God Hates Sinners! Really?
Jeff: One of the most memorable things I experienced as a pastor was in April of 2011.
It is not often that I walk into the church office and find a parishioner reading Time magazine, and then have the parishioner look up and growl at me, “Have you read this?”
She then thrust out the magazine.
It was opened to an article entitled, “Pastor Rob Bell: What if Hell Doesn’t Exist?”
I said I had not read it yet and she growled again, “You need to read it and we need to talk about it.”
The article was about Evangelical and Mega-Church Pastor Rob Bell and his just published book, “Love Wins: A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived.”
So, I read the article and then I read the book.
I will summarize Bell’s book simply.
God did not create a place called hell.
We did that when we rejected God.
Hell is a place where God is not, because we don’t invite God there.
When we reject God, if we go to the place where God is not, we are immediately in hell.
But hell is not forever.
God would not consign someone into eternal torment as punishment for mistakes made or evil conduct during one single lifetime.
We stay there only until we accept God’s invitation into God’s reconciling love.
When we let God into our lives.
Then we are in God’s Kingdom.
This will happen to “Every Person Who Ever Lived” (as Bell puts it), because God is love.
And, as Bell puts it, love wins.
Because my parishioner said, “we need to talk about this,” I decided the issue was controversial enough to have a congregation wide book review and discussion.
It was well attended.
The session went on for a couple hours and I’m not sure anyone was satisfied.
What the Bible says about God’s approach to sin and sinners and whether there is an eternal hell are huge topics and could take days to cover completely.
Each can support a sermon series or Bible study on their own.
Two hours was not enough.
Neither will these twenty minutes.
Back to the church meeting.
Here are some of the comments.
“Of course, there is a hell! That’s where sinners go!”
“God hates sin and so hates sinners!”
“If there is no hell, what is the incentive to not sin?”
“If there is no hell, what is the need to believe in Jesus?”
These comments did not surprise me.
Many people really wanted hell to be real because they have a list of folks they want to go there or who are already there.
This was no surprise.
It reminded me of a woman I knew who would write the names of those folks she “did not like” on pieces of paper and put the paper in the freezer.
It was some kind of curse, I think.
She did not want those folks to burn I guess, but to freeze.
And when we think that way, we assume God agrees with us.
Matt: Wait a minute!
I have the same questions as the folks at the other church.
They weren’t projecting anything on God.
Hell is real and God sends sinners there because God hates sin and so he hates sinners.
The Bible clearly says that!
That’s what Jesus means when he teaches that some folks get cast into the outer darkness and into eternal fire.
God hates sinners so much that God consigns them to eternal punishment!
You have to hate someone to do that, right?
Haven’t you read Johnathon Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God?”
…[M]en are held in the hand of God, over the pit of hell; they have deserved the fiery pit, and are already sentenced to it; and God is dreadfully provoked, his anger [is] towards them …
And so … in they go!
Jeff: Well we can always cherry pick Bible verses to say what we want them to say, and Edwards might have said that God hates sinners, and certainly many others do as well, but the Bible doesn’t.
I like the way Karl Barth talks about it.
Should teaching about hell be part of the proclamation of the gospel? No! No! No! The proclamation of the gospel means the proclamation that Christ has overcome hell, that Christ has suffered hell in our place, and that we are allowed to live with him and so have hell behind us.There it is, but behind us! … Don’t fear hell, believe in God! Believe in Christ!
Take that Jonathan Edwards!
Let’s take a look at what the Bible does say about sin and sinners.
The Bible has more of a “hate the sin, love the sinner” emphasis, but even that meme can be tricky because we need to understand what the word “sin” means before we can decide if God hates sinner and/or sin.
The word “sin” comes from the Hebrew word hata, which means “to go astray.”
Jewish law provides the proper “way” (or path) to live.
Sin is when we stray from that path.
Who hasn’t done that?
The Greek word translated as “sin” is hamartia.
It means “to miss the mark”.
Literally to miss the target.
Our target is to live the way God would have us live.
Sin is when we miss the target.
Who hasn’t done that?
Does God hate us for wandering off the path?
Does God hate us when we miss the target?
Here is a text from the Bible that seems to say no.
Mark 2: 13-17
13 Jesus went out again beside the lake; the whole crowd gathered around him, and he taught them. 14As he was walking along, he saw Levi son of Alphaeus sitting at the tax booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he got up and followed him.
15 And as he sat at dinner in Levi’s house, many tax-collectors and sinners were also sitting with Jesus and his disciples—for there were many who followed him. 16When the scribes of the Pharisees saw that he was eating with sinners and tax-collectors, they said to his disciples, ‘Why does he eat with tax-collectors and sinners?’ 17When Jesus heard this, he said to them, ‘Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.’
If God hates sinners, Jesus has a strange way of showing it in this Gospel text.
Look at what is going on here.
Jesus calls Levi, a tax collector, to be his disciple.
Jesus does not require anything from Levi other than that he follow Jesus.
Levi does and then throws a party to celebrate.
Present at the party, along with Jesus, are other tax collectors and sinners.
All this is observed by the righteous Pharisees who are stunned that Jesus would hang out with such folks.
What don’t the Pharisees like about these people?
They are not people of God, and certainly don’t follow the Jewish law.
First, as a tax collector, Levi is an abomination to the Jewish community, a traitor, a thief, an outcast.
Tax collectors are so vile that they are excommunicated from their synagogues and not even allowed to be a witness in a Jewish court.
To his community, Levi, and his entire family, are a disgrace!
They are … well … hated by the Pharisees who believe God hates them, too.
Then there were the “sinners” at the party.
These are a class of people who were regarded as inferior by the Pharisees because they showed no interest in following Jewish law.
They were more concerned with food, housing, and clothing for the family than trying to observe religious traditions.
We might call them “spiritual but not religious”.
These folks were considered outcasts, too.
They were … well … also hated by the Pharisees who believed God also hated them, too.
But here was Jesus hanging out with them.
Calling this tax collector to be one of his disciples.
To live the Jesus way.
To get back on the path.
To hit the target.
To come into the Kingdom of God.
This sounds a lot more like love than hate.
It reminds me of a story I have shared before.
Dr. Craig Barnes is President of Princeton Theological Seminary.
Dr. Barnes’ father was a pastor in an inner-city church.
Roger was a boy whose family attended that church.
Roger’s parents were both drug addicts and died of overdoses within days of each other.
Rev. Barnes decided to adopt Roger.
Rev. Barnes told his family that Roger was now part of the Barnes family and was to be treated as such.
But Roger was a disruptive child.
He did not always follow the Barnes family rules.
Roger would grab at food.
He was told, “No Roger we don’t do that here! We ask and wait our turn.”
Roger would run from the table after eating.
He was told, “No Roger we don’t do that here! We clear the table and do the dishes.”
Roger would throw tantrums sometimes when the rules lessons were not to his liking.
He was told, “No Roger we don’t do that here! We don’t yell or raise our voices.”
Roger would use colorful language.
He was told, “No Roger we don’t do that here! We never use those kinds of words.”
It took time, but ultimately Roger learned what it meant to be part of the Barnes family.
What is interesting about that story is that Roger was never told that if he didn’t change, he would be cast out of the Barnes family.
He was loved.
Even when he screwed up.
I have always liked that story.
Because it is a good example of the way God deals with us!
We are adopted into God’s family, but we don’t always follow the rules.
But no matter how many times we screw up, we are never told that we risk being cast out of the family.
We are loved.
Even when we are sinners.
How do I know this?
Well, Jesus tells us in our text that he came to heal sinners.
To heal them.
Not because they are evil, but because they are sick.
And then Paul tells us this in his letter to the Romans:
… God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.
God loves us when we are sinners?
That’s what the Bible says.
Matt: OK Pastor Jeff, I see your point, but God hates the sin, right?
That’s something else we hear often, right?
Love the sinner, hate the sin?
Jeff: OK Matt, that sounds good, but where is that in the Bible?
I’m pretty sure the Bible supports the view that God would prefer we not sin.
But does God hate sin?
Does the Bible say God hates it when we miss the mark or stray from the path?
I don’t read it that way.
I think the Bible says that God is more focused on going and getting us back on the right path.
Teaching us to hit the target.
Our text today is a good example.
There are lots more.
Jesus spent a lot of time with sinners.
You name it.
Whenever Jesus talked to them about their lives, he did not tell them that he hated what they were doing.
Jesus did not tell them that if they kept it up, they would go to hell.
Jesus calls them to follow him.
Follow him into the Kingdom.
Then Jesus tells them they are forgiven.
Forgiveness is the focus.
And what about those folks who don’t believe?
Does God hate them?
I don’t think so.
I think the Bible says God continues to search for them.
This all reminds me of the Parable of the Prodigal Son.
We all know the story.
A man has two sons.
One treats his father as if he were dead and runs off with his inheritance to the big city.
Despite this son’s incredible disrespect, the father leaves the door open for the boy’s return.
When he does return, the father celebrates.
That doesn’t sound like hate to me.
That sounds like love.
That is God’s love for even those who would think God dead, or non-existent.
Come when you are convinced, and you are welcome.
But there is a second son in this parable.
The one who did not leave but remained loyal.
What is his story?
25 ‘Now his elder son was in the field; and when he came and approached the house, he heard music and dancing. 26He called one of the slaves and asked what was going on. 27He replied, “Your brother has come, and your father has killed the fatted calf, because he has got him back safe and sound.” 28Then he became angry and refused to go in. His father came out and began to plead with him. 29But he answered his father, “Listen! For all these years I have been working like a slave for you, and I have never disobeyed your command; yet you have never given me even a young goat so that I might celebrate with my friends. 30But when this son of yours came back, who has devoured your property with prostitutes, you killed the fatted calf for him!”
When we say, “God hates sinners”, we are acting like the elder son.
We don’t want to let the sinner into the Kingdom.
We want the sinner to suffer.
To remain and outcast.
To be hated.
To go to hell.
And we assume God agrees.
But God wants what the father in the parable wants.
For the wayward child to come home.
To accept the father’s love.
That is what this parable teaches.
God is love and God will love.
God doesn’t hate sinners.
God calls sinners into his kingdom.
God calls sinners to come home.
That is what the Bible says.