Love: A Surprisingly Underutilised Apologetic


There is a concept at the very heart of the Christian Gospel that could well be an attractive and underutilised apologetic. It is something that all in our world desire, but few really understand. It is a concept that better coheres within a Christian, not atheistic framework and it possesses both intellectual rigour and appeal to the heart.

This is the concept of ‘love’. 

But what is love? – the difficulty of a definition 

But what exactly is love?

The term ‘what is love’ was the most googled search of 2012. And it remains one of the most popular Google searches. Every year millions of people are searching for a definition of love. But what is the answer?

Is that the love of a man for a woman, or the love of a man for a fine Cuban cigar? 

This quote from The Simpson’s reveals a problem with love—love is actually extremely difficult to define. Indeed love researcher Ellen Berscheid wrote in an essay, ‘Searching for the meaning of love’ that: “researchers of love have spent a good deal of time and effort trying to pin down what love is, but no single conception of love has been agreed upon.’ (p.172, New Psychology of Love)

Berscheid concluded that of the millions and centillions of sentences written about love, very few can stand alone and still strike one as true except for the affirmation, ‘love is a word’.

That’s hardly a satisfactory answer for the millions of people searching on Google.

Love has been described as the ‘supreme emotion’, yet it is almost impossible to define. Indeed love is a paradox – it is contradictory things at the same time.

  • It’s a feeling, but also an action and even a motivation. 
  • It’s about relationship, connection, community—but it can also be for enemies.
  • It’s based on the qualities of another, but we can also love the unlovely. 
  • It’s for the other – selfless, sacrificial benevolence, but it can be also profoundly selfish. 

What is love?

Love is a feeling (or is it?)

Though the search for love is enduring and universal, it is hard to define.

Our culture’s vision of love today has been dramatically influenced by Romanticism—the philosophical movement which began in the 18th Century. Romanticism makes love individualistic and feelings-based. It’s about sunsets, waterfalls, candles, romance and Lionel Ritchie. If we don’t feel something then it’s not real love.

The assumption that love is a feeling has driven biological anthropologists to understand human feelings of love. And human love feelings are hormones, such as dopamine and norepinephrine, which make us feel ‘love’. [see e.g. Why we love, Helen Fisher]

Ironically, this has led modern atheists to assert that ‘love’ is nothing more than chemical reactions in the brain. Russell Glasser co-host of the Atheist Experience TV show, said that ‘The feelings that you feel related to love, are exactly, no more or no less than what love is.’

Love as a feeling is a consistent atheist response to the question of what is love. Some would break it down further and identify it with the chemistry and physiology—the hormones and neurotransmitters—that produce those feelings.

The irony of love as feeling—love becomes selfish

Ironically, this view of love actually makes love selfish, because kindness is no longer love except if I feel something—if the dopamine levels in my body change. When love is simply a feeling, then it’s no longer about others, but about myself.

Many of the paradoxes we observe and accept in understanding love (outlined earlier) are eliminated in this reductionistic conception. Love can no longer be selfless, or altruistic, or an action because it is a feeling felt. Accordingly, selfless acts becomes selfish, benevolence becomes benefit, and service becomes sex. Love becomes a self-contradiction.

The desire for the atheist to describe love in terms of observable chemical reactions is understandable. In a materialistic conception of the universe, there is nothing supernatural—everything is explicable in terms of matter and energy and can be measured scientifically. Yet, love cannot be reduced simply to emotions. Love can be given and received without a corresponding change in dopamine levels. Which creates a challenge for the atheist attempting to provide a complete and comprehensive account for love. The atheist explanation for love as a feeling is reductionist and inadequate. 

Love fails to cohere rationally within atheism.

Now I’m going to get slightly controversial and claim that love coheres more rationally within Christianity and not atheism.

Love exists, but it is more than observable chemical reactions, hence in some way love doesn’t have a physical manifestation. As an atheist once put it: ‘Love is an abstraction, a label that we put on a set of emotions or a frame of mind. It doesn’t have physical existence.’

In what sense does it exist, then? Could it be said that it is beyond the natural world? That it's supernatural?

Atheism seeks to explain everything in terms of natural forces, of matter and energy. The Atheist Foundation of Australia say on their homepage:

We live in a natural universe with known natural laws. […] We can understand why primitive cultures believed that invisible beings controlled what we now call the elements and natural phenomena. With access to factual knowledge, there is now no excuse for believing in gods, fairies or any supernatural concept. 

So there's no excuse for believing in any supernatural concept—but what about love? How can a non-physical reality like love, be explained only through physical forces?

The atheist may respond by saying that love is a ‘concept’, but this merely begs the question—what exactly is a ‘concept’? I can accept love being a concept—but if it’s not explicable in terms of matter and energy, what is it? Something like a ‘concept’ is beyond the natural world, and wouldn’t something beyond the natural world be ‘super’ natural? If matter and energy is all there is—where do non-material things like ‘concepts’ exist?

Atheists may respond by claimed that love emerged as a useful way for humans to interact and it, like morality, has developed as a survival mechanism. But again, this makes love instrumental. Love is simply a way for people to survive, the selfless, search for perfection and connection becomes illusory and hence part of the very definition of love is undermined and contradicted.

The argument ‘to explain love’ is not necessarily an argument for God, but I think it is an argument against naturalism:

  • If naturalism is true, then all experience is explicable in terms of natural chemical processes.
  • Love cannot be reduced to natural chemical processes
  • Therefore naturalism is false.

Love doesn’t cohere so easily within an atheistic, naturalistic account of the world. If we are the result of blind physical forces where everything is accounted for in terms of matter and energy, and if the universe doesn’t care (as Richard Dawkins suggests); a universe which does not love at all – which just is; a universe which is indifferent – and indifference is the very antithesis of love – how can love emerge? It’s like adding 1 + 1 + 1 and getting 5.

Love coheres better within Christianity 

Instead, the Christian explanation for love better coheres with our experience of the world.

The Christian perspective provides both a definition and demonstration of love: ‘God is love’ (1 John 4:8) and he demonstrates supreme love through Jesus’ sacrificial death on the cross. 

This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins (1 John 4:10).

Thus the supreme emotion is best defended and understood not within a matter first conception of reality, where we are a mindless accident of the end process of indifferent and unguided forces. Instead love better coheres within the Christian, mind-first, conception of reality—where love has role, meaning and place in a universe created by a God who is love.

The apologetic opportunity: be apologists of love

This apologetic opportunity, perhaps underutilised, has appeal because love is a universal human experience. All humans feel, experience, give and receive love. As I have demonstrated love is surprisingly hard for the atheist to explain. Conversely love is at the heart of the Christian message: to declare God is love is to acknowledge that God is Trinity. Thus, if we begin to talk about love as a concept, it creates a natural bridge for us to then speak about love as a reality in the person and works of Jesus Christ.

So why not be an apologist of love? To ask our friends and colleagues what they believe love to be—as this may give us opportunities to speak of the God who is love.

Photos: (head) Kristina C/'Imagine That Photography', flickr; (body) Sabrina Corana, flickr