Question: I was talking to someone from my church who told me that God actually hates sinners and that the bible says that. Is that true?
It is true that in some English translations of certain Bible texts, the word “hate” is used to describe how God “feels” about someone, or a type of person. We see this in Psalms 5:5 and 11:5, for instance. I would be of the mind to say that God does not “hate” sinners. While the language is used, we have to ask ourselves what it means when this concept – God hating a person – is used in Scripture. There are a few things to keep in mind.
First, a note of irony. Many of the people who I have heard affirming that God hates sinners would also affirm a strong doctrine of impassibility, which would basically negate the idea that God can truly hate or can be made to hate by the actions of sinners. This, however, would require a deeper dive into God’s inner emotional life, which is beyond the scope of this particular question. We will circle back to this a bit at the end, though.
Next, let’s look at a few ways in which the Bible uses the word “hate.” First, it is sometimes used as a Hebrew idiom of comparison. For instance, when God says that he loves Jacob and hates Esau (Malachi 1:3), it may be in one sense saying that the way in which God loves Jacob, his chosen vessel and people (Israel), will make it look as if He hates Esau. Esau the person actually ended up quite well, reconciling with Jacob. It is more the people that descended from Esau (the Edomites) that were an enduring problem. Jesus uses this Hebrew idiom as well when he says that if we follow Him we must hate our mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, spouse, and children. Keep in mind, if we take this command literally and not as an idiomatic comparison, it goes against Old and New Testament teaching. For instance, how does one hate their spouse while also loving them like Christ loved the Church? What Jesus is saying is that, in comparison, we must love him above all and do our best in service of him, perhaps even so much so that to the world it appears as if we comparatively hate our own families (of course, we don’t, and we need to be known for our love for one another). It is a hyperbolic statement.
Second, it is a Hebrew word used in covenantal language. Those who pry themselves from God’s covenant are also said to be “hated.” This was common covenantal language in the ancient Near East, which is the cultural context that the Old Testament was written in. Recall that Esau disrupted typical genetic flow of the covenant by selling his birthright.
I tend to focus on the fact that “God so loved the world” (John 3:16) and that God loved us so much that He sent His Son for us while we were yet sinners (Romans 5:8). There are places where Scripture talks about God “hating” where, I think, we must understand them within the scope of the clear teaching that God loves everyone (a much more emphasized teaching). I often say this about my own family. I love them all, but there are times when it is really hard to like them for one reason or another, especially when they do evil, when they lie, when they steal, etc. Jesus may not have liked the soldiers who came to take him away at the direction of Judas, but he still loved them enough to heal the ear of the man that Peter cut with his sword. He surely did not like being beaten or crucified, and yet his love urged him to plead for their forgiveness from the cross.
God does severely hate sin and, while He loves us and desires for all to be saved, He will judge all accordingly. So while we may find it unhelpful to say that God “hates” sinners (or at least to say it without the qualifications of love that I mention above), we should be careful to not make it seem like God is “okay” with ungodly hearts, minds, and lives. God is merciful, but He is also just. He loves, but He also shows wrath at evil. While the terms used in Scripture may sometimes be hyperbolic, we should not mistake the fact of the truth it is conveying: those who do evil and are not in Christ stand condemned by God.
Next, let’s talk a bit more about this emotional state of “hate.” If we believe that we can learn anything about God from the words of Scripture, even by analogy, we have to see that in some way God does experience “feelings,” as long as we consider those mental states rather than the way humans might experience emotions in mind and body.
The word used for “hate” does indeed refer to a strong negative emotion, but it is not a capricious reaction like the gods of old or the way human beings might hate. As the NET Bible First Edition Notes helpfully explains, “The Lord ‘hates’ the wicked in the sense that he despises their wicked character and deeds and actively opposes and judges them for their wickedness.” For instance, God did not want Israel to be like the Canaanites because He detests, or “hates,” their religious practices, such as child sacrifice. Surely that is something we want God to hate! Likewise, God tells us to hate evil (Amos 5:15), such as the type of evil mentioned a view verses earlier: “those who oppress the innocent and take bribes, those who deprive the poor of justice in the courts.” God’s “hatred” is an emotion of protective judgment and redemptive justice. Note that God is not said to “hate” everyone that is not of His people, but those who are particularly wicked, and many times it is those who are among His own people. The Scriptures are full of many instances of God’s gracious care and compassion for humble Gentiles.
One of the issues we may have with “hate” is that, like “jealousy,” the word means something to us in human terms that should not be imposed upon God’s perfect character, as mentioned somewhat in the previous paragraph. But even beyond that, we must ask why God “hates” and if it serves a purpose. If God chooses to hate, it is due to wickedness. Since God is not diminished or hurt by wickedness, but only humans are, then God may “hate” a person because of what their wickedness has done to others. He would rather love a person, but their own hatred of God and their neighbors, and their love of evil, brings God’s patient, oftentimes longsuffering justice. Hate, then, as it applies to God’s emotional life, should not be seen as sinful or “mean” in any sense, but as responsive, protective, and redemptive. God does not arbitrarily hate; He “hates” because He loves, and His love is so great that He even loves and seeks to redeem those whose thoughts and actions He “hates.”