WE NEED TO THINK more now about the meaning and significance of God’s love. Through the first seven chapters, the love of God has been discussed only briefly. But the Bible is very clear: “God is love” (1 John 4:8 and 4:16).
Through the years there has been much talk about the love of God, so perhaps you wonder why I include that topic in this book. Haven’t people always known that God is love and that God really does love all of creation? Well, yes and no.
Certainly, most Christians have heard numerous sermons about the love of God, and perhaps most heard about the love of God taught in Sunday School classes from the time they can first remember attending. So, we Christians know the words “God is love” well. But have we known the implication of those words adequately, and have we sufficiently lived by the truth of those words? Sadly, probably not.
God’s Love for the World of Nature
To begin with, it is important for us to realize that God’s love is not just for human beings. Perhaps Christianity through the centuries has been the most anthropocentric of all of the world’s religions. (Anthropocentric, of course, means human-centered and refers to a viewpoint that sees all reality from the perspective of humans.)
There are, to be sure, many references to God’s concern for nature in the Hebrew Bible that Christians call the Old Testament, and Christian environmentalists have increasingly called attention to those passages. For example, Psalm 145:9 declares, “The Lord is good to all, and his compassion is over all that he has made.” But have we really thought what it means for God to love all creation? Probably not sufficiently.
To address the lack of concern for the natural world, at the Vancouver Assembly in 1983, the World Council of Churches (WCC) encouraged member churches to commit publicly to addressing environmental concerns as part of a common effort to promote Justice, Peace, and the Integrity of Creation. That became known as the JPIC process. (The logo of that Assembly is pictured below.) Then in 1990, the WCC sponsored the World Convocation on Justice, Peace, and the Integrity of Creation in Seoul, Korea. One study unit in this program was called “Creation as Beloved of God.”
Creation, the physical universe in its entirety and not just human beings, is loved by God. That was the important emphasis of the WCC in the 1980s and 1990s. There has been a similar emphasis in the Catholic Church: Pope John Paul II’s message for New Year’s Day 1990 was titled “Peace With God the Creator, Peace With All of Creation.” Reflecting upon that important message, a noted Catholic theologian wrote in 2001 about “God’s Beloved Creation.”
Most people seem to have long thought that the purpose of the natural world, the purpose of all the plants, animals, and minerals in the world of nature, is primarily to supply the needs of human beings. The creation story found in the first chapter of Genesis certainly does sound as if humans are the “crown of creation.” When the first human couple was created, “God blessed them, and God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the earth and subdue it; and have dominion . . .” (1:28).
The English words subdue and have dominion, however, may not be the best to convey what the Biblical writer really had in mind. And maybe we need to consider more about the full implication of the words, “So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them” (1:27). The idea of humans created in the image of God has nothing to do with how we look; it has everything to do with our capacity to be loving and caring as God is loving and caring. If God loves the physical world, as I insist God does, then we humans created in the image of God are expected by God to love and care for the world also.
So when I say that God really does love the world, that includes the physical world, the world of sticks and stones, of plants and animals, the whole world of nature.
God’s Love for the World of Human Beings
Brief reference was made to John 3:16 and the love of God in the first chapter. But we need to revisit that important verse as we think more about the God’s love for the world of human beings. In that key verse of the Bible that says that God “so loved the world,” the Greek word used is kosmos, the world from which the English word cosmology (“the scientific study of the origin, evolution, and structure of the universe”) and cosmic (“of or relating to the whole universe”) comes.
But it is clear from the context that world as used in John 3:16 is the world of human beings. (At least, I assume that most of us acknowledge that belief is a human phenomenon and not a concept that applies to animals or other forms of the non-human world.) In the first chapter, I emphasized that God’s love is a universal love, and I re-affirm that point here. God’s is not a narrow or a parochial love; it is a universal love.
God’s love is universal, for love is the central characteristic of God, who is the Creator of all that is. As cited in the opening paragraph of this chapter, the Bible states, and repeats, “God is love.” Thus, we can say that love is the central characteristic of God, the essence of God’s being. And while God’s love is for all of creation, as I emphasized in the previous section, God’s love is especially bestowed upon that part of creation made in God’s own image.
While God “elects” the Jewish people to be his special covenant people, according to the Old Testament, that election is always with a universal intent. There is never any indication that God loved the Israelites more than any of the other people of the world, although some have mistakenly thought that. The universality of God’s love is even more pronounced in the New Testament. God’s love for all people, and it is an unconditional love.
It has sometimes been said that there is nothing we can do to cause God to love us more, and there is nothing we can do to cause God to love us less. That is a good saying. With conditional love, good or pleasing behavior usually elicits greater love. Conversely, with conditional love, bad or displeasing behavior usually diminishes love. But God’s love never increases and never decreases. It is unconditional love.
That certainly does not mean that God is equally pleased with all human action or that it makes no difference to God whether we do good or bad. Not at all. But God’s love is the same, regardless of what we do. Goodness does not cause God to love us more, but it makes a difference to us and to others. Similarly, doing that which is bad does not cause God to love us less, but that also makes a difference to us and to others.
So, for our sake and the sake of others, God desires for us to do some things and not do other things. And it pleases God when we do some things and refrain from doing other things. God doesn’t love us more when we read the Bible a lot, or pray a lot, or worship a lot. But, you might say, doesn’t the Bible say, “God loves a cheerful giver”? Yes, that is a clear statement found in 2 Corinthians 9:7. But the Bible doesn’t say God doesn’t love a non-cheerful giver or a cheerful non-giver. It is instructive that the Amplified Bible says that “loves” in 2 Cor. 9:7 means “takes pleasure in” or “prizes above other things.” Giving cheerfully pleases God. But it doesn’t cause God to love us more.
God’s love is universal and unconditional.
God’s Love Manifested through Jesus Christ
The expression or demonstration of God’s love is not limited to Jesus Christ, but Christians have through the centuries from its beginning agreed, for good reason, that Jesus is the greatest or the definitive manifestation of the love of God. That is the main point of John 3:16. God so loved the world that Jesus, the eternal Son of God, was sent to the world by God for the salvation of the world.
In the same chapter that declares, twice, that God is love, we find this clear statement: “God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his only Son into the world so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins” (1 John 4:9-10).
God’s sending Jesus to the world to live and die for sinners, which includes all people, is the supreme manifestation of God’s love. God, without question, meant for the message of and about Jesus to be shared with all people. But God also meant for that sharing to be done by loving means only.
Unfortunately, through the centuries for some Jesus has been not an expression of God’s love so much as an excuse for conquest. This began with the Roman general Constantine in the fourth century. Before the decisive Battle of Milvian Bridge in October 312, Constantine had a vision of the first two Greek letters in the name (title) Christ. He didn’t understand the meaning of the vision, but then had a dream in which Jesus told him, “By this sign you shall conquer.”
With the sign of the cross, then, Constantine defeated his military rival and went on to become the Roman Emperor. In various ways for many of the peoples of the world, from that time until the present, with the cross as the ubiquitous symbol, Jesus has been the Christ of conquest. That was true for the Crusaders in 1095 and for most of the next two hundred years. That was true for many of the Europeans who came to the “New World” following Columbus’ first voyage here in 1492.
George E. “Tink” Tinker is an erudite professor at Iliff School of Theology, where he has taught since 1985. He is the author of several books, including American Indian Liberation: A Theology of Sovereignty. That is a hard-hitting book, very critical of traditional Western Christianity and the activities of Western missionaries among the indigenous peoples of North America. Among other things, Tinker emphasizes that for most Native Americans, the Jesus of the missionaries was primarily a colonial, conquering Jesus who was bad news, rather than good news.
For that reason Tinker objects using the title Lord in referring to Jesus. That is a word and a concept, he contends, that does not communicate anything useful to American Indians. In fact, he asserts that Lord is “the one scriptural metaphor used for the Christ event that is ultimately unacceptable and even hurtful to American Indian peoples” (p. 96). Many Native Americans, it seems, have come to see Jesus not as a manifestation of the love of God but as the Lord of the invading people who stole their land and systematically destroyed their cultures and traditions.
The week I was first working on this chapter (back in 2010), I met Robert Francis for the first time. I had heard of Robert; he had spoken in a Chapel service at William Jewell College that I was unable to attend. When I first talked with Robert, I asked him if he belonged to a Christian community. He said that he and other Native Americans like him were followers of Jesus but not necessarily Christians.
Robert’s name card indicates that he is a Consultant/Helper with Mid American Indian Fellowships. That organizational name was followed with the words, “following Jesus in the context of our Native cultures.” Many people around the world are attracted to the life and teachings of Jesus, but are repelled by Christians. (Recall Gandhi’s words cited in the previous chapter.)
God’s love, truly, is fully manifested through Jesus. The lack of adequately expressing that love in word and deed is one of the most shameful aspects of the religion that arose because of Jesus.
God’s Love and the Problem of Evil and Suffering
If God really does love all creation, many people have serious questions about the presence of evil and suffering in such abundance in this world. The main question is why so many good people suffer, or suffer so much. Most people are able to understand that if people do bad things, some degree of divine punishment makes sense. But from the time of Job in the Old Testament to Rabbi Harold Kushner’s When Bad Things Happen to Good People and since, many people have wondered, and continue to wonder, why so many good people suffer if God is really a God of love.
This is an ancient problem of great magnitude, and it cannot be addressed sufficiently in this short section. But consider this: God, it clearly seems, did not create humans to be like pets in a cage, their every need cared for by an indulgent owner/master.Humans, as well as the rest of the world, were created with freedom. Affirming God as Creator and Lover of all creation in no way means that everything in the world is caused by God or that God could or should protect everyone from all harm.
As mentioned, this chapter was originally being written in 2010, soon after the earthquake in Haiti that wreaked such terrible destruction and loss of life upon that sad country. Was that earthquake the result of God’s punishment of the Haitian people because of past sins? How could any thoughtful person think such a thing? Was that natural disaster an indication of God’s lack of love for the people of Haiti? By no means.
There were physical causes for the earthquake; most earthquakes are caused by rupture of geological faults in the earth’s crust. They are not the result of God’s decision to punish a poor nation such a Haiti. And God’s love does not regularly lead God to intervene in natural events to protect humans that may suffer because of those events. Humans are not like pets in a cage.
God does, however, love those who suffer—for whatever reason. God does bring comfort and solace to all who suffer from natural or human-caused disasters. God’s suffers with us through Jesus Christ. God really does love all of creation.
 The Contemporary English Version renders Psalm 145:8-9 this way: “You are merciful, LORD! You are kind and patient and always loving. You are good to everyone, and you take care of all your creation.
 Elizabeth A. Johnson, “God’s Beloved Creation” in America 184:13 (April 16, 2001). America is the national Catholic weekly; the article by Johnson was accessed at http://www.americamagazine.org. Johnson (b. 1941) is a Distinguished Professor at Fordham University and the author of the highly acclaimed She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discourse (1992).
 Published by Orbis Books in 2008. Tinker, an ordained Lutheran pastor, is a member of the Osage Nation.
 First published by Random House in 1981, it was re-issued in paperback by Anchor Books in 2004 and on Kindle in 2007.
 I first read about this idea in John Hick, Evil and the Love of God (Harper & Row, 1966). The “pet in a cage” analogy is found in the section of his book titled “Evil and Soul-Making” (pp. 253-261).
 Soon after the terrible earthquake, televangelist Pat Robertson said on live TV broadcast (on The 700 Club) that Haiti has been under God’s curse because they made a pact with the Devil during the time the Haitians were trying to free themselves from French rule.