Divine Wr*th

Can enlightened people today still believe in a God associated with wrath?

Wrath is a touchy subject: our fear of talking about it has even surpassed any fear of the thing itself. Even in our own lives, anger is one of the few emotions today that we don’t like admitting to: how often have you denied it by saying I wasn’t angry, I was just…? The idea of divine wrath is even worse: it has become a secular swear word, and this even in certain Christian circles it’s considered almost blasphemous. This is because some well-meaning (but mean), conservative Christians revel in the idea of divine vengeance; when they talk about it, vengeance becomes something much closer to hate, anger, and retribution – the very things Jesus warns us against in the Sermon on the Mount. In reaction to this, many well-meaning (but acquiescent) liberal Christians have thrown the baby out with the bathwater, denying this aspect of God even though it comes up embarrassingly often both in the Old and New Testaments. Is “God’s wrath” which we read about in the Bible contrary to what Jesus taught? How should we understand it anyway?

First, a definition by John Stott. His book The Cross of Christ from which the following quotation is taken, is regarded by follower and opponent alike as required reading on crucifixion theology. Stott was a reasonably conservative Brit and is one of the founders of modern evangelicalism, which is why I quote him. How offensive is the ‘conservative’ (i.e. offensive) view really?

[God’s wrath] does not mean that he is likely to fly of the handle at the most trivial provocation, still less that he loses his temper for no apparent reason at all. For there is nothing capricious or arbitrary about the holy God. Nor is he ever irascible, malicious, spiteful, or vindictive. His anger is neither mysterious nor irrational. It is never unpredictable, but always predictable, because it is provoked by evil and by evil alone. The wrath of God is his steady, unrelenting, unremitting, uncompromising antagonism to evil in all its forms and manifestations. In short, God’s anger is poles apart from ours. What provokes our anger (injured vanity) never provoke his; what provokes his anger (evil) seldom provokes ours.

Most people regard this as remarkably inoffensive, and not really what they were expecting from the conservative. Next up is Miroslav Volf, a Croatian-born theologian at Yale University. The quote below is from what many people regard as the book on forgiveness, called Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness and Reconciliation. Volf is a ‘softie’ – to give you an idea, the other books he wrote have titles such as Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace; Against the Tide: Love in the Time of Petty Dreams and Persistent Enmities; and A Public Faith: How Followers of Christ Should Serve the Common Good. So this is a sophisticated, gentle academic at an ivy-league school, who studies forgiveness and nonviolence. He writes the following:

My thesis is that the practice of non-violence requires a belief in divine vengeance… My thesis will be unpopular with man in the West… But imagine speaking to people (as I have) whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned, and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit… Your point to them–we should not retaliate? Why not? I say – the only means of prohibiting violence by us is to insist that violence is only legitimate when it comes from God…Violence thrives today, secretly nourished by the belief that God refuses to take the sword…It takes the quiet of a suburb for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence is a result of a God who refuses to judge. In a scorched land – soaked in the blood of the innocent, the idea will invariably die, like other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind… If God were NOT angry at injustice and deception and did NOT make a final end of violence, that God would not be worthy of our worship.

Again, this is surprising. Not what most people were expecting from the forgiveness-theologian.

The thing is, divine wrath is not such a negative theme in the Bible that many people think it is. God’s wrath and judgement is, in many ways, “God putting the world to rights” as theologian N.T. Wright says. To the oppressed and marginalised, this is good news, but many honest people are uncomfortable with the possibility because they know that should God do this, they would be on the wrong side of the sword. Nobel Prize winning author Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn framed our dilemma well:

If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of his own heart?

Of course, if we talk about divine wrath without talking about the grace and forgiveness in Christ, we have stopped reading in Chapter One. Many people do this and conclude that the book sucks. Christians hold that in Jesus and specifically at the cross, God somehow dealt with human evil and guilt without exercising his wrath against us (or against Jesus, I think). In doing so he did not play off justice against mercy, but fulfilled both. He remains righteous (with his wrath burning against evil) while at the same time being the righteous-ser of us who – let’s face it – actually had it coming. As unhealthy as it may be to evangelise with fear, fire and brimstone, it may be equally unhealthy to deny it altogether.

The bottom line is this: God’s wrath is not opposed to his love. They are expressions of one and the same thing in different contexts, the same way a fire is can be both comforting and terrifying. You can’t have a God of love without having a God whose wrath burns against evil. And frankly, I don’t think we want one.