Love Divine and Human

Writing in 1920, Eberhard Arnold addresses fellow members of the German Youth Movement (Jugendbewegung). His insights on the connection between eros and agape – love human and divine – are as timely as ever.

Tired of the stuffy social conventions of their day, thousands of young people were searching for more genuine, free, and egalitarian relationships. While understanding their desire to live authentically, Eberhard Arnold, a prominent figure in this movement, tried to guide fellow seekers to a richer understanding and experience of human love – one aligned with God’s divine love. 

Living without Love

In his Christmas Carol, Dickens portrays a rich old merchant in whom all but the last spark of love has died. His life has been ruined because he has given himself over completely to earning money. Nothing but coldness comes from him, as if he were a man without a heart. This deathly atmosphere is so tangible around him that no child or beggar on the street dares approach him for the slightest help.

In extreme loneliness, Scrooge lives a purely commercial existence without any human relationships whatsoever. He has even sacrificed the love of his youth to the idol of money. Any pure hope he once had is consumed in his striving to assure himself of recognition and success in the financial world, until at last every noble feeling is extinguished. A man of established fortune, he becomes a soulless being. His life is so completely turned away from the human community that his death is merely the confirmation of a long-established condition. Only if the spirit of his youth could be re-awakened would his loneliness, coldness, and emptiness give way to God’s warmth. Only if he were to give himself with new faithfulness to his old longing for life and love, turning away from everything that had killed life and love, would the message of Christmas bring him new life.

No one can live without love. A person without love is aging and dying; in truth, such a person is already dead. When love sickens and degenerates, the innermost life is poisoned. Affirmation of life is found only when love unfolds without restraint. Those who allow love’s ardent urge and longing to go unused are suffering the same incalculable loss of their most precious possession as those who squander their most sacred powers in a dirty drain.

Love is a vital question for every young person. Each one feels that love is his or her destiny. There are many who, in hours of anxiety, fear the love life. Among youth, too, there are those who flee love like the plague. Love appears to them as a blazing fire, which their fearful souls want to avoid; others, who are no more fireproof, come too close to the flame. They allow the house of their lives to be destroyed in a smoldering fire. Their outward person deteriorates because they let their inward humanity go to ruin. Like a dying crater they burn out their hearts in impure passion instead of letting the sun’s eternal powers glow through them, passing on to others pure light and genuine warmth.

For most people, love is a labyrinth in which they cannot take a step without blundering. They have not discovered the secret of how to guide its living stream into the right channel. Perhaps they sense that all love must end in God, just as all rivers flow into the ocean. They realize that much water trickles away or evaporates instead of finding the way for which it is destined. Ultimately, they want nothing but the fulfilment of their own being and God’s being. Yet they lack the living vision to separate the pure, original force of love from its weakened forms.

Passion, Eros, and Agape

In our language there is only one word for all the degrees of love, even for all its sick and deviant forms. In this simplicity of expression the mystery of love lies hidden. This mystery suggests that love is the one thing around which every living thing moves, to which every hope is tied, by which everything that breathes living power is sustained.

Nature’s powers of attraction all derive from the same mystery of love. In the great universe, the rhythmic order of the circling constellations represents a monumental image of love. Not a single plant grows without love. No animal, however small, is hatched or born without love. Nowhere do people come together, nowhere are living beings procreated and born, unless a spark of love unfolds its life force. Our language does not distinguish between types of love to indicate the healthy and the sick relationships between body and soul and between soul and spirit. The Greeks, however, saw a clear difference between three forms of love: passion, which is possessive desire; eros, which is the attraction of body and soul; and finally agape, which is divine love, God’s all-embracing love that gives itself to all.

People frequently ask how these three spheres of love are related to one another. Some are inclined to deny any essential difference between possessive love and the affection of people for one another on the level of their souls and bodies. Others want to separate sharply the holy love, which pours out riches, from contact with eros. Their radical opponents, on the other hand, insist that since there can be no radiance of love without erotic energies, God’s love does not exist at all.

Anyone who is out of contact with religious life must judge in this latter way. But those who have experienced how God’s love has been literally poured out over them have felt overwhelmed by its radiance and submerged completely and forever into it. They can never be dissuaded from the certainty that all experiences of love, of whatever kind they may be, are but single rays – or impure and distorted reflections – of this one unending sun of life. They have become sure that God’s holy love alone is essential in the love life. Therefore, the one important question relating to love is whether it belongs to this center of life, or whether it has strayed away from it.

It has been pointed out that in the different areas of the brain, the areas of religious experience and of the experience of love are adjacent. Here lies a deep symbolism which points to the ultimate truth, for “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them” (1 John 4:16). Even the most degenerate and besmirched feelings of love have something from God hidden in them. However, their deterioration, like a corroding poison, consumes what is of God down to the last fragment, so that a person who is drowning in the flesh no longer has an eye for God and his love.

Those who spend the energies of their love in the intoxication of the senses deprive the neighboring centers of the brain of their vital power. They exhaust and ruin their feeling and spirit for the life of God. They become dull to the noblest impressions that come from the heart of God. Their eyes, created for the light, can then find their way only in the dark. No one who is impure is able to see God. The inward vision of the soul springs only from the purification of the heart. Agape, divine love, is God’s pure vision. It is at the same time the flooding of our entire life with the pure power of God, which is love. This love knows no lust or possessiveness. Most people know only of the eros of desire, which in its most destructive form, as ever-changing lust, exchanges one possession for another. Nevertheless, the important question is whether we can win through to an erotic life ruled by pure agape.

At first glance, the two ends of a straight line seem to move away from one another into infinity. However, they will meet in infinity if the straight line which is visible to us is in fact an infinitely small portion of an infinitely large circle. In this picture, the straight line which is visible in ordinary life represents eros. In the visible world of time and space, we, though spiritual beings, can find no relationship to one another without experiencing an attraction or repulsion of soul and body. This is the sphere of the emotions, the holding of hands, the meeting of eyes, the striding together arm in arm. This is fellowship in word and song, in hiking and sport; it is friendship and fellowship in joy and sorrow, faith and hope; this is the community of humankind without which we cannot live.

Love in the Light of Eternity

In all this life God is present. The essence and basis of all life and community is agape, the love that comes from God and leads to God. Agape is the love that never ends and knows no bounds, the revelation of the transcendent in the immanent. God is love. Those who remain in love remain in God, and God in them. Therefore, the line of human love relationships which is visible to us flows into the community of God, into God’s very heart.

The love of two people, or a bond of friendship, or a community of believers, finds its fulfilment only in God’s inexhaustible and everlasting eternity. In these ultimate heights alone can we find the strength to let love flow through our whole lives and to let all our gifts be unfolded. Only in this atmosphere can we gain the purity to radiate a love free from the greed of possessive desire in the world of eros. Finally the intoxication of the senses is replaced by the ecstasy of the divine Spirit, which the human viewpoint must assume to be asceticism. Eros then comes completely under the rulership of agape. The all-embracing Spirit replaces the separated possessive will.

At some point the line of love takes us into the world of the eternal and endless. “Joy wants the eternity of all things, wants deep, deep, deep eternity!”1 For example, Goethe’s Faust at first wants to go exulting toward the moment of joy in physical love: “Tarry, remain! – you are so fair!”2 But finally he finds the true fulfilment of his longing in the enduring work of building and preserving the community of humankind. In all the ways in which Faust’s love seeks fulfilment, Goethe sees the power of eros at work. At the close of the book, this leads him to conclude: “Woman, eternally, /shows us the way.”3 If we follow the tangible, ascending line of love to infinity, life leads us to God. If we follow this line of love exclusively toward God, in the direction of the pure spirit, toward the highest destiny, we shall attain inner wholeness and unity. Only the holy symbol of the uniting of two people allows us to press forward with impunity. Of course, it can also take us in the opposite direction, into the infinity of the ultimate depths.

At each moment we are touching the world beyond. Each moment is a breath bringing us the air of eternity. Each moment brings us in contact with love. In the holiest moments of total physical union we are submerged in the world beyond. We are lifted out of our own limitations and placed into the closest community with the spiritual world. Oneness given between two beings endowed with soul and spirit is an event in the realm of eternity. The more intense the experience of love, the stronger and more effective becomes the influence of the transcendent world upon our lives.

The decisive question of our destiny, therefore, is that of the inner nature of our love experience; above all, it is a question of the nature of the spiritual powers with which we have allied ourselves. We may be unaware at such moments of whether we have joined with the powers of darkness or with the light of God; yet we will come to recognize it by the effects these moments inevitably entail. One who goes to the harlot becomes one flesh and one spirit with her (1 Cor. 6:16). One who enters into the eternal oneness of two before God and in God experiences the blessing of this sacred mystery in his or her own body and spirit.

God has compared his covenant with his people and the unity of Christ with his church to this union of betrothal and marriage.4 The one eternal Christ is the single object of the devotion of his church; he kindles in her all the powers of love and of the Spirit. In the same way, complete unity is given in marriage, a unity which awakens and unfolds all the powers of manhood and of motherly womanhood. Marriage, which is the will of two to create something beyond themselves, is a participation in God’s creative power. In our spiritual life this participation should awaken all our energies for God’s essence, his will, and his love to all. Baptism, the symbol of dying and of rising again to the unfolding of a full and pure life, can take place only once; it is absolutely unrepeatable. The same is true of marriage to the one person given to each of us for the fulfilment of all our potentialities in life.

Thus our love life becomes our destiny in the most serious sense of the word. It may either hurl us into the hellish abyss of demonic self-destruction where what is holiest and best in us is lost; then eros has become satanic desire and lust. Or it may lift us to the pure heights of God’s light where we find the fulfilment of our destiny and calling; then every sphere of eros has been taken possession of by God.

The Freedom of Agape

Now, some may ask about those who can never find the happiness of unity between two in body, soul, and spirit; here we stand before the mystery of a most noble calling of God’s love. People who are deeply unhappy in their disappointed or frustrated desires need to be touched by powers from the eternal world before they can arrive at a decision that makes them completely happy. Those who long for the garden of love when it is closed to them, who rattle its locked gates, cannot attain this happiness.

It may be, however, that to some the way of marriage is barred by bitter experience. There may be others who do not feel drawn to the opposite sex. They all can find an unsuspected wealth of happiness in their lives if the holy decisiveness of God’s love breaks through within them. None of love’s energy should be wasted or go unused. No life power should be suppressed. It is essential, then, to rise up out of the gloomy chamber, out of the smoky city, out of the valley filled with fog and sickly vapor, so that one’s vision becomes free, the heart opens wide, and the lungs breathe pure air. It is essential that all energies be converted into the highest and purest powers so that they can develop unbroken and unrestrained.

There is a complete freeing from selfish desire when eros is wedded in everlasting faithfulness to agape. Those who can be liberated once and for all from the sexual in this way are some of the happiest of people. They are able to love more than others because their entire time and strength are free, because agape, God’s love, exclusively dominates their relationships to all men and women. Through them, the heavenly kingdom can break in upon earth more freely because the stream of their love moves in one single direction. In this sense Jesus spoke of those who are eunuchs for the sake of the kingdom of heaven, and Paul spoke of those for whom it is better to remain single because their mission requires a special preparedness.

Women and men for whom the way to marriage seems to be closed must not become embittered and withdrawn from life and love. They must not stifle the best within themselves. They must never give themselves over to desires that prevent the awakening and unfolding of what is best in them, above all, that which is of God in them. Rather, they have received a higher calling in which all their powers of love are kindled and revived by the generous, sunny love of God. Their powers of love are not spent in possessive desire but wholeheartedly dedicated to enthusiastic, lavish giving. Here love to many, to all, comes into its own, love that wants nothing for itself but is fulfilled in giving.

The Highest Calling

In reality, every human being, whether married or unmarried, is placed before the same question at important moments of decision. In reality, we all live in a certain asceticism, which we have found to be the all-embracing, life-affirming love of God. More and more this asceticism says “No” to possessive desire. It has made a final separation from the sexual domain. Its decision is for the one pure life of divine love into which the Holy Spirit alone is able to submerge us. Here all our living together is flooded with white light. Hand in hand in pure joy, boys and girls, men and women, stand before the great gate which heaven has opened to them upon earth. They lead one another to their highest calling, to that life of love which gives away all possessions and strength without ever losing itself.

We should not be surprised that such a pure communion in crystal-clear, wholehearted affection is so often believed to be impossible, for the love life of many knows only the impulses of physical desire. Certainly, even in the ugliest sensual desire a divine spark of love’s higher powers lies hidden. However, where the covetous will defines our love life, thought life, and deepest hidden longings, love continues to be ruled by the animal and demonic realms of our being. In this condition no one can attain the heights of true humanity and fresh youthfulness to which every human being, without exception, is called. In these lowlands, the emotional life proves incapable of allowing love to mature to faithfulness, which alone can be the fulfilment of a fellowship of love.

The highest and ultimate love, poured out over us as eternal power, wants to penetrate and affirm our physical powers of love. This love cannot tolerate our enslavement by animal sensuality. It does not want us to be dependent on the state of the body. It wants to lift us into the highest spheres of divine freedom and divine purity, out of which and toward which moves all that is living.

We rejoice about those powers of eros that cannot be mistaken for sultry eroticism. The Greek god Eros does not only represent mere physical sexuality, but also communal experiences of the soul which belong to a relatively pure atmosphere. Yet in comparison, the purest air of love is the breath of the Spirit which goes out from Jesus; Socrates or Plato could only sense this. The forces which are to be felt in the Youth Movement are powers of eros in a new form, powers in which freer air, fresher wind, a wider view, and a purified joy prevail. The tender emotional life of innermost fellowship in love has mastered the gross physical drive of brute sensuality. Young people have become aware that all relationships of body and soul between people are always and everywhere relationships of love. They dare to rejoice in these love relationships in jubilant affirmation of life. They comprehend in these relationships the only possible shaping of community and of life as a whole. Only rarely, however, has this emotional upsurge of the most hidden powers penetrated into the regions of the Spirit and to Christ.

Enslaved by Eros

As the Youth Movement branches out more and more, it is becoming as clear as day that all ways leading away from Christ will lead into the mire. It is evident that the forces of eros without the power of agape cannot lead to purity. A shameless nudity cult has desecrated the mystery that can only belong to the unity of two people, which is a sacred symbol. The Youth Movement must keep a clear distance from those who have escaped from the prostitution of the big cities only to be just as miserably enslaved by other forms of possessive desire.

To the clear-sighted, the domain of eros is distinctly divided into two opposing camps. The straight line which is visible to us – a portion of the eternal circle of love – turns downward here into the darkness. Just as surely as the sympathies of body and soul can be fully dominated and kept pure by the love of God, they can be enslaved by eros in vacillating, unfaithful, and emotionally sordid desire. To the extent to which the Youth Movement falls prey to this erotic life of lust, it is lost and finished. Insofar as it finds joy in the erotic life of pure agape, it can be called to something great for our people and for humanity. The Youth Movement stands at a crossroads where neither Buddha nor Laozi nor any other Indian or Chinese person can help, but Christ Jesus alone.

This hour of decision for the youth of today is regarded with serious apprehension by orthodox Christian groups. These groups have repeatedly experienced how quickly a crude sensuality drowns out the tender movement of the soul; because of this, they are unwilling to believe that a new, freer, and purer spirit is at work in new ways of living. Nietzsche’s reproach to Christianity was that it had poisoned eros and taken away its innocence. From this, he said, eros died. This crushing accusation applies to the general lines of development in church history. A strong inclination toward a purely negative asceticism has become noticeable in the youth of today who struggle against the dangers of degeneration and defilement. But Jesus did not want this.

Jesus had no distrust of life; he joyfully affirmed all of life’s forces that are illumined, penetrated, and ruled by God’s love. He held marriage and its inviolability in high regard, honoring it by discerning its desecration in the impure thought and the covetous look (Matt. 5:27–30). Jesus gave his church brotherly love as its sign, love that is agape, in community of table and of prayer and openhearted discussion. In his own life he showed how pure love can embrace all people without servile anxiety and work everywhere without being stained. Jesus loved the rich young man when he looked at him as he alone could look, challenging him to give away all his riches and to follow him (Matt. 19:16–22). He loved John, who later called attention to how he had leaned against Jesus’ breast at table (John 13:23). Though denounced by his enemies, Jesus allowed people to come close to him who sought freeing from their sick sensuality through love to him. Women of ill repute were allowed to kiss his feet, wash and dry them with their hair, or anoint his head.5 And even on the cross, he gave his mother a son and his beloved young friend a mother (John 19:26–27).

Through his Spirit, Jesus brought a final transcendence of the erotic life. Seen from a false perspective, this could be misunderstood as a stifling of emotional relationships. This transcendence is the revelation of the love of God free from desire. Eros by itself is not free of covetous desire. Therefore, it is not free from jealousy of others in their loving and being loved. It is not free of boastfulness and conceit. It can injure tenderness and purity of feeling, for it still seeks its own. Eros does not stand up for justice and truth because by its very nature it remains partial. For this reason, it cannot of itself become one with the attitude toward life that believes all things, hopes all things, and endures all things (1 Cor. 13:7). Eros can be poisoned, sicken, and die, for it is of this world. Plato’s Symposium, the loftiest eulogy that world literature has devoted to eros, unveils its sickness to anyone who looks more deeply.

Love is the Greatest of All Things

God’s love is eternal and imperishable. It is the greatest and final revelation on our earth of God’s universe. Greed and vanity, possession and property must perish because they are worthless for the eternal. Even the highest gifts of language, knowledge, and prophecy belong to time and will perish with it (1 Cor. 13:8). Love, however, is simply life itself, life in every sense, full and everlasting life. Jesus has revealed to us that love is the greatest of all things. Those who live in love fulfil the essence and the will of God. They live in God and God lives in them. There is no other community with God than that of love. Faith is alive only in love. Faith without love is nothing. If anyone brings forth the clearest proclamation and the purest teaching but has not love, that person is nothing but noise and smoke (1 Cor. 13:1).

The warmth that comes from God’s heart cannot be produced in any laboratory, by any decree, or by any organization. No friendly efforts or zealous benevolence can imitate this genuine gold. Whoever has felt this unique life power radiating from the elderly or from someone in a wheelchair knows it is independent of the physical freshness of youth. It is life itself. It is the one primary force, the original power springing from the deepest source. Wherever we meet this life power it is the effect of a cause, the cause of all being. Omne vivum ex vivo (all life comes from life). Love begets love. He loved first who himself is love (1 John 4:19, 16). Only out of this first cause are we able to love.

Hence the love that is agape, in contrast to the intrinsically sick eros, bears the character of him who literally pours it out over us. It knows no bounds of space and time. It destroys nothing. It is the strength of unconquerable perseverance. It is steadfast faithfulness and is therefore equal to every task.

Agape, as genuine kindness, alone knows what is right for each person in every situation because it is free of the passionate stirring of naked eros, which seeks by all the wiles of jealousy to win or to hold what it supposedly loves. Agape clothes the energy of our love in the divine light of inexpressible purity, which can never be unseemly or ugly and can never injure the modesty or sensitivity of the soul. Because it is God’s love, it is free from all inflated arrogance, from all pretense, from all presumption for its own advantage.

Agape seeks and demands nothing for itself because it lives completely in the object of its love. It knows nothing of rights, for its nature is to abandon and forget the standpoint of rights, to find its happiness in giving. Vanity and envy are beneath it; therefore it can never be made harsh, never be thrown into excitement, and never be provoked to bitterness. Agape sees the essential nature and potentialities of those it loves; thus it does not take into account what may still be evil in them. And yet it has nothing to do with injustice. It concentrates its joy completely on the real, the genuine, the true in the soul of the other person.

Agape sees through everything which still delays the holy calling of a soul. It has the strength to be a protection, to endure and ward off all dangers that threaten to obstruct a person’s destiny. It can do this because it is one with faith and hope, because it is completely in God, because it lives in the final fulfilment of humankind’s future. For this reason alone, it is able to stand firm everywhere and to endure everything. Agape is present where the unfolding of the full powers of womanhood and manhood are given in Christ, but never where there is merely a passing effervescence or superficial enthusiasm.

Anyone who has read the sublime song of love in the original text as Paul wrote it (1 Cor. 13) knows that this was his expression of the Greek song of praise to agape. Those who feel something of this love arising in their hearts experience across the centuries and millennia the aliveness and timelessness of the same spirit working directly in them. Slowly the light dawns within, so that we begin to sense how life could be opened to us by this perfect love. We long for this unspeakable happiness and feel what it means for all people to encounter him who radiates this life.

The Love of Jesus

No founder of a religion, no philosopher or moralist has lived this love as Jesus did. We can reach God’s heart only if we encounter Jesus. In Christ the love of God became manifest. The Word became flesh. Jesus came down into the life of physical and emotional relationships. At all times he was the kingly giver, the man who gave riches.

Jesus knew only the crystal-clear, purified love of the kingly service for which he came into this world, not in order to make us his servants but to serve and give up his life. He revealed the love that forgives everything and gives everything. He revealed the love that includes enemies as well as friends, the love that allows no injury to any opponent or his property – much less to his physical life. Yes, he showed that love is not limited by possessions or property. His love is the unconditional and the absolute for which we all long. Such love could never accept being frustrated by outward circumstances.

The love of Jesus is forever and is boundless, or it is nothing. There is no other characteristic of Jesus, and of a life lived for Jesus, than love. Therefore, Jesus said that by the love that his own would have for one another the world would know that they belonged to him (John 13:34–35). Knowing himself to be one with the original source of love, he established love as the primary characteristic of his being.

The cross of Jesus is the ultimate gift of God’s love. Here our loveless and lovesick lives come to an end. Here begins the new life of divine justice which can be no other justice than that of love. Previously, we gave ourselves to the service of degenerate and degrading ways of love; now we give ourselves to the service of justice and perfect love, which belongs to all (Rom. 6:13).

When we find this deepest and all-embracing fulfilment of our need for love – when our hearts are as filled with powers of love as the sun is filled with the flames of fire which it hurls out into the farthest reaches – then we are set free from possessive desire. The forgiveness and cleansing which Christ gives to our degenerate love life goes hand in hand with the outpouring of the flood of his love. Whoever is surrounded by this spirit will feel at home only in the atmosphere in which Jesus himself lived. In Christ we experience how God loves us; then we no longer expect to be loved by others but seek life’s happiness in love toward all.

This ultimate and highest love that we can attain comes from the Spirit and is the highest calling of the Spirit. In this direction alone lies the solution to the problem of life. If someone struggles with erotic passions, not a spark of love’s energy should remain lost; no life power should be suppressed. On the contrary, such a person should look into the heart of God at each moment, opening himself or herself to God in order to live out love – God’s love – in every human relationship. By allowing the erotic life to be ruled completely and exclusively by agape, selfish desire is conquered through agape’s overflowing power.

The community of life which grows in this way cannot allow anything to remain outside of its circle. It holds fast to everything that belongs to life. All those who have surrendered to this glowing sun cannot withhold any area of their life from it; again and again they will return to it with all that they are and have. When the spirit of love came over the first Christians they became one in heart and soul. They greeted one another with the holy kiss; they shared in the breaking of bread and had all things in common (Acts 2:42–47). Among them the meaning of brotherhood in the common life and of freedom in the pure spirit became revealed. They had become one family. In them was revealed the mystery of organic community .

The all-embracing Spirit unites all freed souls. It sets free the powers of love in each soul to flow out toward one another, no longer dependent on sympathy or antipathy, or on the conditions of the body. The Spirit rules over the uniting of humankind; everything good in life comes together under its power. Wherever freedom, purity, and the love of God reign, wherever Christ lives in individuals, wherever his Spirit unfolds all gifts and powers, a living unity is growing. This unity is to be seen as one body.

The essay “Love Divine and Human” appeared in 1920 in Junge Saat: Lebensbuch einer Jugendbewegung (“Young Seed: A Handbook for a Youth Movement”). It was first published in English in Love and Marriage in the Spirit, by Eberhard Arnold (Rifton, NY: Plough, 1965). A printing from 1921 can be viewed in our digital archive.


1. Friedrich Nietzsche, Thus Spoke Zarathustra, trans. R. J. Hollingdale (London: Penguin, 2003), 332.

2. Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Faust I & II, ed. and trans. Stuart Atkins (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2014), 44, line 1700.

3. Goethe, Faust, 305, lines 12,110–11.

4. E.g. the whole book of Hosea; Isa. 62:2–5; Eph. 5:21–33.

5. Matt. 26:6–13; Luke 7:36–50; John 12:1–8.