I’ve never really given much thought to that question, presuming always that the answer was, “Of course God loves all people without condition.” Wasn’t this the conclusion of the saints and theologians over the centuries? No, says Fallace, the Bible is quite clear that not only is God’s love conditional, but that those who do not follow God’s law actually earn His displeasure. I had to go back and re-read the thesis to make sure that I had seen it correctly. But there it was, Fallace was asserting that God’s love was something that definitely had conditions attached to it.
He then outlined passage after passage in both the Old and New Testaments in support of the argument. The author highlights example after example of things that God does not love: wickedness, the worship of false gods, the offering of children as sacrifices, lovers of violence, and so on. Fallace’s point is that were God’s love unconditional to those who commit these and other sinful acts, then this would place God in direct contradiction with His justice, which is also an attribute of God, and God cannot have any intrinsic contradiction in His nature. Further, all the covenants of the Bible are conditional, stating what God will do for His people if they adhere to the covenant.
Then I began thinking about some other sources that touched on this theme. The first one was our Lord’s words of institution of the Holy Eucharist. When he took the cup, Jesus said, “This is the cup of my blood of the new and everlasting covenant which shall be shed for you and for many.” Note carefully that the institution narratives do not say, “It will be shed for you and for all.” The New Testament is quite clear that Christ’s blood is shed for those who accept His sacrifice for their sins and not for all people indiscriminately. St. Paul elaborates the point further when he cautions believers not to receive the Body and Blood of Christ unworthily because to do so is to consume it to their own damnation.
Even modern Scripture scholars have wrestled with the conditional nature of God’s love. Ernst Kaesemann, a German exegete, described the relationship of the person to God in his Commentary on Romans. According to Kaesemann, everybody exists in relationship to God whether they are aware of it or not. Those who believe in Christ and have accepted His offer of salvation live under the “righteousness” of God, while those who do not or have not accepted the offer live under God’s “wrath.” In Kaesemann’s exegesis, righteousness and wrath are two sides of the same coin. To put it crassly, the side of the coin that you see determines where you stand.
Perhaps another example might clarify the point: medieval theologians often defined the love of God as being a “all-consuming fire.” Even the angels who existed closest to God were called the Seraphim, which means “the burning ones.” They were called this because they dwelt so close to the throne of Almighty God that they were literally “on fire” from His love. Hellfire, to these theologians, was the fire of the love of God, only in this case it scorched and tormented those who rejected Him, those who were out of relationship with Him.
I recognize that this is a pretty grizzly concept and it is one that is not likely to earn Christians points in this world of tolerance, or religious “I’m OK, You’re OK” thinking. However, as we celebrate Holy Week this month, as we remember that moment in history when Jesus Christ suffered, died, and rose again for us, maybe it’s good to reflect on the fact that God’s love is conditional and that it is conditioned on our acceptance of it. Maybe with this realization, we can approach the mysteries of Holy Week with a new vision, a vision of gratitude for the glorious gifts of God. Maybe we can recommit ourselves to living according to God’s law, to placing ourselves in right relationship with Him.
Fallace concludes the article by reminding us of the words of Pope Benedict XVI. In addressing consecrated religious in the Roman Catholic Church, Benedict “has indicated the proper use of the word ‘unconditional:’ Unconditional love is the relationship we must have toward God -- not God toward us. Furthermore, because He is the Creator and we are the created, we are His servants and He is our Master -- and He owes us nothing.” But for those who accept new life in Christ Jesus, the God who owes us nothing gives us everything.