Every age faces the temptation to remake the true God in its own image—or in other words, the temptation to idolatry. The brutal ages of barbarian northern Europe tended to refashion God into a kind of Christian Viking, a warrior God, one who disdained weakness, a God who did not allow Himself meekly to be nailed to a cross, but who boldly mounted the wood Himself. The same area of Europe much later in the 1930s refashioned the God of the Jews once again and put forth a blonde Aryan Christ who despised the Jews as heartily as they did. Southern portions of America produced a God who endorsed slavery, forbade inter-racial marriage, and enforced the so-called “curse of Ham”, inflicting black skin on one of Noah’s progeny as a punishment. The temptation to remake God into our own image and imagine that He conforms to our own cultural norms is enduring and universal.
Today this temptation pushes us to proclaim that God has no wrath—to (as one of its proponents phrases it) “unwrath” Him, so that the words “God is love” means “God could never be wrathful”. It is not hard to see how closely this new picture of God (for its proponents cheerfully admit the picture is new) conforms to our own cultural norms. We are a culture which has (quite properly) developed a horror of war and conflict—not surprisingly, since the twentieth century arguably saw more international blood-letting than all previous centuries combined. We lionize men and woman of peace—persons like Gandhi and Anne Frank—and in our eyes the worst criminals are war criminals. We rightly look down upon delight in war and look back upon the enthusiasm for armed conflict that swept over the young soldiers going off to fight in the first world war with a kind of amazed pity. We know only too well that anger leads men and nations into bad places and we have no trouble believing St. James when he writes, “the anger of man does not achieve the righteousness of God”.
We may see clearly then how our horror of war and human anger sets us up to have a horror of hell and of divine anger. What may not be so clearly seen is how our awareness of human sin has eroded and all but vanished, and how this too sets us up to regard divine anger as unreasonable and unworthy. The convergence of these two largely unacknowledged factors—our twentieth century horror of war and longing for peace and our twentieth century loss of awareness of our own sinfulness—drives us to refashion the biblical picture of God into a more congenial likeness—a God whose love leaves no room for wrath or anger.
The biblical picture of God, from the early passages of Genesis to the final words of Revelation, is of a God who exhibits both tenderness and anger, or (in the words of St. Paul) both kindness and severity (Romans 11:22). He judged the transgression of the first-created man and woman with a sentence of mortality, and the sin of Cain with expulsion and exile. When sin multiplied and overflowed on the earth, He sent the waters of death to overflow in response, and drowned all of the world save Noah and his family.
Detailing every biblical instance of God’s judgment would require a book, not a blog-post. Perhaps the best way to sum up the Old Testament portrait of God is by citing its first liturgical song, the so-called Song of Moses found in Exodus 15. This song celebrates the judgment of God upon the Egyptians, avenging His oppressed people and setting them free. It concludes and culminates a long series of His judgments on the Egyptians when plague after plague laid them low and humiliated their idols, whose powerlessness to save was thereby revealed. Familiarity with Cecil B. DeMille’s The Ten Commandments with Charlton Heston playing Moses has both dramatized and sanitized those terrible days of plague. In the movie version, the plagues lasted only days; in the biblical text the terror and disaster went on for weeks and months. What the movie did not miss was the terror of the final plague—the death of the first-born. “Moses said, ‘Thus says the Lord: About midnight I am going out into the midst of Egypt and all the firstborn in the land of Egypt shall die, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sits on his throne, even to the firstborn of the slave-girl who is behind the millstones; all the firstborn of the cattle as well’…Now it came about at midnight that the Lord struck all the firstborn in the land of Egypt, from the firstborn of Pharaoh who sat on his throne to the firstborn of the captive who was in the dungeon, and all the firstborn of cattle. Pharaoh arose in the night, he and all his servants and all the Egyptians, and there was a great cry in Egypt, for there was no home where there was not someone dead”.
Even the spectacular closing of the Red Sea upon the pursuing Egyptian soldiers shortly thereafter could not, I suggest, compare with this horror. But the night of terror and the deaths of Egyptian soldiers in the Red Sea are not lamented in the Song, but celebrated: “I will sing to the Lord, for He is highly exalted! The horse and rider He has hurled into the sea! The Lord is my strength and my song; He has become my salvation! This is my God and I will praise Him; my father’s God and I will extol Him! The Lord is a warrior; the Lord is His Name! Your right hand, O Lord, is majestic in power, Your right hand, O Lord, shatters the enemy. In the greatness of Your majesty, You have overthrown Your adversaries.”
One could, if one had a low view of the Scriptures, write this off as a bit of cold-hearted Israelite nationalism. But then one would need to write off pretty much the rest of the Old Testament as well: the Mosaic slaughter of the apostates worshipping the golden calf at the foot of Mount Sinai, the judgment befalling the rebels Dathan and Abiram when the earth swallowed them up for their rebellion, the destruction of Jericho, the striking down of Uzzah for his irreverence against the Ark, and the leprosy smiting both Uzziah the king and Gehazi the prophet’s servant. Time would fail me if I would tell of all the other instances of divine judgment in the Old Testament. It is best summed up by the opening utterance of Nahum the prophet: “A jealous and avenging God is the Lord; the Lord is avenging and wrathful. The Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries and He reserves His wrath for His enemies. The Lord is slow to anger and great in power; the Lord will by no means leave the guilty unpunished.”
One might, I suppose, break faith with the unbroken tradition of the Church and side with the heretic Marcion, who happily unwrathed the Christian God by rejecting this Old Testament picture as inaccurate and unreliable. Marcion simply consigned the entirety of the Law and the Prophets to the ashcan. Today, taught by Darwin to regard everything as evolving and improving, some retain the Old Testament text itself and simply reject the bits they dislike, declaring them insufficiently developed and not yet spiritual. That spirituality and acceptability would come, they declare, with Christ and the Gospel. (One imagines Marcion simply shrugging and saying, “I could live with that.”)
The problem for these Latter Day Marcionite Saints is that the New Testament also partakes of both the kindness and the severity found in the Old Testament. Christ, for all His tenderness, compassion, and patience, still drove out the animals of the money-changers from the Temple with whips. He denounced the Pharisees as hypocrites, children of Gehenna, serpents, whited sepulchres, and a brood of vipers bound for hell. He pronounced woes upon the cities of Chorazin and Bethsaida and said that Capernaum would descend to Hades, the land of death. He declared that the wicked would be cast into the outer darkness, a place of weeping and of gnashing of teeth, into the unquenchable fire, and into eternal punishment, however much they hammered on heaven’s door and sought entry. He said that those who opposed Him were children of the devil who would die in their sins, and that it would have been better for the one who betrayed Him if he had never been born.
Christ was the same after His ascension into heaven. John saw Him in glory standing in the midst of His seven Asian churches, still the Saviour and the Judge. To those who rejected His teaching said, “Repent, or else I am coming to you quickly and I will make war with the sword of My mouth.” Concerning a local teacher and her disciples He said, “I gave her time to repent and she does not want to repent of her immorality. Behold, I will throw her on a bed of sickness and I will kill her children [i.e. her disciples] with pestilence and all the churches will know that I am the one who searches the minds and hearts and I will give to each one of you according to your deeds.”
One person (Brad Jersak, in his A More Christlike God) has suggested that a key to understanding Christ is found in Revelation 5:5-6, where the Lion is revealed not only as a lamb, but as a lamb slain, and that this means that Christ has no more wrath or judgment than a sacrificial lamb in its meekness. Such “exegesis” is spurious—a chapter later we see men fleeing from the wrath of this Lamb and from “the great day of wrath” (Revelation 6:16-17), and the Book of Revelation culminates with the Second Coming and the marriage supper of the Lamb. How harmless that slain Lamb is may be learned from Revelation 19:11f: “I saw heaven opened and behold, a white horse, and He who sat on it is called faithful and true and in righteousness He judges and wages war. From His mouth comes a sharp sword so that with it He may strike down the nations and He treads the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty.”
There is nothing for it—we must face up to the fact that the biblical picture of God in the Old Testament and of Christ in the New is one of both tenderness and wrath, of both kindness and severity, and that an “unwrathed” deity can only be produced by selecting one aspect of the total picture and remaking this one detail into a new whole. It is not so much interpreting some verses in the light of others as it is ignoring many unwelcome verses in favour of a few more welcome ones. This has been the preferred method of heretical exegesis throughout the centuries.
The real question therefore is not “Is the biblical God a God of wrath?”, but rather “Why is the wrath of God celebrated so widely and so emphatically in the Bible?” For throughout the history of Christian exegesis, God’s judgment is not treated like a dirty little divine secret or a lamentable flaw in God’s otherwise sterling character, but praised and emphasized as part of our salvation. We are taught to rejoice at His coming judgment: “Let the sea roar and all it contains, the world and those who dwell in it! Let the rivers clap their hands, let the mountains sing together for joy before the Lord, for He is coming to judge the earth!” (Psalm 98:7-9). Or more succinctly, the Church cries out, “Marantha!” “Christ is in our midst! He is and shall be!” Why this exultation at the judgment of God? Or, put differently, why should we welcome the coming of the God of wrath?
It is important to understand the divine wrath and to see that it is not the manifestation of any irascibility (as the pagan gods could sometimes prove irascible), but of moral fervour. That is, divine wrath is what happens when divine goodness encounters evil. We see this even when our own little human fragments of morality and goodness encounter true evil—when we are brought face to face with such evils as the Nazi’s Final Solution of the Jewish Question (i.e. the Holocaust), or the killing fields of Pol Pot or the beheadings of ISIS. We are repelled and feel moral indignation at such atrocities. Love for the individuals committing the atrocities does nothing to diminish our moral outrage at the acts themselves. And if we who are fallen feel such wrath at evil, how much more would a righteous God rise up in anger against it? God’s zeal to avenge, His wrath when confronted with evil is nothing other than His manifested moral goodness—the same goodness which delights to bless the righteous, to forgive the penitent, and to protect the orphan and the widow. To say that God is love—i.e. that God is good—implies both His zeal to protect the helpless and His zeal to avenge the helpless when they are struck down and violated. To “unwrath” God would be to strip Him of His zeal to avenge, to shield and vindicate the helpless. It would be to disarm Him of His moral compass. An unwrathed God would not be more loving than a wrathful one, just more ineffectual.
And we want God to be effectual, especially when it comes to dealing with our own sins. God’s wrath at sin is the expression of His moral determination to banish sin from the cosmos He made. While that may be bad news for the impenitent wicked of the earth, it is good news for the fallen but penitent—that is, for us. For we want and need a God who can banish sin from our hearts, a God who will not stop or be satisfied with us until every ounce and atom of sin, disease, and darkness have been rooted out of our hearts. Only by such a relentless war against our sin can we be fully and finally healed and whole. Only by such determined wrath against all that afflicts and torments us can we stand tall and joyful and live in the eternal bliss for which we were made.
God hates sin and takes action against it wherever He finds it, just as a good physician might hate cancer in his patients and take action to cure it. Everyone in the whole wide world stands in need of such curing. “May our God come and not keep silence! Fire devours before Him and it is very tempestuous around Him” (Psalm 50:3). May that fire of wrath and love devour the sin lurking in us. May it burn up the thorns of our transgressions and enlighten us to proclaim the true God.