The Wrath of God – An Intro to the Problem

When the phone rang Saturday, and I realized it was Elizabeth from InterVarsity, I couldn’t help but be a bit amused – I had been anticipating the call.  The Urbana conference staff had finally gotten around to checking all the speaker’s agreements and finally noticed that I had carefully crossed out a few words and phrases before signing the statement of faith.  Such statements are usually carefully worded articles resulting from difficult theological controversies, the phrases having iconic value of capturing particular sides of an issue.  Any hesitation with the words is taken as a shibboleth of likely heresy.  Thus, I knew the following would raise alarms:

“The value and dignity of all people: created in God’s image to live in love and holiness, but alienated from God and each other because of our sin and and guilt and justly subject to God’s wrath.”

To me, this is a buzz word for Anselm of Canterbury’s theology of substitutionary atonement; that Christ suffered and died to satisfy the just wrath of God (the Father).  This is not the place to get into my disagreement with Anselm.  I have comments on this topic elsewhere, and Frederica Matthewes-Greene has done so much more eloquently (here and here).  For me, buried under the layers of historical theology is a much simpler problem; I don’t know what it means to talk about “God’s wrath”, and I don’t believe that the Ancient Church had a good understanding of it either.

My primary fear is that instead of knowing the wrath of God, and learning to emulate that; we know too well our own wrath with the pride and selfishness which it contains, and project that onto God.  I have heard way too many sermons where the expositor proclaims the righteous indignation of God against sin, but the message is clearly his own anger and hatred.

The key theological problem is how to say that God is both loving and wrathful. It is nice to say that “God hates the sin but loves the sinner”, but how does that work out in practice?  How can God be unchanging in his nature and seemingly hold contradictory behavior?  This has been a problem in much of Church history.  At times the teaching is that the angry legalistic God of war and punishing law of the Old Testament is replaced by the meek and gentile Jesus of the New Testament.  This however falls into problems when Jesus is the one who most frequently speaks of hell, pronounces woe on Jerusalem and casts out the money changers from the temple – how is this meek and gentile?  The Middle Ages tried to oppose the harsh Lord of the Judgment by having a Mother Mary as the compassionate intercessor; but do we then end up having Mary as more loving than God?

While I like being able to emphasize the Orthodox organic paradigms of a compassionate physician curing my sin over the legalistic ones of the judge who upholds the law against me, these organic paradigms ultimately don’t let me evade the issue.

There are several different theological positions I have found helpful and shall  explore in further posts, but none of them are thoroughly satisfying.