God’s Beloved: A Defense of Chosenness

By Meir Soloveichik

Jews and Christians disagree about what love is.

In invoking God’s justice, Abraham insists that while God must punish the wicked, he must also reward the innocent and the righteous; God need not love the denizens of Sodom, but he must act justly toward them. In other words, God’s love may be bestowed more on some than on others, but God’s justice is equally bestowed on all. For if love is truly love—that is, if it takes into account everything about the identity of the person being loved—justice is the opposite; one acts justly only if he takes nothing personal or familial into account in bestowing justice on another. Thus, what Paul asserted about God’s love may be rightfully applied, in the Jewish view, when discussing God’s justice—that indeed, “there is no difference between the Jew and the Greek.” All are judged only according to their merits.
In Christian writings, however, God makes no substantive distinction between love and justice, nor can he be drawn to love some human beings to the exclusion of others. God cannot make distinctions in love because God is identified entirely with love. Put another way, in the Christian view, God acts only out of love, because he is love. Christian Scripture states it explicitly: “Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God. Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.”26 As Peter Kreeft, an influential Catholic theologian at Boston College, has argued, the Christian God is understood to identify so deeply with love that all of his other attributes are driven by it:
Without qualification, without ifs, ands, or buts, God’s word tells us, straight as a left jab, that love is the greatest thing there is. Scripture never says God is justice or beauty or righteousness, though he is just and beautiful and righteous. But “God is love.” Love is God’s essence, his whole being. Everything in him is love. Even his justice is love. Paul identifies “the justice of God” in Romans 1:17 with the most unjust event in all history, deicide, the crucifixion, for that was God’s great act of love.27
Nowhere in Hebrew Scripture is God identified with love—nor, for that matter, with justice. His justice is not love, and his love is not justice. While the God of the Gospels is one who “so loves the world,” and indeed must love all the world, Abraham’s God, who loves preferentially and on account of individuals’ uniqueness, remains also the “judge of all the earth,” who must “do justice” unto all. If we wish to be loved by God, we must come to terms with the fact that his relationship with each of us will be different; but we must also realize that before God’s justice, all are truly equal.
But this Jewish response to the reduction of all of God’s actions to love goes even deeper. When theology places love above justice, then justice itself is often rendered theologically impotent. In order to understand this point, it is helpful to examine the relation of election to salvation. Many verses in Christian Scripture imply that only those who profess faith in Christ will be saved from eternal damnation, regardless of any independent measure of justice or righteousness. This is expressed through the metaphor of the narrow gate: When, for example, Jesus is asked in the Gospel of Luke whether many will be saved, he replies: “Strive to enter by the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will seek to enter and not be able.”28 In Matthew, Jesus expresses similar sentiments: “Enter by the narrow gate, for the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life, and those who find it are few.”29 “Many are called,” Jesus adds, “but few are chosen.”30 “Taken in their obvious meaning,” writes Cardinal Avery Dulles, the most influential Catholic theologian in America, “passages such as these give the impression that there is a hell, and that many go there; more, in fact, than are saved.”31 Indeed, it was on account of verses such as these that the Catholic Church for centuries held that only baptized Catholics, those who have taken part in God’s loving covenant, are given the chance to avoid damnation.
For Judaism, on the other hand, the rewards of the afterlife are not linked to God’s covenantal love, but to his justice. God loves preferentially and elects the family of Abraham, but God’s justice demands that all who live righteous lives be rewarded in the hereafter. “The righteous of the Gentiles,” the Talmud informs us, “have a portion in the World to Come.”32 While not all are loved by God in the same way, we are all held accountable for our actions, and are rewarded for a life well lived. The Talmud even depicts Rabbi Yehuda the Prince as informing the pagan Roman leader Antoninus that he, too, would merit a share of the World to Come.33
In the twentieth century, Dulles notes, a new line of Catholic thought developed, represented by the writings of theologians such as Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar. These thinkers suggested that because God loves every member of humanity, and because all of God’s attributes are ultimately founded upon his love, perhaps everyone, even evildoers such as Hitler and Stalin, are ultimately saved, and enjoy the beatific vision of the afterlife.34 This, too, Judaism rejects, insisting that God’s justice, which is an attribute separate from his love, demands that evildoers be held accountable for the lives they have led. Indeed, the Mishna lists several evil figures—both Jews and non-Jews—who one can be certain are eternally damned.35
“These three remain,” Paul reflected in his letter to the Corinthians, “faith, hope, and love; but the greatest of these is love.”36 He does not mention justice, which for Jews is no less important than love. Moreover, it was Abraham’s belief in the importance of godly justice that earned him God’s love in the first place. A believing Jew, it seems, can indeed endorse the democratic principle of equality, which itself is originally expressed in a biblical verse: “And God created man in his image, in the image of God he created him.”37 While human beings are each unique, and therefore loved differently by God, all those created in God’s image stand equally before the justice of their Creator. In this sense, all men truly are created equal.

We are now in a position to examine the major implications of the respective understandings of divine love in Judaism and Christianity. The first concerns the kind of love that human beings are enjoined to feel towards one another. For Christians, men ought to love with absolute agape,with unlimited love. “God’s agape,”Nygren notes, “is the criterion of Christian love. Nothing but that which bears the impress of agape has a right to be called Christian love.”38 In proving this point, Nygren points to Jesus’ instruction to love the wicked as they are loved by God. “If you love them that love you, what thank have you?” Jesus asks. “For even sinners love those that love them.”39
Judaism, however, insists that preferential, exclusive love is not a concession to human selfishness but an imitation of the divine. This endorsement of preferential love among human beings can be seen most vividly in the Bible’s depiction of the friendship between King David and Jonathan, Saul’s son. When the two part, never to see each other again, they pledge a bond of eternal love that has long been regarded as the archetype of friendship in the Jewish tradition:
David arose out of a place toward the south, and fell on his face to the ground, and bowed himself three times: And they kissed one another, and wept one with another, until David exceeded. And Jonathan said to David, Go in peace, seeing that we have sworn both of us in the name of the Eternal, saying, the Eternal be between me and you, and between my seed and your seed for ever.40
Jonathan dies on the field of battle, together with his father Saul. David, after Saul’s death, ascends the throne of Israel and fulfills his pledge:
And David said, Is there yet any that is left of the house of Saul, that I may show him loyal love for Jonathan’s sake? And there was of the house of Saul a servant whose name was Ziva.… And Ziva said to the king, Jonathan has yet a son, who is lame on his feet.… Then King David sent, and fetched him.… Now when Mefiboshet, the son of Jonathan, the son of Saul, was come to David, he fell on his face, and bowed down to the ground. And David said, Mefiboshet. And he answered, Behold your servant! And David said to him, Fear not, for I will surely show you loyal love for Jonathan your father’s sake, and will restore to you all the land of Saul your father; and you will eat bread at my table continually.41
David’s supremely preferential love for Jonathan is thus extended to his son Mefiboshet. Mefiboshet did not earn David’s love; but David loves him all the same. David sees Jonathan’s face in that of his son, and because of this David and Mefiboshet are forever bound in a kinship of love—much as God sees Abraham in the face of every Jew. At the same time, however, David is depicted as a just king. He is praised by the Bible as one who “performed righteousness and judgment”42 to all his subjects, and as such “the Eternal was with him.”43 Love between human beings, it would seem, is meant to be hierarchical. One is called upon to show preference for one’s friends and family, even as one is obligated to be equally just to all.

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