God’s wrath as a cosmic spiritual immune system

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.

20 thoughts on “God’s wrath as a cosmic spiritual immune system

  1. Pingback: Worldviewism and the nature of truth | Mercy not Sacrifice

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  3. God is love. If we believe God is infinite love, there is no room for wrath — something opposite of love. Love overcomes darkness. Love overcomes injustice. Love shows us the way to life, peace and fulfillment.

  4. It’s like Paul said in Romans 6:1-2: “So what are we going to say? Sould we continue sinning so grace will multiply? Absulutely not! All of us died to sin. How can we still live in it?” Jesus told the woman caught in adultery, “Go and sin no more.” We can theologize and rationalize all we want to. It’s more simple than that. There’s still a choice, but we can’t say we’re saved from sin and keep sinning. We can’t keep saying that some parts of the Bible no longer apply. There are still consequences to not living the way God is inviting us to live. We can’t just be another way of living like the world.

    • Thanks for sharing. Just wanted to clarify: are you responding to anything in particular in my post or just adding some more thoughts?

  5. I agree that History is certainly not a requirement of God. I would say that God has been making himself known by his revelatory existences, God has been “ecstasizing” or “shining forth” since before Creation.

    As for “completing his being”, I believe that the foundation of God is not the Divine Nature, but the subsistent Person of the Father, and that from his free choice to exist relationally comes Divine Personhood and the Divine Nature. I would say, then, that this “shining forth” is how God/the Father has always chosen to exist, because he chooses to exist relationally and ecstatically, and as Father.

    • Lossky was the one who convinced me that the filioque (sp) really does matter. One Father with a Word and Spirit, making the Father the ontological source of the other two rather than making the ousia the glue that binds the three.

  6. I have to say I agree with a lot of Nicholas’ comments. I think my two main, very appreciative push-backs is:
    1. I’m, for the most part, good with Augustinian and Classical metaphysics of God’s omnipresence and his sustaining reality, such that the deistic, “interventionistic” picture is misleading. I would just like to assert that real transcendence so that we don’t slip into a panentheism.
    2. I also affirm the whole, “giving over” nature of wrath, that there is a connection between action and consequence. I just want to give equal emphasis to the active “giving” in that equation. We choose sin and God actively gives us over to it in judgment.

    Beyond that, speculation about Hindus, Ghandi, and the redemptive value of other religions…eh…this is where my highly Barthian streak kicks in. This is not about an arbitrary ritual, etc. its just a concern for the uniqueness and particularity of Jesus Christ. I know you’re not trying to deny that at all, but attributing some kind of salvific value in anything other than a common grace fashion is something I’m uncomfortable with. That doesn’t settle the eternal destiny question, but, yeah.

    Keep at it, bro.

    • 1. Absolutely the transcendence has to be maintained. Linguistically I’m trying to accomplish that by using the word “beyond” instead of “outside.” I get my imagination partly from Teresa of Avila’s Interior Castle in which God is the spring at the center of the mansions who is beyond and most deeply within at the same time.

      2. Where I’m partly coming from with this is the view of Catholics like De Lubac and Balthasar that at least one dimension of the world’s salvation occurs cosmically as the church acts as a leaven amidst humanity creating the kind of vulnerable community that becomes possible through Christ’s mercy and spreading it both to those who “ecclesiate” and also those who are accidentally transformed by it.

      There are many “Nones” out there who are living according to ethical systems that would not exist without the historical influence of Christianity. Because my soteriology sees justifying faith as deliverance from self-justification rather than God’s decision to damn or glorify based on our performance of any kind of response to His invitation (which cannot avoid being works-righteousness), it becomes possible to imagine that the vulnerable humility and mercy that the cross instills could be instilled by other means if God chose to tinker in other ways with His creation. I cannot imagine my life without the cross, but I know too many “Nones” and people of other faiths whose ignorance of “the law” has not prevented them from “living as a law unto themselves” and exuding many of the Galatians 5:22-23 fruits. I’m not sure what to do about that as an apologist or an evangelist but I want to take that challenge seriously.

      • “it becomes possible to imagine that the vulnerable humility and mercy that the cross instills could be instilled by other means if God chose to tinker in other ways with His creation. I cannot imagine my life without the cross, but I know too many ‘Nones’ and people of other faiths whose ignorance of ‘the law’ has not prevented them from “living as a law unto themselves…”

        If the Cross had an effect on all humans, though, then the dilemma can be avoided.

        After all, St. Athanasius scandalously offered as a proof of Christianity, that demons no longer worked in the world as powerfully as they did in days of old. A real change in everything, in mankind, was seen by him.

        What a risky thing to say! And yet how powerful…

        “Absolutely the transcendence has to be maintained. Linguistically I’m trying to accomplish that by using the word ‘beyond” instead of ‘outside.”

        Or “different”. That is what ‘holy’ ultimately comes down to.

        “I would just like to assert that real transcendence so that we don’t slip into a panentheism.”

        My Church took Plotinus’s panentheism and altered it to offer a creator/creation distinction, if you’re not familiar. 🙂

    • Also, Derek, one must be careful not to assert that God has an ultimate transcendence in the sense of being the opposite of immanent. Those smarmy Germanic theologians of the past century ultimately failed with their “ontological vs. imminent” trinity, IMO. Fails to solve the problems put forth by new philosophies.

      But I digress,

      God/the Father is Holy, which means He is other. He is beyond any created taxis or dialectic of opposites. God is beyond passibility and impassibility, beyond existence and non-existence, beyond mutability and immutability, beyond transcendence and imminence.

      John Chrysostom’s anaphora famously depicts this tension. It begins by declaring how God is praised as “ineffable, inconceivable, invisible, incomprehensible…” and immediately transitions into the ways in which God has been effable, conceivable, visible, and comprehensible.

      Some bishops once gave an entire nation over, essentially, into Muslim hands, to protect this doctrine, among others. It has many enemies!

      • Oh, sure, I’m not denying immanence, just wanting a proper immanence, not a pantheistic or panentheistic one.

        As for ontological v. immanent, I think there is a proper distinction between the immanent and the economic trinity, not that they are different or that the economic is not the immanent, but in the sense that God does not need history to complete his being. Are we good there?
        Finally, I think I’m with you. I think God is the incomprehensible one who makes himself known in Christ.

  7. That’s how most languages are if you go back to the roots. Take Greek back to the Pre-Socratics and you get the same thing. I wouldn’t consider that more metaphorical in the sense of “I say this to indicate something *greater* or more abstract, or more accurate than what I said” however. I’d consider it more incarnate, more basic.

    In Arabic, for example, most of the colors are named after spices and things the arabs traded with. Directions, locations, in relation to the original homeland. It’s a very direct way of parsing reality.

    I don’t deny metaphor in relation to God, I do, however, reverse the direction. We, only fully in Christ, are those beings which may be described in terms of God, and attributing these characteristics and actions back to God is an act of thanksgiving and glorification rather than one of anthropomorphic shadows.

  8. “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…”

    I would be careful here.

    We have to remember that in Judeo-Christian understanding, there is really no such thing as the anthropomorphism of God;

    There is, rather, the conditional *Theomorphism* of human beings, and of creation taken as a whole.

    It is one thing to believe that the Old Testament depictions of God are shadowy, incomplete, and re-present a condescension to work within man’s systems (The New Testament is really no different on that latter point, if we are honest). It is another thing entirely to believe that those depictions of God in the Old Testament are wrong or inaccurate.

    When we hear of God stretching forth his arm, we ought not think, “oh, what a wonderful metaphor used by the Hebrews to depict God’s work in creation!” We ought to rather say, “As God reaches out, so man somehow reflects or represents his reaching out, when man stretches forth his arm to exercise his ministry toward creation.”

    Similarly, God is not called Father because he is somehow like a human parent, metaphorically or otherwise. Rather, human mothers and fathers are called what they are insofar as they reflect and represent who God is.

    In the Eastern Orthodox understanding specifically as I understand it, Wrath is the active presence of God manifesting itself upon that which has made itself incompatible with him. Wrath is an authentic Divine Energy, phenomenon/ecstatic presence, a real way in which God chooses to exist. God’s wrath may be seen as a “distinguishable” Divine Energy from Love, Mercy, Anger, etc. However, they are not in conflict, because God’s wrath and mercy are always loving, and his mercy is wrathful to those who hate his dynamic presence.

    The belief would be that in the history of salvation, God expresses his wrath for one purpose: The ultimate salvation of the world. And it is for this purpose that he also sends and prepares various evils in accordance with the wills of men and fallen creation.

    • I pretty much agree with the EO perspective as you’ve stated it. Other than the particular objection you raised, am I basically in sync with you guys?

      • A lot of it is in sync.

        One of the temptations in associating God’s wrath with the consequences of actions, unrighteousness, corruption, etc, it that it can make God a passive presence which is merely “reacting” after being acted upon. That is a very tempting view.

        But I honestly think, as troubling and difficult to fit into a theology as it may be, that we must acknowledge this wrath is something God is actively doing. It is his active presence. We know from the Scriptures that God will choose not to manifest his wrath upon something, like Nebuchadnezzar, until its purpose has been served.

        After all, if God’s ultimate wrath were upon us because of/as his presence throughout creation right now, everything around us would be withering or blossoming in Divine Fire, for either salvation or damnation. In a sense, it is, but not in the ultimate sense.

    • By the way, Hebrew is a thoroughly metaphorical language. The word that gets translated as soul is nefesh which literally means throat but is almost never used as a literal anatomical reference. Similarly anger in Hebrew is the word for nose because people flare their nostrils when they’re angry. So the Hebrews would probably be far more comfortable calling themselves metaphorical than their modern readers would be.

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