Why does the Bible talk about 'the wrath of God'?
As we continue to preach and teach the NT message that "God is Infinite Love," embodied in Christ and revealed on the Cross, it is right that we should continually challenge and be challenged by "the wrath of God." That challenge requires us to keep returning to the Scriptures and to the Lord for greater clarity, because such great potential for error persists. We dare not slander God, either as a violent punisher or a spineless pushover, because such images serve as stumbling blocks, especially to those suffering under the consequences of their poor choices or those of somebody else.
In A More Christlike God, I referred to 'wrath' as a biblical metaphor for the natural and supernatural consequences of our self-will and defiance. I lament the fact that these consequences often afflict others with terrible suffering, such as victims of drunk drivers. And I question whether it's appropriate to think of sin's effects as the 'wrath of God.' In that book, I cite the great church Fathers, St John Cassian and St John of Damascus, who show us that 'wrath' is an anthropomorphism for human anger, projected onto God, and which must not be literalized lest we commit a "monstrous blasphemy." I showed how Paul redefines wrath as passive, as divine consent, as "giving us over" (Romans 1) to our choices and their consequences. And in Romans 5, we see finally that God-in-Christ came to rescue or save us, not from God, but from "the wrath" (an allusion to Wisdom of Solomon 18:22-25 , where "wrath" is a synonym for "the destroyer").
So much for review. For those who need more backstory, see:
Today, I stand by the progress we've made, but press a little harder. All the above still begs the question: why does the Bible sometimes refer to the consequences of sin as "the wrath of God" when Paul so clearly sets "the wages of sin" (death) over against "the free gift of God" (life)? How, if Satan is the destroyer and Christ is the Savior, can "the wrath" ever be said to be "of God"? Why does God ever own punishment for sin in any way, if judgement for sin is intrinsic to sin, rather than God's literal reaction to it?
In theological terms, it's a pickle.
But Scripture and some pretty great theologians do give us hints. I will propose just a few of these for meditation:
1. Wrath is "God's" in that God warns us that sin will lead to consequences, so we tend to think that God, rather than sin, caused the consequences.
2. Wrath is "God's" in that God consents to our freedom to rebel, so when our rebellion leads to consequences, we tend to think that God, rather than rebellion, caused the consequences.
3. Wrath is "God's" in that God consents to the consequences themselves, so that if any consequences occur (good or bad), we think God caused them (rewards or punishments).
I've said all that before. And you can see that in each case, there's a bit of an existential perception problem. Sin causes consequences, but we blame God because God warned us from sin, and because God freed us to sin, and because God allowed sin to bear its fruit. Such arguments sound a little like a child who runs away from home, blaming the parent for letting him or her get into trouble ...
But to go further, we want to get closer to the truth of "God's wrath" -- which requires us to be more subtle and complex:
4. Wrath is "God's" when it rescues us from sin. The great preacher and teacher, George MacDonald, taught that God wants to save us from sin, not from the merely the consequences of sin. In the words of his sermon, "Salvation from Sin" (hard words to swallow),
The Lord never came to deliver men from the consequences of their sins while yet those sins remained: that would be to cast out of the window the medicine of cure while yet the man lay sick; to go dead against the very laws of being (George MacDonald, Life Essential, 15).MacDonald believed that just as Christ came to rescue us from sin itself (at root, our self-will), so sin's consequences could serve God and us in that same purpose. He believed that even hell itself would serve God by purging us of the evil that clings to us or to which we cling.
"Hell is on the side of God and man, to free the child of God from the corruption of death ... If hell be needful to save him, hell will blaze ... until he takes refuge in the will of the Father" (Ibid, 15).I find MacDonald's rhetoric here harsh ... almost retributive. But for those who don't know, he vehemently repudiated Jonathan Edwards' sermon, "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God" as loathsome in its slander of the loving nature of God. I would add that MacDonald was even a committed universalist: so much for going soft on sin or not believing in hell! But, you see, he didn't believe God would burn people, only the evil that besets us--the evil that can never enter with us into the eternal kingdom. MacDonald truly had a vision of hell as God's refiner's fire, not the devil's torture chamber.
So what is MacDonald doing here? He is describing exactly what I hear continually from the recovery community. Addicts in recovery know their freedom is not just about escaping the consequences of their addiction. Addiction to alcohol, drugs, gambling, sex--you name it--can end marriages, destroy health, dry up finances and cause death. Recovery is not just about saving the marriage, saving the liver, saving the wallet or avoiding death. They need to recover from the insanity of the addiction itself. Many never recover until they "bottom out." Bottoming out is not just going as low as you possibly can. It is defined as the point of complete surrender when the consequences have done their work. That moment when we admit our addiction and become willing to surrender our lives and will to God. Addicts often say that if they hadn't lost everything, they would still be bound to their addiction. They come to accept reality of the consequences and are often even thankful for them!
Others go another step further: they believe that the addiction itself is a consequence--a disease, at root, driven by self-will and alienation. Self-will is the founding sin of archetypal Eden that led to humanity's collective alienation ... and the suffering of alienation leads individuals to 1001 self-medicating addictions.
Addicts in recovery not only confess their addictions of choice, they need to admit the "exact nature" of their addiction, which is the self-will that drives the alienation that causes the pain that feeds the addiction. Remember the old song, "I know an old lady who swallowed a fly"? That.
So it's not enough to be "abstinent"-- not enough to stop binging on alcohol, drugs, gambling or sex. These are just symptoms of the deeper issue ... the sin issue that addiction exposes: our self-will.
So, the addiction is a way to cope with the suffering that itself was a consequence of human willfulness. Addiction exposes the deeper problem. And suddenly addiction is not just the consequence that's killing us; addiction can become the opportunity and the reason we cry out to God for grace. And again, in God's mercy, the destructive consequences (caused by our self-will) are hijacked by God to drive us away from self-will and alienation.
Yes, it's true: some addicts have come to a place of gratitude for their addiction. They know God did not cause it, but neither can they imagine how they would they have found God and true freedom any other way.
Similarly, St Julian of Norwich saw in her revelations of Christ that sin itself, while still sin and still in need of forgiveness, has nevertheless become a part of our rescue from self.
She says that sin is "behovely," which is best interpreted "fitting." How is sin "fitting?" It is not that sin is necessary or appropriate. But it "fits" the bigger picture the redemption story, just as Christ's crucifixion was evil, but also "fitting" to God's restoration plan.
So it is with individuals. Once healed from sin, we can look back and say, "that was awful, but I see how it is part of my story--a leg of the journey that ends in the Father's arms. It almost had to happen that way."
Sadly, in Jesus' famous parable, the son who didn't run away didn't end in the Father's arms. Avoiding sin, he was still in bondage to self, a slave to his own self-righteous striving.
But for the younger son, sin and its dread consequences were woven into the larger tapestry that we might title "homeward bound." This brings us to our fifth point.
5. Wrath is "God's" when it sends us home to God. The previous point can seem complex, but Jesus simplifies it perfectly in this same parable.
In the story, God does not cause the younger son's rebellion or his alienation or his suffering. God is not to blame for the consequences or his afflictions at all. Whatever sorrows he experienced when his inheritance was squandered and his fair-weather friends abandoned him--God didn't cause that. He did. God didn't punish him; sin did. When famine set in and he found himself wallowing in a pigpen, hungry enough to covet the chewed up cobs sitting in the manure, God didn't do that to him. The son did it to himself. Entirely. God simply did not "wrath him."
And yet ... the wrath is God's (or becomes Gods) in a particular way. Yes, the pigpen is wrath (sin's consequences). No, God didn't put him in the pigpen. But by a miracle of severe mercy, the stench in his nostrils triggered a memory of the aromas of his father's kitchen. His nose awakened his other senses. The sight of corncobs aroused memories of father's banqueting table. The straw pile that he called his bed now called to him, saying, "Remember your pillow? And your warm blankets? Remember your clean sheets?" Maybe this is what the text means by, "He came to his senses." The "wrath" of the pigpen served as smelling salts and gave him the gift of a moment of clarity! And so wrath is transformed by grace into the first step home.
Thus the unpleasantness of his consequences and the grace of the Holy Spirit together stirred his heart to return to his father's homestead ... not only to escape the pigpen, but to be rescued from alienation, rebellion and self-will too. This journey home began in "the wrath" but could only be fulfilled in the love of the Father. Wrath didn't save him; God did. But God employed sin's consequences in his project of salvation. In that way, we might even see the wrath as God's wrath.
How about this: God turned the effects of sin into a cause of salvation.
Summary: God's shadow, perhaps?
In talks with Paul Young, or in reading his novel Eve, he inspired me to see "wrath," not as the punishment of an angry God, but rather, as all that naturally occurs in the shadow I cast when I turn from the light.
It is only God's wrath in that while we create the shadow, somehow the suffering caused by the shadow and in our shadow life urges us to turn back, to come face-to-face with the Light. The sin is our turning from the Light and Life of God. The shadow which I create is a shadow of death ... but as a shadow, it also reminds me (eventually) that the Light of Life is still right there, always behind me, always facing me, always for me, waiting patiently. Religion often wants us to deny or manage or medicate or punish what's happening in the shadow. Faith calls me to turn around and let the Light cascade warm and bright over my face.
Or as Tom Talbbot Sr. recently wrote,
When we read in Ezekiel 22:31: "I have returned their conduct upon their heads, saith the Lord God," we encounter in embryonic form the very point that Paul made more explicitly in Romans 11:32: "For God has imprisoned all in disobedience so that he may be merciful to all."
God thus shuts all of us up to the consequences of our own disobedience, which can sometimes be fearful indeed, in order that he may ultimately be merciful to all of us. In that way, even his wrath is an expression of his boundless mercy to us.Postscript: In this model, there is no wrath in God (as Julian asserts). Wrath is always, ever an effect of turning from God. But through God's redeeming love, God can co-opt wrath so that it is for God and for us.