Thanks to Billy at Classical Arminianism for a great post on why wrath cannot be considered an authentic attribute of God. Yet, one more reason to disagree with Wayne Grudem’s view of Christianity…
Tag Archives: wrath
So where did the idea of God as our judge come from? The NT is always “echoing” events and illustrations from the OT and ”spring boarding” forward to a more developed realization of God based on the work of Christ. If you don’t have the OT background, there’s really no way to properly define judgment in the NT.
Our modern understanding of judgment as a “legal” activity did not form in church history until around 1100 C.E. With the introduction of Roman law codes back into Western civilization, civil and religious thought began to merge. This is also what caused the witch “trials” – legal action governing religious preference. That’s never a good idea. Anyway, this legal view had, I believe, seriously negative impacts on the Christian understanding of God, judgment, and the cross. It birthed the “penal-substitution” model of atonement through writings of Anselm and John Calvin (for another post). But it also associated the biblical idea of judgment with the pronouncement of a guilty verdict and the following punishment by a court of law. And there’s the problem. What did people think the Bible meant when it talked about judgment before we let legal attitudes influence it?
The OT understanding of judgment is particularly found in the book of Judges. God reflected his understanding of judgment in the actions of the judges. So, what did the judges do? They didn’t destroy Israel - they were actually raised up to deliver God’s people from oppression. They fought for the people, delivered them from impending doom, and reinstated peace. This is about the time a little light ought to be coming on in your head. I know it did for me and it changed how I related to God permanently.
Now I say, “Thank God he is our judge.” God’s most poignant moment of judgment is found in his deliverance of humanity on the cross, not by crushing them in some end times scenario. His wrath at sin, based on his love for us, compelled him to find another way to reach us. His judgment, a result of his wrath, is found in the mission and compassion of Jesus. God raised up a new “judge” to deliver us from sin and death: Jesus. God’s wrath, a temporary measure against sin, is born out of his eternal nature – his unconquerable love. The NT writers didn’t see God as a law court judge the way we do – that idea didn’t appeal to them. What did exist were the images of the Exodus, Gideon, Debra, and Samson – judges fighting on behalf of the people. This is the way that God is our “judge.”
One thing that has drastically changed for me in recent years is my understanding of judgment and the wrath of God. Now, if you grew up like I did, you were taught that you should love God but also fear him. I always assumed that God liked being feared as much as being loved and that fear was the “healthy” realization that God could smite me from existence at any point. What I didn’t understand was where the biblical origins of God’s wrath came from. I believed they came from his disappointment with my behavior – kind of like a child who has disappointed a parent one too many times. Though this idea helped keep me in line, I have found it does not represent God’s anger. You can be angry for any number of reasons. The OT tells us specifically why God was angry.
Passages in the OT that describe the wrath of God usually come from the prophets. Here we have different prophets rehearsing the emotional hurt and betrayal that God feels. Descriptions of whoredom, idolatry, and rebellious behavior inform all these passages. What God is usually trying to say through them is “I am so hurt that I am angry.” In essence, God comes across as a spurned lover who by opening himself up to become vulnerable to humans has his hopes for fidelity and spiritual “monogamy” constantly trashed. This didn’t happen just once – God continued to give Israel chances to accept his kindness, but they always rejected him. Anyone who has felt that level of personal betrayal understands this wrath. It’s not meant to harm to individual, but it hurts so deeply that it expresses itself in a tirade of emotions. Outrageous love in turn produces emotional devastation. See Isaiah 1:21; Jeremiah 2:20, 25:3-7; read Hosea 6:4-6, 11:3-4, 8-9 together.
So, describing God’s anger is a way for the prophets to convey God’s his deep hurt when he is rejected by his creation. Other OT passages show him weeping and obsessing over whether the Israelites will respond to his romantic overtures, like a girl waiting for a phone call from a boy. Even Jesus wept over the people that refused to hear his message. In Matthew 11, he imitates the prophets by saying that he wished to tenderly gather his people to him like “a hen gathers her chicks under her wings.” He also imitates the wrath of God’s rejection in Matthew 23 by shouting death threats at Tyre and Sidon. Essentially, Jesus blurts out the emotion of the Father, like a young man shaking his fists in the air shouting, “You’ll pay for this!” as his girlfriend rides off in a car with another guy. Both examples reflect the love of God that he desperately wants to show all people. Some people just can’t see God having so much emotion. My response is twofold: 1) read the passages above and 2) where do your emotional responses originate? How about from being made in the image of God?
A Christian’s view of wrath also affects his or her view of judgment. When judgment is over-emphasized, people accept Jesus because they don’t want to go to hell, not because they want a relationship with him. Preachers hate that but they’re usually the ones that cause it by not preaching a full understanding of judgment. And since when is not going to hell the gospel? The problem with many approaches to judgment is their overly negative understanding of God’s end times scenario. I actually know a girl who accepted Jesus because she didn’t want to live through the great tribulation. Well I’ve got news for you, Christians in Sudan think they’re in the middle of the great tribulation right now…
Judgment merely means to “render a decision” – not a negative decision, just a decision. Judgments can also be positive. Modern judges “judge” people guilty and innocent. When we say someone is a good “judge” of character, we are saying they intuitively know when someone is not only bad, but also those that are good. Therefore the judgment of God also includes judging “good” the life of a believer. For example, God judged creation good in Genesis. People who always think judgment is bad assume that God will let you in to heaven but plans to make you feel really lousy in the process. Or they teach that God will let you in but the actions of your life dictate a secondary form of punishment for not living out his perfect will for your life. Bob only gets 2 crowns while Joe over there did so good that he has 19, 402 crowns. Sheila gets a mansion and Laura lives in heaven’s ghetto. Huh? There’s a lot of scripture to muddle through on all of this but my question becomes: where is the cross in such a scenario? Does the cross “grade on a curve” that we don’t know about until we get to heaven? I don’t believe so. But you sure can get people to do a lot for Jesus if they buy into that idea.
If God’s definitive characteristic is love, then wrath and judgment flow out of that love. That’s not to say that there aren’t consequences for actions on earth. But it does mean that love finds a way to meet people where they are and enable them to walk in relationship with God. Wrath and “negative” judgment don’t please God in the least – they break the heart of a spurned Lover.
Everyone in Christian evangelical circles has had this quote explained to them in the following way: “God is unable to look upon sin and hates it so much that he turned his back on Jesus. And Jesus cried out in that moment of loneliness and isolation: why have you forsaken me?”
Though that makes for good theatrics, it’s not really accurate. Jesus isn’t just saying some random phrase – he’s actually quoting Psalm 22. And throughout the majority of the New Testament, Old Testament passages that are quoted sparingly are meant to be interpreted in light of the of the whole passage, not just the snippet that, say, Paul or Luke might give you. It’s kind of like a song or hymn. Though most pop songs derive their titles from the chorus, hymns or praise and worship anthems use the first line. So, “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” is actually the first line; so is “I’m Trading my Sorrows” or “As the Deer.” Jesus was actually quoting a song title – Psalm (song) 22 to be exact. He quotes the first line (verse 1), knowing that we’ll know that he meant for us to read the whole text in light of his crucifixion.
But we don’t. We lost that little cultural clue along the way. And our accepted legal model of the atonement is happy to see God turning his head away from his object of wrath: Jesus. So, why don’t I give you the rest of the song?
My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?
Why are you so far away when I groan for help?
Everyone who sees me mocks me.
They sneer and shake their heads, saying,
“Is this the one who relies on the Lord?
Then let the Lord save him!
If the Lord loves him so much,
let the Lord rescue him!”
My enemies surround me like a pack of dogs;
an evil gang closes in on me.
They have pierced my hands and feet.
I can count all my bones.
My enemies stare at me and gloat.
They divide my garments among themselves
and throw dice for my clothing.
Praise the Lord, all you who fear him!
Honor him, all you descendants of Jacob!
Show him reverence, all you descendants of Israel!
For he has not ignored or belittled the suffering of the needy.
He has not turned his back on them,
but has listened to their cries for help.
The whole earth will acknowledge the Lord and return to him.
All the families of the nations will bow down before him.
Our children will also serve him.
Future generations will hear about the wonders of the Lord.
His righteous acts will be told to those not yet born.
They will hear about everything he has done.
So, what’s going on here? Well, like every Psalm, this one tells a story. Psalm 22 tells of possible abandonment and affliction by enemies. It even describes some of the events surrounding Jesus’ crucifixion (another reason why Jesus chose to quote it). But in the “song,” when things seem the darkest, God rescues the afflicted. And though the Psalmist in verse one believes God is turning his back, verse 24 tells us God has not done so. That’s the point Jesus was making. God (identifying with Jesus) is on a rescue mission to save the world so that everyone will “hear about everything he has done.” If we believe that the fullness of the Trinity was reconcilling the world, they were all there with Jesus at that moment. All three were completely invested in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
We’ve asked countless times why Jesus died on the cross. Yet, we fail to read the rest of the “song” after Jesus quotes its title. Psalm 22 explains the cross as a moment when everyone can see the depths to which the Trinity will go to reconcile the world – to heal and deliver it from certain destruction. God doesn’t turn his head. He does the opposite. He dives directly into the human condition by becoming one of us. He’s not too holy to look at sin. He’s too holy to let sin hold humanity captive. And like the Father who hugs his prodigal son whose covered in pig filth, God in Jesus surrounds himself with sin so he can explode sin from the inside out.
Now, that makes more sense, doesn’t it?