Scripture clearly teaches that God's love (phileo, agape, aheb, ahabah, etc.) is unfailing, undeserved, and unilateral (completely one-sided in initiation). But is God's love without condition--I.E.: UN-conditional?
On this we should consider three things: 1) Where did this idea come from? 2) Is it consistent with Scripture? and 3) Could this be a modern packaging of the age old message of false prophecy?
On 1), the words unconditional and love are not used in Scripture in either the Old or New Testaments, nor do any of the church fathers use the phrase. Readers have pointed out that it was first used in 1751 in negative reference to the Moravian heresy (hat tip: Devin R.), and more recently by Erich Fromm in the 1930s to describe the matricentric complex (vs. patricentric; hat tip: Mark Long). But these are arcane references.
The phrase unconditional love entered mainstream, pop-culture English during the 1960s LSD drug culture. What the flower-children originally meant by unconditional love had to do with "love the one you are with" in the sexual revolution sense. But the phrase did not last long even among the hippies because it is inherently contradictory: to love is to care deeply about the condition of the one loved. But "under the influence" a lot of things made sense that didn't later. After the drugs wore off, psychology flirted with the pop-phrase in the 1970's in the "transactional analysis" fad, but this was ephemeral and quickly dropped from view. Just about then a few susceptible christian teachers stepped in and took the baton, and the rest is history.
With this dubious modern pedigree we must ask the obvious question: is this an idea that comes from above, or from below? (John 8:23)
On 2), is the implicit idea that the phrase asserts consistent with Scripture? If we take the phrase in its plain-sense meaning, certainly not. If unconditional can cohabit the same phrase as love without canceling it (when not on LSD, that is), then why did Jesus bother declaring the conditions? "You must be born again." etc.
Think about it. In a typical teaching of Jesus, much of what he said were the life-giving conditions of moving out-of a position of wrath and into a loving relationship with the Father. The catch-phrase unconditional love strips these words right out of our Savior's mouth. "Hey Jesus, you can't say that! Don't you know that God's agape love is unconditional!"
John 8:31-32 (NIV) ...Jesus said, "If you hold to my teaching, you are really my disciples. Then you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free."Get it? IF/THEN is a condition. So is UNLESS. And this is the kind of thing Jesus often said. Uh Oh!
On 3), we should consider the possibility that this new phrase might be a wolf in sheep's clothing. Could unconditional love be Satan's latest repackaging of the "peace, peace" message that has always been the essence of false prophecy? Of course, Satan would never be that clever, to deny the very words of God with a subtle twist of phrase? Would he?
Because of a Bible Study on our site which calls for repentance from witchcraft, we get a lot of "flames" from Wiccans and Pagans. A typical complaint is to lecture us that "God's love is unconditional", thus justifying witchcraft--or whatever--since "God loves everyone eternally no matter what they believe." By this way of thinking, "It makes no difference which 'god' you worship since God's unconditional love would never allow Him to send anyone to hell. Condemning people to hell is not exactly a loving thing to do for those so sent, is it? So, it does not matter what people think or believe or do. God's unconditional love means that we will all go to heaven."
Hearing this doctrine put forth with such piercing clarity from Pagans should give Christians pause in their enthusiasm to embrace it.
Often, when Christians say unconditional love we know they do not mean it in the exact, literal sense. So, we do not want to go overboard and say that anyone who uses the phrase is a universalist or heretic. We must look to the context and meaning for those who have not thought it through, giving them the benefit of the doubt. But, at the very least, we should be more circumspect about adoption of extra-biblical spurious terminology within the Church, and of teachers that unreflectingly jump on every bandwagon of pop phraseology that blows through.
God's love is truly amazing... God's love is unilateral: He loves the unlovable and gives His glory to them. God's love is completely undeserved. God's love is unfailing for those in whom He delights: who respond to Him and receive His Son. But, God's love is clearly not "unconditional"; for wrath and eternal damnation will come to those who reject His Messiah and His Gospel. Let us be sure to be found in the position of receiving God's love, and not His judgment. Let us heed the conditions clearly set forth by our Lord so that we can be at peace with Him. And let us shout the message of these conditions from the rooftops so that others might be saved, rather than retreat into thinly veiled license, universalism, or anything else that "sets itself up against the knowledge of God" (2Cor 10:5).
Here are a few verses to salt your appetite for researching and considering this further.
Jer. 5:12-13 (NIV) "They have lied about the Lord; they said, 'He will do nothing! No harm will come to us; we will never see sword or famine.' The prophets are but wind and the word is not in them..."
Jer. 8:6-9 (NIV) "I have listened attentively, but they do not say what is right. No one repents of his wickedness, saying, 'What have I done?' ...My people do not know the requirements of the Lord. How can you say, 'We are wise...' Since they have rejected the word of the Lord, what kind of wisdom do they have?"
Jer. 23:16-18 (NIV) This is what the Lord Almighty says: "Do not listen to what the prophets are prophesying to you; they fill you with false hopes. They speak visions from their own minds, not from the mouth of the Lord. They keep saying to those who despise me, 'The Lord says: You will have peace.' And to all who follow the stubbornness of their hearts they say, 'No harm will come to you.' But which of them has stood in the council of the Lord to see or to hear his word? Who has listened and heard his word?"
Jer. 23:21-22 (NIV) "I did not send these prophets, yet they have run with their message; I did not speak to them, yet they have prophesied. But if they had stood in my council, they would have proclaimed my words to my people and would have turned them from their evil ways and from their evil deeds."
Lam 2:14 (NIV) "The visions of your prophets were false and worthless; they did not expose your sin to ward off your captivity. The oracles they gave you were false and misleading."
Luke 3:7b (NIV) "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?"
John 3:36 (NIV) "Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on him."
Rom 2:5,8 (NIV) But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God's wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed... For those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.
Eph 2:3 (NIV) All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.
Eph 5:6 (NIV) Let no-one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God's wrath comes on those who are disobedient.
1Co 2:13 (NIV) This is what we speak, not in words taught us by human wisdom but in words taught by the Spirit, expressing spiritual truths in spiritual words.
2 Tim 4:2-4 (TCN) Proclaim the Message, be ready in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, encourage, never failing to instruct with forbearance. For a time will come when people will not tolerate sound teaching. They will follow their own wishes, and, in their itching for novelty, procure themselves a crowd of teachers. They will turn a deaf ear to the Truth, and give their attention to legends instead.
Heb 13:9 (NIV) Do not be carried away by all kinds of strange teachings.
Luke 13:3 (DVP) [Jesus:] "...If you do not repent, then you will all perish..."