adopt a lens of love – I especially appreciated your sentiment that anger, justice, and love are not exclusive. I think that helps us to understand God but also people.

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