More thoughts on God’s wrath

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.

25 thoughts on “More thoughts on God’s wrath

  1. I would describe it differently. By the working of sin, we are enslaved and in rebellion against God. The wages of this sin is death. I can’t tell if you start from this point of not.

    Preventing (or prevenient grace) enables a fallen, blind, and chained wretch to sense and respond to the grace of God. If we reject this grace, then we remain as we were before, but God continues to seek us. If we respond out this grace and seek after it, God will work in us to bring about faith in Christ (justifying faith).

    • That makes sense to me. I trust you recognize that my investment is apologetic in nature. I want to figure out how to explain the relationship between God’s love and wrath because of the questions I get from people my age and younger. I’m grateful for your conversation as I test out what works and what doesn’t.

      • I understand better now your apologetic motivation than I did as this conversation began. God bless your efforts.

  2. Oh, I see. I did not carry the conversation from my blog over to this one.

    Yes, there are some theological issues in those verses. I’ve not done a full study of Charles Wesley’s hymnody to see how he frames these issues. This particular hymn is clearly written from the experience of the sinner coming face-to-face with fhe forgiveness of God through Christ. I’m not sure I’d want to treat it like systematic theology, but if it has glaring flaws they are worth considering.

    I suspect your concerns may be related to the reason why those verses are not in the hymn as published in our hymnals.

    I quoted them to make a point about how the Wesleys understood the meaning of wrath as a activity of a personal God. If the other issues in those verses cloud the issue, we can refer to dozens of other places to get the same point without questions about “Does God change his mind?”

    • But actually you’re going to have the same logical problem no matter where you turn because it concerns the fundamental purpose of the cross. If the cross is the plan of the whole Trinity from the beginning, then whatever change it makes in our status before God must be a change in our perspective or else it amounts to God changing His mind in response to something He had already decided to do which is an absurdity. The Calvinists reconcile this with predestination. I try to reconcile it by saying that somehow the same perfect love of God is mercy to those who accept it and wrath to those who reject it, which is why I say that rejecting it is like rejecting gravity, not because it’s somehow impersonal but because God is always love even in the midst of His wrath; it is we who are hate when we prefer autonomy to incorporation into the body of Christ. None of this is my invention actually but my attempt to articulate long-standing Eastern Orthodox theology that I’ve been learning over the past six months. I’ll share a link with you when I’m back on a computer.

      • I will look for your link.

        The Wesleyan read on this issue (as I understand it) is that God predestined the means of salvation — all who have faith in Christ will be saved — but not our individual response to grace.

        As I believe I hear you saying, we are always going to be stuck with things to resolve because our thoughts are not God’s thoughts and our ways are not his ways.

        In the end, I find the Wesleyan resolution to the tensions the most in keeping with my understanding of Scripture. Perhaps I will be wiser one day.

        • I think the difference between my interpretation of prevenient grace and yours is that I see damnation as God’s willingness not to overrule our rejection of His offer rather than God’s condemnation of our inadequate response to His offer (which to me would make it no longer unconditional grace).

  3. Morgan, I am not actually appealing to modern or pre-modern analogies. I’m trying to appeal to Scripture. I must confess to being perplexed by your broad brush description of my generation and yours. I find every generation finds the claims of Christianity objectionable in one way or another.

    • I think it boils down to a single question: why do you think the Father needed to have His mind changed by something He planned from the beginning to send his Son to do?

      • Please excuse my ignorance, Morgan. How does this question relate to the questions about the meaning of “wrath”?

        On the question itself, I do not recognize this as something I think, so it is difficult explain why I think it.

        • If the cross was the Father’s plan from the beginning, then it’s contrived to say that Jesus through the cross changes His Father’s mind about damning us. We should rather say that the cross proves what Father and Son had in store from the beginning. We are the ones who need to be moved by it, not God. In this sense, Charles Wesley was way off-base theologically in that hymn. I’ll elaborate.

  4. This makes so much more sense. Thank you again for an enlightening blog. The idea of a wrathful human-like God has never made sense to me (and neither does the idea of a God-person who wants us to exist to “praise Him”…which just seems narcissistic). But this way of thinking about it actually makes God’s wrath a lot more acceptable, if that’s any way to put it.

    • The key is to recognize that we’re using analogies to describe a reality which is beyond us. God is not a narcissist; he is the source of all goodness. He wants us to enjoy the beauty that is his essence not because he has any ego need for our praise but because he wants us our need for communion with him to be perfectly fulfilled.

  5. I found it interesting to study of taking most of the the occurrences of the word “wrath” and studying the context in which they occurred. I found that God’s “love” seemed to always counterbalance “wrath.” My conclusion was that we must see God as a God of Love who gets angry — yet Love dominates all. “God is Love.”

  6. Morgan, thanks for continuing to work with this.

    I’m not convinced your reading of Ephesians 2:3 (NIV translation or not) really resets the issue much. In Ephesians 4:31 and 5:6, Paul uses “wrath” to refer to human anger and divine punishment. I’m not an expert in Greek, but if Paul wanted to create space between the human expression of “wrath” and the divine expression, couldn’t he have chosen different words in these two verses that come in close proximity? (My English-Greek interlinear Bible says that the word translated by the NRSV as wrath in these cases and in Eph. 2:3 is the same.)

    Moreover, the Psalms and Old Testament prophets seem to have little problem understanding God’s wrath as analogous to human wrath.

    So, I find myself wondering why we feel the need to reset the meaning or understanding. Why can’t we experience God’s wrath as wrath?

    • Why do you think Paul felt it necessary to mention both anger and wrath, οργη and θυμός, in his list in Ephesians 4:31? Neither one of these words has a perfect one-to-one correspondence with the English word “anger.” θυμός is associated with fire so it would probably connote the intensity of someone’s temper. Οργη has more of a sense of violent passion which is how it makes its way etymologically to the English word orgy.

      Regarding the reference to Ephesians 5:6, I think you’re being eisegetical to equate the “wrath of God” with divine punishment. It’s punishment in the sense that people are punished with a broken leg for jumping off the roof of their house. But it’s not literally equivalent to “hell” which is the jump many people want to make. When I live in slavery to the flesh, I am covered in divine wrath because my soul is consumed by violent passion. Yes, the restlessness and anguish I try to suppress comes from God, but I don’t think that the thick line distinguishing crime from punishment in the modern juridical account of holiness is really true to what Paul is saying here. I say this because I have a more acute experience of God’s wrath as a believer when I go back to sinful ways and it doesn’t mean I’m hell-bound; it means God’s grace has ruined me for sin. If I somehow can overcome God’s grace and plunge full-on back into slavery to the flesh, its harder to come back the second time than the first which is what Hebrews warns us about.

      When you express incredulity at my concern with explaining wrath in a less oversimplified way, it makes me
      wonder if you don’t have any direct contact with millennials or others who are steeped in postmodernity. This is a big deal for people my generation and younger. They’re leaving the church over it in droves. We shouldn’t sugarcoat or deny God’s wrath. We do need to care about bringing scripture and tradition into dialogue with reason and experience on this topic.

      • I’d be interested in the etymology on the whole “orgy” issue. I tried to do a little reading on the etymology on the word and find “orgy” going back to a word for “mysteries or secret rites,” but I’ve not found the connection between that word and the word here being translated at “wrath.” My Greek language knowledge is nearly zero, though, so I may be missing something very obvious to those with better education.

        I don’t know if I’m being eisegetical to equate wrath with punishment. I think I am hitting on the distinction between the word “anger” and “wrath,” which in most cases I can find does imply or directly include the notion of punishment or retribution. Perhaps that is eisegesis. Perhaps it is vocabulary chosen by the translators.

        And, again, I do not find the biblical support for the notion that wrath is like jumping off the roof. Wrath appears to me to be an activity of a personal God, not an impersonal natural force like gravity. At least that is what I read in the Bible. Maybe I’m reading wrong, but I’d have to be persuaded of that.

        I did not mean to express incredulity at anything, just lack of understanding. I do not understand why we feel a need to reset the meaning of wrath. You argue that it was the Reformers who reset it, but I suppose I’d need more education on that issue as well. Your argument that evil is the absence of God sounds more like Aquinas than the Fathers to me, but I am not claiming to be an expert on such things.

        But, in any case, I do not see that a persuasive case has been made that “wrath” as traditionally understood is somehow no longer useful or helpful to us in understanding God. I understand that people may not like the idea of a wrathful God, but I don’t like the idea of Monday and it keeps showing up nonetheless. Whether “wrath” makes the mission of the church less easy is quite a separate question from whether God’s wrath is good theology.

        Or, at least, so it seems to me.

        That said, it is open question whether we place too much emphasis on “wrath” or lead with it when we should lead with something else. I think those are all good, practical debates to have about how best to fulfill the mission of the church.

        I just do not see the case for saying “wrath of God” is some sort of depersonalized cause-and-effect outcome similar to leaping from a roof.

        • As I wrote, before modernity, the idea that God can only be described by analogy to human qualities was a standard theological assumption. The analogies are not inappropriate to make as long as we recognize they are analogies. If your only explanation for God’s wrath is to shrug your shoulders and say it’s part of life just like Mondays, that might satisfy you but it’s going to fall flat in apologetics with postmodern millennials. Of course you might be called to stay in modernity with the rest of your generation which is fine.

      • Well said. I have had a difficult time in my journey as an evangelical due to this paradox. Often times I am left feeling / thinking that God as Love & God as Wrath is contradictory to the whole of scripture (and I believe it is in the many ways I have heard it taught from the pulpit). I resonate with John (as it relates to my journey with respect to this issue), however, after reading many of Morgan’s thoughts today….I feel like I can live in this paradox instead of contradiction.

        Thank you for these last couple of posts. Very encouraging for this “millenial” to see scripture & tradition brought into dialogue over and against “theological preference” / agenda.

        -de

  7. Very interesting angle. I think it’s correct to think of God’s anger as our own but His is perfect holy anger.

    The challenge today in defining God’s wrath is that we project fallen human anger onto
    holy holy holy God thus try to apologize for God’s wrath. God’s wrath is something we should sing about as the writers of Psalms did, for all who are not in the Ark, the Cross of Christ, in his Son will surely drink the cup of the holy and just wrath of God poured in full strength.

    Thank you.

    Prayson

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