The sacred season of “Pride,” the month-long panoply of indulgence and identity, recently came to a close. Through it all, many Christians have remained publicly steadfast to orthodox commitments to biblical sexuality.
In America, we saw the campaign to establish “Fidelity Month,” which sought to honor commitments to marriage vows, the family, and one’s community. We also witnessed Christians confidently expressing their convictions through Target boycotts, calling out BudLight, and lending support to a US Supreme Court case which sided with religious liberty over the LGBTQ movement’s tyranny of conscience.
But even as Christians must remain bold in their public witness, we should take seriously the questions our society often raises against our faith. Our testimony to a lost world can never merely be, “God’s word is right, and you are wrong. So repent!”
This is always essential, but we should also take seriously the deeply existential questions about whether the Christian faith is actually true, good, and desirable. Then we must offer good-faith arguments not only for why God’s words are actually true, but also demonstrate compelling reasons why they are both believable and present a way of life in the world that is actually inhabitable and leads to flourishing. Such is the task of apologetics for the Christian faith.
Are God’s Words Hate Speech?
In the wake of a month in which our whole culture is hyper in-tune to issues of gender and injustice, one timely question we need to take seriously is, “Are God’s words actually hate speech?” If what God has spoken is perceived to marginalize, deadname, or nullify someone’s chosen pronouns, surely those words must be hateful, right?
Many today certainly think so. In a society enthralled with self-pronounced identity, any limits on what one can desire or attain is deemed an injustice. So, it is no surprise that what God has spoken is quickly discarded as hateful and beyond the pale of what polite society can tolerate. In a plot twist which would be deeply ironic if it were not so shocking, many in our society have turned to Satan—whether they actually believe in him or not—because he offers complete affirmation of one’s desires and self-expression.
In the rest of this article, let us consider what God has spoken, if he is indeed hateful, and how we Christians might speak God’s words of life in a world of death.
The Subjectivity of Hate Speech
Hate speech is notoriously difficult to define. We all tend to have a sense that it is wrong to be hateful towards someone else. But what does it mean to hate something, and do we each have a right not to be hated for the way that we are or the things that we do? A simple definition might be that hate involves disdain or severe disapproval towards something. But are such sentiments themselves always wrong? In certain cases, it seems clear that there are things we should indeed hate, like the killing of innocent persons or taking advantage of the vulnerable. God himself, who says he is truly loving, hates these things (Prov. 6:12-15).
The great debate of our times seems to be not whether to hate, but what to hate. Our culture ironically tends to express great hatred towards perceived bigotry or religious intolerance. In such instances, we do not seem to be ridding society of hate so much as we are flipping the script on those that we think are showing hatred, by choosing to actually hate them ourselves.
Opposing what many today identify as hate speech does not involve true tolerance, but rather demanding everybody get with the program and accept only the sanctioned beliefs of good and evil. So, identifying something as “hate speech” is often just a veiled moral judgment of our own that we do not like what someone else is saying about us.
So, what about when it comes to what God has said? Does God hate me when he says things that I think cannot possibly be true or good? We might perceive such words as hateful, but are they really and how can I tell?
Our culture has devised a disastrous stalemate, in which the standoff between our own self-perceptions of what is hateful and whether God’s words are actually hateful in reality cannot be arbitrated. We have so elevated the individual as the supreme source of moral good and meaningful identity, that nothing can trump the self. Our mantras show this is so: “You do you” and “Be true to yourself” or “Live your truth.”
It seems that the only way forward is to invite the skeptic to step into the world God’s words create and see for themselves if there is life and love within it. We call them to imagine, just for the sake of argument, that God is real and that the Bible is his inspired word. In such a vision of the world, do they indeed see the hate they thought they perceived?
A Transcendent God and His Life-Giving Word
One of the hallmark characteristics of our age, as Charles Taylor argues, is that any transcendent source of what is real or true is unimaginable. Nothing stands outside or beyond our reality to provide meaning or stable structure to what we should believe. Without a certain referent point that never changes, everyone’s spirituality has turned to experiences, which do seem to give us a taste of what is truly real and transcendent: pleasure, sexual ecstasy, or overcoming the limits of our bodies.
Perhaps this is why the sides of the great conflict of our culture are arrayed between those on a quest to create the world anew in accordance with their inner experience and desires, and those who seek to receive our pattern for life from a source that stands above or beyond ourselves.
The Christian tradition holds that there is indeed a transcendent God who has created all things, and who speaks to his creation words of life. All the earth came into existence by divine speech (Gen. 1:1-31; cf. John 1:1-4).
Likewise, all things are sustained in their continued existence by God’s words. God orders and directs all creation by his commands (Job 38-41). His words are fruitful.
Throughout history, God also speaks to his creatures, revealing himself to them and directing their steps. Nowhere is this more prominent than in his instruction to Israel to “hear” his words and love him (Deut. 6:4-9), which is the greatest commandment (Matt. 22:37-38).
But perhaps most importantly, God has spoken to his creation in the incarnation of the Son, the one who is all of God’s fullness in himself (Col. 2:9). As Hebrews reminds us:
Long ago God spoke to our ancestors by the prophets at different times and in different ways. In these last days, he has spoken to us by his Son. God has appointed him heir of all things and made the universe through him. The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact expression of his nature, sustaining all things by his powerful word.
What words does Jesus, the Divine Son, speak to us? He reveals the Father, he proclaims the way of life, and most importantly reveals the depths to which God loves what he has made (John 3:16). Additionally, he gives the Spirit, the one who speaks what the Father says to guide us into all truth (John 16:13), who causes us to rightly hear the voice of God (Eph. 1:13-14), and who empowers us to listen and follow his ways as we are conformed to his likeness (Gal. 5:16-26).
This Spirit, who has inspired God’s words preserved in Scripture, is the giver of life (Jn. 6:63) because he provides to us God’s words (Rom. 8:2-3)—God’s law which is his good instruction in how to live wisely according to his ways (Ps. 1). These words are life-giving because by them we come to know the transcendent one who has entered into his creation to show his goodness and love by dying in our place in order to raise us to new life with him.
Divine Speech and Identity
All of this articulates in brief what Christians believe about divine speech. But why might such words be construed as hateful? In part, it is because they present us with our own finitude, moral corruption, and dependence. If God has spoken, then we cannot have it our own way. We are confronted with God’s declaration of how things actually are, the moral structure to the universe.
Because God loves his creation and has given human creatures the ability to make moral choices, there are things which God rightly hates. The possibility of sin against God’s good ways gives rise to the possibility of there being things that God hates.
But God’s hate is not against us as his creatures, but against our ways as we give expression to our sentiment that we ourselves are the transcendent reference point for what is true, good, and real. This divine hatred of what is actually wrong, of what is the path to pain, loneliness, and death, is God’s disdain for our rejecting what we are actually made for.
Because every person embraces this shadow path, Christians affirm that we are all subject to what God hates. God has spoken against us all.
When we create our identities by our own individual fiat rather than receive our identities from God’s words of life, we create counter-creations, fictional worlds which have no correspondence to what is real and true and good. The great misconception, however, is that Christians affirm that God hates us, when in reality it is that God hates our hatred of the good words he has spoken.
The great irony of holding that God’s speech is hate speech is that such disdain for God’s word is hatred for the only words which present the world to us as it actually is, who we truly are, and how deeply we are loved.
Thus Says the Lord and Thence We Speak
Christians affirm God is the righteous judge of heaven and earth, whose words are both a sword against what is evil and a balm of healing and comfort for those who hope in him. He is the king whose throne is the unchanging, truly real focal point of our created reality. It is what defines us, and in his rule is flourishing life unending.
Additionally, this king has given his people the command to proclaim what he has said. Like the prophets of old, Christ instructs his people to say his words after him, to herald the king and his kingdom by calling all to repentance (Matt 4:17; 28:29-30).
But this is not a license for Christians to be self-righteous, spiteful, or malicious to those around them. Jesus had much to say about the prideful words religious leaders (Matt. 12:34-37), and Paul wrote often by the Spirit about how we are to speak with others (Eph. 4:29, Col. 4:6).
Likewise, First Peter instructs Christians to always be ready to give a defense of the faith characterized by “gentleness and reverence” (I Pet. 3:15). James reminds us to speak life by controlling the tongue, offering words of blessings and love rather than curses of bitterness (James 3:3:12).
If Christians are to speak God’s words after him, we certainly must proclaim what he has said. But we must also speak in the manner with which he has spoken. If Christ Jesus, the Divine Word, has come speaking the love of the Father and giving us the Spirit to lead us in the love of one another (John 15:17), then let our own words be ones which build up and give true life.
Dr. Dennis Greeson is Dean of the BibleMesh Institute and Research Fellow in Public Theology for The Land Center for Cultural Engagement. He is also a PhD Research supervisor at Union Theological College, Belfast, and teaches and writes on theology, culture, and public square issues.