This post is part of a series of articles in which I “show my cards” on my theological positions. In this post I want to consider the biblical concept of wrath; what wrath means, how it can be said that God is a God of wrath, and the implications therein.
What I want to argue here is that when the Bible uses the term wrath, it uses it as an anthropomorphism to describe the divine consent to man’s determination to continue in his own sin. Put more simply, wrath is not a passion of God, (like a man who bursts into fits of anger) but is rather God’s sorrowful “yes” to man’s final “no” to him. It is a subset of love, because love allows man to say “yes” or “no” to the divine love. Should man set his face toward sin, even upon the greatest of persuasion by the grace of the Holy Spirit, God will release him and allow sin to destroy him. He does this in great sorrow, because God loves all mankind and desires that they be saved. But he refuses to force or coerce love, for the very nature of love is to allow freedom of choice.
I want to argue this in three steps: First, I want to establish a biblical definition of wrath from foundational theological principles and from Romans 1. Second, I’ll provide examples of wrath from famous biblical stories that support my view of wrath. Lastly, I want to consider the cross in connection to this definition of wrath.
First, defining wrath. As I said above, I take wrath to mean God’s consent to sin and self-destruction. God is decisive but passive and passionless in this process. The reason for this is because, theologically speaking, God is impassible, unchangeable, simple. Put another way, God does not experience change. He does not get impassioned. He is the same yesterday, today and forever. Thus God cannot become angry in the human sense. Wrath must thus an anthropomorphism, something we attribute to God to understand him from our human experience.
Another important theological principle to consider is the fact that God is love, as 1 John 4:8 tells us. He is not wrath. He is not anger. He isn’t even mercy. God is love. Augustine tells us rightly that the Trinity informs our view of God as love. God is a community of Lover, Beloved, and Love. Within God there is a life of perfect love and self-sacrifice. God the Father begets the Son, and the Son responds with eucharistia to God the Father, and the Spirit binds the two together. God’s essence is thus love. Thus, when we talk about wrath, it must be placed within the context of Trinitarian love; any action he takes on behalf of the world must be subsumed under that love.
OK, now to Romans 1, a key text on wrath. Paul tells us in Romans 1 that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth” (Rom 1:18). Ungodly men know that God exists, Paul tells us, and yet they replace him by worshipping created things rather than Creator (v. 23). For this reason, God reveals his wrath to them. But, the question is: what does his wrath look like? We are told by Paul that God’s wrath looks like a divine-giving-up. Paul tells us three times that “God gave them up” (v. 24, 26, 28) to their passions and sins. And this giving up is the “due penalty for their error” (v. 27).
Thus for Paul, wrath is not passionate, angry venting. It is not violent. It is rather a divine-giving-up. Or, put another way, it is a divine consent to sin. Brad Jersak explains:
[I]n the Bible, where we see or hear of God’s wrath, we are usually, actually seeing God’s nonviolent consent to the natural and supernatural forces of the world and of human freedom. God’s wrath is consent to allowing, and not sparing, the powerful consequences of these forces to take their course…
[I]n Romans 1 (picking up from Isa. 64:5–7), Paul clarifies: what had been described in the narrative metaphorically as a seemingly active wrath is in fact the ‘giving over’ (God’s consent) of rebellious people to their own self-destructive trajectories—even when the shrapnel of our actions accrues collateral damage on innocents! When in Romans 5 we read that God in Christ was saving us from ‘the wrath,’ we are not to believe that Jesus is saving us from God, but from the consequences of sin (death, according to Rom. 6:23) imbedded in the very order of the universe. (source)
Wrath is thus “God’s nonviolent consent” to man’s willful sinful choices. In consenting to man’s sin, he is also permitting the consequences of sin to destroy us. Wrath is not the “retribution of a willful God, but [is rather] a metaphor for the consequences of God’s consent to our self-will and non-consent” to him (ibid, above). Thus all the consequences of sin in the Bible are not coerced by God. Rather, they are consented to.
But why does he do this? Because God is love. Love, if it is to be love, must be freely given and freely received. God recklessly creates man free so that man may freely return love to him. Hans Urs von Balthasar calls this gift of freedom a kenosis (self-denial) of the Godhead; a giving up of his own autonomous freedom to dependent beings so that they may respond in free love to Him:
It is possible to call this creation, together with the covenant associated with it—in Noah, and more patently in Abraham and Moses—a new “kenosis” on God’s part, since he is thereby restricted, implicitly by creaturely freedom and explicitly by the covenant with its stated terms. …[H]uman freedom [thus] participates in the divine autonomy, both when it says Yes and when it says No. (von Balthasar, Hans Urs. Theo-Drama: Theological Dramatic Theory, Vol. 4: The Action. Kindle Locations 4925-4930)
Balthasar concludes, “man’s refusal is possible because of the trinitarian ‘recklessness’ of divine love, which, in its self-giving, observed no limits and had no regard for itself” (ibid, kindle 4941-4942).
Moving on to my second point, I want to consider a few OT stories. Because at this point we must still ask: what about the places in the Bible where it seems like God “pours out” his wrath? What about the stories where God seems very angry?
Brad Jersak again explains:
What of God’s active wrath? Did God not slaughter Egypt’s firstborn (Exod. 12)? Did God not massacre the Jewish grumblers in the wilderness (Num. 26)? Did God not incinerate Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19) or repeatedly reduce Jerusalem to smoking rubble (Jer. 52)? Did God not strike down Ananias and Sapphira at Peter’s feet (Acts 5) or eat Herod alive with worms (Acts 12:23)?
No. And Yes.
First, no. Were these acts of violent intervention by an angry and punitive God who was reacting to sin? No. The causes of death are ascribed to ‘the Destroyer,’ to angelic or human agents of violence, or to Satan (Exod. 12:23; Gen. 19:13; Jer. 4:7; 1 Cor. 10:9–10; Acts 5:3). God protects or ceases to harbour potential victims, depending on someone’s consent (or not) through repentance, surrender, or intercession (cf. Abraham in Gen. 18, or Moses in Exod. 33).
Second, yes. These were acts of God’s wrath in that God consented to allow natural and supernatural destruction to take its course through events set in motion by human decisions. In that sense, we read that God is seen to have ‘sent’ the destroyer and ‘sent’ the destruction—God is perceived as commissioning the destruction or even as the destroyer (Exod. 12:29; Gen. 19:14; Num. 21:6). (ibid, source above)
A first picturesque example of Jersak’s definition of wrath and divine consent is the story of Israel’s exile. Ezekiel connects the exile with the glory of the Lord leaving the temple (Ezekiel 10-11). The Shekinah cloud which had guided Israel out of bondage to Egypt, which had brought them to the Promised Land, which had overshadowed the mercy seat, which had been Israel’s crowning glory, had departed. And why did God’s glory leave the temple? It is because Israel had committed gross idolatry and mingled with the nations such that God could no longer dwell there. They had made themselves unclean. Thus, the covering left; and it was this divine-leaving that signaled Israel’s militaristic defeat and dispersion into the nations. God, in other words, was Israel’s protector. His presence and glory kept them in tact. But now that the glory had left, Israel’s protection was gone, and she was subsequently defeated and captured.
A second example is the story of the fall. The early church fathers understood Israel’s exile to be a micro-story of the entire cosmos. The earth was created to be filled with the glory of God as the temple was filled by the cloud. When God created Adam and Eve, he breathed his Spirit into them, and filled them with the divine-life; or put another way, he filled them with the Shekinah cloud and sustained them by his power. Adam was tasked as priest and king with spreading the glory of God over the world, offering to God the entire creation in eucharistia. Thus all of creation was created to participate in the Trinitarian life, created to be YHWH’s earth-temple. When Adam sinned, God’s glory left his earth-temple, and the entire world was left desolate and corrupt, left to die and descend into nothingness apart from the energizing glory of God. Mankind, even the entire cosmos, “fell” from the divine life and was left alone in its finitude.
One last example is the flood. The flood was obviously a judgment of God. God saw that the world was unclean with sin, and could not bare it any longer. However, the normal way people envision the flood story is that God forced the clouds to rain for days upon end. It is my contention that the flood story is better understood as God’s removal of his divine hand of protection from the world, and allowing the world to collapse into itself. Often overlooked, Genesis 7:11 tells us, “In the six hundredth year of Noah’s life, in the second month, on the seventeenth day of the month, on that day all the fountains of the great deep burst forth, and the windows of the heavens were opened.” Genesis 8:2 says that in order to stop the flood, he “closed” the gates of the deep and the windows of the heaven. What does this mean?
We can understand by looking at the creation narrative in Genesis 1:6ff. Within the biblical account of creation, it is said on day two that God separated the waters from the sky and the earth, and placed a “firmament” between the two. Ancient near Eastern peoples understood there to be a solid dome-like structure holding the waters in heaven from destroying the earth, and the solid ground to be holding the waters from gushing upwards (source); and the flood was understood to be a removal of those guards, allowing the earth to collapse in on itself. The point here is not to critique Ancient near Eastern world views, and even more importantly, to fit our modern view of science into this story. The point rather is to say that the flood story is about God removing his hand of protection from the earth, allowing his creation to become formless and void again, allowing it to become what it was before he shaped and ordered the universe. The cosmos, without God’s help, will collapse into nothingness. And had not God preserved Noah and his family, there would be nothing left!
So then, these stories demonstrate wrath as divine consent; as God removing his hand and allowing sin to do what sin does: corrupt, destroy, kill, envelop in on itself. He does this reluctantly and with sorrow, but it must be done. He allows the “no” of man’s sin to have its effect. Hell then must be understood as the final “no” to God. It is life without God. It is the eternal sorrow of having at last outrun God. It is living autonomously, without the divine life and love, collapsing in on the self forever and ever.
Now, as we end, on to the atonement. To continue from my last post, given this biblical definition of wrath, we may say in a qualified sense that Jesus experienced wrath. Christ lovingly, voluntarily, entered into our fallen state and into the effects of death by the incarnation, and was consequently cut off from life at the cross. The Father is said to have given up “his only begotten Son” (John 3:16) to the powers of this age; and he did not intervene to save him (as he did when Abraham was about to sacrifice his only son). He removed his hand of protection and allowed his Son to be enveloped by the deluge of sin and evil; he allowed his Son to experience Israel’s exile; he allowed his Son experience the full corruption and death of the adamic state of affairs. He became a curse for us and with us; he completely united himself to our sufferings. And, if you wish to call that penal substitution, well, then OK.
But — and this must be emphasized — even though we may say that Jesus experienced wrath, we may not say that the Father was ever against the Son, or that the Father vented his anger on the Son. In fact, even while the Son experienced this divine-giving-up by the Father, the Father was with him by the Holy Spirit; and pleased with him, rejoicing in the cross-event. And why? Because in the cross, Christ gave himself in an act of selfless love; of love for man and for God, and in so doing, fulfilled the whole of the law. This made the Father exceedingly glad because in giving himself in love, Christ was embodying, fulfilling, completing the Torah. His self-sacrifice of love was what the Torah demanded, and subsequently what merited our salvation! It was the obedience and love that the Father always wanted!
In fact — and this is important — while the world was against Christ, murdering him, hating him, finding him guilty, the Father saw in him justice and goodness and perfect agape love because of his solidarity with our death. And because of that very justice and righteousness and innocence, the Father is said to have pronounced him innocent and just, and thus vindicated and raised him up in glory. The resurrection means principally that the Father pronounced a verdict of innocent, and in pronouncing this innocence, the Father delivered him from death. Taken a level deeper, by our union with Christ, we are said to participate in Christ’s vindication and resurrection. This is how Christ is said to have merited our salvation.
In this paradoxical way, the cross is both a place of divine-giving-up and a divine-filling-up. In the cross Christ at once united himself with our death and filled our death with his love. In my next post I will consider the doctrine of theosis from the fathers.