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Does God Need Love?: Criticizing C.S. Lewis’s Take on Divine Love

Adam Johnson

"In God there is no hunger that needs to be filled, only plenteousness that desires to give… God, who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that He may love and perfect them." (C.S. Lewis, The Four Loves)

Associate Professor of Theology, Biola University
July 25, 2016

Throughout The Four Loves, C.S. Lewis repeatedly affirms that God’s love is that of Gift-love, whereas our own is Need-love. Or, at best, when human love is found in Christ, it’s a combination of Gift-love and Need-love. For instance:

There was no doubt which was more like Love Himself. Divine Love is Gift-love. The Father gives all He is and has to the Son. The Son gives Himself back to the Father, and gives Himself to the world, and for the world to the Father, and thus gives the world (in Himself) back to the Father too. (The Four Loves, 11)

We, on the other hand, are born of different stuff:

Our Need-love, as Plato saw, is “the son of Poverty.”….We are born helpless. As soon as we are fully conscious we discover loneliness. We need others physically, emotionally, intellectually; we need them if we are to know anything, even ourselves. (The Four Loves, 12)

Lewis returns to these insights throughout the book, but most powerfully in the conclusion, where he speaks of God’s charity:

We begin at the real beginning, with love as the Divine energy. This primal love is Gift-love. In God there is no hunger that needs to be filled, only plenteousness that desires to give… God, who needs nothing, loves into existence wholly superfluous creatures in order that He may love and perfect them. (The Four Loves, 175-176)

Given this emphasis, it is natural that Lewis concludes:

The Need-loves, so far as I have been able to see, have no resemblance to the Love which God is. They are rather correlatives, opposites; not as evil is the opposite of good, of course, but as the form of the blancmange is opposite for the form of the mould (The Four Loves, 176).

In Favor of God’s Need-Love: Three Problems with C.S. Lewis’s View of Divine Love

I would like to venture a three-fold response to Lewis, in defense of God’s Need-love. In doing so, however, I recognize the great care I must take, lest I lapse into an open-process-Hegelian (and decidedly infelicitous) account of the Triune God. I’ll present three problems with C.S. Lewis’s account of divine love as entirely Gift-love, opposed to Need-love. These problems include: (1) a problem of distance, leaving God too far away from humanity, (2) a problem from God’s Triune nature and interrelatedness, and (3) a problem based on God’s enjoyment of his creation.

1. The Problem of Distance

The first problem I would like to point out is that of distance. Though Lewis does well to highlight the Creator / creature distinction, and avoid positing a need for creation within the Godhead, one potential problem with Lewis’s account is that it posits too much distance between God and ourselves. Keeping the parent / child relation distinct is good and necessary—but it need not become the aloofness of a father perpetually isolated and inaccessible behind his desk in the study. If there is in God no semblance of Need-love, we—whose being is defined by Need-love—have no connection with God on that point. And the problem of connection is a great one for a God who longs to love us with the intimacy he expresses throughout Scripture.

2. The Problem of the Trinity

This problem is but an extension of a Trinitarian question. If, as Lewis says, God the Father perpetually “gives all He is and has to the Son” and vice-versa, then isn’t it likewise correct to say that God the Son eternally “receives all He is and has from the Father” and vice-versa? If the begetting of the Son by the Father is an eternal act (and not a sequential one), then the Father is who he is because he begets his Son, and thus receives his identity (as Father) from the Son and vice-versa. If we are going to locate the logic of Gift-love within the dynamics of the inner life of the Trinity, then it seems that we must logically do the same with Gift-love, for who is the Son but the one who from eternity receives his being from the Father, and in the act of receiving, enacts something which we might properly refer to as Need-love?

This would in turn explain the incarnational dynamics in which Jesus regularly refers to his Need-love in relation to the Father—this Need-love is not merely something true of his humanity—it is true of both his human and divine existence.

None of this implies that God was needy in relation to Creation. God and God alone, as Scripture makes clear, brought Creation into existence, and God stood in no need-based relation to creation. The Gift-love and Need-love dynamic was an eternally fulfilling one within the Trinity, calling for no “extra” or “further” dynamic for completion.

3. The Problem of Creation

If it follows that the Trinitarian dynamics account for a form of eternal Need-love within the relations of Father, Son and Spirit, this answers the “Problem of Distance” we first alluded to, and in turn helps us frame the final problem: the Problem of Creation, or put more fully, the problem of God’s love and delight in his creation. If God stands in no need of his creation whatsoever, we can perhaps stammer out an explanation of his jealously, the fierceness of his love, and the greatness of his rejoicing at the recovery of his lost sheep. But all this runs the risk of being trumped by the “but of course we know that God doesn’t need us” card. And while this is true, how do we account for the joy God has in our worship and service?

The more natural solution, I would like to suggest, is that in extending his Gift-love to his creatures in the act of creation, God likewise shared his Need-love. That is to say, in covenanting with his creation, in taking upon himself the goal of being the Lord of his people in Jesus Christ, God put himself, in a very specific sense, in a “Need,” “Desire,” or “Want” relation toward us. Not one that was imposed from without. Not one that gives us (or any other force) control over the Creator. But one which bound God’s joy and identity to his creation as being this particular God—the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, and more specifically still, the son of David, the risen Lord Jesus, Messiah of Israel.

Is this Need-love identical with ours? No. But then neither is our Gift-love identical to his. The reason we exist, and more importantly, the reason God loves us, is that he invited us into the eternal life of love he enjoys within himself, in “the land of the Trinity” (The Four Loves, 175), the eternal life of mutually fulfilling Gift-love and Need-love which was shared with us not out of need, but out of joy.

On Lewis’ Reticence about God’s Needing Love

So why didn’t Lewis embrace God’s Need-love? I imagine he didn’t simply because it seems to compromise the life of God, undermine his aseity (that is, his absolute metaphysical independence—he is the cause of himself, and needs nothing else to exist) and making him passible (which suggests that God undergoes emotional pleasure and pain at the actions of other agents). In other words, if God needs something in order to be God, then he isn’t God in and of himself, his divinity isn’t something that he has simply by virtue of being who he is; he, like his creatures, would need other things and is dependent on them to be who he is. Moreover, this being the case, God could suffer the absence and loss of these things he needs, or at least experience the feelings associated with the fear of these needs not being met. God, in short, ends up sounding like a very big human up in the sky—not at all the God of the Old and New Testaments.

Now those would indeed be grave concerns, and I would be wary of committing myself to any such view. Were I to be given the opportunity of sharing a pint with Lewis at the Eagle and Child, I would offer up the following:

First, the Need-love I am attributing to God is but the logical counterpart to the Gift-love Lewis posits within the divine life, and therefore no great innovation. If Lewis wants to reject Need-love, I think he must do the same to Gift-love within the life of God.

Second, and far more important, I am not at all suggesting that God needs anything outside himself in order to be God. Rather, as God—as Father, Son and Holy Spirit—in his divine aseity and impassability, God lives out the dynamics of Need-love and Gift-love. God does not need anything outside himself to be God, because his Gift-love and Need-love are fully satisfied within the eternal life of the Trinity.

And it is on the basis of this life internal to himself that God relates to us: We can be in relation to God—we can need him and give him gifts of worship—because he is the source of these dynamics. He can relate to us on a Gift-love and Need-love basis, because our need and our gifts stem from the one in whose image we are made, the God who in and of himself lives an eternally fulfilled life of Gift-love and Need love.

And if Lewis wasn’t satisfied with my answer? At least I would have gotten to spend time with him at his favorite pub!