Is it true that, as many a modern homilist is wont to say, "God's love is unconditional"? It is true without question that the love of God, as stated in the Old and New Testaments, is rich, it abounds, it fills the earth, is unfailing, is faithful, is steadfast, it endures forever, is great, is higher than the Heavens, it surpasses knowledge, is better than life, etc. It is comforting and reassuring to hope that God's love is unconditional -- and it must be true, otherwise, many priests and homilists wouldn't say so. Right?
Let us begin our inquiry by defining our terms. According to the Merriam-Webster Unabridged Dictionary, "unconditional" means not conditional or not limited, but absolute, unqualified. When we add the word "love" to unconditional, it becomes, by definition, love with no conditions, now and forever more. Accordingly then, "unconditional love" means that no matter what we do or don't do, we will continue to be loved in exactly the same way. In other words, unconditional love means, as far as God is concerned, that whatever we do -- good or bad -- does not matter, and we can expect God to love us the same as He always has.
Many claim that "unconditional love," or something similar, has a biblical basis, that it is written or implied in the Bible, or perhaps in some other Church document. But of the more than 800 instances of "love" in the Bible, none states or implies that God's love is unconditional. Furthermore, there is no official Church document that uses the word "unconditional" to describe God's love. There must be some mistake! some might demur. How could this be? Yes, there has been an enormous mistake, but it is not in the Bible or Church documents. The real mistake regarding unconditional love has been made by those dissenting and rebellious teachers who try to appear more loving and compassionate than God and His Church. And these imposters have succeeded in attracting good Catholics to follow them into a fantasy world where the only reward is endless misery in the deepest furnace below.
If there is any doubt, ask anyone who spreads this false teaching to show you the evidence that God's love is unconditional, chapter and verse, please -- or to provide the proper citation in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, or any other official Church document. But do not take anyone's word for it. Neither be deceived by the argument that such-and-such a book explains God's unconditional love in detail. False beliefs have been used by God's enemies since the time of the Apostles, and have usually, if not always, originated from Catholic people, often from priests and even bishops. Recall the words of St. Paul: "There are some who are disturbing you and wish to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel other than the one that we preached to you, let that one be accursed! As we have said before, and now I say again, if anyone preaches to you a gospel other than the one that you received, let that one be accursed!" (Gal. 1:7-9).
Let us look at what God loves, then at what He does not love. According to Scripture, God loves:
- His servants who are faithful (1 Kgs. 8:23)Instead of mentioning so many different qualifiers, why does the Bible not say that God loves everyone, regardless of what they have said or done? The reason, it seems, that God did not make such a blanket statement is because He does not love everyone -- precisely because of what they have said or done. If Scripture had made only a blanket statement, that could possibly indicate that God's love is unconditional. Unfortunately, for all of us, the whole truth is that nowhere does the Bible state as much, or anything close to it.
- Those who trust in Him (Ps. 32:10)
- Justice (Ps. 37:28)
- The righteous (Ps. 146:8)
- He who pursues righteousness (Prov. 15:9)
- Those who love Him (Dan. 9:4)
- Those who keep His commandments (Dan. 9:4)
- His Son Jesus (Mt. 3:17)
- Those who show their love for Jesus is genuine by obeying His teachings (Jn. 14:21-23)
- His sons through Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:4-5)
- A cheerful giver (2 Cor. 9:7)
- Those for whom He gave up His life as a sacrificial offering (Eph. 5:2)
- His children who act in righteousness and love their brothers (1 Jn. 3:1,10)
- Those who have been called (Jude 1:1)
- Those kept safe for Jesus Christ (Jude 1:1)
- Those He has freed from sin by His blood (Rev. 1:5)
- Those He has made priests for His Kingdom (Rev. 1:6)
- Those He reproves and chastens (Rev. 3:19)
Now, let us examine what God does not love. The Bible has 137 references to hate, but we will use only those pertaining to our discussion of the things God hates. For example:
- Wickedness (Heb. 1:9)It may astound some to learn that the "God of love" hates some people for any number of good reasons. But does God ever love someone today and hate him tomorrow? Again, let us look at Scripture. In Jeremiah 16:5, God says, "I have withdrawn my blessing, my love, and my pity from this people." In Hosea 1:6, the Lord says, "I will no longer show love to the house of Israel, that I should at all forgive them." Again, in Hosea 9:15, "Because of all their wickedness in Gilgal, I hated them there. Because of their sinful deeds, I will drive them out of my house. I will no longer love them; all their leaders are rebellious."
- Seeing His people worship other gods (Jer. 44:3-4)
- The burning of sons and daughters in the fire as sacrifices to gods (Deut. 12:31)
- Haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood, a heart that devises wicked schemes, feet that are quick to rush into evil, false witnesses, a man who stirs up dissensions (Prov. 6:16-19)
- He who plots evil against his neighbor and he who swears falsely (Zec. 8:17)
- Robbery and iniquity (Is. 61:8)
- Divorce (Mal. 2:16; see also Mt. 5:31-32, 19:3-9; Lk. 16:18; 1 Cor. 7:10-11)
- The practices of the Nicolaitans (imposters) (Rev. 2:6)
- Esau (Mal. 1:3; Rom. 9:13)
- The wicked person and all who do evil (Ps. 5:5)
- Those who love violence (Ps. 11:5)
And, in 1 Samuel, although King Saul had been anointed by God, when Saul disobeyed Him, God took away His love from Saul, and he died ignominiously by his own hand on the battlefield.
So, what does all this mean to us today? It means the same as it has always meant, that God says to us, Here is what I expect of you, and in return, here is what I will give to you. If we fulfill our part of the contract, He will fulfill His. That condition includes God's mercy for us, as He says, "You shall therefore carefully observe the commandments, the statutes and the decrees which I enjoin on you today. As your reward for heeding these decrees and observing them carefully, the Lord, your God, will keep with you the merciful covenant which he promised on oath to your fathers" (Deut. 7:11-12).
But, one might argue, doesn't St. Paul state that nothing can separate us from the love of God? St. Paul says, "What will separate us from the love of Christ? Will anguish, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or the sword?… No, in all these things we conquer overwhelmingly through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord" (Rom. 8:35, 37-39).
Paul here lists the things that cannot separate us from God's love. But is there anything or anyone that can separate us from the love of God? Yes. Only we, as individuals, can separate ourselves from God! Even God will not interfere with our choices -- though our choices may take us to Hell. It is true that God respects our choices, but His Law says that for every action by us, there is a reaction from Him, as history and Scripture indicate. We can restore God's love only by repentance and conversion to His ways. As Jesus said, "As the Father loves me, so I also love you. Remain in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father's commandments and remain in His love. I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete" (Jn. 15:9-12; italics added).
St. Jude echoes this: "Keep yourselves in God's love" (1:21-23). St. Jude reminds us that God's love is assured if we obey His commandments. Of course, everyone of good will hopes that our joy will be complete some day, but it cannot happen without observing God's commandments -- that is the condition for His eternal love.
Therefore, when we go astray and sin, we must repent sooner rather than later, make use of the Sacrament of Confession, and then, if we are truly repentant, He will forgive our sins, for St. John says, "If we acknowledge our sins, He is faithful and just and will forgive our sins and cleanse us from every wrongdoing. If we say, 'We have not sinned,' we make Him [Jesus] a liar, and His word is not in us" (1 Jn. 1:9-10).
He will always forgive us, if we are repentant. Only the God of love can do that for those who have chosen to be His people.
The Long Island Catholic, the official paper of the Diocese of Rockville Centre, N.Y., published a column by Msgr. James McNamara (March 28, 2007), in which the phrase "unconditional love" was used several times. I responded to Msgr. McNamara's column in a letter to the editor (April 4, 2007), challenging him to provide the biblical or other official Church reference indicating that God's love is unconditional. Amazingly, Msgr. McNamara responded in the same issue that "…The writer [Mr. Fallace] is correct," and repentance is required to be forgiven by God. Nevertheless, Msgr. McNamara still insisted that "God's love is unconditional." But is repentance not itself a condition?
God's love is conditional upon the following of His commandments. When we fail, God may withdraw His love from us. But we may restore God's love only by repentance. Is not repentance what Satan and his devils refused to do? Will He not be as just with us for our lack of repentance? He will demand true repentance on our part for every sin we have committed.
God's love, then, should be considered conditional upon repentance. What follows is a partial list that should be more than enough to confirm that God insists on our repentance before He forgives us, and that we must ask for it each time we sin and before we die:
- "People of the whole Judean countryside and all the inhabitants of Jerusalem were going out to him [John the Baptist] and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins" (Mk. 1:5)If the "unconditional love of God" is a fallacy, why do so many clergy and laity seem eager to proclaim it? That they persist in proclaiming something contrary to Church teaching could indicate a heretical or rebellious attitude on their part. Such attitudes can be very dangerous to these people and to those who hear them proclaim mistaken religious beliefs. God has said, "If I tell the wicked man that he shall surely die, and you do not speak out to dissuade the wicked man from his way, he [the wicked man] shall die for his guilt, but I will hold you responsible for his death. But if you warn the wicked man, trying to turn him from his way, and he refuses to turn from his way, he shall die for his guilt, but you shall save yourself" (Ezek. 33:8-9).
- Jesus said, "But I tell you, if you do not repent, you too will all perish" (Lk. 13:3)
- St. Peter said, "Repent, therefore, and be converted, that your sins may be wiped away" (Acts 3:19)
- "You overlook the sins of men that they may repent" (Wisd. 11:24)
- St. Paul said, "I preached the need to repent and turn to God, and to do works giving evidence of repentance" (Acts 26:20)
- "For it is written: 'As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bend before me, and every tongue shall give praise to God.' So then each of us shall give an account of himself to God" (Rom. 14:11-12)
- "No creature is concealed from him, but everything is naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must render an account" (Heb. 4:13)
Jesus Christ reiterated this when He said, "Things that cause sin will inevitably occur, but woe to the person through whom they occur. It would be better for him if a millstone were put around his neck and he be thrown into the sea than for him to cause one of these little ones to sin. Be on your guard! If your brother sins, rebuke him; and if he repents, forgive him" (Lk. 17:1-3; italics added).
So God's love is not unconditional. If God's love were unconditional, there would be no Hell and all the unrepentant sinners, no matter how evil, would go to Heaven. So, what is God's love if it's not unconditional? It is covenantal. This means that if we want to continue to experience His love, we have to meet His conditions. God's love is eternal, it is constant, but He makes it absolutely clear what He loves and what He hates, and whom He loves and whom He hates. That God's love is unconditional is a modern deception invented by the devil; it is designed to blur our vision so that we can join him in the underworld.
As individuals we have to choose one of two options. Either we choose to accept, follow, and obey the god of the modern secular culture, or we choose to accept, follow, and obey the God of the Bible as taught by the official teaching of the Catholic Church. Are these not the only two choices in life?
In paragraph 33 of Pope Benedict XVI's apostolic exhortation Sacramentum Caritatis ("The Sacrament of Love," Feb. 22, 2007), he explains very clearly that "Mary of Nazareth appears as someone whose freedom is completely open to God's will. Her immaculate conception is revealed precisely in her unconditional docility to God's word. Obedient faith in response to God's word shapes her life at every moment…. She is the Immaculata, who receives God's gift unconditionally and is thus associated with his work of salvation. Mary of Nazareth, icon of the nascent Church, is the model for each of us, called to receive the gift that Jesus makes of himself in the Eucharist" (#33).
On February 2, 2007, Pope Benedict addressed the 11th annual World Day of Consecrated Life. His speech included a passage on unconditional love and its application: "Consecrated life, therefore, is by its nature a total and definitive, unconditional and passionate response to God."
The Pope 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.
Let us pray for our proper response to God's love: O God our Father, let our Christian hope to be with You in Heaven open our minds, decrease our pride, and encourage us to obey Your will. Help us to follow the example of Mary who finished the race and won the prize of Your true love. We ask this in Jesus' name. Amen.
[Carmelo Fallace, the author of several books on family life issues and past director of Natural Family Planning and associate director of Marriage Preparation for the Archdiocese of New York, is the Editor of Catholic Family Life Messenger (CFLM), from which this article was adapted with permission (April-May 2007). To receive CFLM free of charge, write to CFLM, PO Box 115, Lake Grove NY 11755, or visit www.CFLM.blogspot.com. He is coordinator of the independent New Oxford Reading Clubs (for information, phone 631-588-7495). He and his wife have seven children and 20 grandchildren. The present article was originally published in the New Oxford Review (February 2008), and is reproduced here by kind permission of New Oxford Review, 1069 Kains Ave., Berkeley, CA 94706.]