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.