The Case Against Unconditional Love

The Moral and Religious Case Against Unconditional Love
by Dennis Prager

Unconditional love is neither biblical nor rational nor moral.

Can you name anything good that is or should be given with no moral or ethical conditions?

Take salary, for example: Do you see a problem with continuing to pay employees no matter how they perform? In other words, do you see a problem with unconditional salaries?

The question is rhetorical.

If people believe they will receive the same salary no matter how well or poorly they work, few will work hard. The fact that a worker can be fired is precisely what prevents most people from slacking off.

Furthermore, paying the same salary to the lazy and careless worker as to the hardworking and responsible one is so unfair that it would completely undermine workplace morale.

Now substitute love for salary.

If everyone received the same amount of love no matter how terrible or beautiful their actions, wouldn't that create the same problems as unconditional salaries?

If we gave everyone the same amount of love no matter how they behaved, what would motivate anyone to behave better? And would it be fair? If kind, self-sacrificing, responsible people were to receive no more love than narcissists, murderers and thieves, the world would be a far more unjust place than it already is.

Unconditional love is no more desirable, no more fair and no more goodness-inducing than unconditional salary. Yet, remarkably, unconditional love has become the great human and even divine ideal.

This is a recent development.

Google charts the use of words and terms in English-language books from the beginning of the 19th century until the present. If you look at its chart for the term "unconditional love," you will learn that until the 1970s, the term almost never appeared in English-language books. And then, all of a sudden, it was everywhere.

In other words, when America was religious, no one used the term "unconditional love." Only as America became less religious, its culture more secular, did usage of the term soar. This alone should help dispel the widespread notion that unconditional love is a religious ideal.

It isn't. In a lifetime of teaching Judaism and now writing volume four of a five-volume Bible commentary, I have never come across the concept of unconditional love. In fact, God makes it clear that His love is conditional on obeying Him. For example, he tells the Israelites: "If you will obey Me faithfully and keep My covenant, you shall be My treasured possession."

The Book of Psalms makes this even clearer: "(God) hates all evildoers. You doom those who speak lies; murderous, deceitful men the LORD abhors" (Psalm 5:6-7). Obviously, God doesn't give unconditional love.

As for Christianity, many Christians assert that unconditional love is the ideal for humans to aspire to. Yet, I could not find a single direct statement about unconditional love — divine or human — in the New Testament. As a Canadian Christian pastor and theologian, George Sinclair, wrote: "The Bible does not teach that God loves unconditionally or that you should love unconditionally."

Why modern Christians so frequently speak of God's unconditional love and of unconditional love as what humans should aspire to is a mystery to me. The very fact that according to Christian theology, only those who believe in Christ are saved from hell should make it clear that salvation is conditional.1  Some Christians respond that God continues to love the nonbeliever even as he descends to hell — because it is the nonbeliever, not God, who has sent himself to hell by rejecting God's love through His offer of salvation. However, that hardly argues against God's conditional love — that love (and the salvation prompted by it) is conditioned on the human being's acceptance of God's terms.

It is true that countless people who have strayed far from a righteous life have been immensely helped by the belief that God loves them — but they must repent to benefit from that love.

Unconditional love is, in the final analysis, a bad secular idea.

Aside from undermining people's reasons for pursuing excellence and undermining group morale — as we saw in the example of unconditional salaries — there are three other reasons it's a bad idea.

First, if people are loved no matter how immorally they act, love becomes the one thing in life that is completely divorced from morality. Unconditional love makes love amoral.

Second, what means more to you — someone who loves you because they love everyone unconditionally or someone who loves you because they consider you special?

Third, unconditional love often leads to very unloving behavior. If husbands and wives, for example, know they will receive the same amount of love no matter how they treat their spouse, do you think this is likely to lead to spouses acting better or worse?

But, many people will respond, don't parents have unconditional love for their children? And isn't that the ideal?

Yes, many parents do love their children unconditionally — because it is instinctive in most people to so love their children. But is this a good message to convey to your children: "No matter how you treat your siblings or even us, your mother and father, not to mention non-family members, we will love you just the same"?

And even if parents' love for their child is unconditional, why should that be a model for how we ought to feel toward every other person on the planet? Would your children be happy to know that you loved everyone just as much as you love them? Should you? There would actually be something psychologically and morally wrong with a parent who loved everyone as much as they loved their child.

Yes, babies should receive unconditional love. The rest of us should want to grow up.

As for God, I have never believed I was the recipient of unconditional love from Him, nor have I ever sought it. I seek His approval. That's a better way to live.

1 John 14:6, John 3:18, etc.

Dennis Prager