As members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we teach a gospel of love. We teach that Heavenly Father loves all His children, and desires that they return to His presence. Indeed, we teach the doctrine of Christ:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believeth in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. (John 3:16)
We teach that God’s involvement in the affairs of mankind is because of His love for each of us. The entire plan of salvation is based on this love, that Heavenly Father’s full-time desire is that we, as His children, might become like Him and have eternal joy (Moses 1:39). We also teach that we must likewise love others (John 15:12).
These are supernal principles that are imperative for our eternal growth and learning, and for us to become more like our Father in heaven. For God is love (1 Jn. 4:8, 16). However, as with most principles, these virtues can be taken to extremes outside the bounds the Lord has set, and which can lead to unwise compromises of the restored gospel of Jesus Christ. Our passions, even in gospel principles, must be bridled (Alma 38:12). God’s love is one of these principles.
The first time that I pondered this was in a New Testament class with Joseph Fielding McConkie at BYU back in the Fall of 2002. He asked a simple question of the class, “Is God’s love unconditional?” The answer seemed likewise simple enough, and many of the students answered in the affirmative. Br. McConkie’s response was surprising; he said that God’s love was not unconditional. He then shared a scripture from John:
21 He that hath my commandments, and keepeth them, he it is that loveth me: and he that loveth me shall be loved of my Father, and I will love him, and will manifest myself to him.
22 Judas saith unto him, not Iscariot, Lord, how is it that thou wilt manifest thyself unto us, and not unto the world?
23 Jesus answered and said unto him, If a man love me, he will keep my words: and my Father will love him, and we will come unto him, and make our abode with him. (John 14:21–23; compare Deut. 7:12–13; cf. 1 Jn. 4:16)
The implications were clear. Those that keep the commandments of the gospel are those who love the Lord (John 14:15). Those that love the Lord are those who are loved by Christ and the Father. This does not mean that God does not have any love for those who do not obey His commandments, but it is on a different scale from those who do. God loves each of His children, but that love will grow or diminish depending on how much we hearken to the light and knowledge that God gives us. Just as a parent will always love their child here on earth, whether they are making the right choices or not, God loves His children. However, with respect to those that choose to go against His commandments, His relationship with that person changes and so does the quality of His love. Christ taught,
9 As the Father hath loved me, so have I loved you: continue ye in my love.
10 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. (John 15:9–10; cf. Mosiah 4:12)
A few years ago I was with a group of BYU students and administrators. A few of the students were not members of the LDS Church. One of the administrators was a very good man, faithful, loving, and honest, and who I highly respect and admire to this day. One morning we were having a devotional and discussing gospel principles, when I heard him say something that didn’t sound right. It was something to this effect:
God loves us all. It doesn’t matter if you are a member of the Church or not; God will work it all out in the end. He has a plan for each of us.
On the surface this sounds right and good. But does it really not matter if you are a member of the Church or not? If that were the case, then why was the gospel restored at all? I understand that this good brother was saying this to help those who were not members of the Church feel more comfortable, but I think it was at the expense of the unique saving power of the restored gospel. There is only one plan, one way, one salvation, and it is of supernal importance whether we are members of the Church or not (Mosiah 3:17).
Another example. Just a few days ago I was reading the words of another great and humble man, who I also highly esteem, who said that God loves us all, including those who leave the Church, and even those who attack the Church. While this might be true in a limited sense, how does God love those who leave His Church? Does He love them the same as those who stay in it and keep their covenants? Does God really love those who seek to destroy His kingdom? Does God love those who run anti-Mormon ministries? Does God love Satan? Does He love adulterers, murderers, liars, and whoremongers? I don’t think so, not nearly to the extent that He loves those who obey His commandments and follow Him.
Did God love Laman and Lemuel to the same extent as He loved Nephi? Nephi once taught his brothers:
And [God] loveth those who will have him to be their God. Behold, he loved our fathers, and he covenanted with them, yea, even Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; and he remembered the covenants which he had made; wherefore, he did bring them out of the land of Egypt. (1 Ne. 17:40; cf. Deut. 10:15)
Laman and Lemuel were like those ancients who hardened their hearts, reviled against the prophets, and against God, and did not have the Lord to be their God (1 Ne. 17:44). The tree of life which Lehi and Nephi saw in vision represented the love of God, but there were only certain souls who grasped the iron rod firm enough to make it to the tree to experience God’s love (1 Ne. 11:22). Laman and Lemuel were not among those so fortunate.
Those that love God and make covenants with Him will be loved by God. Those who do not will be cut off from His presence (Alma 38:1). Christ also taught this principle:
We have often heard the cliché, love the sinner but hate the sin. Again, while this might be true to some extent, it is dangerous to take it too far. Br. McConkie did not agree with it. While it might be convenient to conceptually try to separate the sin from the sinner, it is still the sinner who commits sin. Sin does not stand independent of the sinner. Sin naturally becomes a part of the soul of the sinner; it fundamentally changes their nature, and cannot be isolated so easily:
33 And now, as I said unto you before, as ye have had so many witnesses, therefore, I beseech of you that ye do not procrastinate the day of your repentance until the end; for after this day of life, which is given us to prepare for eternity, behold, if we do not improve our time while in this life, then cometh the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed.
34 Ye cannot say, when ye are brought to that awful crisis, that I will repent, that I will return to my God. Nay, ye cannot say this; for that same spirit which doth possess your bodies at the time that ye go out of this life, that same spirit will have power to possess your body in that eternal world.
35 For behold, if ye have procrastinated the day of your repentance even until death, behold, ye have become subjected to the spirit of the devil, and he doth seal you his; therefore, the Spirit of the Lord hath withdrawn from you, and hath no place in you, and the devil hath all power over you; and this is the final state of the wicked.
36 And this I know, because the Lord hath said he dwelleth not in unholy temples, but in the hearts of the righteous doth he dwell; yea, and he has also said that the righteous shall sit down in his kingdom, to go no more out; but their garments should be made white through the blood of the Lamb. (Alma 34:33–36)
Christ taught us, “But I say unto you, Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you” (Matt. 5:44). Why would we be taught to so love our enemies? Does God love his enemies? It is because of the hope that we should have that they will turn from their ways, that something in our example or teaching will change their disposition, and that they will come back to the light of the gospel and of salvation before the night of darkness wherein there can be no labor performed (Alma 34:33).
God does not love the wicked:
I would even go so far as to say that only the righteous can truly and fully comprehend the love of God:
16 That he would grant you, according to the riches of his glory, to be strengthened with might by his Spirit in the inner man;
17 That Christ may dwell in your hearts by faith; that ye, being rooted and grounded in love,
18 May be able to comprehend with all saints what is the breadth, and length, and depth, and height;
19 And to know the love of Christ, which passeth knowledge, that ye might be filled with all the fulness of God. (Eph. 3:16–19; cf. 1 Jn. 3:16)
Let me share a last example of the misapplication of God’s love. Just recently we had a post here on Millennial Star discussing universalism. I had my own discussion elsewhere a few weeks earlier with another form of the same subject which said that God’s love is so universal that nearly all the heathen (i.e. those who never heard the gospel in mortality) will basically get a free ticket into the Celestial Kingdom. Applications of God’s love in this way are not true. They are false. It takes away man’s accountability of his mortal probation. Every individual who has been born on this earth, save children under the age of eight, will each have to learn the gospel of Jesus Christ and accept it or reject it, whether in mortality or in the spirit world, but they will still be held accountable for their works in the flesh (1 Pet. 4:6). For every man is given the Spirit of Christ (or Light of Christ), to know good from evil (Moro. 7:16; cf. John 1:9). Only those in the spirit world who would have accepted the gospel and accepted Christ with full hearts if they had been given the opportunity in mortality will be those who will also inherit the Celestial Kingdom.
I am often reminded of the painting “Journey’s End” by Derek Hegsted included at the beginning of this post. Do we really believe that this love is shared or will be shared with the wicked? Lehi proclaimed:
But behold, the Lord hath redeemed my soul from hell; I have beheld his glory, and I am encircled about eternally in the arms of his love. (2 Ne. 1:15)
Such love only comes to those who desire and seek righteousness, in spite of all shortcomings.
When we read that “God so loved the world” in John 3:16, we must consider that with other scriptures which read, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world. If any man love the world, the love of the Father is not in him” (1 Jn. 2:15). So did God love the world or didn’t He? When the prophets teach us of the “love of God,” let us remember that it is a two-way street. God favors the righteous (1 Ne. 17:35). God chastens the righteous (D&C 95:1). God blesses the righteous (D&C 130:20–21). God saves the righteous (1 Pet. 4:18; John 3:16). God loves the righteous (Heb. 1:8–9). Christ did not give his life for the wicked; the Atonement has no power over them (Alma 12:32; cf. Alma 11:37). He gave His life for those who turn to Him, strive to be righteous, repent of their sins and mistakes, feast upon His words, follow His commandments, and become sons and daughters of God (D&C 34:3). For these the Atonement cleanses from all sin and redeems them from the Fall. It is these alone who will partake of the fruit of the tree of life, the eternal love of God, and sit down forever in that heavenly throne with the Father and His Beloved Son, Jesus Christ (Rev. 3:21).
(Bryce Haymond is the editor of TempleStudy.com, a blog dedicated to sustaining and defending the LDS temple by comparative studies of religious worship found around the world and throughout history.)