A couple of years ago, or so, I was talking with someone online and we were talking about unconditional love and whether or not God does that or not, and whether or not it’s biblical. To be fair, I grew up being taught, and believing, that God does love unconditionally. One of the first things I realized in our discussion was that it’s all on how one defines “unconditional love”. It was apparent to me right away that this person’s idea of unconditional love, was a love that excused and tolerated everything. Right away I saw the flaw in this persons understanding. Yeshua often used the physical to illustrate the heavenly. For example, in the Sermon on the Mount, Yeshua says that us, being good parents, know not to give our children rocks and snakes to illustrate that God is much wiser and also much more loving. So in the same way I will use an analogy to make a point. In every relationship there are boundaries. Just because we put limits on things before consequences follow, doesn’t mean that the love stops. In the same way, God has established boundaries in our relationship with Him. This does not diminish the love He has for us. It simply establishes boundaries before consequences follow. We see over and over, in the Old Testament, how that Israel would break Torah, break the covenant they had with God. How that God would call them back time and again, how that God would warn them over and over. Finally, after Israel would ignore all this, God would enact the consequences He warned them of. Eventually it lead to God divorcing the ten tribes, also known as the nation of Israel. God never stopped loving the ten tribes, or Judah. In fact He speaks about how one day He will gather them from the four corners of the earth.
The first thing I did was to look it up from a scholarly perspective on the ancient near east. The greats, Aristotle and Plato, were easy to find. Finding a Hebrew perspective, for the first century or prior, was not so easy. The earliest manuscripts we have of the Old Testament is the Septuagint, where the first translation was 285-246 BC. The Septuagint predates the Masoretic texts, where the oldest authentic Masoretic text dates to 916 A.D. Clearly, since the Septuagint was translated from Hebrew into Greek, there are, or were, some Hebrew text. The problem is that we don’t have anything in Hebrew that predates the Septuagint. The Dead Sea Scrolls date back to 250 BC. to 68 AD. As you can see, the Septuagint still predates the Dead Sea Scrolls. It’s fair to say there may be some older Hebrew text out there, after all the Septuagint was translated from Hebrew into Greek, but those texts remain missing. Given these limitations, I’ll work with what I have.
The Greek word eros is intense, passionate love, and is where we get erotic from. Plato viewed eros as transcendent beauty, not necessarily in people, but rather ideas. Plato thought that eros was the ideal form of love since reciprocation is not a requirement. Philia, in contrast, was not a yearning passion like that of a beast, but rather fondness and appreciation for one another. Philia could encompass not just friendship, but also family, political, and even job and discipline. The relationship derives value either because of a business relationship or character and morals, or values, are similar. Agape is the one most Christians are familiar with, as it is often referenced to as “unconditional, god-like love”. However, Greek philosophers viewed agape as the “paternal love of God for man”. This love included, or encompassed philia, as it is usually mutually beneficial. The article goes on to say: “Agape arguably draws on elements from both eros and philia in that it seeks a perfect kind of love that is at once a fondness, a transcending of the particular, and a passion without the necessity of reciprocity.”  Even in Grecian times, love was hard to describe because it was so vast and personal. How one person described it and defined it, was different that how another describes it.
With Hebrew, just looking at the word and its definition and usage, one could easily get confused. The Hebrew word ahav can refer to paternal love, romantic love, slave/master relations, and can even be used to describe passion for food.
We know, generally speaking, that Hebrew is a language of function. Given this, I think it’s reasonable to define love, Hebraically, as faithful, steadfast, loyal, sacrificial and selfless. The thing is, I just used other words to describe love. For example, steadfast love is the Hebrew word chesed, which can be translated as mercy, loving-kindness, and obviously steadfast love. The Yale Anchor Bible Dictionary gives a nice seven page definition on the Hebrew concept of love, covering several Hebrew words. Even though I am tempted to copy and paste, I shall refrain. What I would like to do is point out the highlights of the Anchor Bible Dictionary’s article on Love.
The first entry for love in the Anchor Bible Dictionary is dod. Most often it is used to mean beloved, loved one, and betrothed. It can also mean uncle, or be used abstractly as love. Rayah seems to primarily mean beloved bride. Yadid is another word that is used, in poetic form, as beloved. With khashaq we see it in the context of desire, both as a man for a woman (Gen 34:8) and of God toward Israel (Deut 21:11). One word that I didn’t expect was the word chesed, which is commonly thought of as mercy, goodness or kindness. The third definition for chesed does talk about affection and love.
In each of these Hebrew words we find that not only in the definition, but also in the biblical context that love has to do with affection, passion, desire and so on. Just as in the Greek above, the same holds true with the Hebrew concept for love. It can be directed at things or people, without reciprocation. It can also be referring to a relationship in which love is reciprocated.
So what are we to conclude then? Is there unconditional love? I think we have to answer that, now that we have vocabulary out of the way, by looking at how one defines unconditional. If we define unconditional as cart blanche, the person can do whatever with out repercussions or consequences, then we’d have to conclude that not only is that unhealthy psychologically, but it’s also not biblical. If we define unconditional love, however, as unfailing, never ending love, then yes I’d have to say that it is biblical. We see lots of examples in the Bible, where God pleads with Israel to repent, and they don’t so they go into exile. In the case of the Northern nation of Israel, they were divorced and completely scattered abroad, but then Moses prophesied this before he died, and part of that promise was that God would gather Israel from the four corners. Even then, God didn’t stop loving. We see in the Bible how God sets up health boundaries for a loving relationship, and how Israel repeatedly broke them, but God didn’t give up, nor did His love quit. 1 Cor 13 it says love never fails. So if you think that unconditional love means that the person gets to do whatever without consequence, then again I’d have to point out that that’s not biblical nor psychologically sound. Rather unconditional love is a love that has boundaries, but yet doesn’t quit, or give up. Even when God divorced Israel, He didn’t stop loving her, and there was the promise of restoration.
- Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Philosophy of Love: 1 The Nature of Love: Eros, Philia, and Agape: a Eros
- Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Philosophy of Love: 1 The Nature of Love: Eros, Philia, and Agape: b Philia
- Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy: Philosophy of Love: 4 The Nature of Love: Physical, Emotional, Spiritual
- H157 Ahav
- H1730 Dod
- H7474 Rayah
- H3039 Yadid
- H2836 Khashaq
- H2617 Chesed
- Yale Anchor Bible Dictionary pages 5273 – 5303 The entry on Love for both Old and New Testaments.