My reformed brother Derek Rishmawy and I have been having a stimulating discussion about the nature of God’s wrath. It’s a huge stumbling block for many Christians, and it doesn’t help that pastors are often very clumsy and barrel-chested in how they talk about it. So I want to offer the following experimental analogy with the hopes that it will help some people (like me) who hate the fact that the Bible includes the phrase οργή θεού (God’s wrath) in too many places for us to embrace a theology that doesn’t account for it. What if we think of God’s wrath as the spiritual immune system of the universe? Every time there is a violation of shalom (peace), torah (law/harmonic order), or mishpat (justice), God’s wrath is provoked like the body’s immune system in response to an infection.
One of the biggest stumbling blocks we face in dealing with God’s wrath is the way we have come to imagine God. As Gungor reminds us, God is not a white man with a long beard sitting on a cloud. But that’s how we think of Him — someone who is entirely outside our reality (transcendent). It’s true that God exists beyond His creation; otherwise He would be a creature instead of our Creator. But this does not make Him a distant outsider. He is more inside of our world (immanent) than we can ever possibly be. Read Psalm 139 for a mind-blowing account of God’s infinitely intense intimacy with every detail of His creation. Paul writes in multiple places that we have been created through, for, and in Christ in His capacity as God’s eternal Word. He says in Acts 17 that “in Him we live and move and have our being.” The “in” doesn’t make any sense if God is completely external to our reality rather than the only truly real thing within it from which all other realness derived (to paraphrase Augustine).
But it’s very difficult to talk about a God who is the source of our existence in this way. We either have to reduce Him to an impersonal force like in Star Wars, or if we believe in the testimony of the people of Israel that our Creator is personal and Jesus’ word that we can call Him a heavenly Father who loves us, then we talk about Him analogously as a huge strong fiercely loving old man (which He absolutely isn’t in a physical, literal sense). Because the Old Testament uses this anthropological metaphor to talk about God and Jesus uses the word “Father” for Him, people who don’t see these descriptions as metaphorical come to think that God is a big invisible quasi-human magician who lives outside the universe and jumps in to intervene as opposed to a presence that is everywhere constantly creating.
Here’s how this makes a difference. If we think that God is an invisible man who lives outside of reality, we think of His wrath as consisting in discrete interventions and punishments in response to our sins that are completely independent and outside of any kind of natural cause-effect chain. If God doesn’t like something, He sends a tornado to punish people (except when it’s a place with a strong evangelical Christian presence like Virginia Beach or Tampa Bay or Colorado Springs in which case nature is just being nature). We need to reject the Enlightenment relegation of God to being an absentee watchmaker who’s allowed to intervene in nature only when science can’t explain what’s going on. Nature is God’s creation which means He’s never absent from any part of it.
It is true in the Old Testament that God rains plagues down on the Egyptians, makes the ground open up and swallow people, among other horrific things (whose absolute historicity is not a hill I’m going to die on since “God-breathed” legends are “useful for teaching and making disciples” too). Regardless, it’s more fruitful to think of these events as God’s creation being stirred into rage by Someone who has His fingers on every atom simultaneously and than the interventions of an outside wizard. When we disrespect shalom, torah, or mishpat, we curse the ground and the sky, something which is literally happening right now in a world where it has perversely become “Christian” to deny the existence of climate change. Disrespect for creation is a direct slap in the face to the One who calls it “good,” so we should expect droughts, wildfires, tornadoes, and so forth not because that’s God’s way of punishing gay people or communists for existing but because God rages against our disrespect for His planet (even if Romney and Obama are competing for the coveted title of polluter in chief).
The New Testament references to God’s wrath treat it more as a consequence of sin than a punishment at least on the sense that it is not causally independent from the action to which it reacts. When we look at Romans 1, “God’s wrath against humanity [that] is being revealed” there is not a series of natural disasters that “respond” to sinful behavior but the degenerative consequences of the behavior itself. Ephesians 2:3 (if you read the Greek instead of the NIV) says that humans naturally become “children of wrath.” We are born into an ocean of pain and violence that we didn’t cause which afflicts us nonetheless and conscripts us into its degenerative cycles. There are many references to being “covered in wrath.” We get covered in it when we commit any kind of violence physical or spiritual against other people and God. If we witness injustice committed against others or suffer it ourselves, we encounter God’s wrath in a different sense (perhaps we could say we’re filled by it rather than covered in it). It becomes rage that can either be channeled in a healthy, constructive way or can cause us to sin and provoke God’s wrath against us.
If we have been given a means of facing the rage against our disrespect with integrity and receiving it as God’s discipline, then the wrath doesn’t stick to us but becomes a refining spiritual fire instead. Otherwise, we “store up wrath,” to use Paul’s phrase, and it hardens us like the heart of the Egyptian Pharaoh as we rationalize and justify our sin or it beats us up uselessly into a miserable self-hating existence.
Sacrifice provides a means of purifying the wrath from a community. When people hurt each other, a spiritual violence is created in their community that exceeds the direct consequences of the action. Black eyes heal but the spiritual cysts that they create will not without God’s intervention. The ancient Israelites received from God the means of transferring their stored up wrath into sacrificial animals through violent religious ritual. Christians believe that Jesus is the sacrificial lamb of God who fulfills that function for us.
If we accept Jesus’ sacrifice, we can process the wrath that judges us constructively rather than being in denial or completely despondent about it. It is not so much that God is watching to see if we make a “decision” for Jesus as His means of deciding whether He’s going to hate us or love us for eternity, but rather that God has given us a story to live in which empowers us to walk in His light rather than hide fearfully in our darkness (John 3:19). God’s love always has wrath in itThose who spend their whole lives resisting the chemotherapy of God’s wrath are like tumors that have ceased to have any redeemable viable tissue and can only be removed from the body in order to restore it to shalom, torah, and mishpat.
I disagree with many of my conservative evangelical brothers and sisters on where God will draw the line between tumor and salvageable tissue only because I don’t think God is making a decision based on our performance of some prescribed ritual (whether it’s a set of sacramental routines or the cultivation all the right theological opinions) since we are delivered by trusting that Christ has proved God’s love (faith) and not by anything we do to prove our worth to God (works). God sees how easily we are covered in His wrath and permanently ruined by it, so He takes pity on us because He loves us and sends His son to deliver us from it.
So what about the Hindus? Perhaps it’s possible that God has worked in their religion to provide a comparable means of purification. Gandhi certainly acted a lot more Christlike than most Christians. I realize that’s controversial to many evangelicals for me to say. I think we have the best, most efficacious narrative of how the forces in our cosmos work, but the question Jesus answered when He said, “I am the way, the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father except by me,” wasn’t “What about other religions, Jesus?” It’s possible that His sacrifice has residual benefits for those who haven’t personally embraced it when the fruits of Christ are sown in the wild. Even if that were the case, why on Earth would I want anybody I cared about to settle for that? As Paul says, the benefit is so much greater than the trespass of humanity which made it necessary.
We can have a much more fruitful conversation about God’s wrath when we uncouple it from obsessive ludicrous speculation about the nature of hell. God’s wrath has an extremely beneficial, productive role in the universe. It is the way He battles injustice. Those who are unjust have a vested interest in bracketing wrath into some nihilistic afterlife form which can be canceled out by a one-time “decision,” after which one is completely unaccountable. If on the other hand, God’s wrath is like a cosmic spiritual immune system, then we are called to join God in battling infection, not with violence which unleashes wrath on us in the same way that an allergic reaction pits an immune system against its own body, but in cruciform nonviolent witness, speaking truth to power, the way that God used his wrath through Jesus to put the world’s sin on trial and overcome it forever.