Friday, February 7, 2014

Jesus vs. the Wrathless God

I had a recent discussion on Facebook that has made me think harder about something than I have for quite a while. I've made related posts about this in the past but it seems I should take this one head on. A friend of mine has been on a quest to exonerate God of ever having what the Bible calls wrath. His argument seems to be as follows.
  1. Wrath, anger, etc. are dark, evil emotions and the idea that God would ever experience them conflicts with the premise that God is light and in him is no darkness at all -- here he borrows a quote from an Archbishop of Canterbury who says that God is Christlike and in him is no un-Christlike-ness at all.
  2. The ultimate revelation about God's true character comes in the Gospels from our encounters with Jesus there --  culminating in the Cross and because we can see no wrath there, only mercy, wrath is not part of God at all. 
  3. Any other data about this in the Bible is suspect because the writer had never encountered Jesus and even in the New Testament the rest of the books have to be seen through the lens of the Gospels.
  4. When the Bible refers to wrath, it's really a metaphor for God backing off his protection and allowing us to experience the consequences of our actions, and hence, he's not doing it to us -- we're doing it to ourselves.
And the thing is, I'm really tracking very close to all of this. This is generally the way I read the Bible too. The Gospels are the proper lens through which to view the rest of the Bible. If you're a long time reader you might remember that I've posted a rant much earlier on about how the completely arbitrary published order of the New Testament ostensibly gives Paul the last word over Jesus on so many issues.

So where is my problem? Mostly with 1) and 4). I think that to not allow for this aspect of God's character is to lessen his personhood. Wrath, anger, etc. are not intrinsically evil. Any and all righteous beings, if they have any emotions at all, ought to and ought to be allowed to disapprove of evil on an emotional level. That seems a limp-wristed  definition of wrath, but really, everything else is a matter of degree and perception. Presumably greater evil would evoke a greater response. Certain situations (say, being called to account) will amplify the perception of wrath. Secondly even if the wrath talked about outside of the Gospels was not clearly perceived by the writer, something was perceived. It can't be negated into a metaphor or written off as a complete mistake. I also feel that the whole discussion has an 'our time' feel to it, that it never would have occurred to earlier cultures, especially the culture of the times of the Bible's actual writing, to raise these issues. (But I've touched upon that elsewhere)

Another thing that has to be said is that we're all really on the very same side. We're even accepting the same task. Those who want to see God exonerated of all wrath are defending his character by saying that with wrath, he has a defective personality. I'm defending his character by saying that without wrath he doesn't even have a personality.

But, accepting the standard of the Gospels as the lens through which all else is understood, my task is clear. I have to find wrath in the Gospels. Maybe I have made things too easy for myself by defining wrath as disapproval on an emotional level, but really what else is there? I freely admit that the wrath of fallen humanity is tainted with evil, so if God and/or God in Jesus experiences righteous anger, it's going to be different at so many levels than our experience of even what we call righteous anger. Emotions-based disapproval might be the only commonality, so that is what I am looking for. So sternness, severity, anger are fair game as candidates for wrath because all are perceived the same by those on the receiving end. It could be that wrath is qualitatively different, and I'm just not understanding that aspect of the argument, but for purposes of this post I will shelve that idea and anyway, I haven't heard anyone say anything like that. Excuse me for a bit...

(passage of time while the 'Pilgrim' skims through the Gospels -- "talk amongst yourselves?")

So here's the most significant thing I've found. (I avoided the Cleansing of the Temple because that's gotten to be a cliche. "Jesus got angry and so can I.") What caught my attention was the parables. The 'God' figures in several of the parables express wrath fairly clearly. Some actually are said to be angry and acting in anger, and some, as evidenced by their words, are merely severe. And I think it's more, not less significant that these moments of wrath are in the parables. Thing is, parables are stories. The "master", the "king", the "wedding host" getting angry at evildoers rounds out the story because that makes the story more plausible, more understandable, more right. So back to our story. Doesn't it make sense that if we sin, we suffer his extreme displeasure? Is that not wrath in some form? And does wrath not round out our story too?

One last little note about 4). A near as I can guess, it's not a solution at all. It's time-shifting to beg the question away altogether. Consequences come to us for our actions because that is the way the world was made from the beginning. By whom? Um, God. It seems God designed the cosmos with consequences in mind -- the punishment for evil is built right in. And who removes his hand of protection? Um, God. So it's really moot. At the recipients end, the difference between wrathful punishment or impassive non-protection are really not distinguishable. Metaphor? I think not. The story makes more sense, if God, having a legitimate reason to be angry, actually is.

And having allowed God the prerogative of just anger, I am even more thankful that "he will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever..." (oops, that was from the Psalms, not the Gospels-- maybe the Psalmist should have said, "we won't experience this metaphor forever?")


  1. I have been learning to keep my mouth shut better than I used to. but this topic is an important part of my journey, so I am tossing that learning aside.

    I would also take issue with those 4 points, but for a different reason and from a different direction.and i also take issue with your direction.
    i think your friend has not gone far enough. though he may have removed god's anger, he has left him apathetic rather than loving.

    i think your point using the parables does little, in that unless the wrath was the point of the payable, it may have been just a humanizing element, colour, to make it relatable and more like a "real" event. the anger doesn't make them more right, they feel that way because they are more human. mission accomplished.

    and of course, tearing a page from anyone's journal could find lots of calling god angry, or blaming him for other things he is not, or did not do. that it was the psalmist's doesn't make those rants factual.

    i would simply suggest god is not angry because he has no reason to be.

    he is not offended, he is not hurt. at whom would he be angry. the simple saying, "hurt people hurt people," is actually true. and as god knows we are dust, has compassion for that and is above the human reaction of anger to the hurter.

    some may say he has anger toward sin. i believe sin is merely that which cause hurt - unloving action toward others (or ourselves.) as god is not offended by us, inappropriate action toward him will not trigger a reaction, and toward another, will produce compassion in god for both parties - the hurter and the one wounded.

    think of a parent taking their newly walking toddler to the park where they begin play with the other children. another toddler has a shiny toy that their child successfully grabs away. are they angry with their child? they know their child is unaware, or unable to yet control their urges. but there is no reason for anger towards the child - ever.

    is not the height of god's perspective over humanity even greater than the example of the parent?

    finally, i cannot remember my father ever being mad or angry. yet he definitely had a personality, and one of the most "godly" people I have known.

    and an aside on god's prerogative to be angry, or pick something to be angry about that is automatically ok, because he is god - I think that would only make him a bully.

    and sorry, i realized i used "angry" throughout, please substitute "wrathful" in your head, it doesn't change what i meant.

    1. Excellent comment, John. I will defend my friend (happens to be yours, I think, as well. When there's a discussion on FB I am referring to, I keep it anonymous) He goes very far on the Love aspect of God... Very much All Love!!! And I find as I am arguing for one aspect of God that I am in grave danger of distortion. As a balance I should have a million posts about Love...

    2. The whole thing of 'story' needs fleshing out. Story has started to replace theology in my head on an experimental basis since reading NT Wright's The New Testament and the People of God. But it's not straight enough in my head to defend it. You could read it yourself.