Monday, March 28, 2011

The Wrath of God?

[Based on sermons given at St John's, Toorak, Lent 3 2011]

Psalm 95, the Venite of liturgical tradition, tells of the rebellion against God at Massah and Meribah by the Israelites, who had been led out of Egypt but complained (Exod 17). The Psalmist boldly speaks for God:
For forty years I loathed that generation and said, "They are a people whose hearts go astray, and they do not regard my ways." Therefore in my anger I swore, "They shall not enter my rest."
Does God get angry? In some parts of the Church the answer is more than simply “yes”; rather it seems essential to God’s being. The 18th century New England preacher Jonathan Edwards famously discoursed on the fate of “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”:
God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect, over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times so abominable in his eyes as the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.
This picture of a sadistic cosmic dictator remains influential, however distant it is from biblical tradition or basic morality. There are forms of Christianity which teach (to parody John 3:16) that God hates the world so much that he gave his only son so that an arbitrary-chosen few who believe in him might avoid eternal agony. Or, more commonly but equally perniciously, it may be suggested that a loving Christ was sacrificed to “satisfy” the wrath of an angry Father. Such divinities would seem to need time on the heavenly psychotherapist's couch.

Rightly, other theologians have sought to distance the authentic Christian message from this position. But the alternatives are not always adequate, and can fail to acknowledge adequately why we needed a Gospel in the first place. The notion that things are fine and that Jesus is a well-integrated person or wise moral teacher who offers optional maxims for self-fulfilment is an equally unsatisfactory view. In the 1950s, theologian H. Richard Niebuhr spoke acidly of some forms of Christianity which narrated a sort of Gospel the opposite of Edwards’, in which “a God without wrath brought men [sic] without sin into a world without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”

Some of the most influential talk of divine wrath appears in the Letter of Paul to the Romans:
But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood, will we be saved through him from the wrath [of God].
The New Revised Standard Version just cited takes a risk in deliberately mistranslating Romans 5:9, when it says that “we will be saved through him from the wrath of God”. The original text says merely “wrath”.

This is an important distinction, obviously. Paul speaks relatively often of “wrath” in this absolute way – for him “wrath” has an objective reality, like the elements or gravity. The translators are probably seeking to avoid the impression that we are saved from our own or each others’ wrath, rather than something outside ourselves, adding "of God". But Paul's omission is hardly accidental.

Only once, earlier in the Letter to the Romans, does Paul attribute this wrath to God: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth”.

Paul does mean that there is such a thing as a “wrath” linked to God, which is a real consequence of sin; but he also makes it clear in this same passage that this is not the essential character of God’s relationship to us; “God proves his love for us” by saving us from this. Paul does assert clearly the reality and difficulty of that “wrath”. It is an inescapable aspect of human life as we know it, that Paul does not seek to attribute to any lesser force than God. But God has “wrath”, as you and I understand it, in the same sense that God has eyes or ears – not at all, strictly speaking, but more profoundly than we do, in another sense.

So it will not do to suggest that the affirmation of God’s love has to be balanced or qualified by affirmation of God’s justice or wrath. God’s character is love, not wrath; but we must also acknowledge how distant the world’s present reality is from God’s loving purpose. This is what that “wrath” is about. Just as we experience frustration and anger when what we know to be right and true does not immediately or fully appear in lived reality, so too we acknowledge the difference between how we are and how we live and God’s purpose. This painful and destructive distance, and its consequences, are what Paul calls “wrath”.

In their respective ways, Paul, the Psalmist, and even Jonathan Edwards, are grappling with this gap between God’s loving desire for us and our welfare, and the world’s and our failure to respond to God as we are called to do. But this "wrath" is not the mark of a God bent on doing us harm, but the characteristic of God who is love, and who wills an end to all that is false and unjust. Wrath and justice are not principles that qualify or balance the affirmation that God is love (a biblical idea, unlike any assertion of “essential” wrath), but its corollaries. Any idea of “wrath” that cannot be derived from and compatible with that God whose first and last reality is love must be opposed and exposed for its falsity and danger.