Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of divine wrath. As often as it is displayed in the pages of Scripture, it is interesting to note how little it is discussed by Christian scholars these days. Why is this? And, more fundamentally, what is divine wrath after all? Does God still exercise his wrath today? If so, is it possible to identify instances of this? And if it is, then what sorts of criteria might one use in order to conclude that a particular event is a case of divine wrath? This November at the annual meeting of the Evangelical Philosophical Society I will present a paper on this subject where I address such questions. I thought it would be an interesting exercise to process my thoughts in the form of blog posts as I prepare for this. So this is the first of what will likely be several installments of my ruminations on the topic. Naturally, I welcome any comments, criticisms, or suggestions you might have to offer.
For starters, it is important to note that there are many instances of divine wrath described in Scripture, and these include both Old Testament and New Testament narratives. Here are some examples:
- The worldwide flood (Gen. 6-9)
- The destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19)
- The Egyptian plagues (Exod. 7-12)
- The death of Ananias and Sapphira (Acts 5:1-11)
- The death and illness of those who abused communion (1 Cor. 11:29-31)
There are many other biblical events that may be regarded as instances of divine wrath, but these all seem to be paradigmatic cases, as they all involve the termination of human lives. I select these cases for just this reason, as one might object that narratives where God causes suffering or discomfort without killing anyone (e.g., Paul’s “thorn in the flesh” described in 2 Cor. 12:7-10) are too mild to properly be described as wrathful.
Still, despite the consistent theme of death, there is a certain variety in the narrative accounts listed above. Some involve the killing of thousands of people, while others involve a more surgical strike on one or two people. Some are preceded by warnings, while others seem sudden and unanticipated. Yet what they all have in common is divine chastisement for human sin. Such chastisement appears to serve a number of functions, including retribution, rebuke, discipline, and purification. And it is here where things get especially interesting, as far as I’m concerned, regarding divine wrath and our usual way of viewing it. For at least three of these functions may be construed as potentially redemptive. That is, God’s wrath may be seen as serving a positive or constructive aim, namely to correct, improve, enlighten, or purify people.
Some biblical reinforcement of this idea of a redemptive function of divine wrath can be found in this passage from the book of Jeremiah:
The word of the Lord came to me. He said, “Can I not do with you, Israel, as this potter does?” declares the Lord. “Like clay in the hand of the potter, so are you in my hand, Israel. If at any time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be uprooted, torn down and destroyed, and if that nation I warned repents of its evil, then I will relent and not inflict on it the disaster I had planned. And if at another time I announce that a nation or kingdom is to be built up and planted, and if it does evil in my sight and does not obey me, then I will reconsider the good I had intended to do for it. Now therefore say to the people of Judah and those living in Jerusalem, ‘This is what the Lord says: Look! I am preparing a disaster for you and devising a plan against you. So turn from your evil ways, each one of you, and reform your ways and your actions.’” (Jeremiah 18:5-11)
Here God’s aim in threatening “disaster” is to prompt Israel’s repentance from the evil in which they currently indulge. In cases where God actually exercises his wrath rather than merely threatening it, the effect can be even greater. Jude tells us that God’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah served “as a warning of the eternal fire of God’s judgment” (Jude 1:7). Regarding God’s inflicting sickness and death on those who abused communion, Paul says, “when we are judged in this way by the Lord, we are being disciplined so that we will not be finally condemned with the world.” And in the case of Ananias and Sapphira, Luke tells us that “great fear seized the whole church” when they heard of the sudden death of these two dishonest people (Acts 5:11), which we may assume resulted in an increase of moral seriousness among the early Christians.
So as severe and disturbing as these events must have been to the communities who witnessed them, they do seem to have served the end of prompting repentance and motivating more virtuous living among the people of God. And, of course, this is very redemptive. So if, as I suspect, the reticence of the contemporary church regarding the doctrine of divine wrath is due to the perception that the subject is entirely negative, this is serious mistake. While certainly divine retribution is an uncomfortable idea—as any instance of severe punishment is—we should be encouraged by the notion that God (1) does not tolerate human wickedness indefinitely and (2) he is committed enough to our moral improvement to go to extremes to warn, chide, rebuke, and prod us to greater obedience and virtue. And this certainly seems consistent with genuine love.
Great post! For me (and many others I presume), the problem lies not in the idea that a loving God would punish his children in a redemptive way but that the term “divine wrath” paints a picture of God that seems contrary to the picture of agape love illustrated in the life and work of Jesus Christ. Wrath, at least in English, is a very strong word and emotionally charged; for example, if we were to say that so and so is “a very wrathful parent.” This would a be a criticism of his parenting skills or his character. Perhaps it would help your research to explore the meaning of the Greek words (orge and thumos?). Does the Greek word(s) necessarily entail this level of negative emotion? I don’t know. Perhaps a better translation or interpretation of “wrath” is a moral or legal judgment like the dispassionate judgment that might be handed down in a courtroom. The question that helps get to the main issue, in my opinion, is whether God’s primary emotional disposition toward us is one of love or anger. Does God love us emotionally like a parent or is his concern more like a judge — dispassionate and fierce? If the former, then this will greatly change how we think of divine wrath, in a good way. This a great topic and worthy of much discussion.
Thanks for these really interesting comments, suggestions, and questions! Very helpful.
Wow! You have guts tackling probably the least popular idea in modern Christianity.
I think that part of the reason this idea is so seldom looked at beyond the “marketing” intended to present scripture in a light that is more palatable to modern sensibility. This sanitizing of scripture which is well intentioned is probably the biggest reason you do not hear about divine punishment. However there are secondary issues that are major contributors. People don’t understand God as Sovereign the idea of God as King or Ruling is abstract they don’t connect God being Sovereign as owner of the universe free to do as He chooses. They do not connect it with a Sovereigns responsibility to Justice.
The stories you noted are great examples of God’s wrath but there are some verses that need to be considered:
Exodus 34:6 And the Lord passed before him and proclaimed, “The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, longsuffering, and abounding in goodness and truth, 7 keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, by no means clearing the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers upon the children and the children’s children to the third and the fourth generation.”
Here is God saying I will be merciful but I will punish. Even stranger to modern sensibility is that your actions may effect your children potentially for generations.
My favorite objection to those who would say that God did this in scripture but He does this no longer because He had a Covenant with Israel. However there are places where God punished nations outside of Israel (Joshua), sent prophets to anoint kings over nations that were not Israel (1 Kings 19). The whole book of Jonah is God sending a warning for coming wrath to a nation, not Israel and their repentance spares them. Clearly God’s mercy or His wrath are not limited to Israel.
Its easy to get people to understand that God HAS punished but the question of DOES God STILL punish is raised. Well this is an interesting question. You included New Testament examples of Wrath so you already touched on the fact that it is not just pre-Jesus. One factor I would also mention here is from the story of the man born blind in John 9. The disciples start by asking why is this guy blind and they assume a sin issue and the only question remaining is if it is the man or his parents. I cannot tell you how many times I have heard this passage preached against the disciples thinking. Yet Jesus does not rebuke them rather He points out that the purpose in this man’s case was to show God’s greatness and heals the man. Jesus does not inform them that sin is never punished with blindness or that God does not work that way or that the covenant where God said He would punish sin was going away. He offers no corrective just an example of God’s power and that He is God.
Lastly the New Testament goes to pretty good length to point out what parts of the Old Testament law is still in effect. Peter has a vision about what is acceptable to eat. Hebrews points out that Jesus sacrifice is the last sacrifice needed hence Christians do not continue the sacrificial system of the Old Testament. If God wanted to set up a new paradigm of justice and punishment to be laid against sin wouldn’t that be more important than if we are okay to eat bacon.
Great topic. I wish you well in tackling the idea.
While I do not have a problem with punishment and judgment, your comments are helpful in focusing on God’s redemptive purposes. Yet he will not wait forever:
Whoever remains stiff-necked after many rebukes
will suddenly be destroyed—without remedy. (Pro 29)
(Another useful example is Uzzah and the ark)
Jim — Just a few thoughts that you have probably already considered. First, biblical theological inquiry into the nature of divine wrath requires that we establish criteria for deciding what biblical passages are most relevant to the topic in the first place. This is because of a semantic issue in which (it seems) there is a wide array of vocabulary in both the OT and the NT that is employed to reference the subject. Of course this runs the risk of circularity in which we will only find what we are looking for since the very nature of the divine wrath is our question. In any case, no mere study of uses of the English word “wrath” in the Bible will suffice here. Second, the theological issue of whether or not God has feelings or emotions has to be addressed, i.e. the question of divine passibility. Third, how much should we allow our concerns about theodicy to determine how we go about the inquiry. Fourth, how much do we have to be able to explain God in order to trust him and trust him for what? Fifth, since the final revelation of God still lies in the future and yet we have been given a partial proleptic glimpse of that revelation, how should this affect the process and conclusions of our inquiry into the nature of the divine wrath? Six, to return more squarely to the biblical portraits, what sorts of divine actions do biblical texts present as manifestations of His wrath and what phenomenological form do these texts suggest these actions take. Oh, well, those are some of my thoughts and the questions I ask myself about the matter.
Good stuff, Richard. Thanks much. Your first question, it seems to me, is the most important one. And I think that answering the sixth question (about what Scripture presents as cases of divine wrath) is actually essential when it comes to answering the first question (about general identification criteria). As for the second and third points about divine passibility and theodicy, I’m dubious as to whether those matters should be allowed to impact one’s divine wrath hermeneutic. In fact, depending on one’s theodicy, this might actually cloud or skew one’s judgments regarding the issue. Questions four and five are excellent ones, I think, as they point to germane theological issues and even personal virtues which may (or necessarily will?) impact one’s thinking here. Thanks again.
Lately I have been considering Divine wrath and human immortality (or mortality) in terms of how God is often described in scripture as being a “consuming fire.” Such a fire is both dispassionate and by definition consumes. Could it be that everything that is not atoned (covered) will be dispassionately consumed. Is it possible that some “logs/branches” are bigger than others and may take longer than other “twigs/straw” to be consumed? This may seem simplistic, but I have been thinking on it quite a bit.