Unconditional Love

Several years ago, I read this from Elder Nelson:

While divine love can be called perfect, infinite, enduring, and universal, it cannot correctly be characterized as unconditional. The word does not appear in the scriptures. On the other hand, many verses affirm that the higher levels of love the Father and the Son feel for each of us—and certain divine blessings stemming from that love—are conditional. (cite)

I was pretty surprised by this; I had always assumed that God’s love was unconditional.  But I admit I hadn’t thought about it very much.

The same argument appears from him in a recent Ensign article:

Then, to underscore that His love was not unconditional, He added, “If ye keep my commandments, ye shall abide in my love; even as I have kept my Father’s commandments, and abide in his love.” (cite)

Here are a few other statements on the topic of God’s love:

Elder Marvin J. Ashton:

[God] demonstrated to us that His love was unconditional and sufficient to encircle every person. (cite)

Elder Neal A. Maxwell:

I am stunned at [Jesus’] perfect, unconditional love of all. (cite)

Elder Robert D. Hales:

That we may share His eternal, unconditional love with our brothers and sisters everywhere, is my humble prayer in the name of Jesus Christ, amen. (cite)

President Gordon B. Hinckley:

In moments of quiet, we reflect upon His matchless life and His unconditional love for each of us. (cite)

Elder Russell M. Nelson:

You are constantly mindful of the Savior’s atonement and rejoice in His unconditional love. (cite)

Yes!  Elder Nelson!  At this point two theories to explain the discrepancy occurred to me:

(1) The final Elder Nelson quote is from 1991; the two at the beginning post are from 2003 and 2013.  Maybe he changed his mind.

(2) Maybe Elder Nelson (and the others?) are making a distinction between Jesus’ love and God’s love. I don’t think this is correct, however, for three reasons: (1) In the 2003 piece, Elder Nelson uses a list of scriptures to outline his position and some of them refer to Jesus’ love and some of them to God’s love and (2) I can’t figure out how to hang on to the concept of complete unity between Jesus and God if one of them loves people that the other one does not and (3) Elder Ashton is referring to God’s love and Elder Maxwell to Jesus’ love, so there is still some tension between what they said and what Elder Nelson said.

At this point, I’m not seeing an obvious way to reconcile these statements.  I’m curious to get some feedback on whether y’all can think of a way to reconcile them and/or whether you think God’s (or Jesus’) love is (un)conditional.

(A quick Internet search shows reports that the Correlation Cmte. does not permit the phrase “God’s unconditional love” to be used after asking for clarification from the First Presidency and the Twelve on the topic (cite), but I have no way to verify this.)

And another thought: what I have given you is a handful of data points. Which do you think is the best theory for explaining their existence:

(1) Doctrinal development.  (And, if so, is doctrinal change always an improvement over the older teaching, or is doctrinal retrogression possible?)

(2) Elder Nelson is sharing an opinion.  The others are sharing opinions. There is a substantive disagreement between them, but none of them constitute doctrine. (Note that Pres. Hinckley was not the prophet when he made that statement.)

(3) There is no tension between the statements; the words are the same but the context is different, so the teachings harmonize.

(4) There is a substantive disagreement on a doctrinal issue.

(5) Perhaps there are some types or kinds of God’s love that are conditional and other types that are not.  (What would these types be? How would this all work?)

(6) Stop micro-analyzing their words.  Go out and show some love to someone who needs it.

Other ideas:

–Maybe God’s love is always there but sin makes it impossible for you to feel it.

–How are we defining love: affection? approval? dutiful commitment?  What about the OT marriage metaphor? That would suggest that God’s love is unconditional, because God stays in the marriage even when the bride is unfaithful.

–This seems like it might be Elder Nelson’s personal opinion, unless the backstory about correlation is true, in which case it is an official church position and it just happens that only Elder Nelson happens to teach this.  (I found one or two other, older, quotes, but no other modern leader teaching this.) Is this an argument for correlation transparency, so people won’t dismiss things that seem to be personal?

INSTANT UPDATE: I wrote this post a long time ago but never got around to posting it. I was reminded of it again after the topic came up at the last conference:

President Monson: “My dear sisters, your Heavenly Father loves you—each of you. That love never changes. It is not influenced by your appearance, by your possessions, or by the amount of money you have in your bank account. It is not changed by your talents and abilities. It is simply there. It is there for you when you are sad or happy, discouraged or hopeful. God’s love is there for you whether or not you feel you deserve love. It is simply always there.” (link)



64 comments for “Unconditional Love

  1. God’s love is offered freely to all, saint and sinner alike, it is only conditioned on our ability/willingness to feel and accept it.

  2. Perhaps the discrepancy could also be audience. Pres. Monson addresses him remarks to “my dear sisters” and others seemed to be given to GC audiences.

    I don’t really think it is an issue of audience, but it is a possibility. The “no unconditional love” thing is scripturally accurate though, as Elder Nelson stated. Consider 1 Nephi 17:40 “And he loveth those who will have him to be their God.”

    And many of the sermons in the BOM about the atonement say that He did it for those who will repent. Not that he did it for everybody, but only for those who love Him. He surely took upon him the pain/suffering/sins of everyone, but apparently He didn’t do it out of love for everyone, but only out of love for those who would use it. I tried to do a LDS scripture search for those references, but failing to remember the exact wording was unable to find them… perhaps somebody else can fill those in.

  3. I’ve noticed a few of Elder Nelson’s talks that seem internally logically incoherent. For example in the 2003 article on unconditional love, after making a rigorous scriptural case that God’s love is conditional on keeping the commandments he ends with, “Does this mean the Lord does not love the sinner? Of course not. Divine love is infinite and universal.” Seriously, what? He does the same with his talk on war. Whatever your thoughts about war and if it is ever justified or not, you will find them represented in this talk (N.B. the date it was given). My sense is that he just teaches what is in the scriptures, and if they contradict he doesn’t try to square the circle or offer any unifying idea or explanation.

  4. I think (5) is the most probable explanation. The word love can mean many things in modern (and maybe ancient?) parlance, from loving chocolate to making love. God loves us unconditionally (cares, is concerned for, desires best for) but also loves us conditionally (rewards, forgives, lives with). I don’t see a contradiction as much as I see definitions not being made explicit.

  5. I remember when this was first published while I was in the MTC. I struggled with it,but reconciled it. I felt then that what he was trying to get at was that love requires reciprocity to be a loving relationship. Ostler goes into this in chapter 1 or 2 of his first book. It’s pretty foundational to the whole I-thou thing.

  6. Also I can confirm the correlation report that Joseph McConkie was teaching the same concept of conditional love in his classes at BYU in the early 00’s using much of the same logic as Elder Nelson. However I find his reasoning here

    When I have asked people who teach this so-called
    doctrine how they distinguish God’s ‘unconditional love’ from
    salvation by grace as taught in the Protestant world, they have
    been unable to do so (A Scriptural Search for the Ten Tribes and
    Other Things We Lost[Brigham Young University, 1987], 7).

    somewhat bizarre. I don’t why there would be an implicit connection between unconditional love and salvation by grace. Maybe seeing it in context would shed some light on it.

  7. Very interesting! Thanks for posting this. Elder Nelson quotes several scriptures along the lines of “if you keep the commandments, God will love you.” The problem is that this implication does not imply its converse (if you don’t keep the commandments, God won’t love you), though Elder Nelson treats it that way. However, the converse is explicitly stated once, in D&C 95:12. I think that’s the scripture we really need to think more about.

  8. Let’s not miss that Elder Nelson affirms that “divine love is infinite and universal. The Savior loves both saints and sinners,” in the same 2003 article.

    Presumably, sinners have broken the commandments, and therefore (according to D&C 95) the love of the Father shouldn’t continue with them. Elder Nelson seems to be saying it’s only some “higher” form of love that ceases to continue with the sinner. I’d like to know more about what he means.

    How about “Greater love hath no man than this, that a man lay down his life for his friends.” Christ died for sinners, right? Is there really some higher form of love that Christ is withholding from sinners?

  9. I wonder if there’s an equivocation here–that is, the apparent contradiction is in using the same term “God’s love” to describe two different things. Or at least two different aspects of the same thing. It seems to me that both aspects are important. God’s love IS unconditional in the sense that he loves all of us as his children and hopes that all of us return back to him, regardless of what we have done. On the other hand, our ability to to receive (God’s ability to give?) the fulness of his love–i.e., exaltation–is conditioned upon the choices we make. I think Elder Nelson is trying to express an important aspect of our theology: although we believe in a God who loves us all perfectly, a Father who wants all his children to come home, in the end not all will choose to come home, and some who say they want to come home will not be allowed to come home because of the choices they made here on earth. As I think about it the ones who do not receive exaltation, it does not seem accurate to say that God’s love for them is somehow diminished. And I suppose that for God the (permanent?) separation from some of his children will be awful. I doubt he will stop loving them or missing them or wishing they had made it home. I do not think he loves them less. While his terminology may be off, I think Elder Nelson is trying to express this great paradox: that a perfectly loving, all-powerful God will not bring all his children home.

  10. Over at mormondialogue.org, one of the posters reported that he had written to Elder Nelson expresses concerns about the talk, and this is what Elder Nelson wrote back. I cannot vouch for its accuracy.

    “Dear Barney Bubble (that’s not my real name)

    Thank you for your letter. it is obvious you have given much thought to this matter

    When I was asked to prepare the “Divine Love” article for the Ensign, I tried to organize it in such a way that one could see the many scriptures that indicate the importance of individual effort and the blessing of repentance. Some have felt the full love and blessings of the Lord could come regardless of personal behavior. The Lord wants to love and to bless us. This He can do only through our obedience. “I , the Lord, am bound when ye do what I say; but when ye do not what I say, ye have no promise”( D&C 82:10)

    While discussing the nature of God’s love for us, it would be well for us also to consider the nature of our love for our Heavenly Father and his Beloved Son, Jesus Christ. I believe our love for them is important because we have complete control over that, Our love for them can truly be the centerpiece of our attention.

    After all is said and done, you cannot control the love of anyone for you. But you can control your love for others. Concentrate on your love for God by keeping His commandments (see John 14:15) and by praying to him faithfully (see Moroni 7:48). This also applies in your relationships to other people. If you love them first, they are more likely to love you (see 1 John 4:19)

    Barney, our Heavenly Father knows and loves you. Please also know of our love and gratitude for you.”

    then he signs the letter”

  11. I think we are often threatened with conditions by both God and the brethren as a fear or guilt motivator in a end justifies the means kind of way way:

    Nevertheless, it is not written that there shall be no end to this torment, but it is written endless torment. Again, it is written eternal damnation; wherefore it is more express than other scriptures, that it might work upon the hearts of the children of men, altogether for my name’s glory.

    Some of them become self fulfilling; if we believe the spirit will flee when we sin that is our experience but if we don’t the spirit remains with us even in sin. If we fear God won’t love us if we sin we may sin less.

  12. I also think Elder Oaks attempted to clarify his understanding of the principles in Elder Nelson’s article here: http://www.lds.org/general-conference/2009/10/love-and-law?lang=eng I.e., that God does love us (Elder Oaks does not use the word unconditionally [I believe that was out of respect for Elder Nelson]) but that love does not override the principles of consequences for our choices. This makes sense to me. Most of the passages cited by Elder Nelson seemed to say that choices bring consequences, and that the fullest blessings are dependent upon certain choices. I don’t think they disprove that God’s love is unconditional, although they indicate that God’s blessings are conditional.

    I would also note that while correlation appears to have an implicit ban on using “unconditional love” in official church publications (as it does for “free agency”), that implicit ban does not apply to the 12, and Elder Hales’ use of the term “unconditional love” came after Elder Nelson’s article.

    Finally, apart from my theological disagreement with a claim that God’s love is conditioned on our obedience, I am most concerned about what a message of God’s purported conditional love means for us as parents. Since God and Jesus are our examplars and perfect, does that mean that to be perfect parents, we must love our children conditionally? That we should tell our children that we won’t love them (or we won’t love them in love’s highest form) if they disobey us (or gospel principles)? Does that mean that as church leaders we should love less (or with less higher love) disengaged members or sinners or gross sinners?

    Many years ago Elder McConkie gave a talk in which he claimed that Latter-day Saints do not worship Jesus Christ. http://www.zionsbest.com/relationship.html [I note that I cannot find the talk on BYU’s website of past talks anymore.] Elder McConkie was using “worship” in different senses–acknowledging that scriptures say we worship Jesus, but said that our worship for God the Father was in a different way than we worship Jesus (these are my words, but perhaps a higher form of worship). The talk was controversial. I don’t believe there is a correlation ban on using the term worship in connection with Jesus.

    I personally think that distinctions between whatever forms of God’s love that are unconditional and those “higher” forms that may or may not be conditional are much too refined philosophically or theologically for most people, just as distinctions (whatever they may be) between the kind of worship we offer Jesus and that we offer God the Father.

  13. I think when Elder Nelson wrote that article in the Ensign back in ’91, he was wrong. Plain and simple. The other quotes you mentioned and numerous scriptures about their love convince me that he was wrong.

    I think all humans, despite their ability or inability to keep the commandments, are unconditionally loved by both Heavenly Father and Jesus. I think the doctrine of grace and the atonement explain that.

    I think it is unfortunate, but understandable that Elder Nelson was wrong. He is human, and no human understands the doctrine sufficiently. I know that that ’91 article did damage. I knew people who were depressed, in therapy, and became in crisis (psychological and spiritual) when they read that article. They were already experiencing low self-esteem and then to read that God only *maybe* loved them, and only if they were good enough was damaging.

    I think trying to reconcile one contradictory GA quote with another is a type of mental gymnastics. I just reconcile this by believing that Elder Nelson just didn’t understand the doctrine.

  14. #8 Mike,

    I don’t think He did go through the atonement “for” everyone. He suffered everyone’s sins/sufferings, but He has said He did it ‘for’ those who repent and follow him.

    We should also look at Alma 14:10-11 Amulek tells Alma they should stop the people from being burned. Alma tells him that the Spirit stops him from doing it because

    he doth suffer that they may do this thing, or that the people may do this thing unto them, according to the hardness of their hearts, that the bjudgments which he shall exercise upon them in his wrath may be just; and the cblood of the dinnocent shall stand as a witness against them, yea, and cry mightily against them at the last day.

    God/Christ allowed it to happen so that they could justly destroy the people, and so that the would be condemn come judgement day. That sounds like they were firmly outside of “God’s Love” to me

  15. Julie,

    Elder Nelson’s Ensign article on this subject — which was stridently taught over the pulpit in my ward several months ago — is THE issue that almost got me to come out of blogging retirement. ALMOST. Because frankly, it makes me angry.

    I don’t have time to get into this fully, but in sum, I think that Elder Nelson’s talk is fundamentally incoherent. I’m open to revising my views, but back when I analyzed it more closely, I concluded that he seems to be employing a highly, highly idiosyncratic definition of the word “love”. Consider two possible loose definitions of the word:

    1. LOVE = care, regard, concern one person feels/experiences toward another
    2. LOVE = care, regard, concern toward another, PLUS approval.

    I think Nelson is implicitly using the second definition here, when virtually everyone else in the world — including other LDS leaders — is using the first. But because Elder Nelson doesn’t SAY he’s doing this, it isn’t clear. (And it isn’t likely that he understands himself to be doing this. And I think it’s a bad idea to do it regardless). When you include an “approval” prong in your definition, then it makes sense to say that God’s “love” for you disappears when you displease Him. If you don’t include such a prong, it doesn’t make sense at all.

    Ultimately, words are just words. If the Brethren want to define “love” in an unusual, esoteric way, that is their right. But what good does that accomplish? Why include an “approval” prong in the definition? Divine “love” is such a fundamental notion in Christianity, experienced so viscerally and non-intellectually by those who experience it. All this act of redefinition does is confuse people and make them feel bad, feel unloved by deity. I tend to believe that those Apostles who have advocated notions of unconditional love subsequent to Elder Nelson’s Ensign article are not “heretics”. They’re just not persuaded by Nelson’s strange definition and subsequent analysis. (Of course, I can’t read their minds).

    Why did Elder Nelson go down this path? Part of me imagines that he said to himself, “I need to combat this notion — ubiquitous in the culture, and sometimes even in LDS culture — that God’s love entails an approval of bad behavior”. And this is a fair observation for him to make, but then he misdiagnosed the problem at the heart of the phenomenon he wanted to criticize. People don’t misunderstand God’s “unconditional love” because use of the word “unconditional” is confusing them. They misunderstand it because they misunderstand the meaning of the word “love”. And from this initial misdiagnosis, all the rest of his awkward analysis follows.

    Another theory I’ve had is that Elder Nelson got confused by the scriptures that he uses, because like most LDS, he’s ideologically closed to the idea that God (and his characteristics), as portrayed in the OT, has evolved over time. As I recall, several of the scriptures DO contain “conditional clauses”, do in fact claim that only IF you do X, will God feel Y toward you. So his close textual analysis of these statements isn’t technically wrong. But the notion of “love” that these scriptures propagate is of an old tribal deity that bears little resemblance to Jesus of Nazareth. And I think he kind of sees this and tries to bridge the gap by invoking the notion of a “higher” love in a couple places, an implicit admission that there’s something different about the love concept he’s talking about, and the run-of-the-mill love most human beings typically talk about.

    Anyway, this comment is quick and sloppy. I may be misremembering this or that aspect of Elder Nelson’s article. But I don’t think his argument can ultimately be salvaged, even if this or that aspect of it can be read more or less charitably.

  16. To make my point a slightly different way …

    I think all 6 of your offered interpretations miss the boat, Julie. The difference between Elder Nelson’s view and that of his Apostolic Brethren is semantic, not substantive, but Elder Nelson unfortunately writes as IF his disagreement with those who advocate “unconditional love” is substantive. (Only with such an assumption would you use the word “heresy”. Semantic disagreement surely cannot constitute “heresy”). Once you tease out the different definitions of the word “love” in play, this all becomes clear.

    It’s entirely possible that the Apostles disagree with each other on this or that aspect of God’s love, but no such disagreement is present on this particular topic, in my view. I see no reason to believe that anyone disagrees with the following 3 statements, when the word “love” is defined in a typical, non-idiosyncratic way:

    1. God loves all His children, regardless of how they behave. His love is in no way “conditioned” on their behavior.
    2. God doesn’t necessarily approve of the behavior of his children. His approval IS “conditioned” on their behavior.
    3. God doesn’t necessarily give blessings to His children regardless of their behavior. The blessings He bestows can be “conditioned” on their behavior.

    Again, I see no reason to believe any Apostle would disagree with these 3 statements, once you parse the meanings of the words adequately.


  17. Just how much ambiguity can you find in “…if you love me, keep my commandments” or “…shewing mercy unto thousands of them that love me, and keep my commandments.”

  18. One last observation, and then I promise I’ll shut up …

    If we are to be “like God”, if God’s love for mankind is meant to be emulated rather than serve as a source of bewilderment, imagine taking Elder Nelson’s notion of “love” and applying it in your own life. When you children misbehave — as they surely sometimes do — do you actually “love” them less? Of course not. And if you said you did, and meant it, most right-thinking people would see you as some sort of moral monster. We all intuitively understand the difference between “love” and “approval”. The distinction isn’t hard to grasp. But Elder Nelson’s analysis takes simple, straightforward things and complicates them, all in an effort to make a point that could’ve been made much more simply, and without sowing confusion.

  19. Aaron Brown,

    Give me if you would your interpretation of this quote from Joseph Smith:

    Renegade “Mormon” dissenters are running through the world and spreading various foul and libelous reports against us, thinking thereby to gain the friendship of the world, because they know that we are not of the world, and that the world hates us; therefore they [the world] make a tool of these fellows [the dissenters], and by them do all the injury they can, and after that they hate them all the worse then they do us, because they find them to be base traitors and sycophants.

    Such characters God hates; we cannot love them. The world hates them, and we sometimes think that the devil ought to be ashamed of them.

    Now Joseph Smith would be someone I would think had a really good idea about the nature of God and God’s love. Jo. Smith says there are/were people who God hates. How do you reconcile that in your definition?

  20. @10-I can vouch for the letter’s accuracy because I am the one who wrote Elder Nelson and then put it on mormondialogue!

  21. I think you’re on to something when you mentioned the correlation committee: General Authorities are selected for their administrative acumen and institutional loyalty, not the sophistication of their theological understanding. That does not mean that they have no idea what they are talking about when they preach, only that correlation was implemented, among other reasons, to keep the General authorities from misspeaking on unfamiliar territory in a way that becomes binding upon the members most eager to cling to every word that proceed from the mouth of God, or His servants. It looks to me like correlation got around to doing its job on Elder Nelson.

  22. General Authorities are selected for their administrative acumen and institutional loyalty

    I wasn’t aware that Christ had told us the criteria he uses to select His people.

  23. continuation of #22…

    Or rather, does God love good and evil equally, without distinction?

    For example, does God the Father love Satan (considering what makes Satan, Satan) and the angels of Satan? And furthermore, if you were to answer yes, would this love (of pure evil?) be indistinguishable from the way God loves His wife, our Mother?

    I think saying “unconditional love” in some contexts may portray certain truths about who we really are and how much God truly loves His children, but I believe technically Elder Nelson is right that when considering the full implications of the phrase, God’s love “cannot correctly be characterized as unconditional”.

  24. @Aaron B. I believe we’re in disagreement, although I’m not totally sure.

    I like your definitions of love, but I don’t think they quite get to the full root of it. For me Love = the feeling arising from light understanding light, that causes light to want to cleave unto, be one with, and help other light.

    It seems you want to completely disassociate love from behavior, but as long as behavior is linked to who we are (if through behavior people are able to change, for good or evil) I don’t think they can be fully dissociated. If it is not what makes us, us (light, spirit, truth, etc.) that God loves, then to me love becomes quite meaningless. What would it mean that God loves me for something outside of the essence of me?

    But if God loves us for who and what we are (primarily beings of light) then suddenly love becomes a whole lot more meaningful to me. So given that, I may take issue with your statement #1 (in your list of 3) depending on exactly what you mean, because you seem to dissociate behavior with who/what a person becomes, particularly if you are including Satan and the other sons of perdition among the children of God.

  25. Good question Howard. I believe in mortality my children will always be primarily beings of light, and there will probably be much more to them to love than I can fully comprehend as a mortal. In that sense, I believe I will always love my children in this life (and most probably eternity) and I hope my knowledge and capacity to love them ever increases coming closer to God’s perfect love.

    However, if one of my children committed the unpardonable sin, I would imagine that slowly over time (probably some time long after this life ends)the darkness would slowly overcome the light that was the essence of my child. My child will have endured the second death, and the being now there in his/her stead full of total darkness would no longer be or resemble that which I called my child, once a being composed of light/intelligence. I imagine at that point, I would say something like God might to that being, “Depart, I never knew thee.” And I’m sure that I would mourn greatly for the loss of my child.

    At least that’s my understanding right now.

  26. Perhaps he’s considering something like the fulness of Gods love, through the tree of life (fruit is the love of god) which is only received through our obedience in pressing forward and enduring to the end.

  27. Great post, Julie. I was hoping someone would post about this soon. However, I think that I’ll skip the mental gymnastics of trying to reconcile the two clearly contradictory positions and say that the Elder Nelson changed his mind. I’ll also add that it used to be popular to say unconditional love, but now it is no longer.

  28. I think the problem here is largely an equivocation of what the term “love” means. I agree with Aaron that Elder Nelson is implicitly using an unusual definition that entails approval of the loved one’s actions. This is a utilitarian approach, concerned less with defining love as conditional or not and more with motivating people to keep the commandments. To me this is much like the aversion we feel in our religious culture against deathbed repentance, because if we hold that out as a good and available thing, then people are just going to sin all their lives and repent at the last possible moment.

  29. SteveF,
    So wouldn’t God hang in there at least as long as you would? Or do you think he gives us the cold shoulder as soon as we break the WoW or LoC?

  30. Kevin Barney #32. Why the need to call God’s love unconditional? Unless God loves evil unequivocally just as He loves good, then His love is based on certain conditions. It does seem important to let sinners know that deep down inside they are an eternal being existing a lot longer than this short mortal existence, and that they are something far greater than the sins and darkness they may have cloaked themselves with on the surface; and that God has a deep and abiding love for the true inner self within them that they can discover if they look inward (and will find even easier through repentance). They are children of God. So let’s tell them that. I think that is what we were trying to say with “unconditional love”, however when you take unconditional to its logical extension, it doesn’t hold up. I think we can teach sinners they are loved without characterizing God’s love falsely.

    Consider these scriptures:
    “the natural man is an enemy to God” (Mosiah 3:19)
    “For I the Lord cannot look upon sin with the least degree of allowance” (D&C 1:31)
    “For thou art not a God that hath pleasure in wickedness: neither shall evil dwell with thee.
    The foolish shall not stand in thy sight: thou hatest all workers of iniquity.” (Psalms 5:4-5)
    “These six things doth the Lord hate: yea, seven are an abomination unto him: A proud look, a lying tongue, and hands that shed innocent blood, An heart that deviseth wicked imaginations, feet that be swift in running to mischief, A false witness that speaketh lies, and he that soweth discord among brethren.” (Proverbs 6:16-19)
    “All their wickedness is in Gilgal: for there I hated them: for the wickedness of their doings I will drive them out of mine house, I will love them no more: all their princes are revolters.” (Hosea 9:15)

    Also, in light of the Joseph Smith’s quote Jax gave us in #20:
    “For the Spirit of the Lord will not always strive with man.” (2 Nephi 26:11)
    “And inasmuch as mine enemies come against you to drive you from my goodly land, which I have consecrated to be the land of Zion, even from your own lands after these testimonies, which ye have brought before me against them, ye shall curse them;
    And whomsoever ye curse, I will curse, and ye shall avenge me of mine enemies.
    And my presence shall be with you even in avenging me of mine enemies, unto the third and fourth generation of them that hate me.” (D&C 103:24-26)

  31. Howard #33. To your first question–yes, I would think so, and of course with a more perfect love. However, there may be extreme circumstances like those found in the BofM that people can become murderous and blood-thirsty, a point where a person or people have gone “past feeling” to the point that the spirit of the Lord will no longer strive with those people. In such extreme circumstances where the light that is within these individuals is no longer manifest in the flesh, I think it can be accurately said that in the flesh God hates those individuals, that they are enemies to God (also see Jax’s Joseph Smith quote in #20). Although in spirit I think God can and will eventually redeem the beings of light within, whom He still loves.

    As for your second question, I think I kind of answered this in my previous comment, but if the darkness that came with those sins defined the whole person, then I might think that. But I do not, far from it. Rather I see the uncleanliness, while damaging and painful (that may have also taken away some portion of light and truth), as somewhat superficial to the much more significant and extensive being of light that lies underneath the sin. Therefore, God’s love remains.

  32. And God looked upon the earth, and, behold, it was corrupt, for all flesh had corrupted its way upon the earth.

    And God said unto Noah: The end of all flesh is come before me, for the earth is filled with violence, and behold I will destroy all flesh from off the earth.

    Just how does Noah’s flood represent “unconditional love”? Does God love the corrupt “unconditionally”?

    These questions are rhetorical, because it has always been obvious from the scripture records that God cannot love wickedness and evil.

    It is in vain for persons to fancy to themselves that they are heirs with those, or can be heirs with them, who have offered their all in sacrifice, and by this means obtained faith in God and favor with him so as to obtain eternal life, unless they in like manner offer unto him the same sacrifice, and through that offering obtain the knowledge that they are accepted of him.

  33. I like Blake Ostler’s articulation with “covenantal nomism”:

    “The doctrine of grace in the New Perspective is multi-faceted, but briefly it holds that Paul taught that persons enter into a covenant relationship with God through grace alone, but once in the relationship one must abide the conditions of the covenant to remain in Christ. The conditions of the covenant for Paul included the law of love taught by Jesus. Further, in Pauls works grace is not seen as inconsistent with judgment and reward by works.

    “God offers the divine relationship to us as a sheer grace, an unmerited gift which is offered in unconditional love. We need not, indeed cannot, do anything to earn or merit this love. To attempt to earn the divine love is to demonstrate that we misunderstand what is offered and the unconditional nature of Gods love. Grace is the way that loving persons relate to one another. However, that God offers us love unconditionally does not mean that there are no conditions to abide in this love. We abide in the divine love by keeping the commandments. (John 15:9-10; 1 John 3:24) The commandments are simply two: to love God with all of our heart, might, mind and strength, and to love one another as we love ourselves. (1 John 3:24; John 15:16) The commandments merely outline the way we must act to avoid injuring the relationship of covenant love that God has offered to us. Thus, the relationship is the primary consideration protected by invoking obedience to commandments. There is no sense of earning the relationship by keeping the commandments. We keep the commandments to maintain our fidelity with God.”


  34. Whoever made this comment above I think is on the right path:

    “I felt then that what he was trying to get at was that love requires reciprocity to be a loving relationship.”

    We don’t need to pigeonhole God’s love. It is both unconditional and conditional at the same time, depending on the intensity level we seek and are worthy of.

  35. Jax (20),

    I don’t take Joseph’s comment that you quote as some carefully considered theological statement necessarily constituting a revealed truth about the nature of God’s character. For all I know, it’s hyperbole, born of the great frustration Joseph felt concerning his enemies. But for me, the larger issue is that the apparent substantive disagreement here is really semantic confusion masquerading as something it’s not. Ultimately, if we want to start saying, consistently, that God “hates” people under such-and-such conditions, well ok. Whatever. I think it’s a bad move theologically, for a host of reasons, and hard to square with Jesus’ attitude towards his enemies, but I’m most exercised by the confusion this article has spawned in lots of folks. A confusion that is unnecessary and could’ve been avoided by more careful attention to the definition of words used.

    Also, I find this tendency to pretend that the character of God will necessarily be consistent throughout scripture to be silly. Trying to square OT claims about God’s emotional state with Jesus’ teachings about love is a lost cause. Better to see the evolution of understanding overtime as evidence of changing Israelite views of deity. I realize many Mormons find this inconvenient for religious purposes, but oh well.

    SteveF, I must confess I’m not really understanding you. I think at the end of the day, “love” is just a word. I think most people — Christian and non-Christian — have fairly similar ideas as to what it means. It’s a free country, and if religious people want to advance esoteric definitions of this word, that is their right. I’m really not sure what that will accomplish though.

    I think most of the scriptures you cite don’t problematize my claims. A few of them might, if read as literal descriptions of God’s hateful feelings, but again, I tend to see these as pre-Christian notions, not consistent with later understandings. Welcome to the Bible.


  36. As for Blake Ostler, I confess I haven’t read his stuff in a long while (and don’t have time to do so now, I’m afraid). But if I’m remembering his view correctly — I may not be– Blake advances a notion of “love” that seems to refer to a state of affairs in which God and a human being are in a reciprocal relationship and for “love” to obtain, both members need to maintain some sort of affective posture towards each other, and if one of them ceases to do so — and it’s always going to be the human being here — then the reciprocity is broken, in which case the ” love” ceases to exist, essentially by definition.

    Whatever else you want to say about this definition — and perhaps it’s interesting and well-articulated and whatnot — it’s too esoteric. It just isn’t what the word means in common English. I just don’t see the point of talking this way. I think the definition everybody uses is worth retaining, absent some compelling argument to the contrary that I’m just not seeing.

    (I apologize if I’ve totally misremembered, and perhaps butchered, Blake’s view. It’s entirely possible. Perhaps I’m tacking a strawman. I dunno.)

  37. “[God’s love] is both unconditional and conditional at the same time”

    That is impossible. Unconditional love and conditional love are mutually exclusive concepts. You cannot unconditionally love someone with conditions.

  38. No, Steve. Not if you’re Alice, and live in Wonderland. There you can do at least 6 impossible things before breakfast.

  39. I remember reading somewhere a few years ago the theory that Elder Nelson’s doctrine of conditional love is a response to a real or perceived habit by the gay community of invoking God’s unconditional love. Something like: “God loves me unconditionally, which means that he would love me the same whether I was gay or not, which means that being gay does not remove me from God’s love.”

    Or something like that. (This might fit in with Aaron’s theory that what Elder Nelson is really attacking is not unconditional “love” but unconditional approval.) I don’t know, but it would be interesting to know if “unconditional love” was something that was invoked frequently by gay folks. I don’t get the sense that it is all that popular now, but maybe it was 20-25 years ago. I also don’t know, even if it were, that Elder Nelson was fixated directly on that or not. Certainly, his talks are couched on much more broad terms and don’t explicitly mention homosexuality. Then again, it was Elder Nelson that most aggressively pushed getting involved in Prop 8, was it not?

  40. Jim,

    “There were not ‘Isrealites’ at the time of Noah. That actually came a bit later.”

    True, but the record that we have of Noah dates from Isrealite times and was filtered through Israelite scribes. Much like how the Roman Empire preceded 18th century England by many centuries, but Gibbon’s history of the Roman Empire is still an 18th century document.

    And let’s not forget that those who wrote and copied Noah’s story were doing so with a definite political and theological agenda.

  41. Here’s a thought — what Elder Nelson (or anyone else being quoted anywhere) actually said is less important than the broader message he intended to convey within the context he intended to the audience to whom he was speaking.

    As the holy father in Rome reminded his flock recently, “The central message is what the author primarily wanted to communicate; this calls for recognizing not only the author’s ideas but the effect which he wanted to produce. If a text was written to console, it should not be used to correct errors; if it was written as an exhortation, it should not be employed to teach doctrine; if it was written to teach something about God, it should not be used to expound various theological opinions; if it was written as a summons to praise or missionary outreach, let us not use it to talk about the latest news.” Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium

    Both Roman Catholics and Latter-day Saints (and everyone else in the world?) can benefit from this counsel.

  42. Aaron B #40. This isn’t some esoteric definition. We’re talking about love as found in the scriptures, i.e. charity, the pure love of Christ.

    My argument is really simple when it comes down to it, and is found in the answer to the question – does God love evil unconditionally? I cited some scripture to try and support my answer, but even without it I think the clear answer is – no. And therefore, God’s love has conditions. (i.e. His love is not exactly the same for a devil (pure evil), a rock (neutral), and a fellow being of light/intelligence (good), isn’t this obvious/intuitive?). Pretty straightforward, not esoteric. “Unconditional” is simply a mischaracterization.

    Furthermore, given the scriptures (God is love, God is spirit, God is light, etc.) I don’t think it’s a stretch to discuss love/spirit/light/truth in interrelated terms when trying to better understand the nature of this love.

  43. It seems like many of the contributors see no difference between hating the sin and hating the sinner. Can’t God hate what a person does but still love that person? If God doesn’t love sinners, then most of us are in trouble.

  44. Is God’s “unconditional” love a scriptural concept? I am pretty sure the phrase “unconditional love” only dates back to the 1960s. It flooded American culture and filtered into religious dialogue from there (Mormonism being just a part of that). By the 90s, it seemed to me at least, it was the core of every YW lesson in my little ward. But it was never in the scriptures. I think most people use the phrase without paying any attention to what the word “unconditional” means (even church leaders). That is how I have used the phrase: “God’s [insert vague superlative here] love for us.” Such usage doesn’t really bother me.

    Aside from the two dozen or so scriptures that talk about those whom God hates, despises, or abhors. I find the main scriptural objections to the doctrine of “unconditional love” to be John 15:10; 1 Nephi 17:35; and D&C 95:12; oh, yeah, and that whole sheep and goats thing. The story of Hosea and Gomer illustrates God’s covenant love. Marriage is covenant love. If we talk of the Law of Love (Romans 13:10; James 2:8) we should remember that “unto every law there are certain bounds also and conditions” (D&C 88:38). Imagine a marriage where there are no conditions. (Its easy if you try. But, … ew!)

    Arguing against “unconditional love” is like arguing against Moms or puppies. It ticks people off and will get your tires slashed. Joseph Fielding McConkie told me he got more hate mail from his comments on this subject in the article quoted in #6 than from anything else he had said or published … ever. I think he said, international and from all 50 states. It wasn’t even the point of his article, just a side illustration. It amused him. Hate mail on unconditional love.

    We are probably better off to follow Elder Nelson’s suggestion and search the scriptures on the doctrine of God’s perfect love, infinite love, enduring love, or his covenant love.

  45. Dean,

    You’re right that the phrase “unconditional love” is of fairly recent vintage, and is non-scriptural. So what? The important question is whether the phrase conveys accurate information. If it does, then who cares if it isn’t scriptural? Some leaders and members like to moan and groan about the term “free agency” not being scriptural too, and they stridently insist that we MUST talk about “moral agency” or just plain “agency” instead. Poppycock. As long as we define our terms clearly, WHO CARES?


  46. Aaron,
    I think we agree about what the important question is. That is why I started by asking if it was a scriptural concept, and listed scriptural objections to the doctrine of it. If “unconditional” means “true” love, as many (myself included) seem to have taken it without really examining it, then okay. But if unconditional really means unconditional, that is another matter.

    Must a wife love her abusive husband because marital love is unconditional? How do we describe God’s mercy being extended without the conditions of repentance? (Alma 42:13). Is mercy not a manifestation of his love? How do we make sense of God chastening those he loves if his love has no conditions? (Helaman 15:3-4). Personally, I think “unconditional” (despite its popularity in our culture) may not be the best term to describe God’s love or the love we should emulate.

    Oh, and also I care if the phrase is unscriptural, if you were wondering, that would be me (also caring about that little thing).

  47. As a survivor, I think that “unconditional” is exactly the word used to describe the love of God and the love we should emulate, even as a victim of domestic violence. What behavior fulfills that love is a whole series of blog posts, however, so I’m not getting into that here.

  48. SilverRain, I’m not sure if you’ve looked over the previous comments, but I think “unconditional” while it may functionally teach some correct ideas about God’s love and how we can emulate it, when taken to its full conclusions I find it to be technically false and thus not as useful as describing God’s love in other terms that are fully accurate.

    Suppose for a moment that your abuser was entirely defined by that nature of abuse. That there was nothing else you could look to in the individual that had anything of redeeming value, that not even the tiniest ounce of light could be found within that individual. A pure hate, seething with each breath, seeking to use, abuse, plunder, rape, and brutally murder and consume all that is living in its path is all that remains. Does God love such an individual as much as and in the same way that He loves His Beloved Son–the embodiment of virtue and love? And are we likewise required to love such wickedness in exactly the same way we love and are drawn after those things which are virtuous, lovely, or of good report? Does virtue love vice?

  49. Yes, I do.

    I think the problem comes, not from the meaning of “unconditional,” but from the interpretation of “love.”

    Assuming there is such a person, which is a pretty huge leap that shows a huge gap in understanding who and what we are as children of God, I think God would love him deeply and mourn his choice of evil over good. Love doesn’t mean “drawn to” or “condoning.” It means something closer to “value.” And I believe that our value to God as individuals is unchangeable and unconditional.

  50. I also believe that His love is unquantifiable. He can’t possibly love His Son more than He loves each and every one of us. That, in fact, is the point of the Atonement.

  51. SilverRain 57,58. It seems like you probably haven’t read my previous comments. If you had, you would know I also feel in practice we’re not going to find such a person in mortality. Although theoretically, my understanding is that man is capable of becoming a devil–a son of perdition. Lucifer was of course once a son of the morning, full of light, glory, and intelligence, but is now a devil. Do you believe Satan still possesses some of the light of Christ / intelligence / the glory of God within him? Or in other words, do you believe Satan still has good within him?

    I’m intentionally looking at the extreme end of evil here to make it easier to see what I’m trying to describe.

    I like your idea of “value”. You’ve stated your opinion that God loves all of His children (and I presume values them) to the same degree that He loves Jesus (I’m not sure why you think this would be unquantifiable, I would be interested in your reasoning there as an aside). I might agree with that thought depending on how one is defining the individual children of God (whether as they functionally exist in mortality, or the current organization of their spirit, or their eternal spirit independent of time), we probably don’t need to get into that.

    But in addition, which of the following if any do you think God also loves/values equally with Christ: a rock, a fish, Satan?

    If there are any in the list that you believe God does not love/value the same way and degree that He loves Christ, can you explain what in your opinion makes the difference?

  52. For the record, I did read previous comments. I just chose to ignore them because they were based on a totally different premise and worldview than the one I have. ;)

    As does your last comment. *L*

    See, your outlook is all based on comparison and quantity. But the love of God is unmeasurable. You can’t compare how much He loves Christ compared to Satan. The attempt doesn’t even make sense. THAT is what the Atonement was to teach us. He completely loves a rock as a rock, a fish as a fish. It would be like asking which tastes better, a cheesecake or a steak dinner. They are both delicious in their own, unique, individual ways.

    God loves us enough to let us be us. He loves us infinitely for being who we are. He grieves over the choices we make that lead us from Him, but He loves us no matter what we become. He loves us because we are becoming. Because we are. Nothing we do can change that. No choice we make robs us of the love of God.

    You’re still trying to measure something that is essentially unmeasurable, compare something incomparable, limit something that is definitionally limitless.

    How “good” we are has nothing to do with how much God loves us, and everything to do with how much we love God and partake in His love.

  53. My thought’s on God’s love:

    If the purpose of the Gospel is for each of us to establish a deeper loving relationship with God, I believe we can deepen our individual relationships with God by adherence to the commandments and loving others. In other words, our relationship with God can grow, and on an eternal scale we can be blessed with greater acceptance and access to God’s presence and power. If we define the status and blessings of that relationship as love, then theoretically all of humanity, at any given moment, could be measured on some scale by how much God loves them, or more accurately, how much THEY HAVE ALLOWED God to love them. God’s love is conditional in the sense that we have the capacity to choose to turn away in part or fully.

    I do NOT envision a God who lacks commitment or who will change His mind on the scope and extent of the ultimate blessings He is offering. In that sense, God’s love is a universal constant. But I do envision a God who rejoices at each step we take towards Him, who yearns for a fuller and more loving relationship with His children, and who relishes and enjoys the companionship of those who make the journey home. So I DO believe in a God who can grow in love because of the number who (through the effort of God, each individual and the Church) have EMBRACED HIM (grown closer in proximity and more similar in characteristics) grows.

  54. SilverRain & Old Man, you’re both actually two people I feel kindred minds with in most comments I see from you around the bloggernacle. So I’ve tried hard to consider what you’re saying. Both of your comments seem to have a similar flavor to them, although I think I agree more with the way Old Man has phrased things with a few nuances. I think I just see things a bit differently on this subject.

    SilverRain, first to your unmeasurable / unquantifiable theory. I believe God’s love is synonymous with what the scriptures call Charity or the pure love of Christ. I’m assuming we agree on this point. I think likewise there can be no doubt that as God’s children we can and many do possess this charity. But is the charity we possess, the love we have for our fellow man, the exact same as God’s in every way? I believe God loves us greater than we love ourselves, and loves our fellow man greater than we do as imperfect mortals. If our love is not exactly the same for our fellow man as God’s love, then the difference must be attributable to either type or degree. That is, either we possess a different type of love, or a degree or portion of that same kind of love. Since the scriptures say we can obtain charity, then I believe the difference can only be attributable to degree–that we can possess a part or portion of the pure love of Christ, and that can continually grow over time. And if there are degrees of charity (it is not all or nothing–perfect love/charity just like God’s or no love/charity at all), then it must therefore be quantifiable, and therefore measureable.

    Second, you mention “And I believe that our value to God as individuals is unchangeable and unconditional” seemingly as a reason you believe God’s love for us is likewise unchangeable and unconditional”.

    This brings me to the question that you didn’t really seem to answer. Do you believe God loves Satan in the very same way that He loved him when Lucifer was a righteous son of the morning? Do you believe God still loves Satan at all?

    We know that our natures are subject to change over time, and that we can through the unpardonable sin become sons of the devil, or devils ourselves. The wicked one seeks to take away our light and truth, that we will be miserable like unto himself. But if this occurs, and we lose all our light and become beings of complete darkness, you still feel that our value to God will be indistinguishable from when we still had light and good within us?

    I simply cannot accept that God loves pure evil; that His love for evil nature is indistinguishable from His love for a being of light and truth. If it is so, God’s love is arbitrary, and entirely devoid of any meaning. Likewise, if God’s love for a rock, a non-sentient being, is exactly the same as for His own child, then that love is meaningless. He may as well develop relationships and have a fullness of joy in organizing more rocks. I honestly have a hard time wrapping my head around what you are trying to suggest. Consider the charity in your own heart–do you love your car, a spoon, or the dirt on your floor in the same way you love your own children? Such a thought is almost as ridiculous to me as suggesting God has love for evil.

    In short, I am suggesting that God does not love evil, nor inanimate objects, the same way He love beings of light. And therefore His love has conditions, conditions that make His love something more than arbitrary, something based on what makes us, us, rather than something that has nothing to do with us.

  55. SteveF,

    I think I’m following your argument. Who does God love more, Spencer Kimball or Adolph Hitler? You and I would probably agree that the light and goodness in Hitler’s soul is obviously of a lesser degree than Spencer Kimball’s. God clings to light and truth, therefore He can have a closer, more loving relationship with Spencer Kimball than He can with Hitler. In doing so, God is no respecter of persons. All of humanity must adhere to laws and assist in the transformation scripture describes as “salvation” and “exaltation.”

    I do not agree with the notion that God ultimately loves everyone in the same way to the same degree. I think it is unscriptural and unjust. If scripture states that God “hates” certain actions and attributes, and an individual chooses to compose their character out of those attributes, it seems impossible to me that God could love that individual to the degree that He loves a truly loving, righteous soul. But thankfully (for me) this life is probationary!

    I would argue that God’s invitational love applies to all of humanity. He desires all to become more like Him. I suppose in that sense it could be described as “unconditional.” It is His work and glory. He wants ALL to face the challenges of mortality and gain exaltation. But not at the sacrifice of our gift of choice. Love, to be love, must be freely chosen. Love is a relationship, not just a feeling.

    Where I think “unconditional love” theory may go awry is for us to suppose that the invitation to establish a covenant relationship is the same as actually establishing and maintaining that loving covenant relationship. If I value my loving relationship with God there are certain things I must not do, certain lifestyles I can NOT live, certain things I MUST do. If I note anything our of harmony with that relationship, I am under covenant obligation to abandon it. So the actual loving relationship is anything but “unconditional.” Luckily for me, God has proven a patient teacher, and I think all who endeavor to live within that covenant relationship will one day feel God’s loving embrace. That is not true for those who ultimately reject light and gravitate to darkness.

  56. Agreed. I especially liked this: “I would argue that God’s invitational love applies to all of humanity.” I likewise believe that God loves all beings of light, from the smallest to the greatest, so greatly that He would out that love sacrifice all that can be sacrificed for each one of them to bring them salvation. I agree that this is His work and His glory.

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