Love vs. Hatred (1 John 3:11-15)

Christianity is a religion of love, not hatred.

Before you start citing examples of hateful Christians, whose existence I freely concede, permit me to draw an elementary distinction between ideal Christianity and actual Christianity. Ideal Christianity is normative Christianity, what Christianity should be. Actual Christianity is descriptive Christianity, what Christianity currently is. At the ideal level, Christianity is a religion of love, not hatred. But at the actual level, Christianity contains more than its fair share of haters, bigots, and jerks.

First John 3:11-15 paints a picture of ideal Christianity in particularly bright colors.

This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another. Do not be like Cain, who belonged to the evil one and murdered his brother. And why did he murder him? Because his own actions were evil and his brother’s were righteous. Do not be surprised, my brothers, if the world hates you. We know that we have passed from death to life, because we love our brothers. Anyone who does not love remains in death. Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life in him.

Notice two things about this passage.

First, love is part and parcel of the Christian gospel. John writes, “This is the message you heard from the beginning: We should love one another.” The words from the beginning could refer to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. Alternately, they could refer to the evangelization of John’s churches, the moment at which they heard the gospel message and converted. Either way, whether from Jesus’ lips or from John’s, the Christian gospel included an ethically normative component: “We should love one another.” Christianity is not just a statement of beliefs; it is a code of behavior. It includes both faith and works.

Second, love and hatred are antithetical. “Do not be like Cain,” John commands. This commandment refers to the story of Cain murdering his brother Abel in Genesis 4:1-16. According to John, hatred is a form of murder. “Anyone who hates his brother is a murderer.” Now obviously hatred does not actually kill a person. John’s point is that the motivation underlying hatred and murder is the same, even if the effect of each is different. What is the source of hatred? “Evil” generally, and “the evil one” particularly. And the result of hatred is exclusion from “eternal life.” By contrast, the result of love is passing “from death to life.”

Christianity is a religion of love, then, and love is the opposite of hatred. This is the moral ideal toward which all actual Christians should strive, not to mention the rest of the world. We will not achieve the perfection of our love in this lifetime—sin won’t yield its grip on us so easily—and yet we should strive for perfect love. And as we can all see the amount and intensity of hatred active in the world today, I think we can all agree how necessary is our striving to love.

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