Wrath and Time

My reformed background taught me that there were three reasons for God’s judgment (and/or wrath):

  1. As a correction to guide us to repentance
  2. As a demonstration that there will be a (final) judgment
  3. As a constraint of evil


We have little problem with the first explanation. Most of the writings of the prophets fall into the first category, of God trying to turn Israel back to faithful worship; and Paul spells this out in comparing God’s punishment to a loving parent disciplining a child (Hebrews 12). This is generally seen as a working in the current moment.

The second is an extension of the first, and touches on the third. It is a warning/correction to guide us to ultimate repentance before it is too late. It is a repentance looking toward the future.

The third is more difficult, as the judgment/wrath does not seem to be (at least primarily) for the benefit of the one being constrained, but for those who observe it. This is the judgment of the Tower of Babel, or the Flood, or of Sodom and Gomorrah.

While these reasons have been heavily debated, especially as they apply to judicial/penal policies of the state; their justification involves that they have an end purpose or goal. The argument (regardless of the actual results) is that judgment and punishment serve the state by making better citizens.

It is when we move beyond the final judgment that I find myself having real problems with the wrath of God – as it does not seem to any longer be corrective, hence serve a purpose. If God chooses to punish people for eternity in Hell, is this really a punishment that serves as a correction or deterrent, or is it merely the angry vendetta of a sadist? As well constructed as I found many of the arguments I was taught in seminary, in retrospect they appear better defenses for the anger and pride of those preaching them than applicable to God; I have not found any of them finally satisfying.

Along with a number of the Fathers, I find myself wanting to lean toward a ‘perception’ argument for the eternal wrath of God: “Hell is the love of God for those who reject love.”. For those who experience it, it may not burn less for knowing this (and may seem to burn the hotter), but it avoids the trap of an eternally angry God1. In a historical context, I see the need for giving wrath a definition, but other than quoting passages that use the words “anger” and “wrath”, the terms as applied to God remains a mystery for me.

1 The River of Fire still remains my favorite attempt at an explanation.



Wrath of God – As Perception

At times I have argued that the wrath of God is a perception rather than a reality. God is not truly wrathful in his nature, but we perceive His actions as if they were human wrath. We are like a small child undergoing orthopedic surgery in a hospital who perceives the treatment of surgery, injections and casts as anger directed against them rather than care. This is an emotionally satisfying argument that protects my desire to have an always loving God, but I think it comes at too high of a price and ultimately the argument breaks down.

The deeper theological problem is trying to reconcile the unchanging nature of God with God being personal – responding to us. It is nice to say that the love of God is like the unchanging sun, and it is only as it comes through the stained glass of a church window that the sun’s light appears in different colors. Or whether our hearts are like wax or clay that determines whether the warmth of the sun softens or hardens them. This nicely removes moral judgment from God’s nature and actions, but at the expense of turning God into an impersonal force that regards us without distinction or care. There is an element of truth in the analogy, but it looses as much (or more) than it gains.

As difficult as the personality of God may be, we ultimately want it, because it means we are individually significant. Why does God love Able and not Cain at birth? Why does Jesus love John, seemingly more than the others disciples? I don’t know. The danger is when we conclude ‘that is not fair’, as if we were more moral and loving than God. If I have a God that loves each of us uniquely, then I also have to allow for a God that can express His wrath uniquely – even if it is a mystery that I don’t understand.

Affirming the Wrath of God

I do not think the problem is in affirming the wrath of God, but in defining what we mean by ‘wrath’.  I believe that the more strongly we affirm that God can be wrathful, the less we are able to define what we mean by wrath; the more we affirm, the less we know.  While we are made in the image of God, He is not made in our image.  Especially when dealing with wrath, the danger is to assume that God’s expression is like ours.  It is too easy to wrap ourselves with the ‘righteous indignation’ of God when we want to let loose with our private anger.

It is clear that Scripture ascribes wrath to God: Psalm 4, Isaiah 13.  But what do these passages mean?

As a human emotion, wrath (or anger) is almost always an emotional response to a perceived (or real) threat of being hurt or diminished.  Something is being taken away from us and we need to protect it.  Whether it is the threat of life, injury, loss of property or loss of dignity; at some level we are afraid that something large or small in our life will die.

It is here that I have problems with Anselm of Canterbury (11th century) and his writing on atonement (Cur Deus Homo).  I believe his thinking is more a reflection of the Saxon/Norman Middle Ages than scripture when he assumes the punishment of a crime is commensurate with the dignity of the person offended, rather than the action: a crime against an infinite God deserves an infinite punishment.  The threat to dignity is exactly the human emotion I do not want to ascribe to God.

If we accept this definition of wrath, we will quickly be in theological trouble.  How can God be threatened in any way?  If he can be diminished, then he is not complete and perfect.  Our paschal  proclamation of the gospel is that God is not threatened even by death for: “Christ has risen from the dead, trampling down death by death, and upon those in the tombs bestowing life”.

If we say that God is wrathful, it is a meaning that has little association with the emotion we are familiar with.  As a human emotion wrath is in contract to charity and love.

Recently I have been reading back through the Old Testament prophets (Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea) and have been struck by the consistency of the pattern: the unfaithfulness of Israel and Judah (and other countries) is chronicled, judgment of conquest and destruction is pronounced, restoration and blessing is offered.  Every time, the wrath is not the final state, but a means toward the goal of restoration.  Either God consistently and predictably flips his feelings at the most illogical moment, or God’s wrath means something quite different from what I am personally familiar with feeling.

Psalm 4 shows a bit more insight.  The nations rage against God, and He responds by laughing them to scorn.  The worst that the nations have to offer, in its true perspective is pathetic and absurdly humorous.  If the worst that the nations, combined together is no threat to God’s existence or dignity; then how much less are the efforts of any individual.  In this context, the wrath of God is clearly in response to threats, but it seems to be a response motivated by love instead of insecurity.

Fr. Thomas Hopko has made one of the best arguments I have heard affirming the wrath of God (podcast and transcript here).  While being affirming, he also knows where to stop.