It’s always interesting when someone else says something that you’ve said exactly the way you said it and then you want to critique it for the same reasons that somebody else critiqued you. Greg Boyd preached a sermon about God’s wrath two Sundays ago called “The Judgment Boomerang” that helped me understand some inadequacies in my own reflections on it. I agree with Boyd in very essential ways, but I disagree with him in one very fundamental way. So I wanted to lay out the unhealthy, un-Biblical conception of God’s wrath that Boyd and I both react against, then share Boyd’s solution to it, and then share my concerns with Boyd’s solution and what I would propose instead, even though I know I’m still on a journey to figuring this out. Bottom line is that God’s wrath has a constructive purpose in the universe and that purpose is on display right now in the grief and anger with which our country responds to the horrific shooting in Connecticut.
The biggest problem in the modern evangelical conception of God’s wrath is actually a philosophical torpedo that devastated Christian theology in the late middle ages from which it has been reeling ever since. Reformed Christian theologian Hans Boersma brought this to my attention in his book Heavenly Participation. A medieval philosopher named John Duns Scotus developed a concept called the “univocity of being” by which he claimed that God’s existence is no different than any other being’s existence. Up until this point, it was universally accepted in Christian thought that God is the source of every creature’s being as their Creator and thus His existence (whether it’s even right to use the word “existence” to describe whatever being God has) is not at all the same as theirs. Duns Scotus’ univocity of being concept essentially laid the groundwork for God to be viewed as an infinitely large, invisible, omnipresent “first creature” who made everything else at the beginning of time (like the Deist watchmaker) and has intervened periodically in history since then, rather than the Creator who not only started the world but is constantly creating every instant and every atom of existence. Most evangelicals, whether they acknowledge it or not, have a theology that reflects what I would term a “watchmaker interventionist God.”
It makes a world of difference how we understand God’s wrath when we’re talking about the watchmaker, interventionist God of the late middle ages and modernity instead of the God “in whom we live and move and have our being” (Acts 17:28). If we see God as not the constant creator and source of being, but just another being who set the universe up and intervenes periodically, then we come to view His wrath as an externally imposed, causally independent reaction to sin. If on the other hand, God is the source of our being and thus intimately (though transcendentally) internal to us, then the “punishment” of God’s wrath is largely the organic corruption of human nature that results from our sin, which is precisely the view of both Augustine (City of God 14.3) and Aquinas (Summa Theologiae I-II.85.3) as well as the most straightforward interpretation of Romans 1:18-32 and several other key Biblical passages.
God’s wrath is the violent response of His violated shalom which can manifest itself in a number of different ways that are all organic to God’s created order. The violence of God’s wrath does not need to be reduced to the “supernatural” interventions of an otherwise absentee watchmaker by which God is limited under the cosmology created by the combination of Duns Scotus’ univocity of being and the scientism of the Enlightenment which says, “Okay, God, since science can explain most of nature, we’re only going to call phenomena Your doing if they violate the explanatory scientific laws we’ve come up with.”
So when John Piper tries to speculate that an unusually nasty outbreak of tornadoes are God’s response to sexual debauchery and other such things, he’s operating under a “supernatural” account of God’s wrath that was created by Duns Scotus’ reduction of God to the “first creature” and the abdication of God’s sovereignty over all minutiae of creation to the scientific explanatory hegemony of the natural order. If we’re getting more tornadoes than usual, that is God’s wrath expressing itself in the created order in response to pollution that violates the harmony of His atmosphere. God’s wrath in response to some form of human debauchery would manifest itself in the degradation of relationships, mental health, or bodily symptoms of the participants. At least, this is the way Christians explained it for the first 2/3 of our existence.
All right so here’s a summary of Greg Boyd’s response to the messed up way that God’s wrath has come to be defined for modern evangelicals. Basically he makes all the points I have about God’s wrath being built into the natural order rather than being something God engages in “supernaturally” as a response to events. Boyd points out that many of the references to God’s wrath in scripture involve someone being “handed over” to the results of their own sin or further “hardened” in response to their stubbornness. Also in the psalms, when the Israelites complain about God’s anger, their most common complaint is that He has “hidden His face” from them. So the way that Boyd frames God’s wrath is to say that it is God’s “withdrawal” of the mercy by which the created order is held together so that creation descends into chaos. So it is basically the complete inversion of the modern watchmaker interventionist account of God’s wrath in which God imposes supernatural punishments from a default position of disinterest. In Boyd’s account, God punishes us for our sin by retreating from active involvement in our lives to becoming like the absent watchmaker that many of us think He is anyway.
The reason why I find Boyd’s account inadequate is because I see a constructive role for God’s wrath in creation. God screams through His creation when His beauty has been abominated. He is screaming right now about the twenty children and seven adults who were killed in Connecticut. That’s the reason that we have been stopped in our tracks, most of us being people who have no direct relationship to the victims. Our souls have been abominated by what was done. We have been punished by it as a humanity, even though those of us who are repulsed by it from afar should not presume that we somehow are sharing in the grief of families for whom this is too real to blog about. Still it has put rage into our hearts. I don’t think it’s wrong to call that rage the wrath of God against a horrific injustice. The wrath of God is the demand that is made when the blood of Abel cries out from the ground. We are called out by this wrath. If we are unable to channel it constructively, then it will corrode us like a powerful acid. If God’s wrath causes us to do evil to others, then we will only find ourselves more tightly covered by the wrath like a spider web.
In any case, I don’t think God’s wrath is only a withdrawal, though we definitely lose the ability to see and hear God when we store up wrath for ourselves with our sin. The other problem is that evil often doesn’t result in chaos. The wicked really do prosper. We live in a world whose social order does violence against the people on the fringes. Part of the privilege of those of us who live in comfort is that we are allowed to remain oblivious to the violence that our comfort causes to others in ways that could never be traced back to our culpability. It’s certainly not chaos for us and we can’t be accused of deliberately causing harm to others. But unless God does violence to our social order as part of laying out the foundation of His eternal communion with us, then heaven will not be a place where shepherds are the first in line to see the baby Jesus. For the sake of God’s mercy, His wrath needs to destroy realities that don’t seem chaotic or sinful at all to those of us who aren’t harmed by them but do cause harm to people who we don’t take seriously as people.
This is why Jesus tells the parable of the rich man and Lazarus in Luke 16:19-31. The rich man didn’t do anything to hurt Lazarus. He didn’t commit any sin against him according to the individualist, private property-shaped moral standard of 21st century evangelical America. But God can’t provide an eternity of mercy to poor beggars if rich men are allowed to be aristocrats ruling over them and expecting exclusive special privileges. So God’s wrath protects Lazarus from the rich man, whatever that actually looked like in Jesus’ parable, since there must not have been too wide a canyon between heaven and hell for the rich man and Abraham to yell back and forth across it.
In any case, I think the most important distinction to make about God’s wrath is that it expresses solidarity with His creatures. It is not an abstracted judgment of a victim-less crime. Sin always victimizes somebody God loves, even if it’s not always direct or intentional in the case of sins that disrespect God’s harmony and result in subtler, long-term damage to His creatures. God hates what hurts the people that He loves. The main historical reason Christians have divorced God’s wrath from solidarity with His creatures is in order to justify a social order that oppresses God’s creatures. Frederick Douglass shared in his autobiography that the slave-masters who whipped the hardest always seemed to believe the most in a mean and vengeful God who judged sins from a vantage point of abstract honor rather than the love for His creatures that would make whipping slaves into a sin. The same obfuscation is at play when people of privilege invent politeness as an alternative morality to treating others with justice.
God’s wrath does good work in creation. It compels us to repent as humanity. It will not let us make peace with oppression and injustice. It will violate our souls until we find a way to satisfy its rage. So if the wrath is eating at you after what happened on Friday, that is a healthy thing. If enough of us are “cut to the heart” (Acts 2:37), then we will not rest until we have honored the victims of this evil with a worthy response.