Can we tell children God loves them? Does God only love believers?
The Bible clearly states that God sees believers in Jesus Christ as His children, while unbelievers are excluded from relationship with the Father. Nevertheless, it would be wrong to refrain from telling children that God loves them based on this precept of scripture.
First, a young child may, in fact, already be a believer. Many believers come to faith at a very early age, and so we cannot exclude the possibility that a young child has been given the gift of faith and is loved by Christ in that sense.
Secondly, scripture tells us that the love of God is evidenced by His plan of salvation and the call of the Gospel sent out to the nations. The Lord shows His love to the world by sending the message of the Gospel through His Son so that many may be saved.
Paul says it is the kindness of God that leads us to repentance, and that love is at work in a person's life even before they come to faith in Christ. Paul taught that the Lord loves those He has chosen from before the foundations of the world:
Eph. 1:3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places in Christ,
Eph. 1:4 just as He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we would be holy and blameless before Him. In love
Eph. 1:5 He predestined us to adoption as sons through Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the kind intention of His will,
Eph. 1:6 to the praise of the glory of His grace, which He freely bestowed on us in the Beloved.
Paul says that God’s love for us is the reason He predestined us to adoption as sons (and daughters). Since we cannot know (in advance) if the Lord intends to save a person (including a child), we can speak in hopeful terms to everybody concerning God's love. This is no different than when we evangelize by saying that God so loved the world that he sent His one and only Son that whoever believes in Him will not perish but have eternal life.
We understand that a person can only be “loved” by God through faith in Jesus Christ, but because we cannot know the future for anyone, we declare God's love for everyone in hopeful terms. Talking to a child about the love of God in this way is no different.
Thirdly, God shows kindness and love for the unbelieving world in many ways through His care for Creation, according to scripture. The Bible says the Father shows His love and favor even to His “enemies" when He permits them to enjoy a fruitful life on earth:
Matt. 5:44 “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
Matt. 5:45 so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven; for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.
Finally, the Lord is loving to unbelievers in showing patience with their sin, as Peter says:
Rom. 9:22 What if God, although willing to demonstrate His wrath and to make His power known, endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction?
So we can confidently tell our young children that Jesus loves them.