Last week, we took a closer at the Biblical Satan. We followed the conceptual evolution of this character throughout scripture and debunked some common misunderstandings.
Today, we are going to take those insights, connect them to the revelation of God we see in Jesus, and demonstrate how they should fundamentally change our view of God’s “Wrath”.
Let’s get started.
Rethinking The Wrath of God
With what we have learned now about “the satan”, and how in Jewish understanding, the satan was not opposed to God but was synonymous with God’s destructive will, and with what we have learned about Jesus who revealed God as diametrically opposed to the satan, and as a Father who comes to give life and save us from the destruction of the enemy, how then does this effect what we typically call “the wrath of God”? Brad Jersak helps us clarify:
“In some Old Testament stories, there is often little distinction between ‘the wrath of God’ and the violence of ‘the destroyer.’ The ‘destroyer’ is virtually God’s ‘hitman,’ sent on missions to keep God’s hands clean. But Jesus and Paul draw a sharp distinction: God is always a life-giver and redeemer. Satan is the death-dealer and destroyer.” – Brad Jersak, A More Christlike God
With the revealing of the Son then, we see a sharp distinction between the destruction of the satan and the life-giving nature of the Father. If we look at Jesus, we see that God is with us, to save and heal us, not to destroy us. And if we believe that God is both with us and against us, both out to destroy us and to save us from himself destroying us, then we end up with a schizophrenic God. Such a picture of God has no power to bring peace of mind or reveal perfect love that casts out fear.
Rethinking the “wrath of God” is necessary because Jesus did not exhibit destructive anger towards sinners. Indeed, the typical destructive god of anger and violence is nowhere to be found in Christ. He did exhibit anger at those who misrepresented his Abba, but this was not the destructive violence that is typically seen as “the wrath of God.” Even in the temple, which is literally the only scenario where Jesus expresses any kind of physical aggression, there is simply no evidence that Jesus inflicted any physical harm on anyone. He overturned tables, he drove them out of the temple. He did not wield a sword, slicing and dicing the money-changers and turning the temple into a bloodbath. Jesus did not kill anyone. Jesus declared killing and destroying as diametrically opposed to his purposes, and rebuked the disciples when they suggested it.
There are certain “biblical” portraits of God that Christ left behind, as he came to fulfill the progressive revelation of the law and the prophets. When some of his disciples suggested they follow in the footsteps of Elijah and call down fire on their enemies, Jesus rebuked them and said they were not in line with the Spirit he came to reveal. Jesus also rejected Moses’ “eye-for-eye” principle of justice. Though this principle was meant to curb away from excessive retributive violence, Jesus progressed it to the command of enemy-love and non-violence. He said this is what his heavenly Father is like, and if we imitate this, we are truly children of God.
Jesus never preached “the wrath of God” to sinners, he preached a God who came to give them life, and heal them of their deadly sin disease. This is not to say Jesus did not warn of the natural destructive consequences of sin, symbolized by the fire of the valley of Hinnom (mistranslated “hell” in our English Bibles), a loathsome place in the history of the Jews where dead bodies rotted and burned to ashes. But this is not a result of God’s anger. It’s the corrupting and death-reaping consequences of living in disharmony with the Giver of life. As Paul most clearly put it, “Whoever sows to the flesh will of the flesh reap destruction.” (Gal. 6:8) Living in disharmony with the divine way of righteousness, peace, and joy will naturally result in corruption and chaos.
In Romans 1 we see this explicitly: “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven” (Rom. 1:18) and what does Paul say it is? Lightning bolts shooting from the sky at sinners? Fire raining from heaven? Where is it? Does anyone see the wrath of God being revealed anywhere? Does anyone see supernatural destruction on human beings? No, that’s because Paul goes on to say that “the wrath of God” is a more existential thing written into nature itself. It turns out that “the wrath of God”, Paul says, is God “giving them over” to their sin and it resulting in the natural outworking of death. Far from being the active aggression of God against sinners, it is the passive allowance of letting them receive the natural karmic consequences of their actions.
I refer to the parable of the prodigal son: as long as the prodigal was wasting himself away on prostitutes and debauchery, he would end up in the pigs pen, and be under a domain outside of his fathers life and love and this has its natural consequences in death. Paul’s words of sowing to the flesh and of the flesh reaping destruction applies here. We could say this destructive domain the prodigal was experiencing was Jews would call “the wrath of God”, but it was not the literal anger of his father against his son destroying him, rather it was the prodigal reaping the natural destructive consequence of living in the chaos of sin. These consequences were hopefully to bring his son to repentance, and bring him back to the safety of his father, which they did.
“To St. Paul’s mind, in any case, divine wrath is always directed toward non-believers, those who have heard the gospel message and have rejected it. For the apostle, ‘divine wrath’ is a metaphorical expression (an ‘anthropomorphism’) that describes God’s way of responding to unrepentant sinners: by allowing them ‘to stew in their own juice.’ Like the notion of punishment, divine wrath is to be understood not as God’s direct action against us, but as an expression of His silence, His apparent absence in the life and experience of those who reject Him. While we are in this state in which He has seemingly abandoned us, God allows us to suffer the consequences of our sinful actions, including our refusal to repent. It is not God who punishes and condemns us; we do it to ourselves (God ‘gives us up’ to the consequences of the sin for which we are wholly responsible, Rom 1:24). As One whose very nature is Love, God desires that all come to repentance, in order that all may enjoy the free, unmerited gift of eternal life and eternal joy. The way to that life and that joy, once again, is repentance: a change of ‘mind’ (meta-noia), a conversion and radical reorientation of our life from slavery in sin to freedom in the Spirit.”
In other words, divine wrath is the pigpen that the prodigal son found himself in. “The wrath of God” is simply an anthropomorphism, a human way of trying to explain that the violence of our sin will eventually fall on our own heads, that the pit we have dug we will eventually fall into (Psalm 7:14-16). It is the reality that creation must reflect the Creator, the entire realm of being is for the purpose of manifesting the reality of God, and if we go against this grain, we go against the very nature of existence and therefore reap chaos and destruction. “The wrath of God” is a way of putting our “through-a-glass-darkly” explanation of karmic reaping and sowing. It is not God shooting lightning bolts at people from the sky.
Now hold on a second, you might say. Doesn’t the Old Testament show many instances where God does just that? Well, not so fast. Again, Brad Jersak helps us clarify:
God is good.
God is love.
God is not violent, because he never does violence directly.
In His love, God will not bring about his ends through directly violent means.
But in refusing to exercise such violence, God consents to our violence.
His love consents to our violence against each other. And against God. God’s consent is not complicity. But God appears complicit in our violence because God allows it. That is, when God refuses to apply force, might, and violence but instead, consents to our free rebellion and its bitter and violent fruit, God seems violent in His consent.
In love, God consents to our wrath against him on the Cross. He consents to our wrath against ‘Rome.’ He consents to Rome’s wrath against us.
His consent is wrath. His consent is love.
What of God’s active wrath? Did God not slaughter Egypt’s firstborn (Exod. 12)? Did God not massacre the Jewish grumblers in the wilderness (Num. 26)? Did God not incinerate Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19) or repeatedly reduce Jerusalem to smoking rubble (Jer. 52)? Did God not strike down Ananias and Sapphira at Peter’s feet (Acts 5) or eat Herod alive with worms (Acts 12:23)?
No. And Yes.
First, no. Were these acts of violent intervention by an angry and punitive God who was reacting to sin? No. The causes of death are ascribed to ‘the Destroyer,’ to angelic or human agents of violence, or to Satan (Exod. 12:23; Gen. 19:13; Jer. 4:7; 1 Cor. 10:9–10; Acts 5:3). God protects or ceases to harbour potential victims, depending on someone’s consent (or not) through repentance, surrender, or intercession (cf. Abraham in Gen. 18, or Moses in Exod. 33).
Second, yes. These were acts of God’s wrath in that God consented to allow natural and supernatural destruction to take its course through events set in motion by human decisions. In that sense, we read that God is seen to have ‘sent’ the destroyer and ‘sent’ the destruction—God is perceived as commissioning the destruction or even as the destroyer (Exod. 12:29; Gen. 19:14; Num. 21:6).
But in Romans 1 (picking up from Isa. 64:5–7), Paul clarifies: what had been described in the narrative metaphorically as a seemingly active wrath is in fact the ‘giving over’ (God’s consent) of rebellious people to their own self-destructive trajectories—even when the shrapnel of our actions accrues collateral damage on innocents! When in Romans 5 we read that God in Christ was saving us from ‘the wrath,’ we are not to believe that Jesus is saving us from God, but from the consequences of sin (death, according to Rom. 6:23) imbedded in the very order of the universe.”
“The wrath of God” is God allowing the son to end up in the pigpen from his own choice. It is a self-inflicted gehenna. The father of the prodigal son was not wrathful at the son and condemning him to the pigpen. The son reaped it himself. Likewise, “the wrath of God” is allowing the sheep to find itself in a perilous situation from wandering outside of the fold. In the parable of the lost sheep we don’t see an angry shepherd on the prowl to wrathfully destroy a rebellious sheep for going astray, but a shepeherd who seeks it out to save it from its own self-destructive waywardness.
God is our Savior, not our enemy. God is the father waiting for us to come home, not the pigpen making us miserable.
So with the full revelation of the Father in Christ, we can go back and navigate the Old Testament and perceive when Israel is mixing up God and the satan. The way we can interpret Old Testament “wrath of God” is this way: the wrath of God is not the literal anger of God destroying people but is God allowing humans to reap the natural and supernatural consequences of their destructive choices, ie. being under the tyranny of the satan who is the accuser and destroyer. The Father doesn’t want this, and his purpose is to rescue and restore this fallen world.
Admittedly, with the revelation of Christ, “the wrath of God” is not a great way of putting it. But again, we are dealing with metaphysical concepts “through a glass darkly.” Metaphors, analogies, anthropomorphisms are constantly employed by the writers of the Bible. There is not always consistency with language when trying to grasp existential and metaphysical realities. When Paul says, “Whoever sows to the flesh will of the flesh reap destruction”, that is a more to-the-point way of putting it.
In this sense, Jesus does save us from “the wrath of God”, but only if it is seen anthropomorphically as the intrinsic self-destructive consequences of our disharmony with God, and not as the active aggression of God against us. Jesus does not save us from God. Jesus is God saving us from our own sin and death.
“Even if such words as wrath, anger, hatred, and many meager others are pressed into speaking of the Creator, we should not suppose that He ever does anything in anger or hatred. Many such figures are employed in the roiling span of Scripture, provisional terms far removed from Who He Is. Even as our own, relatively rational persons have already been tweaked, increasingly if slowly made more competent in holy understanding of the Mystery — namely, that we should not take things quite so literally, but should suspect (concealed within the corporal surface of unlikely narratives) a hidden providence and eternal knowledge guiding all – so too we shall in future come to see the sweep of many things to be quite contrary to what our current, juvenile processes afford us.” – Saint Abba Isaac of Nineveh
This view doesn’t in any way weaken the emphasis against sin and for holiness. Rather, it shows God as being consistent, as the Savior from our destruction and not our destroyer, and it shows Jesus as actually fully revealing who the Father is. We can believe Jesus when he says, “Whoever sees the Son has seen the Father.”
I for one am thankful for the gospels. If you try to make Jesus a violent retributive Messiah who is angry at sinners and supports our self-righteous condemnation of others, you look at the gospels and it’s not there. If you try to make Jesus into a passive hippy who doesn’t care about righteousness and doesn’t issue strong warnings that sin is the way of death and who just preaches a feel-good message of moral relativism, you look at the gospels and it’s not there. Read the gospels. He is the truth. We don’t get to make up our own Jesus.
God never destroys people in wrath. Gods wrath is a metaphor for allowing people to reap the destructive consequences of their sin. The satan is the destructive one who wields the power of death against humanity (Heb. 2:14), and God is the one who comes to give life.
So does God ever have literal wrath? I believe he does. We need to define literal divine wrath in terms of what it looked like in Jesus.
In case one is unaware, Jesus did not walk around huffing and puffing, angry at sinners wanting to kill them. The ones he did express anger at were those who misrepresented the Father. If there was wrath in the heart of Jesus it was directed against mindsets, systems, principalities, and powers that kept people under the bondage of satan the destroyer. Jesus wrath drove out evil spirits and set the captive free and bound up the brokenhearted and healed the sick. The real literal wrath of Jesus was aimed at casting the prince of this world out, and saving people, not on destroying people.
However, as far as the destructive “wrath of God” is concerned, written in the Bible, it is consistent with the progressive revelation of scripture and the character of Jesus to understand it as a metaphor for the divine consent of allowing us to reap the destruction of our own sin. So while sometimes the Bible portrays the “wrath of God” as an active literal wrath, it is really a human way of conceptualizing God simply handing people over to their own destruction.
Did you know the concept of eternal torment isn’t even in the Bible? True story. Check it!