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A Conditional Problem for Adherents of Universal Divine Love

The predominant view of God’s love among Christian philosophers in the current century, as well as the last, is that God’s love extends to every person, such that God’s love so extended entails God desires the salvation of every person. Why would any Christian hold such a view? One answer is that there are verses that can be brought forth as evidence for the view that God desires the salvation of every person. If so, it is inferred that the best explanation of this desire is God’s love. (Note: the verses themselves do not speak to the entailment, but only to the desire. It is a further step needed to make the connection between God’s love and the desire.) I will not discuss here whether the verses brought forth as evidence of God having this desire are good evidence or not. I think there are significantly better interpretations of the relevant texts that do not amount to the retort, “it is just obvious that it means that to me”, and that do not suggest God desires the salvation of every person.

A second reason why Christian philosophers have held that God’s love is so extended, particularly in the sense that the entailment holds, is that they adopt a view about what God’s perfection entails. A perfectly loving being, one for whom no greater being can exist (or is it can be conceived to exist?), is such that he would love and desire the salvation of every individual. A common argument for universalism, which is somewhat fashionable these days, includes the premise that “If he is perfectly good and loving, he wants all persons to be saved.” This same premise is also used as a bludgeon against Calvinists. Again, I will not discuss this justification of a view about God’s love. For what it is worth, I have reservations about perfect being methodology due to Jeff Speaks’ work, and I have a paper in the works that argues against this approach of attributing mental states to God.

Even if you accept some other argument for the view that God’s love is as characterized above, I claim that there seems to be a conditional problem for your view. And the problem for your view is not due to how you justify the view; rather the problem regards the view itself. I call this a conditional problem partly because it is a play on words. I am not certain there are no good answers to it. And so I am tossing this out there. You’ll see why it is a play on words shortly.

The Conditional Problem

As a presentation of the problem, consider the following passage:

Consider one more text from John that is relevant to this point [that the commandment to love one another requires our free cooperation because the command to love one another is an imperative]: “If anyone loves me, he will obey my teaching. My Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. He who does not love me will not obey my teaching” (John 14:23-24a). Again, what I want to emphasize here is our free choice in this matter. Notice the conditional statement: if we love Jesus and obey his teaching, he and the Father will make their home with us!

– Jerry Wall. Heaven, Hell, and Purgatory. 72

What Walls recognizes, correctly, is that our loving Jesus requires our obedience. Furthermore, our obedience is a condition of our going to heaven. There is an issue that someone might raise about the relationship of faith and works here. As interesting as that might be, I want to stay focused on a different topic.

The interesting thing about the passage from Walls is that although he notes a relationship between our loving obedience and going to heaven (“he and the Father will make their home with us”), he omits the part of the verse about the relationship between our loving obedience and the Father’s love for us. (Speaking about loving obedience is actually a conflation on my part, but I will return to this later to fix that.) And this comes up in verse 21 as well:

He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me, and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him. (NASB, John 14:21)


To be as fair as I can to Walls, he is writing in the context of a theodicy of hell and it is his goal to explain what could justify hell given that God is loving. His answer, in short, is that a loving God would require a hell because a loving God demands love back, and love is free, and hell is a place for people who freely do not extend their love back. Even shorter: there is hell because God is love, so the theodicy goes. So given what Walls aims to explain in this chapter, he is not required to touch on everything one might notice about these passages.

I want to suggest that the problem is not one of overlooking an irrelevant tidbit. If you hold the view that God loves every individual, then you either think that God loves every individual as a result of the fact that God is loving – it is in the very nature of God’s being to love others – or you think God does not have to love every individual (in the relevant sense). Of the two arguments discussed at the beginning of this post, only the second argumentative strategy supports that God loves others in this way (although my dispute with Tom Talbott brought out that some people think verses like 1 John 4:10 suggest as much, which I obviously disagree about and so does most of church history). The problem, though, is that Jesus apparently says that the Father’s love for us is conditioned on our loving Jesus. And given that our loving is free, ex hypothesi our love is free in the sense Walls thinks, it follows that it is possible we do not love Jesus. So it is possible that the Father does not love us. But ex hypothesi, God necessarily loves us. Contradiction.

One way to preserve the claim that God universally loves us is to claim that the condition only happens to be satisfied in fact. The obvious problem with this is that the condition is not satisfied in fact. Not everyone loves Jesus. And Judas (not Iscariot) notes in John 14:22 that Jesus manifests himself not to the world. So again, it seems there is trouble for the defender of the view that God loves every person in the relevant sense.

A Challenge and Response 

Here is the best response I can think of.  If Jesus is saying that our loving him and obedience is a condition of the Father loving us, then it seems like Jesus is saying that God loved us because we first loved him. That is squarely incompatible with 1 John 4:19: “We love, because He first loved us.”

Calvin anticipates this in his commentary:

And he that loveth me will be loved by my Father. Christ speaks as if men loved God before he loved them; which is absurd, for,

when we were enemies, he reconciled us to him,
(Romans 5:10)

and the words of John are well known,

Not that we first loved him, but he first loved us,
(1 John 4:10)

But there is no debate here about cause or effect; and therefore there is no ground for the inference, that the love with which we love Christ comes in order before the love which God has toward us; for Christ meant only, that all who love him will be happy, because they will also be loved by him and by the Father; not that God then begins to love them, but because they have a testimony of his love to them, as a Father, engraven on their hearts. To the same purpose is the clause which immediately follows-

And I will manifest myself to him. Knowledge undoubtedly goes before love; but Christ’s meaning was, I will grant to those who purely observe my doctrine, that they shall make progress from day to day in faith; “that is, “I will cause them to approach more nearly and more familiarly to me. ” Hence infer, that the fruit of piety is progress in the knowledge of Christ; for he who promises that he will give himself to him who has it rejects hypocrites, and causes all to make progress in faith who, cordially embracing the doctrine of the Gospel, bring themselves entirely into obedience to it. And this is the reason why many fall back, and why we scarcely see one in ten proceed in the right course; for the greater part do not deserve that he should manifest himself to them. It ought also to be observed, that a more abundant knowledge of Christ is here represented as an extraordinary reward of our love to Christ; and hence it follows that it is an invaluable treasure.

In short, what Calvin proposes is that one who loves Jesus and keeps his commands will be (future) loved by the Father and the Son; this is an explanation of the relationship about those who are loving Jesus and their future relationship to him. This makes sense because Jesus is writing to comfort his disciples as he explains he is about to leave them, but yet another will be sent. (Hendriksen also addresses this topic in his commentary with a slightly different take, although it is consistent with what Calvin writes above.)

So is the problem resolved? If our obedience is not a causal condition of God’s loving us, was this all a big fuss about nothing? Not quite. Recall when I said above that to speak of our “loving obedience” was probably a conflation. Verses like John 14:24 from the immediate context suggest that one keeps the commandments because one loves Jesus. We all know Jesus had a theology of the heart that was a deeper critique of humanity than one which focuses only upon outward acts. John uses the same explanatory direction of our loving God because of God’s first loving us. These explanatory relationships are causal relationships (for those inclined to jump to the defense of libertarian freedom at this point, slow down; this undermines it only if expressions of causal relationships are expressions of sufficient condition, which is not the case).

Not all conditional relationships are causal relationships. It is a condition of the one cup and other cup making up a union of cups that there are sets. But that there are sets do not cause the two cups to make a union (if you agree with Pen Maddy about sets, you can think of another example). Accordingly, one might think that verse 21 is expressing a relationship even though it is not a causal relationship: “He who has My commandments and keeps them is the one who loves Me, and he who loves Me will be loved by My Father, and I will love him and will disclose Myself to him.” (NASB, John 14:21) If this is not a causal relationship, how shall this be represented? Here are two conditionals:

  • (a) If the Father and Son will love S, then S loves the Son and keeps his commandments.
  • (b) If S loves the Son and keeps his commandments, then the Father and the Son will love S.

To simplify these for sake of brevity:

  • (a) If God will love S, then S loves God.
  • (b) If S loves God, then God will love S.

Which conditional best expresses verse 21? That Jesus speaks as if our loving God is a basis for God’s future actions toward us suggests (b) is the right conditional. If I say, “The one who has the keys to the car will be the one who buys gas,” I am saying that if you have the keys, then you will be paying. Your having the keys is sufficient, so far as I am concerned, that you will be buying gas. And oddity about (b) though, which reflects verse 21, is that the consequent is in future tense. This makes the consequent look less like a necessary condition and the antecedent more like a causal condition. But it is not an expression of a causal relationship anymore than my statement about having keys causes one to buy gas; my comment about keys and gas purchasing is a statement about a norm: key holders should pay for gas. Not all of our conditionals are expressions of causality as I said.

If (b) is not causal, neither might (a) be causal. If we think information in the antecedent of (b) is sufficient information to infer the consequent without being causal, then what can be said for (b) can also be said for (a). Having the information that God will love S, as far as Jesus is concerned in verse 21, is sufficient to know that S loves God (or loves the Son and keeps his commandments). And thus it appears that Jesus is affirming a biconditional:

  • The Father and Son will love S if and only if  S loves the Son and keeps his commandments.

Affirming this biconditional, however, seems to be in tension with adopting the view of God’s love expressed at the beginning of this post. For on that view, knowing that God loves someone is not sufficient information for knowing that someone loves God and keeps God’s commandments. God has this universal love; it should be meaningless to speak about conditions of God’s love (in the relevant sense) given that it is universal and the relevant conditions are not universally accepted.

What now? 

That there are conditions Jesus discloses in talking about God’s love seem incompatible with the widely held view about God’s love. Moves to talk about how love cannot be forced are red herrings as far as the argument here is concerned; interesting, worth talking about in their own right, but not relevant here. But now you know why I called this a conditional problem. But there is another reason I called this a conditional problem. The other reason is that I am not really sure what to think about this argument. I don’t even endorse it right now. There could be some devastating response and I am open to hearing it. It does seem to me that there is a tension here but perhaps it can be dispelled. What do you think?

2018-06-07T21:25:02+00:00 June 22nd, 2017|6 Comments


  1. Vincent June 22, 2017 at 3:25 pm

    What are your thoughts on those that claim God’s love is universal, but God has a salvific and non-salvific love? You know, it’s kinda like the two wills of God.

  2. James A. Gibson June 22, 2017 at 4:18 pm

    There are a number of theories of what love is on the market. I don’t mean a difference between agape and eros. I mean philosophical analyses of what it is to love in either of those senses. There are tons of articles on the nature of romantic love. I don’t have a worked out view at present of what the right analysis should ultimately come to that is applicable to God, but notice that I said “the right analysis.” There may be a plurality of analyses that we should apply to God, and then there is a question of the scope – that is, who or what are the objects of those different types of love. The SEP has a good article outlining some of this. See here. It may be that the the analyses do not themselves imply anything about whether God desires the salvation of others; some may, and others may not.

  3. Jeff June 24, 2017 at 7:48 am

    Jesus referred to God as Father and encouraged us to do the same. It’s very simple. Human fathers love their children regardless of their children’s behavior. It makes sense that our Heavenly Father loves us no matter how we treat him.

  4. James A. Gibson June 24, 2017 at 10:24 am

    Right. The Father loves his children. So then there are verses like these:

    But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God (John 1:12)

    You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. (John 8:44)

    Whoever makes a practice of sinning is of the devil, for the devil has been sinning from the beginning. The reason the Son of God appeared was to destroy the works of the devil. 9 No one born of God makes a practice of sinning, for God’s[b] seed abides in him; and he cannot keep on sinning, because he has been born of God. 10 By this it is evident who are the children of God, and who are the children of the devil: whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God, nor is the one who does not love his brother. (1 John 3:8-10)

    So as you said, it’s very simple. The “us” in “our Heavenly Father loves us no matter how we treat him just isn’t every single person. Not if we are talking about the sort of love mentioned in John 14.

  5. Jeff Jacob June 28, 2017 at 5:49 am

    Thank you for responding! I do appreciate your thoughtfulness and your hard work in philosophy.
    I respectfully disagree that God does not love every single person. From study of Scripture and seeking God’s kingdom and his righteousness, I have learned that God’s redemption plan is at work because of his love for all even though some have and will reject his love.

  6. James A. Gibson June 28, 2017 at 7:27 pm

    OK. But I have not endorsed the position of Boettner, Pink, and some others that God does not love everyone. What I set out to do what pose a challenge – or a question – to those who embrace a certain conception of God’s love as applied to everyone. Now I have some reason to doubt this argument, but I am not sure yet. But you should see that what you are really telling me here is only that I am wrong. I am well aware that there are people who think my views are wrong. I can live with that.

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