What exactly is God’s wrath? I raised the question in my last piece about misconceptions in popular penal substitution theology. Many evangelicals think God’s wrath is simply the anger God “feels” when people are disobedient to His rules. Based on what I’ve learned from scripture and the teachings of the ancient church, I think this is an oversimplification.
For most of the church’s history, Christians have understood that the aspects of God’s nature can only be described by imperfect analogy to human personality traits. In the more recent era of Biblical literalism, we have lost the notion that we are limited to imperfect analogy in describing God and have effectively made God into a really big invisible human being. I think this has resulted in a Disney cartoon image of God’s wrath that is easily dismissed by postmodern people when a more compelling description is possible.
In my last post, I shared two New Testament uses of wrath in which it seems to mean something different than just anger. Ephesians 2:3 says that all people start out life as “children of wrath by nature” whose life is defined by “following the desires of the flesh and senses.” Wrath seems to be connected not to any emotion on the part of God but rather the turmoil within a life of slavery to the flesh. The NIV tries to “fix” this “problem” by translating it “children deserving of wrath” but there is no justification for this in the Greek: τέκνα φύσει οργής.
The use of wrath in Romans 1:18-32 seems to resonate with the way it is described in Ephesians 2:3. God’s “wrath against ungodliness and wickedness” is revealed not in a punitive response to sin but rather through the innately degenerative process of sin itself. God’s wrath seems to describe the inherent violence created by living out of step with the precepts of God’s created order.
I read an essay once by Walter Benjamin, an early 20th century Jewish philosopher, in which he provided an interesting definition for divine violence. He considered the riots of the European working class to be manifestations of divine violence not in the sense that God was necessarily “taking the side” of the rioters, but rather in the sense that the mob was articulating a primordial rage within the universe that came from beyond their conscious agency. The society in which they were living had inflicted enough invisible violence against God’s natural order that nature exploded through a mob of humans. I’ve noticed this phenomenon on a much smaller scale when my two sons act out and misbehave because our family’s chemistry is off (like if my wife and I are having an ugly argument); I feel like there’s a way that my boys are agents of God’s wrath in those circumstances. When we understand God’s wrath as a force that articulates itself through creation in response to the attacks against shalom in God’s created order, then we can get past the image of God as a mean, sanctimonious middle school gym teacher that is easy for postmodernity to dismiss. We’re not “compromising” our understanding of God’s wrath to deanthropomorphize it.
The way that modernity imagines God is different than the way that ancient Christians imagined God. We tend to treat Him as an individual being just like we are beings who lives outside of our reality and periodically reaches in to intervene. He’s become a giant, perfect, omnipotent, invisible human. This is not entirely inappropriate since Jesus is the primary source of our knowledge about God and he was and is fully human. But Jesus is not only the man who came to Earth as God’s Word made flesh. He is also the eternal Word who is “before all things and in [whom] all things hold together” (Colossians 1:17). When He is the basis for our existence, the boundaries of His agency and our agency overlap to such a degree that it becomes inappropriate to talk about Him as an individual being who acts upon the world from a vantage point completely external to our being.
In ancient times, Christians understood God to be the source of our existence, the one in whom “we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). In the ancient conception, existence and goodness were synonymous. God is the only one who exists of His own accord. All other things in the universe exist on the basis of God’s existence. To be evil is to be out of sync with existence and thus to exist less and less the more evil you are.
When you live against the grain of God’s will for the universe, you will receive a wrathful response, just like if you jump off the roof of your house, the ground will “angrily” break your leg. I don’t think it’s necessarily wrong to say that God’s wrath is analogous to human anger, but it creates a genuine stumbling block for so many people today to talk as though God’s “anger” has priority over His love suggesting that these qualities oppose one another. And I feel like some Christians are far too cavalier in their response to the objections that are raised. I prefer to say that God loves with such intensity that it is wrath to those who are fighting against it.
In any case, the wrath is very real (I have lived under it before and have often stepped back into it). It’s not because God is picky and mean. It’s because He wills perfect shalom in all things and He has created a universe that groans after the shalom of His new creation. To oppose the destiny of the universe is about as intelligent as driving the wrong way on an interstate highway. Even if you don’t realize that’s what you’re doing, you will smash into a wrath that hurts.