If you’ve been a Christian for any length of time, you’ve probably had a moment during prayer, reading the Psalms, or studying the New Testament when you are floored how much God loves you. It’s an awesome concept (like, ‘full of awe,’ not ‘duuude, that was totally awesome’): the Creator of the universe cares so much about us… just little dots on a little speck in a mediocre galaxy on any numbers of planes of existence. Why not the angels? Why not the elders in the throne room of Revelation? Why not… I dunno… beetles?
In fact, this is a source of incredulity among atheists who claim that because of the un-special-ness of our existence, it is unlikely or even impossible that that there’s a God that cares about us at all. If there was, why aren’t we in the center of the universe? Why is there such evil in the world? How can a perfect, omnipresent, infinitely powerful, eternal being love… humans? I mean, let’s face it… we’re a mess. Humans rape, kill, steal, starve, torture and do all kinds of terrible things to each other. What’s to love?
1. What is “Love” in the Bible?
Using e-Sword, which is a fantastic Bible study tool for anyone looking to go deeper using commentaries, Strong’s concordance, and reference materials (like the writings of the early church fathers), I found that in the King James Version of the Bible, the word “love” appears 311 times. But there are many different types of love (do you love ice cream the same as you love your children? I hope not… that’s weird), and the languages used in the Bible differentiate between those types of love. We will focus on the kind of love that God is said to have for us.
Ahab (אַהַב) – to have affection or desire for something (whether good or bad).
By far the most common word for “love” in the Old Testament, ahab and its forms are used in the Bible 212 times in the masculine form and 36 times in the feminine form. Its first use is in Genesis 27:4 and describes Isaac describing his love of “savoury meat” and asks his son Esau to make some for him. (This leads to an interesting study on “hate” in the Bible… check it out!) The next instance describes how Jacob worked seven years, though it only seemed like a few days because he loved (or had such affection for) her so much (Gen. 29:20).
Ahab is also used to describe God’s empathetic and sacrificial love, as in Isaiah 63:9, which indicates that because of God’s love for His people, the Angel of His presence saved them. The “angel of the presence” is an example in OT scripture of what is known in Second Temple Judaism as the Second Power in Heaven; Christians believe that this second YHWH in the OT became a man named Jesus. Once Jesus was rejected and Christianity spread, the rabbis suppressed the “second YHWH” doctrine to avoid the implications of their rejection. Remember this as it becomes important later on!
Anyway, there are many words for “love” in Greek, but the one that describes God’s love for us the best is Agape. This word, along with its root agapao, occurs 258 times in the New Testament. This describes a moral kind of love, or a sacrificial love as many describe it. This is the kind of love that is associated with benevolence, which is treating someone well regardless of how they treat you. You have this kind of love because of a promise or because it is the right thing to do.
Far be it from a cold, dutiful kind of love, though, the Greek word actually has its roots in the Hebrew word agab (עָגַב), which is “to breathe after” someone (which is quite sensual). Interestingly, this Hebrew root agab appears seven (7) times in the OT, and each one of them appears as an admonishment against Israel for how she “dotes” on idols or foreign powers instead of God. It’s as if God, through the Greeks, reclaimed a word associated with Israel’s continued rebellion and instead turned it into a word for an unconditional, covenantal love as it should have been.
So, if we are to say the highest, most perfect type of love is sacrificial and covenantal in nature, what evidence is there in scripture that, indeed, God has this kind of love for each of us?
2. Love vs. The Problem of Sin
Instead of just quoting John 15:13 to describe Jesus’ sacrifice and therefore conclude that “Jesus has the greatest love for us, so there!”, let’s actually look at what He sacrificed. Why did He have to die for us? If God has agape love for us, why can’t we just be with Him forever? Why is there a Hell?
The problem is sin.
First, sin, or the willful disobedience or denial of God or His statutes, automatically disqualifies us from being in the full presence of the Glory of God. Why? Well, since we are made in His image for the purpose being in His presence, any sin would tarnish us in the presence of our perfectly holy God. Since God is Holy, we can’t be with Him unless something is done to remove that blemish from our souls.
Second, to an infinitely holy God, the finite perpetrator of a single sin is utterly incapable of repairing or minimizing the tarnish on their soul, and therefore can never be in the presence of God. After all, what could we possibly offer Him in order to allow any blemish into the presence of perfect holiness? The question is a non-starter. The only way we can adequately pay for that sin is to “die”, or to be removed from God for eternity.
Now, God doesn’t actually like or want this situation. In fact, He hates it! He hates sin, but He loves us. So something has to be done to solve the sin problem.
As we’ve said, one way to pay for your sin is to die for it, right? Well, what if someone was willing to go in your place? Technically, the price would be paid and you’d then be able to enter God’s presence. This is because God is perfectly Just as well as perfectly Loving.
Unfortunately, in order to save a soul, one person would have to die in the place of another soul. And even if half the people in the world were willing to die for the other half, their sacrifice wouldn’t be any good because they also have the sin problem! So no substitutions can be made by sinful people. Regardless, God is not willing that any should perish (2 Peter 3:9)… so He decided to do it Himself.
3. The Trinity is the Ultimate Expression of Love
God, according to the Ontological Argument, is the Maximally Great Being (for a description of what this is, click here for my “Ontologi-whaaa??” article!). As such, He has characteristics like omnipresence, omnipotence, perfect love, perfect justice, perfect harmony within Himself, etc. This Maximally Great Being would perfectly understand love without ever being lonely. This means that the Judeo-Christian doctrine of the Trinity is an uncannily perfect system: three persons that share one essence. God, in and among Himself, is a self-contained family by necessity of reason and the scriptures.
When we talk about our one God, we are talking about three individuals that share one divine essence. These three individuals that exist co-eternally with each other have been conversing, singing, dancing, planning, and otherwise enjoying each other from eternity past until eternity future. They have occupied the same space, the same dreams, the same unity of purpose and love since… well, forever! Humans, having only one mind inhabiting one physical body, can only touch a tiny drop of understanding of the vast ocean of God’s eternal Triune nature.
Now, imagine from God’s perspective the problem of sin and the hopeless situation humanity finds itself. All men and women throughout all of history are like children to God, but they’re more than that. God has an agape love for each individual He’s brought into the world. Since we’re only human, we only have analogous relationships to describe and understand what God wants with each of us. He wants us to be His child-comrade-in-arms-spouse forever. Yet we can’t on our own until we can stand in His holiness, free from the blemish on our souls from sin. No one can pay our debt but ourselves unless someone without sin can do it.
And no man is without sin. The problem must be solved by the perfect, holy God. He is the only one who can serve as an adequate substitute to pay for our sin.
However, God cannot die. He is an eternal spirit being.
So, as God reasons within Himself how to solve this conundrum, in eternity past, before Heaven or Earth were created, one of the members of the Trinity volunteers, saying “I’ll go. I’ll do it.” One person of YHWH, whom we now call the Son, will take on the additional mantle of humanity in addition to His divine nature. This voluntary and joyful submission to the Will of the Father is why the Father glorifies the Son. He will make the ultimate sacrifice.
4. An Examination of Jesus’ Death
We come now to Jesus. The second YHWH of Jewish theology takes on a human nature in addition to His divine nature, lives a human life free of sin by virtue of His divinity, and is put on a cross by the Pharisees at the hands of the Romans.
Mark 15:34 records a moment before Jesus’ death where, at the “ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, saying, Eloi, Eloi, lama sabachthani?’ This is translated: My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me? This has been described by many as the moment when the sin of the world is placed upon Jesus and the Father had to turn His face away from Jesus.
But let’s really think about this.
There is a difference between knowing something and experiencing it. The second person of YHWH knew before the foundations of the world that He would need to be separated from the rest of the Trinity. He knew what it would feel like, what it would look like, sound like, taste like, everything. This is called a priori knowledge in philosophy, to know something is true before it happens through reason or, in God’s case, foreseeing it all. However, it is a different thing to experience something, to gain a posteriori knowledge. God, by creating and then stepping into time in order to experience relationships with humans, was able to truly experience the temporary separation of the Trinity.
Jesus, though subconsciously and perhaps even consciously knew what would happen, experienced something so terrifying and distressing that we humans could never possibly understand it. The second YHWH, who’d been in the presence of the Father and the Holy Spirit for eternity past, was suddenly alone. Scholars disagree about whether or not the divine nature of Jesus was truly separated from the rest of the Trinity or if it was just His human nature that was separated; it doesn’t matter, though. The fact is that the incomprehensible suffering that this caused Jesus sets the case study for how great God’s love is.
5. To God, It’s Worth It
This Q&A Session with Dr. William Lane Craig, especially the first few questions, illustrates quite well the idea of just how much Jesus sacrificed for us. It is a question of intensity and duration. Every person in history reaps a degree of suffering for eternity because of their sin. However, punishment for sin in Hell is by finite beings experiencing finite amounts of suffering at any given time. If God, who is an infinite being experiencing a finite amount of suffering (only 114 billion people ever lived so far, according to a UN study), He could experience an equal amount of suffering in far less than eternity… even, let’s say, three days.
The other side of this is what happened to Jesus after the resurrection. There are many bible verses pointing to the fact that Jesus has a glorified human body now. He has voluntarily, forever, taken on a human body so that He might better enter into relationships with us! Prayer to the Father is a powerful thing, and the fruits of the Holy Spirit are amazing, but there will be nothing like getting to receive an actually, physically hug from YHWH when we get to Heaven.
This is what God chose to do for us. The second YHWH of Jewish understanding volunteered to forever become a man who has died for us and yet lives on. He gave up more than we can comprehend and suffered more than we can imagine. This is how He shows us His love. Why us? Not because we’re special, but because He chose to make us in His image, and then chose not to forsake us when we rebelled.
Philippians 2:5-11 (HCSB) says:
5 Make your own attitude that of Christ Jesus,
6 who, existing in the form of God,
did not consider equality with God
as something to be used for His own advantage.[a]
7 Instead He emptied Himself
by assuming the form of a slave,
taking on the likeness of men.
And when He had come as a man
in His external form,
8 He humbled Himself by becoming obedient
to the point of death—
even to death on a cross.
9 For this reason God highly exalted Him
and gave Him the name
that is above every name,
10 so that at the name of Jesus
every knee will bow—
of those who are in heaven and on earth
and under the earth—
11 and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,[b]
to the glory of God the Father.
Thank you, Jesus, for what you’ve done for me. You loved me first, and I love you too.