A love that conquers all

“God is love,” says St John in a famous line. There has never been a more radical statement in the history of humanity. To understand its original contrast with the generally accepted accounts of divinity in the ancient world is to grasp afresh its revolutionary quality.


The ancients could get behind power: God is mighty. God is holy. You cannot look on him and live. He dwells in unapproachable light. These sentiments, appearing frequently in the Old and New Testaments, are also common in the religious outlook of humanity outside of the biblical revelation.


The Romans not only conceived of the gods as powerful, but they viewed power itself as divine. This is why the emperor was a god: he held real power. He spoke and things happened. And the initial portrait of God from the first page of Scripture shows a supreme power whose very speech brings into being the ordered cosmos.


Similarly, knowledge. Zeus, for example, defeated his rivals and secured his power over the cosmos by his wily cunning which the Greeks prized above even strength. Now the God of biblical revelation is all-powerful and shrewd beyond the cunning of his creatures. He has no rival. He belongs to a wholly unique category; he is the One, the beginning and the end, the Lord of lords, the Living God, a consuming fire—”my name is too wonderful,” he tells Manoah, the father of Samson. To Moses he responds with the devastating, “I am who I am.”


The traditional gods of the world’s peoples always seem to represent aspects of the world that definitively transcend our control and thereby elucidate our mortality—our powerlessness and ignorance. The God of glory in the biblical story again and again surpasses such accounts in a matchless and dizzying way. It’s almost as if that speech-draining eclipse of pagan divinity by this categorically different God of power and knowledge is just a peek through a cracked door, a taste of brine in the air from an unfathomable sea just beyond the next turn of the path. Accompanying his “name” in his world-upending presence before Moses, mysterious words are proclaimed that elaborate its meaning. Among them are the following: “merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love…”


This love is a holy, righteous love, a love that is absolute and free, a love that alone can swallow up the paralyzing power of evil and death and injustice, a love that loves, as the gospel decisively reveals, through the end of mortality into a renewed, ultimate beginning. It is an inextinguishable flame, a fountain that is its own limitless source, a light and a life that never dims nor ceases to satisfy.


“God is love.” To meditate on these three words through the sacred story they summarise is to initiate an approach to the mystery of God’s triune character, his three-fold unity.  


W Chris Hackett

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