One of the (increasingly many) things we don’t like about the Bible is its perspective on “the wrath of God.”
After all, isn’t God supposed to be good? Doesn’t the word gospel mean “good news”? And doesn’t the Bible say that “God is love”? How can wrath find any place in all this goodness and love?
One easily available route is to dismiss the whole thing: why should anyone care what some fusty, dusty documents have to say about anything? Humans have believed in gods and goddesses and forces and spirits, fairies, demons and sprites, up to the “flying spaghetti monster” so beloved by many of the so-called “new atheists” – but we are now modern, enlightened, scientific and reasonable, so let’s just leave all that superstition, cant and error in history’s dustbin where it so obviously belongs.
One doesn’t hear much about or from the new atheists any more. Perhaps it’s because “doing away with God” doesn’t accomplish as much as promised. The world remains haunted by evil, it is no easy matter to find any meaning, identity or purpose in an essentially accidental, meaningless universe, and there just seems to be a kind of ineradicable longing in the human heart for some sort of access to some kind of transcendence.
Even if we do away with God/gods/religion, we still have a wrath problem – except now it is a human wrath problem. There are too many things in and about our world that elicit wrath from us, elicit what we call righteous indignation, justifiable anger: the seemingly ineradicable destitution of so many hundreds of millions in abject poverty; sexual abuse of so many kinds; gross injustice; corruption and abuse of power. The list is so long, and grows longer each day.
But human wrath backfires and boomerangs in so many unpredictable ways. Once the latest set of revolutionaries comes to power, they all too soon, all too inevitably, become just like the leaders they displaced. So many glorious revolutions have devolved into reigns of terror. The last five centuries and more of Western history have seen “reform” movements of all kinds, many of which have done much good … and there is still so much to be angry about.
On the human level, wrath is never a good thing. We understand wrath as unrestrained, unreasoning, out-of-control, disproportionate, unpredictable anger, violent rage. No one wants to spend any time with a wrathful person.
Can it make any sense that wrath has any place in a God who is totally, inexhaustively, and, most importantly, only good? In fact, can God’s wrath somehow be an expression of God’s goodness?
God is not like us, at least the God we meet in Scripture and fully in Jesus Christ. “God” is not “human” writ large. God is not one being among all the many beings in the cosmos. God is not “the Supreme Being,” as if God were merely one very large and powerful “thing” among the universe’s infinitude of things large and small. God is Being itself, the ground and source and sustainer of every being that is, has been or ever will be: in God we live and move and have our being. Small-b beings come and go, but God eternally is; every being is able to be whatever it is because God IS.
The Bible affirms that God is good: fully, infinitely and only good. And in order to be good, there are things to which God says “No!” There are actions, attitudes, commitments, allegiances, behaviors to which, because God is good, God must say “No!”
God’s wrath is God’s implacable resistance to all that degrades, distorts, defaces and destroys whatever is good, just, true, beautiful, worthy of honor and esteem. God’s wrath is not about God “blowing a gasket,” “having a meltdown,” or becoming petulant, frustrated and impatient. God’s wrath is God’s “No!” to whatever is contrary to goodness.
And that’s what we don’t like: the idea that God might say No to me, to us. That God might see and know my secrets and agendas, our true attitudes and motivations, my rationalizations and self-justifications, our denials and duplicities, my allegiances and values, and say “No!”
And say “No!” not because God is petty, vengeful, arbitrary or irrational, but because God is good?
I like the idea of God saying No to all the bad things I see other people involved in. I like the idea that I am on the side of the angels, but those folks over there, they are obviously on the wrong side. I much prefer condemning racism than coming to terms with my own racism, pointing out injustice without owning my own complicity in it, condemning violence and oppression using violent and oppressive language. If you need help sorting the world into the good, the bad and the ugly, come to me for expert advice.
We actually like it when an honest judge “throws the book” at a thoroughly guilty crook, and we are understandably angry, perhaps even wrathful, when justice is clearly subverted, denied or undone. When confronted with particularly heinous crimes, we may actually want the perpetrator to “rot in hell.” But there cannot, must not, be a book with my name on it, with my group or nation’s name on it. It simply cannot be possible that a person like me, people like us, should rot anywhere, especially not in a hell of any kind.
The universe cares nothing for justice, truth, beauty or love; why do we? Should we? Is our human sense that such things really do matter merely an evolutionary adaptation, a mere accident within an accidental universe, or possibly some kind of cosmic clue?
So the next time you feel your blood coming to a boil over the latest screaming injustice, the latest destruction of the environment, the denial of rights, the disordering of our legal, political, social life, ask yourself this question: where does my “No!’ come from? Could it be some kind of hint about what it means, in Genesis language, that we humans somehow are made in, somehow bear or carry, the “image and likeness of God”?