A God of Love, A God of Hate?

You know that old canard that love and hate are not opposites, but two sides of the same coin? Neurobiology seems to have confirmed that there is a lot truth to that idea. It turns out that we have something that neurobiologists refer to as a “hate circuit” in our brains. It is a set of three structures in the brain which all light up together when we experience hate. And the more intense the hatred, the more intense the activity in these structures is. (Each structure is also involved in other activities so it’s not that they exist purely for feelings of hatred. It’s just that when we experience hatred these three work together.) Interestingly, two of these structures are also involved in the feeling of intense love.

In fact, the biggest difference between the way that the brain processes hate and love appears to be that with love large sections of the frontal cortex are shut down while in hate only a small portion of the frontal cortex is shut down. The frontal cortex is responsible for higher level mental functions and the thinking is that the difference is that in love, judgement and criticism are basically shut off while in hate, they are active. And not only do love and hate look strikingly similar in the brain, given what we know about brain plasticity, it is quite possible that the more intensely one experiences love, the more intensely one can experience hate. And visa-versa. The passion factor you could call it.

Now, one of the hot ideas in philosophy and neurobiology right now is that perhaps free will is an illusion and we really make decisions and experience life through the limits and peculiarities of our brain function and structures. There are several other, more plausible arguments against free will besides the one I am going to explain here but one idea of how our brains infringe on free will is that, for example, we may not choose to be in love or hate. Since we have brain structures which function to create or process love and hate, we have no more control over loving and hating than we do over getting hungry. As a Christian, I of course, see some sort of design. We have such structures in place because it is purposed as part of our nature to be capable of love and hate. In fact, I have speculated before that it may well have been the evolution of the requisite brain structures which allowed God to breathe the breath of life into man – the nishmat khayim which comes from God and is different from the neshamah (breath) that all living creatures possess. So the fact that our brains aren’t the blank slate that some free will purists seem to think it needs to be for free will to exist doesn’t hold much water with me. We are eikons – image bearers. We’ve been created in the image of something else and that something else isn’t a blank slate that we just write our will all over.

At any rate, I was actually going somewhere with all this. I bring all this up because I have been thinking about this relationship between love and hate. Or more accurately, I have been thinking about hate. Clearly we humans are capable of a great deal of hatred, both between people and between groups. Heck, we even have a “hate circuit” to process it! But if hate is an unavoidable part of being human, what are we to make of that? When, if ever, is hatred acceptable? Can a person be truly loving and also hate? Well, our brain structures say that not only are the two closely linked, but what we know about brain plasticity tells us that being more loving may well create stronger pathways in the parts of the brain involved in hate as well. The two sides of the same coin built right into our biology.

In scriptures, people frequently claim the righteousness of their hatred by insisting that they hate what and who God hates. In other words, that our hatred should be a reflection of God in some way. Which has long been a controversy about God – can a God of love also be a God who hates? A few Christians say, “of course!” They are so sure of it that they even feel compelled to make signs proclaiming God’s hatred to wave at people’s funerals and on street corners. Or they say that God “loves the sinner, hates the sin.” I actually spent some time this afternoon looking at the use of the words hate, hatred, hated, abhor and detest in scripture and the idea of hating sin while loving the sinner isn’t too far off. Of the over 270 uses of the word Hebrew word for hate (or some form thereof) in the Old Testament, only three are directed by God towards a person (or towards a nation of people). A larger but still small number are God speaking of hatred for a practice or sin. The vast majority speak of men’s hatred towards God or each other. If nothing else, we can be sure that according to scripture men make use of hate far, far more often than the God they follow.

I have this theory about the proper use and place of hatred that I think is pretty consistent with both the reality of love and hate as inextricably intertwined and hatred as demonstrated by God. I think that in order to use hate properly, it must be preceded by and tied to a deep love. Hate may well exist even in a loving world as a necessary brake to counter to the sort of love that would otherwise propel you forward until you have destroyed yourself in the trying. Hatred is and must be a powerful force to be able to act as a brake on the drive of love – an even more powerful force. It takes a powerful force to stop another powerful force. Which is why hate is probably best not grasped at too quickly or easily by us mere mortals. Only one who knows how to love well enough could hope to use hate without losing control of it.

Think of God’s relationship with Israel. The angry God of the Old Testament reads suspiciously like the wounded, hurt God of the Old Testament. The God who is worn out from the effort of trying to love a callous, way-ward lover. It seems ridiculous to think of God as wounded or tired. This is the God of the universe. What are we to him? And yet the Old Testament is filled with these words from God that sound like nothing so much as a man in the throes of a turbulent relationship with a woman he is completely in love with and devoted to. He speaks of Israel as the beloved of his soul. He would ply her with gifts and sweet words and put her above any other. But Israel is too often a wayward harlot, worshiping other gods (Old fashioned wedding vows included the words “with my body I will worship” because worship is the spiritual form of the sexual relationship. It’s love-making and is no small thing to God.) And when he’s had enough and he gets angry, he sounds a great deal like a crazy, stalker boyfriend. (There’s a verse where God says that Israel took the jewelry he gave her and melted it down into a dildo to pleasure herself on the side of the road with for men passing by. And you thought your ex had nasty things to say about you!)

To see this playing out, I want to quickly look at those three instances I mentioned where God’s hatred was directed towards people as our examples of a loving person turning towards hatred. The first is from Hosea 9:

“When I found Israel,

it was like finding grapes in the desert;

when I saw your fathers,

it was like seeing the early fruit on the fig tree.

But when they came to Baal Peor,

they consecrated themselves to that shameful idol

and became as vile as the thing they loved. . .

All their evil is at Gilgal;
Indeed, I came to hate them there!
Because of the wickedness of their deeds
I will drive them out of My house!
I will love them no more.” ~ Hosea 9:10-11, 15

We see here the pattern: God’s love for his people, their betrayal and him “coming to hate” them. “I will love them no more” he declares. Of course this verse takes place in the context of the book of Hosea which revolves entirely around loving, being betrayed, wooing the bride back and going through the whole cycle again. God’s declaration of hatred comes in the middle of an intense, intimate relationship and is not the final word on the matter.

Our second verse is from Jeremiah 12:

“I will forsake my house,

abandon my inheritance;

I will give the one I love

into the hands of her enemies.

My inheritance has become to me

like a lion in the forest.

She roars at me;

therefore I hate her. ~ Jeremiah 12:8-9

Once again, the context is Israel’s worship of Baal and her injustice towards the weak and hostility towards her God. And here to we see that the declaration of hatred is inextricably tied to the declaration of love: “the one that I love”. And again, it’s not the final word on the matter. A few verses later God declares, “after I uproot them, I will again have compassion and will bring each of them back to his own inheritance and his own country.” ~ Jeremiah 12:15

The final example of a declaration of God’s hatred is Malachi 1:2-3

“I have loved you,” says the Lord.

“But you ask, ‘How have you loved us?’

“Was not Esau Jacob’s brother?” the Lord says. “Yet I have loved Jacob,but Esau I have hated, and I have turned his mountains into a wasteland and left his inheritance to the desert jackals.”

This is slightly different. Unlike the other two examples, the message isn’t for those who God is saying he hates. However, the dynamics that surround God’s hatred are much the same. This passage points back to Genesis 25 and 27 and the story of Jacob and Esau, twin sons of Isaac, son of Abraham and Sarah with whom God made his covenant. Esau was traditionally believed by the Hebrews to be the father of the Edomites, an enemy nation. Esau’s mother, Rebekah, plotted along with his twin brother Jacob to deprive him of his inheritance because Esau was foolish man who “despised his birth rite” and had also married a foreign woman. Jacob and Esau could be understood to represent two branches to come from Abraham and his son Isaac out of which God had promised to make a great nation. Esau rejected his birth rite (which along with a literal inheritance can be understood as his place in the lineage of this great nation God has promised to Abraham. He made his position even clearer by seeking out a foreign woman to marry – an act which is almost always associated with the worship of foreign Gods. In this verse God is responding to the accusation of Israel that his declaration of love isn’t trustworthy by pointing to the bad fate of the branch that did not accept its birth rite and worship him. Again, the hatred shows up in the middle of an intimate, ongoing love relationship and is not capricious or unpredictable, but the response of a rejected lover.

Frankly it seems insane to believe that God would take our response to him so personally or that he would be so devoted to people who clearly aren’t worth two dead flies. If I were God, I wouldn’t do it. I wouldn’t choose to love Israel or most of humanity enough to let them hurt me like that. But since that appears to be what God has decided to do, then I guess it makes sense that God would also avail himself of the protection provided by hatred from time to time.

Of course, the obvious response to being hurt and wounded to the point of being completely depleted would be to break out of the relationship. To become indifferent and stop caring altogether. Indifference has saved the sanity of more than a few humans who found themselves dealing with impossible people. But the bible says that love bears all things, believes all things and never quits. We are not love, so we will use indifference to protect ourselves. In fact, indifference appears to be the one option God has not made use of in his relationship with us.

But if God hates and if my theory is at all right and hatred is a way of closing oneself off from the hurt and wounding that comes from loving, then it becomes rather clear why human hatred is so evil. Humans don’t hate just to protect themselves from the hurt and wounding of loving passionately and deeply. Humans hate people they’ve never met. They hate people for having the wrong skin color or belonging to the wrong group. They hate people who they have never felt a second of affection towards much less a raging, passionate love for. Humans don’t use hate to protect themselves, we use hate to gain and maintain power over others. We play with a power so great that it can provide a brake to the greatest power there is – love – like toddlers playing with handguns. Is it any wonder that there is little in this world uglier than a person who claims to hate because of their religion? It’s an abomination to use hate in that way.

And if hatred is in fact a sort of psychic brake on the force of love – an emotional flipping of the coin from love side up to hate side up, then is it acceptable to remain in a state of hate? Hate has the power to be very destructive. Love tends to flow when allowed to, but like a brake, pressure must be continually applied for hatred to remain in place – it has energy costs. I would argue that it is often our insistance on treating hatred like a parking brake rather than the brake pedal which is used to come to a stop before preceding forward again that tends to make hatred damaging for us.

So, while I make no claims that this is a perfect or foolproof theory of the uses and purpose of hate, I think that at the least it does point to the need for humans to be far slower to reach for hate. It points out that those who hate without also loving cannot claim any sort of righteousness in their hatred. God does proclaim hatred towards practices which are hurtful to Him, to us and to our relationship with Him. But his hatred for people, such as it is, is always deeply intertwined with his love for them. Much like the two sides of that proverbial coin or the circuits found in our brain – one does not exist without the other.

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6 thoughts on “A God of Love, A God of Hate?

  1. In the ancient Hebrew world — certainly by Jesus’ time — “hate” does mean “indifference.”

    “Love” and “hate” are very operational words in that context. You live in a village, many of them extended family — and you “love” them, particularly your family, by treating them well and maintaining good relations. If things go sour with someone, you “hate” them. They are “dead”, “cut off” from their neighbors, who express this by shunning them. It is not a very tenable position, because there’s probably no place else to go where anyone will “love” you. People might or might not get violent about it, because the bonds that would normally prevent that are out-of-service — but the emotional stress would probably be intense, even debilitating.

    “Hate” as an emotion — while it probably existed — was not nearly as useful a concept until more recent times. Probably something people would feel about some nation they’d been at war with, recently enough to still feel a grudge (which might be a pretty long time. A cousin from Minnesota visited my father in the mid-60’s; he’d fought the Japanese in WW II. And a Japanese ship was in port; sailors were visiting the art museum in the park. The cousin almost lost it when some of them walked into the same room.)

    But God is “family”. “Hate” from God, to an ancient Jew, might mean Wrath… but probably more like a cold rejection. Something like getting “the silent treatment” from a spouse or someone else in the family.

    God continues to love — even ‘the unlovable’ — because His ‘breath’ is in them; they’re still a part of His ‘body.’ “And if one of your toes should hurt, would you want to punish it?”

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  2. “Hate” within a family… “A house divided against itself cannot stand.” In an ancient peasant (or nomadic) family, a division that rival families could witness would be a shame to them, a weakness that would have been seen much as in The Godfather: when one son openly disagreed with his father during a negotiation, their rival concluded that killing the father would open the way to the deal he wanted…

    Brothers and sisters within a family would “love” each other in the operative sense of maintaining family solidarity against any and all outsiders… (And when Jesus talks about “hating your mother and father,” this is the kind of facade he wants people to abandon.) But the emotion we call “hatred”… could have become a strong covert background within an ongoing network of ‘family quarrels.’

    Consider what Joseph’s brothers did to him… and the way he later messed with their heads when the family came to Egypt… all the near-homicidal sibling rivalry in the earlier stories.

    The emotion certainly existed; we can see it at work in the stories. But what was publically recognized was how people treated each other.

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    • That is interesting that indifference and hate would be interchangable. Those few instances where God hates, it’s certainly not indifference. He hates rather passionately, it seems to me!

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  3. Well, dumping your brother into a pit and leaving him to die & be munched by wild beasts doesn’t exactly sound like “indifference” either. At home or in public, these people would “love” one another — but resentments could get intensely personal.
    — —- —
    And God’s treatment of Israel, oy veh! Exasperated disappointment like only a mother/father could feel! But I’m inclined to see the Biblical attribution of “hatred” to God — as an effort to understand/describe what God was doing — hatred in that operational sense — rather than positing some long term emnity.

    If God truly hated people, we would have nuked each other out of existence some fifty years ago.

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    • i disagree with the idea that God hates people as well. Like i say in the post, hate seems to act as a brake on the more powerful drive to love. A bit of a respite before being dragged off a cliff by someone who doesn’t care how much pain and suffering they cause. In God’s case turning to hate rather than indifference is actually a sign of commitment to his love, imo.

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  4. “Wrath” seems to be a more common Biblical mood — and less an emotional state, as we would consider it, than a matter of maintaining God’s honor–

    I think people thought of it as something that had to happen to vindicate God’s human fans, ala the martyrs in Revelation: ~”We’ve been hanging around under your throne for awhile now; and we’d like to know, when are you going to stick up for us!”

    If you want to feel a trace of that, just consider the news and and lies (& how much these tend to mean the same thing). “Just a little lightning bolt… well, would a dozen be asking too much?”

    People like to see the Good Guys “win”; hence all the movies with that sort of motif — and it’s been awhile since we’ve seen the overall world get anything but worse. Maybe there are better “wake-up calls” than an earthquake, but it’s good for the perspective, and feels like some kind of change, for awhile.

    In the case of all the Wrath that went into thumping Israel — Well, it did get their attention. Left them lots of interesting questions to brood over. But maybe they were supposed to conclude: ~”Wrath doesn’t look to be a fine-tuned educational method.”

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