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.