What was the life, the thing made in the Son—made by him inside himself, not outside him—made not through but in him—the life that was his own, as God’s is his own? It was that act in him that corresponded in him, as the son, to the self-existence of his father. Now what is the deepest in God? His power? No, for power could not make him what we mean when we say God. Evil could, of course, never create one atom; but let us understand very plainly, that a being whose essence was only power would be such a negation of the divine that no righteous worship could be offered him: his service must be fear, and fear only. Such a being, even were he righteous in judgment, yet could not be God. In one word, God is Love. Love is the deepest depth, the essence of his nature, at the root of all his being. It is not merely that he could not be God, if he had made no creatures to whom to be God; but love is the heart and hand of his creation; it is his right to create, and his power to create as well. The love that foresees creation is itself the power to create. Neither could he be righteous—that is, fair to his creatures—but that his love created them. His perfection is his love. All his divine rights rest upon his love. Ah, he is not the great monarch! The simplest peasant loving his cow is more divine than any monarch whose monarchy is his glory. If God would not punish sin, or if he did it for anything but love, he would not be the father of Jesus Christ, the God who works as Jesus wrought.
Choose Your Mystery
by Jess Lederman
"God is love," wrote John. Hippie rhetoric? Did he assume that we would understand that God is not only love, but also--and equally!--other things, such as Justice? Indeed, some doctrines assume a conflict between the aims of Love and Justice, and state that God must "satisfy" the latter before the former can be operative. The purpose of the Cross, to this way of thinking, is precisely to reconcile the conflict between Love and Justice. However, the notion that Christ bore a punishment that we in fact deserve implies that punishment is purely retributive. It certainly would have made no sense for Christ to bear a punishment which we needed, which was the best possible way for us to be freed from sin!
MacDonald took John's writing as a fundamental truth statement about God's nature. In the introduction to Consuming Fire, I summarized MacDonald's thinking as follows:
God is one, and God is love; he is not sometimes a God of wrath and other times a God of love. Do we then teach that men have nothing to fear from God? By no means! “For Love loves unto purity,” and is oft experienced as wrath, as the consuming fire that will not be content until our sinful nature, everything that separates us from God, is burned away. Twenty-two years after the publication of volume I, MacDonald developed these ideas at length in what may be his most influential sermon, Justice. “God’s anger,” MacDonald wrote, “is at one with his love;” so, too, God’s mercy and his justice are one and the same. Mercy and punishment are not opposed; for punishment—the consuming fire—is a means to an end, that we might be the creatures he intended us to be. God’s punishment, his justice, can be his most merciful act.
This is a wonderfully appealing line of reasoning, grounded in Scripture. All attributes of God would be aspects of Love. There is no conflict between Love and Justice; a God who is Love would never dole out purely retributive punishment. Therefore, the Cross served another purpose (to free us from sin).
Any interpretation of Scripture is going to leave you with some residual mysteries. If you choose to believe in retributive punishment--particularly eternal conscious torment--you solve one mystery (what to do about certain verses, at least in their mainstream translation), but are left with others: Would a good God, a God who is Love, subject humans to an infinitely horrible punishment for finite crimes? Would an omnipotent God be unable to achieve his stated objective, that all be saved? Would He start with a perfect Creation, and end with one in which many--perhaps most--of His created beings were writhing in hell--eternally rebellious, eternally sinful? And so on.
Choose your mystery!