The Opposite of Love Is...

Would you like to weigh in on a little debate I’m having here on campus?

Here’s the question: What is the opposite of love?

Recently, I was discussing faith and life with a group of students along with a colleague from the College of Biblical Studies. During the discussion my colleague floated the very common formulation about love’s opposite. Specifically, he said:

“The opposite of love is not hate, it is apathy.”

I pondered that line and this week, while leading my bible class at church, publicly disagreed with it. I said something like this:

“The line you frequently hear in church is that ‘the opposite of love is not hate but apathy.’ But that’s just crazy. The opposite of love IS hate. Hate is way worse than apathy.”

Afterwards, my friend Chris, also from our College of Biblical Studies, defended the “the opposite of love is apathy” formulation. Chris’ basic contention was this:

Apathy, at its core, doesn’t even grant your existence. That is, your basic existence is not noted or recognized as worth even the most basic or moral consideration; you are, at root, “nothing,” a non-entity. Chris considered this “denial of existence” to be worse than hate and, thus, worthy of being accorded the status of “the opposite of love.”

I disagreed. True, a failure to recognize (morally speaking) the existence of the Other is a deep failure of love. But hate, at its core, seeks the non-existence of the Other, it seeks the eradication of the Other. Hate is more than holding that you don’t exist; hate contends that you don’t deserve existence, that existence should be taken from you. Hate, as I understand it, sits behind racism, lynching, and genocide. Hate is much more than apathy, it is active and morally justified (to the perpetrators) violence. I see this as much worse than apathy and, thus, place hate as “the opposite of love.”

Don’t get me wrong, apathy, as I said, is a very deep and tragic failure of love and a form of violence, but I’m sticking with hate as the true “opposite.”

So what do you think? Is Chris right? Or me? Cast your vote and I’ll let you decide:

This silliness aside, let me spend a moment reflecting on a more interesting issue associated with the “opposite of love” debate. Specifically, why is the “apathy is the opposite of love” formulation so widespread and commonplace?

Here’s what I think happened. I’ve long argued that since the Axial Age and the Enlightenment humans have, on average, particularly in nations affected by the Enlightenment, grown more moral. Charles Taylor in his book The Secular Age makes a similar argument, noting that the reforming influence in Latin Christianity led to a great emphasis on “civilizing” the masses. Public education comes to mind. By and large, although I recognize the glaring exceptions, humanistic values have taken hold in the world. The point is, hate isn’t rampant in our pews. Preachers generally don’t face genocidal audiences. What they do face are nice people. Tolerant and politically correct people.

Consequently, thundering on about hate isn’t very useful, rhetorically speaking. Hate just doesn’t speak to the moral experience of the average person in the pew.

But what does speak to the pressing moral issue in most churches is apathy. Nice people don’t need to hear sermons about hate. But they do need to hear sermons about apathy. Apathy sermons gain some rhetorical leverage on the average church audience. So, the love/hate dichotomy got reworked into the love/apathy dichotomy to make sermons more rhetorically powerful. In short, I believe that the “apathy is the opposite of love” formulation now dominates, not because it is true, but because it is rhetorically useful.

If this analysis holds it’s an interesting observation in that it suggests that popular theology is often driven less by concerns about validity than about efficacy. Personally, I think it is this dynamic (efficacy over validity) that has led to the ascendance of penal substitutionary atonement. Specifically, the penal substitutionary metaphors made for the most rhetorically powerful sermons and, as a result, led to the soteriological biases and abuses we see today. In short, the emotional connection between preacher and congregation is a source of theological pressure which nudges theological discourse in different directions.

This entry was posted by Richard Beck. Bookmark the permalink.

38 thoughts on “The Opposite of Love Is...”

  1. I hate psychologists who, intent on dividing the world into two kinds of people, offer only two choices in a web poll. As an English prof, I stand by my Bard-given right to think otherwise and vote C:

    - the opposite of love is statistical research.

    The psychological statistician has this in common with both your positions. He (almost always He) seeks to deny a human being her humanity by massaging her individuality into a statistically significant cohort, in effect creating a non-entity. This doctor of sophistry then seeks her total eradication if the subject's opinions don't fit neatly into a pre-defined category--vigilant in his efforts to eradicate the outlier.

    I sympathize for your poor, voiceless colleagues subjected to play the part of witless rube in your Platonic dialogue. Deny it if you will, but my vote remains C.


  2. I'll give my answer by taking this conversation to the afterlife. If heaven is the infinite fulfillment of our existence (everlasting love), is hell infinite non-existence (apathy) or an infinite torturous existence (hate)?

    I view hell as non-existence, so I'm going to say the opposite of love is apathy. I don't think a loving God would allow the infinite torture of his wayward children.

    But, I thought Bush was a compassionate conservative, too. He tortures people, so maybe I should leave my personal opinions of God out of this.

  3. Hi Richard,

    Interesting post as always.

    I believe Slavoj Žižek actually describes agape as hate.

    Jesus says: "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters—yes, even his own life—he cannot be my disciple."
    (luke 14,26)
    In this sense hate is the imperative to break out of an organic fellowship to follow Jesus.

    Žižek uses Abraham and Isaac on Moriah and God who gives his Son as examples of this "agape as hate".

    Steffen (Copenhagen)

  4. I'll join "your side" in the argument, Richard - hate is closer to the opposite of love than apathy.

    I appreciate the meme of "apathy is the real opposite of love", though, because it emphasizes the moral culpability of the bystanders.

    I've been reading Miroslav Volf's Exclusion and Embrace, in which he demonstrates shared participation in evil by all parties - perpetrator (the one who hates), victim (who hates in reaction to the injustice done to them), and the "neutral" third party (the bystander, onlooker, even activist to the exclusion).

    (He's also careful to say that the shared guilt does not imply equal guilt.)

    "Forgiveness flounders "because I exclude the enemy from the community of humans even as I exclude myself from the community of sinners. But no one can be in the presence of the God of the crucified Messiah for long without overcoming this double exclusion - without transposing the enemy from the sphere of monstrous inhumanity into the sphere of shared humanity and herself from the sphere of proud innocence into the sphere of common sinfulness. When one knows that the torturer will not eternally triumph over the victim, one is free to rediscover that person's humanity and imitate God's love for him. And when one knows that God's love is greater than all sin, one is free to see onself in the light of God's justice and so rediscover one's own sinfulness." (p.124)

  5. KD,
    Doctor of sophistry? You are an English professor for crying out loud. (To all readers: KD is a very dear, but misguided, friend here at the school.)

    That is an interesting application to hell. I used to be an annihilationist but still found issues of injustice with it.

    That's really, really interesting. I've not read Žižek, but run across his name a lot. What book or essay of his works that angle?

    I like that triangle of victim/perpetrator/bystander. That is a great rubric to evaluate our moral culpability and shows how hate might only exist in the face of apathy: Hate is allowed.

  6. If my memory serves me right, it is in "The fragile absolute".

    His "On Belief" is also very recommendable. And I'm sure you would get him more than I do - he uses Jacques Lacan a lot, and that's a bit over my head.
    But none the less his books are a great read. (And he's not a big fan of penal substitution ;-))

  7. I'm in the 'hate' camp.

    The argument given in favour of the apathy position seems week at best. The idea seems to be that refusing to even acknowledge someone's existence is the worst thing you could do to someone. It's the worst of the non-loving things you could do.

    That seems clearly false. There are far worse things that you could do to someone than refusing to acknowledge their existence. Most European Jews during the second world was would have been much better off if the Nazi's refused to acknowledge their existence. Obviously the Nazi's didn't do this and as a result, these Jews were far far far worse off because of it. It would be no consolation to anyone who suffered the horrors of the death camps to say: "Well, at least they acknowledged your existence."

  8. Steffen,
    Thanks. You've given me the push I needed to read his stuff.

    I also pondered the WW2 example. It's like the choice between apartheid and genocide.

    I don't know if Chris will post, he's not a blogger or blog follower, but my guess is that he would say that both apartheid and genocide are forms of hate. Thus, hate should be a larger category that encompasses both apathy and my use of the word "hate" (which is close in meaning to malicious violence). If so then we would both be correct: Hate (in all its forms) is the opposite of love.

  9. Still thinking here...

    If what I just posted to Mark is correct then here are my assessments and future recommendations:

    Not exact: "Apathy is the opposite of love."

    Better and more precise: "Apathy is a form of hate."

  10. @richard

    You're welcome. I would love to hear you interact with Žižek's thoughts.

    I don't see a lot of Christians doing that.
    I think Peter Rollins dig him though..

  11. "Apathy is a form of hate."

    Apathy, in all its forms, is not a subset of hate. I don't care about NASCAR, but I don't hate NASCAR. I actually would be open to attending a NASCAR event.

    I might be willing to accept: Apathy towards malicious violence is a form of hate.

  12. Clearly, hate is the opposite of love. There are too many Biblical examples to cite. Cain, for instance. Sarai for another. Esau for another. No, those Bible Studies people are just being silly. I mean, can you imagine Proverbs 6:16--"These six things the LORD is apathetic about, Yes, seven which He doesn't really care one way or another about...." Absurd!

    As to heaven and hell: they are the same place, but for one it will be eternal bliss and for the other eternal misery. Imagine it this way: if you went outside this afternoon, you probably thought it was a perfectly wonderful day. But bandage your eyes for seven days, then unbandage them in the same sunlight we had this afternoon. So the presence of the LORD will be for those who have prepared to stand in His presence and those who have not.

  13. I asked a very similar question on my blog a few weeks ago got some very interesting responses.

    The best was from an Australian fellow, Byron Smith, who spoke of three different kinds of opposition: misdirection, absence, and perversion. His thoughts (and the subsequent comments) are well worth your time. In the end, his is essentially a vote for apathy.

    See his post at:

    For my part, the opposite of love is fear insofar as fear is often the underlying motivation of both apathy and hatred. Fear is a closing-off, a shutting-in, whereas love is a pouring-out and an opening-up.

    It was fear-mongering that fed Nazi Germany's anti-semitic hatred and consigned otherwise conscientious Germans to self-seeking apathy toward the plight of their neighbors.

  14. Opposites are often difficult to identify since we use the term in different senses. I think what we're looking for here is the compliment. The compliment of a term (like love) is another term that denotes a property that is inconsistent with the one denoted by the first term.

    If we compare the options, hate and apathy, I think it is clear that hate is the more appropriate compliment.

    That said, none of this is a precise science. I think Richard's explanation of the rhetorical force derived from pairing love with apathy is right. Just think of a sermon where this pair of concepts is discussed. I can very easily imagine someone sitting in the pew who thinks: "Wow, I never thought about that before" and then goes home, repeats the mantra to friends, but doesn't really ever think about it again. Those friends think something similar and repeat the action. This continues until the chain gets to someone like Richard who thinks about it after wards and decides (rightly) to try to disabuse people of this idea that apathy is the opposite of love.

    One last this (since this is already long).

    Kirk, I think that appealing to the Biblical examples to help us sort out which of our terms or concepts bear the opposite relation to one another isn't a good way to figure out the answer. In order to understand these passages, we need to have a good handle on our concepts (of love, hate, and apathy). Having a good handle on these concepts is all we need to do the linguistic investigation. So, we might as well eliminate the middle step.

    I guess I just think that appealing to the Bible in contexts such as these is somewhat irrelevant. Appealing to the Bible to figure out what God is like... that's a different story.

  15. Over the years, I've heard that apathy is the opposite of love - I think the first time I heard it was on a retreat when I was in junior high... 26 or 27 years ago.

    I remember a slogan that went around my high school in the mid 80s: "Love me, or hate me - but don't ignore me." Clearly the view here was that being ignored is worse than being hated...

    I realize that the comment I'm about to make is extremely judgmental, subjective, and unsupported by any real statistics... but I'm going to say it anyway...

    My opinion is that the majority of folks who believe that apathy is the opposite of love have never truly been on the receiving end of real hatred.

    It seems to me that anyone who believes that being ignored is worse than being violently and maliciously attacked might have had a bit of a sheltered existence.

    Just my opinion...

  16. It seems everyone has jumped on Dr. Beck's 'hate bandwagon,' and only the sheltered would suggest different.

    Well, my sheltered mind tells me the opposition of love and apathy has more than just rhetorical significance. The story of the good Samaritan provides a striking example of the opposition of love and apathy (not biblical proof, just an exemplary story). Love shows concern for the suffering of others while apathy is indifferent.

    Hate may be the better overall compliment, but apathy has its place, too.

    Who wrote the rules, anyways. You act like there is a right answer.

  17. My instant reaction was to say that 'coldness' was the opposite of love. However on reflection this is probably a better description of the absence of love, rather than the opposite.

    I think the same is true of apathy. I'm therefore siding with Richard and go with hate being the polar opposite of love.


  18. Hmmm, well, now I've got to go with KD, that statistical analysis(quantitative analysis, I might add) is probably the true opposite of love.

    Seriously, though I am not much of a blogger, I can't pass up the opportunity to interact here.

    I'm willing to consider Richard's take, but a few thoughts.

    "But hate, at its core, seeks the non-existence of the Other"- I'm not so certain this is the case, at lest, not necessarily. Can't I hate someone but grant them certain rights, particularly the right of existence? I wonder if the notion that another doesn't deserve existence only attains in certain extreme forms, which may be a product of hate plus other factors (competition, will to power, etc.).

    Another issue we should probably clarify- what is the difference between the affect "hate" and those actions we might term "hateful"? Richard, you note that "Hate is much more than apathy, it is active and morally justified (to the perpetrators) violence". So, here, you seem to identify hate as action against another. I was earlier thinking primarily of the emotion of hate, not hateful actions. This strikes me as significant as I was thinking of Hanah Arendt's discussion of Eichmann and the "banality of evil." Did Eichmann "hate" the Jews? What he authorized was certainly "hateful" (well, at least it wasn't loving) but I wonder, given Arendt's point. Anyway, just some musings as the discussion continues. And, as Topher noted above, isn't it interesting that the example Jesus uses to illustrate a concrete example of love involves, not hateful actions, but ones seemingly resulting from indifference. I suppose one could argue that this indifference/apathy was the result of hateful attitudes, but I don't think such is required.

    Curiouser and curiouser...

  19. Mark, I respectfully disagree. First, when you are debating with Biblical Studies majors, you need to be prepared to use Biblical sources to back up your position. And second, theologically speaking, God teaches us what love is, and so I look to God to teach us what hate is.

    Now, back to the original question. There's another very important reason why I believe that the opposite of love is hate: the effect of hate on the subject; that is, the hater. If I hate someone, there is a papable effect on my body, mind, and soul. Whether I act on the hate or not, I am affected by it, I am eaten up by it, and I am made less of a person for hating. No so, apathy. I think too often the modern Western mind judges emotion by the effect on the object, when it should be judged by the effect on the subject.

  20. Let me also throw this in the mix.

    I wonder if Augustine's notion of incurvatus in se (the self "curved in on itself") might be an umbrella term that captures a lot of these ideas, particularly when framed in relational or sociological terms. That is incurvatus in se suggests a pulling/turning away from relationality and communion. This can take both "cold" (apathy) and "hot" (hate) forms, but the root issue is relational fracture due to a person or a group turning away from the Other.

  21. Hey Kirk, thanks for the reply. You don't really have to 'respectfully disagree' if you think what I've said is nuts, then you can say so. I, for one, won't take it personally. :-)

    That said, what I would have liked was an argument against my position. You say that when arguing "with Biblical Studies majors I should be prepared to use Biblical sources to back up your position."

    This is less of an argument against my position (in the last post) and more just a statement of how Biblical Studies majors argue. If that really is how all the arguments go, then so much the worse for Biblical Studies majors. Good arguments need not appeal to the bible. Some good arguments ought not. In the case of trying to understand the meanings of terms, I think a linguistic investigation is more apt.

    On your theological note, I don't think that you've got the order right. I don't think that God teaches us what love is. God might aid us in understanding love by being the best example, but that's something different from us acquiring the concept of love.

    Again, my main point of the comment above was this: If we are to understand the relevant passages that are playing a role in your argument above, then we need to first understand the terms employed therein. But, if we need to understand the terms before understanding the passage, then we can't learn what the terms mean by reading the passage. That's impossible. So, we don't learn the meanings of the terms from the passages.

    Best, Mark.

  22. Richard,

    Hmmmm! Responses aplenty. Doesn't surprise me since you set things up for combat. You sneeky Manichean, you, taking emotionally packed items, hotbutton stuff, and setting them up in an either/or mimetic rivalry. My question per Girard is: who or what gets scapegoated?

    George C.

  23. Richard.. interesting question. Let's go one step further - to the "pre-fall" state of being - before good, before evil. Maybe the absence of duality is unqualified love? A love that can't be compared to an antonym.

    What I want to know is the definition of "good" in the pre-fall Genesis creation story. This "good" has no antonym. Maybe 'it was good' can be better understood as 'it was love'?

  24. Great topic!

    I would say the opposite of love is hate. Both love and hate are forms of attachment - hate is, like love, a bond to the object of passion. Apathy, on the other hand, is a non-attachment.

    Buddha say: He who loves 50 men has 50 woes, but he who loves no one has none.

  25. I vote apathy.

    Because judging by the the quickness and volume of these comments, the readers of Richard's blog are keener to display their unapathy than their unhatred.

  26. Serious answer: I question the possibility of establishing opposites at all. (A linguistic point, rather than a question-specific one.)

    But insofar as God is love, and separation from God, the source and sustainer of life, is death, I think non-existence is a better point of contrast with love than hatred.

    Hatred and love both suggest the object matters. In normal life most of use don't experience fierce love or savage hatred, but a mixture of the two in our everyday relationships. How many parents have heard their child declare "I hate you" entirely sincerely, knowing that they love them too? Hate and love and co-exist in the same relationship, but love and apathy cannot.

    And to this:

    "It seems to me that anyone who believes that being ignored is worse than being violently and maliciously attacked might have had a bit of a sheltered existence."

    That's a false comparison, or more accurately a misleading one in the context of this argument.

    Being ignored is not the worst consequence of apathy. Terrible crimes are committed just as much out of apathy as out of hatred. Take the use of rape as an instrument of ethnic cleansing in Darfur, for example.It is not hatred that motivates those horrors. Ultimately it is the idea that some people are non-persons or less-than-persons that allows that practice to take place. It was the same view that some people are less-people than others that justified colonialism, and that seems closer to apathy than hatred in my view.

  27. I did not take the time to read all 31 (!) comments so forgive me if this is a repeat.

    This notion of apathy as the opposite of love sounds a lot like "On Bullshit" where the author argued bullshit was more damaging to truth than a lie. A lie at least acknowledges the existence of truth in its formulation even if it stands opposed to it. Whereas bullshit is totally indifferent to truth and could careless what the truth actually is or that it even exists.

    In Revelation (I think) we are cautioned against lukewarmness (apathy) because nothing can be done with with someone who is lukewarm. The energy of hate can at least be redirected, but the malaise of apathy is much harder to cure.

    I vote for apathy.

  28. Hayden,

    I thought about Frankfurt's On Bullshit too. Frankfurt's view is roughly this: both lying and bullshitting are harmful, but at least with lying, there is some regard for the truth. That's not quite enough to get him the conclusion that bullshit is worse. To get that, he needs another argument that takes him from 'bullshit is harmful' to 'bullshit is more harmful'.

    (I think Frankfurt is wrong about this, but that's another issue.)

    The issue here is whether the Frankfurt argument about bullshit is analogous to the love/hate/apathy debate. I don't think it is. It's not because you'll not get the last step that Frankfurt needs to get the conclusion that bullshit is worse. Similarly, you don't get the conclusion that apathy is worse than hate. (That seems to be what the debate here has boiled down to.) Since it seems clear that it's not worse, it's clearly not analogous to the Frankfurt case.


  29. I voted "hate" but after reading responses I began to think of a different response. The opposite of Love is selfishness. Philippians says Jesus made himself nothing which would be the total opposite of selfish. I would then argue that both apathy and hatred are born out of selfishness. When I act out of love I act in your best interest. Without love I act in my best interest.

    I also will argue that hatred is still a big problem in the church but that we have become very sophisticated with our hatred. But our resentments, bitterness, jealousies, divisiveness and contempt are all dressed up hatred. I am a bit surprised that Richard would argue otherwise because I believe he has some first hand experience as a recipient of said vices.



  30. I belatedly would say that the opposite of love is perhaps domination.

    I think that the discussion of love, so far, has focused far too much on emotion, which I think is at most 1/2 of love. Love is also a moral, conscious decision. Otherwise, it would be impossible to love our enemies because we have no warm, fuzzy feelings.

    It is also quite possible for "love" as we usually describe it, as primarily an emotion, to be bad for you. You can "love" a ferocious abuser and be unable to leave. But if we talk about love as the opposite of domination, then we see that the abuser does not love at all.

    That warm, fuzzy feeling of connection is not the whole of love, and is inadequate without the conscious, moral decision to love. Intense feelings like fear and hate can be overcome by consciously chosen love, but love-as-emotional-connection is totally helpless against them.

  31. I'm way late in this discussion--I agree with Doug, only I would use the word control.

    Love does not control but encourages and allows "other." Control seeks to annihilate "other."

  32. I'm not sure that Love has an opposite but what fills the vacuum when it's gone is always a sad thing to see.

    Pastor Bill

Leave a Reply