4 Problems with Downplaying God’s Wrath

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Many people in our culture, both within and without the church, have trouble with the idea of an angry God. Many secular people look at Bible passages where God gets angry and judges people and think, That’s precisely why religion is so primitive and dangerous. And many Christians seem to want to tone down, or even excise completely from our creed, the doctrine of divine wrath. It is seen as an embarrassment—something to be ameliorated, qualified, explained, reconfigured.

Many, for example, feel more comfortable with the view C. H. Dodd popularized in the early 20th century, that God’s wrath refers not to God’s attitude toward persons, but to the inevitable cause-and-effect process of a moral universe. Similarly, others point to passages like Romans 1:18–32 to argue that God’s wrath is simply a passive response of letting sin reap its consequences.

This whole development is not a theological sidebar, irrelevant to church life and worship. The doctrine of divine wrath is an integral piece of the gospel message, and therefore, moving away from it will inevitably have far-reaching consequences for the church’s faith and life.

Vital to the Gospel

For example, I believe the driving impetus behind most revisionist atonement theologies is discomfort with the traditional doctrine of divine wrath. George Smeaton claimed all the way back in 1870, “The question of divine wrath is at present the great point in debate on the subject of the atonement.” I think his comment remains apt in today’s atonement discussions. As goes our view of divine wrath, so generally goes our view of the atonement.

The doctrine of divine wrath is an integral piece of the gospel message, and  therefore, moving away from it will inevitably have far-reaching consequences for the church’s faith and life.

I think movements away from the doctrine of hell are also often connected to discomfort with divine wrath. For example, I remember Rob Bell’s question in the promotional video for Love Wins: “What kind of God would need to save us from himself? And how could that possibly be good news?” The root issue for Bell was not just hell per se, but the more general notion of divine wrath and judgment.

My heart goes out to those who might struggle with this doctrine, especially those who struggle because they’ve seen it caricatured or associate it with their experience of sinful human anger. As an effort to help, here are four problems with downplaying divine wrath (or denying its active, personal dimensions).

1. The Bible

If we want to move away from the notion of an angry God while retaining an authoritative Bible, we have some pretty heavy revisionist lifting to do. I would say the effort is roughly comparable to Thomas Jefferson’s attempt to scissor-cut the supernatural out of the Bible. Just type in “Lord wrath” or “God angry” to a Bible Gateway search. There are more than 0 references to divine wrath in Scripture.

In the Bible, God’s wrath is not the problem but the solution, not the offensive doctrine needing defense but the long-awaited vindication of justice after the tension of the prophets’ ‘How long, O Lord?’

What strikes me most, however, is not how frequently God’s Word speaks of God’s wrath, but the absence of the embarrassment or hesitation or shuffling of the feet so often present in contemporary attitudes toward this doctrine. In the Bible, God’s wrath is not the problem but the solution, not the offensive doctrine needing defense but the long-awaited vindication of justice after the tension of the prophets’ “How long, O Lord?” Hence God’s wrath is expressed in the strongest metaphors, and with the firmest language. Note, for example, the metaphor of fire (implicit in the words “burning” and “kindled”) employed by the narrator of 2 Kings 23:26 after recording Manasseh’s sin:

Still the LORD did not turn from the burning of his great wrath, by which his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked him.

Or consider the opening verse of Nahum (1:2):

The LORD is a jealous and avenging God;

the LORD is avenging and wrathful;

the LORD takes vengeance on his adversaries

and keeps wrath for his enemies.

Some think the Old Testament emphasizes God’s wrath, while the New Testament emphasizes God’s love. It’s more accurate to say both God’s love and God’s wrath are present strongly in the Old Testament, and both are ratcheted up even more intensely in the New. Revelation, for instance, envisions the kings of the earth calling for the mountains to fall on them because they cannot stand the wrath of the Lamb (6:15–17). Later, it champions a warrior Christ with a sword and an army coming to judge the nations and “tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (19:15). This doesn’t sound like an impersonal, passive process of simply letting evil reap its own consequences.

J. I. Packer devoted a chapter of his classic Knowing God to the wrath of God, and in it he asked a worthy question:

Clearly, the theme of God’s wrath is one about which the biblical writers feel no inhibitions whatever. Why, then, should we? Why, when the Bible is vocal about it, should we feel obliged to be silent?

2. Church History

Discomfort with the doctrine of God’s wrath appears to be primarily a recent, Western development. By and large, pre-modern Christians didn’t have a problem with the notion of an angry God. In fact, I’d be hard-pressed to find any major theologian before 1750 who would regard current objections to divine wrath as anything other than strange, alarming, and highly eccentric.

The doctrine of divine judgment, a sister teaching to divine wrath, even achieved creedal status. The earliest and most ecumenical creeds (Apostles’ and Nicene) both affirmed that Christ “shall come to judge the quick and the dead,” and the Athanasian Creed (also ecumenical) ratcheted up divine judgment to include a sentencing to “everlasting fire.”

A God who judges evil was an assumed norm of orthodox, creedal Christianity for centuries. Nor did this point really distinguish Christianity from the other monotheistic religions. Maimonides, Muhammad, and Martin Luther were all agreed on this point.

3. Cultural Considerations

Why did the idea of God’s wrath (like God’s judgment) not even require a defense to most Christians throughout church history? Why does it tend to flourish, instead, in the most affluent and comfortable societies? Perhaps because it’s hard to appreciate the righteousness and appropriateness and even desirableness of God’s wrath when we have fairly cushy lives. When we come face to face with brutal evil—when we sit with a rape victim or walk the halls of Auschwitz—the idea of an angry God rarely strikes us as offensive. Instead, we see why the biblical writers viewed God’s wrath as a good thing—a righteous and fitting part of the world’s governance. Miroslav Volf makes this point with devastating force:

My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people 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. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.

4. The Psychology of Anger

Apart from any theological or even religious considerations, the idea that love and wrath are at odds is hard to square with basic human psychology. We all know good, loving people who get angry precisely because they are good and loving. What good parent is not angry, for example, at the mistreatment of his children? Do any of us not feel anger when we see real evil in the world—runaway greed, for instance, or blatant hypocrisy? Does this anger reveal lack of charity in us? No, just the opposite: we feel anger at injustice and wrong because we care about people. Anger is how goodness responds to evil, just as squinting is how eyes respond to bright lights or recoiling is how hands respond to hot surfaces.

Anger is how goodness responds to evil.

I would go so far as to say a God who never gets angry—a God who leaves the cry of the victim and the downtrodden echoing without answer for eternity—such a God would not be good, and therefore would not be God. Its difficult to worship, or believe in, or even imagine, such a God. As Tim Keller puts it in The Reason for God:

The belief in a God of pure love—who accepts everyone and judges no one—is a powerful act of faith. Not only is there no evidence for it in the natural order, but there is almost no historical, religious textual support for it. . . . The more one looks at it, the less justified it appears.

Offensive Gospel  

We might intuitively assume that an impersonal, “evil is its own punishment” process is a more moderate and humane way to achieve justice in this world. But an impersonal process cannot forgive us, whereas a God who has anger can. In whatever places we might be tempted to deny the notion of divine anger, we’ll find more freedom and comfort in acknowledging it, and seeing its solution at Calvary.

It might sound harsh to modern sensibilities to look at the bloodied body of Jesus on the cross and say, “I helped put him there; that is how God feels about my sin.” To say this is to humble yourself under the offense of the gospel; it is the last surrender, the death of the ego, the eye of the needle through which the camel of human pride must shrink and squeeze. But it is also freedom, because the person who can say, “Jesus faced the wrath I deserved” can also say, “I now have the love and favor Jesus deserved.” Only the person who submits the offense of the gospel can be lifted up to fully see its glory.

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