A poster which has recently been displayed outside of some Australian churches has caused a fair bit of controversy. The large outdoor posters feature the words, “Jesus loves Osama”. A Baptist church in Sydney, for example, displayed the poster, only to be criticised by Prime Minister Howard for doing so.
A lively debate in both the mainstream and religious press ensued, with both defenders and detractors of the controversial statement.
There are several ways in which one can approach this topic. One is to simply examine the general concepts of such things as love, hate and evil, and how they fare in contemporary Western culture. Suffice it to say that they do not hold up very well in a climate of fuzzy thinking and mushy moralising. Love for example is often misunderstood and watered down into a sloppy sentimentalism.
And in an age which extols such values as tolerance, diversity and Political Correctness, there certainly seems to be little place for such things as hatred or judgmentalism.
Moreover, the idea of evil has been largely abandoned. In an age of moral relativism, many dismiss the very notion of evil. And most cannot even bring themselves to say that there might actually be evil people in the world. Instead, there are only victims, misguided people, those lacking in education, and so on. Any bad actions tend to be put down to a lousy upbringing, a poor self-image, or are seen as the fault of society, and so on.
Indeed, the very idea that there is real evil in the world is problematic for many. But for all the moral myopia around, one can still argue that Nazism was evil, or that what happened on 9/11 was evil. And evil must be properly shunned, resisted and condemned. We simply should not tolerate evil.
But in our age it is very hard to get people to disapprove of anything. Perhaps the only thing people disapprove of today is when other people disapprove of something. Moral relativism has so permeated contemporary culture that many are hard pressed to condemn any activity. We are told to tolerate all things, and about the only thing we do not tolerate is the so-called intolerance found in others.
One can also assess the church bulletin board message in the light of the teachings of biblical Christianity. The Bible is quite clear on the fact that hate can be a valid attitude to take. God himself is said to hate certain things. Consider just a few passages:
“For I, the LORD, love justice; I hate robbery and iniquity.” (Isaiah 61:8)
“Again and again I sent my servants the prophets, who said, ‘Do not do this detestable thing that I hate!’” (Jeremiah 44:4)
“‘Do not plot evil against your neighbour, and do not love to swear falsely. I hate all this,’ declares the LORD.” (Zechariah 8:17)
And God’s people are also called to hate certain things. In Proverbs we are told that “To fear the LORD is to hate evil” (Prov. 8:13) Paul clearly tells us in Romans 12:9 to “hate that which is evil”. Many other examples could be produced. Also in the New Testament, the believers in the church in Ephesus are praised by Jesus because they hate the practices of the Nicolaitans, practices which Jesus says he also hates (Revelation 2:6).
But there is more to it than this. While many people – both religious and non-religious – might find it offensive and unacceptable, Scripture even tells us that on occasion God hates certain people. Several times in the Old Testament God says that he hates Israel (Jeremiah 12:8; Hosea 9:15). And there are times when God is said to hate the wicked, such as in Psalm 5:5 and 11:5.
While we do not have any clear record in the New Testament of God or Jesus hating anyone, we did already mention Jesus’ hatred of the Nicolaitan practices. And he was obviously quite unhappy with the practices of the money changers in the temple in particular, and that of the Scribes and Pharisees in general.
But I have been just looking at one word here, hate. The idea of the wrath of God and his judgment is much broader of course, and carries through both Testaments. Consider just two images of God’s judgment: fire and sword. They are found extensively throughout the Old Testament. But they certainly do not disappear in the New. Jesus himself continues the tradition. In Matthew 10:34 he says that he came not “to bring peace to the earth . . . but a sword.” And in Luke 12:49 he says “I have come to bring fire on the earth, and how I wish it were already kindled.”
Of course his mission to execute God’s judgment on earth needs to be seen in the light of the cross. Jesus bore the full judgment of God for our sins so that we do not have to. But if we refuse his means of mercy, then judgment still looms. And recall that Jesus spoke about hell more than any other New Testament writer.
What About Us?
So where does all this leave believers today? Am I suggesting that Christians should hate? No. But I do want to get away from the sloppy sentimentalism that many Christians often gravitate toward. We do not need to shy away from proclaiming that there really is evil in the world, that many activities are evil, and that certain people can rightly be described as evil. Stalin was certainly evil. So was Hitler. And so too is Osama bin Laden.
Of course having said that, we must repeat the biblical assessment that ultimately we are all evil. We are all sinners who deserve the wrath of God. But because of the great mercy and love of God, we have been offered a way to escape our just punishment. That is because God has suffered for us, putting the punishment for our sins on his own son, so that we do not have to remain enemies of God.
God does love mankind, and offers gracious forgiveness. But not everyone will accept that forgiveness. Thus not all will avoid facing a lost eternity, separated from God and his love. His justice is never for one moment minimised while his lavish grace, mercy and love are extended to us.
Concerning the alleged differences between the Old and New Testaments, it is false to suggest that the former is full of God’s wrath while the latter is full of his love. It is more accurate to say that the Old Testament is as full of the love and mercy of God as the New Testament is full of the judgment and wrath of God. These unchanging characteristics of God are found equally in both Testaments.
Having said that, we need to remember that there is also continuity and discontinuity between the two Testaments. As an example, Jesus could say the following: “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: ‘Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you’.” (Matthew 5:43-44) Love for one’s enemies is not so much a repudiation of the Old Testament revelation of God, but its (mis)understanding by Jewish religious leaders of the time (nowhere in the Old Testament is one told to hate one’s enemies).
Moreover, there is both a social and personal ethic found in Scripture. As such, Jesus could speak about turning the other cheek, while Paul could say that God has authorised the state for the punishment of evil. The two are not to be confused. Both have a role to play and the one does not cancel out the other.
For example, let’s say that I am the subject of a violent armed assault, leaving me seriously injured. I can, and should, as a Christian, forgive my attacker, but the state still has an obligation to punish the wrongdoing that was committed. I can refrain from pressing charges against my assailant if I like. However, I also have a right to let the government of the day deal with this person according to the laws of the land. There is no conflict between personal forgiveness and the state-appointed administration of justice.
Yes, God loves everyone. But he truly hates evil, and he has made it clear that sin must be punished. The good news is that Jesus bore the brunt of God’s wrath for our sins so that we can find reconciliation with God. But if we reject the divine means by which such mercy can be found, there still awaits judgment to come.
And as believers we can offer personal forgiveness, while governments can act as God’s ministers to maintain justice and execute judgment. The two are not contradictory but complementary.
Thus in one sense God does love Osama. But he hates what he has done. But because he is holy and pure, he of necessity hates all sin. That includes every one of us. Fortunately he has made a way for us to still be accepted in his sight. But that does not rule out the role of the state in establishing justice on earth and resisting evil.
God can therefore love Osama while governments in good conscience (and by divine approval) can go after him. I find no problem as a believer in saying that the world will be a better place when he is finally captured or killed. Getting rid of him will be a just activity, but it will not minimise God’s love and mercy. They work together.