My reformed background taught me that there were three reasons for God’s judgment (and/or wrath):
- As a correction to guide us to repentance
- As a demonstration that there will be a (final) judgment
- 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.