The Wrath of God: Why It’s a Good Thing

I rejoice in the wrath of God.  I know that sounds strange, but careful thought reveals that there can be no other appropriate response for the Christian.  The wrath of God has been downplayed, denied, and deleted from Christian theology in many circles for a few hundred years now, but the biblical testimony to its reality will not go away.  C. H. Dodd, the famous New Testament scholar, persuaded many that the wrath of God according to Scripture is not a personal, divine response to sin but rather an impersonal process of cause and effect, whereby sin leads to some kind of punishment by natural means and not by any willed decision of God.  In this scheme, wrath has become a quasi-divine being in its own right, a mechanism put in place by God but not personally overseen by God, almost as though God has become Dr. Frankenstein, unable to control the monster he made.  While Dodd has done well to demonstrate that the God of Scripture is very different from the capricious gods of paganism, he has in the process created a sub-Christian understanding of God himself by denying that wrath is his personal response to sin.

I do not believe that wrath is an essential attribute of God.  In other words, God could still be God without ever being wrathful.  There are many possible worlds where God has no wrath.  One is a world where God never creates anything and, therefore, never confronts the problem of sin.  God did not have to create anything at all, and had he chosen not to, then there would have been no occasion for him to display wrath, for within the eternal fellowship of the Trinity there never would have been sin.  Another possible world where God has no wrath is one in which God does create moral agents, but these moral agents never sin.  Again, there would be no wrath in such a situation, and God would still be God.

So, while wrath is not an essential attribute of God (meaning he can be God without it), holiness is.  God cannot be God if he is not holy.  There is no possible world in which God is not holy, for holiness is of the essence of his Godness.  I hope the argument is clear so far.

Now, we must see how wrath and holiness are related to each other.  Wrath is an expression of God’s holiness with respect to sin.  God responds to sin in wrath because he is holy, and as a holy God, he abhors sin and must oppose it.  If God did not respond to sin in wrath, then that would compromise his holiness, and that would mean that all distinctions between good and evil have broken down and there is no ultimate hope for justice in the universe.  But God is necessarily holy.  If he is necessarily holy, then he is necessarily wrathful in a world where sin exists.  God does not have to show wrath in order to be God, but this can only apply in a world without sin.  In all possible worlds in which sin exists, God must show wrath.  This does not compromise the freedom of God, for what I am actually saying (through the heuristic device of possible worlds) is that God must always act in concrete situations in accordance with his holy character.  God’s wrath is his holiness with respect to evil.  Where evil exists, there must be wrath, or there is no holiness.  And this is a world where evil clearly exists.  Therefore, I rejoice in the wrath of God because it represents one aspect of his holiness in this world, without which he would not be holy, he would not be good, and he would not be just.  And if God is not holy, good, and just, then he is not God; he is not worthy of worship. 

Of course, the next thing to consider is the fact that I am a sinner, and therefore I justly fall under the wrath of God.  And this is where the cross comes in as the full display of the wrath of God against my sin, so that, in being saved, I am actually saved from God and for God.  Paul explicitly says that our salvation in Christ is from the wrath of God (Romans 5:9).  I rejoice in this salvation; I rejoice in the wonders of God’s grace.  But I will not belittle his holiness by pretending that my salvation has been accomplished by a laxity on the part of God with respect to his wrath.  God does not compromise his holiness; he does not compromise his wrath.  He has satisfied it fully for all of his people in the death of his Son.  To say otherwise is to compromise God’s holiness and to belittle the accomplishment of Christ on the cross. 

So I rejoice to preach God’s love and grace, and I rejoice to preach his wrath–not because I want any of my hearers to suffer it for eternity, but because I want to proclaim before all that God and evil don’t mix.         

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6 Responses to “The Wrath of God: Why It’s a Good Thing”

  1. ali Says:

    G’day Aaron,
    Yes, I agree with the main point of what you are saying and I agree that wrath is not an essential part of God’s being, but I’m not sure that God could exist without being wrathful.

    The reason I say that is that even in a world where God created nothing, he would still have in mind all possible senarios and in thinking about sin would be wrathful toward it.

    I also think that an essential part of God’s being is self-glorification, and his wrath is a means to that end. In fact, I’d suggest that God could not fully self-glorify without his wrath. So, while God could have chosen not to create anything in the sense that he is the only being free to do whatever he wants, I suspect that it would have been out of character for him to not create and in that sense his creation and self-glorification and therefore wrath were inevitable.

    But maybe I’m wrong. Maybe God could self-glorify without his wrath in ways we cannot conceive. But with my limited mind I cannot imagine knowing his mercy without having something for him to be merciful about. The same with his patience. And even the depth of his love would not be known as much without his wrath, nor the greatness of his holiness, which is the point of your post.

    So, what I am saying is that if we take self-glorification as an essential attribute of God, then I cannot imagine (which is probably the crux of the matter) how God could exist without wrath.

    Does that make sense?

  2. fenderpooh Says:

    Ali,

    Yes, that makes sense. Here are my few points of observation:

    (1) With regard to God thinking about all possible scenarios and being wrathful toward sin even in a world where it does not exist, I don’t think that “hypothetical wrath” (is that what we should call it?) really qualifies as wrath.

    (2) There is an important theological point in the rest of what you have said, namely, that the full range of God’s attributes of wrath and mercy are demonstrated in a world with sin, whereas they would not be demonstrated in a world without sin. Therefore, the existence of evil actually serves to magnify the wonder of God’s grace and, therefore, of God’s glory as well. Paradise restored will be better than paradise as it was originally. This is often known as “felix culpa,” or “happy fall.”

    (3) However, it is one thing to recognize how God takes evil and uses it for a good purpose, but it is another thing to then postulate that this must be why God permitted evil in the first place. I don’t think Scripture reveals that to us. I am content to let the origin of evil remain a mystery, since God has not seen fit to show us exactly why he did not prevent it. In a sense, you could say that to explain evil is to justify it, and we are not to justify evil but to fight against it.

    (4) Your argument sounds akin to Leibniz’s “best of all possible worlds” doctrine (the idea that this is the best of all possible worlds because God, being infinitely good, could not have created anything other than the best of all possible worlds). You did not go all the way toward this idea, but you seem to be walking on the same path. I won’t go that far, again, because God has not revealed that to us. Maybe this is the best of all possible worlds, and maybe it isn’t. I don’t want to say that God was obligated to create this world (or even this “kind” of world) over against another world. If his act of creation is free, then I don’t think we have the right to say it had to be this way or that way. The danger you run into there is that you begin to slip into the idea that this world exists necessarily because of who God is, and then that makes the world into a necessary extension of his own being, which is actually panentheism. One of my theological heroes, John Piper, seems to trend in this direction. I am not at all saying that Piper is a panentheist (he is too rigorously orthodox for that), but I am saying that some of his ideas about God don’t seem to cohere well with some of his other ideas about God (but I am speaking here only about a minor thread in his theology). It seems that he picked up these ideas from his theological mentor, Jonathan Edwards. Again, Edwards was no panentheist, but some of the things he wrote don’t sit well with the doctrine of God’s aseity and freedom.

  3. ali Says:

    Hey Aaron,

    1) I don’t know. It’s hypothetical beginning to end, but I know that if I allow myself to think of possible evil (depending what it is) then I can actually feel anger. Because God is so much more real than I, I’d assume his feelings of wrath would be far greater and more real. But I’m not sure it’s worth spending too much time thinking through.

    2) See, you know what you’re talking about far more than me. I just think thoughts centuries after others and claim them as my own. Obviously I’m a plagiarist at heart. To think that idea actually has a name! Though, “happy fall” sounds a little bizzare.

    3) I understand your point, but I also think it’s not an unreasonable conclusion to come to considering verses such as Romans 8:19-24. There, Paul is referring to people God has made, people to sin, to reveal his glory. Now, I can immediately think of two answers to that: first, Paul phrases the idea as a possibility, not a teaching (though I personally think that it’s clear he is teaching a truth, not putting forward a possibility); and second, God may be responding to evil originally created from who knows where – i.e. we are not told where it came from. That may be true, also, but it seems true that he is perpetuating it for his own purposes.
    Now, I take your comment about needing to fight against evil, not justify it seriously – it’s true. But I don’t think my comments justify evil. Rather, I’m taking what I see in the Bible (and other people’s thoughts as well) and thinking through the topic. There is a tension if God created the world to fall, but it’s similar to the tension between God’s sovereignty and human responsibility – we don’t know the definitive answer.
    So, I think it reasonable to conclude that God created the world intending it to fall because of Romans 8, 1 Timothy 5:21 (elect angels – indicating fallen angels were predetermined also), and various other clues.

    4) The danger you run into there is that you begin to slip into the idea that this world exists necessarily because of who God is, and then that makes the world into a necessary extension of his own being, which is actually panentheism.

    I don’t think that necessarily follows. We both agree that God because of who God is he will keep his word and save those who trust in Jesus, but the act of saving people is not an extension of his own being. Perhaps you will say that God does not have to keep his word, but then where is our confidence? If you followed your argument in any other area of God’s character or actions you would come to the same conclusion.

    As an aside, I think the doctrine of creation can be considered heading toward pantheism when we consider that God is everywhere and upholding everything – but it is not. Biblical truth often straddles two (or more) human concepts without actually being either of them, basically because human error is usually (if not always) an overbalance on God’s truth one way or the other.

    With regards to God having to create this world, I don’t know whether I’d go that far, though I won’t dismiss it at this stage. However, I think a look at the freedom of God is necessary. Is God free to deny himself? 2 Tim 2:13 says no. Is he free to go against his character? I don’t believe so. In that case, his freedom is “limited”. He can do what he wants, but what he wants is in line with who he is. This means that there are some things he “can’t” do, and therefore, worlds that he won’t have created.

    Nor does this deny the aseity of God. Everything he does – even this world – is created by him and so dependant on him. Even if his creation could not have happened any other way due to his character, it is still dependant on God, and God is not dependant on it.

    Now, you may say there is a distinction between “can’t” and “won’t”, but with God, is there a difference? If we are depending on him being true to his character, we acknowledge that he won’t break his word, but that he can? What comfort is there in that? If he can, how do we know he won’t?

    And so on…Sorry to make this so long.

  4. fenderpooh Says:

    Hey, I enjoy the discussion. You may be right about some of this, but I am just too reticent to draw any definite conclusions on things that have not been revealed. I think this is the Calvin in me talking (contrary to popular misconception, Calvin was not prone to undue theological speculation; he repeatedly issued calls not to probe too deeply into the secrets that God has chosen not to reveal).

    Let me, however, pick up on one idea that you brought up, because it is important in our own theological context today. Is God free to break his word? No, he is not. He cannot do that because it is contrary to his character. His freedom, therefore, is not absolute, because he cannot contradict his own character as God. However, God is free never to have spoken his word in the first place. In other words, God is obligated to be true to every word he has ever spoken, but he was not obligated to speak those words in the first place. He has placed the obligation on himself by his own free choice. Did God have to enter into covenant with Abraham? No. He did that freely. But once he entered into that covenant, was he free to break it? No.

    This might apply to the creation issue in this way: did God have to create at all? No. But once he created, was he obligated to rule over the world he created in a just manner? Yes. The obligation accrues to him as a result of his prior free decision.

    The relevance to our present theological context has to do with the influence of Karl Barth. Barth was an amazing theologian, but I think he missed the mark on the doctrine of Scripture. According to Barth, Scripture could not be the inerrant Word of God because that would tie God down to the written text and limit his freedom. For Barth, Scripture is a vehicle that God freely uses to speak his word at times and places of his own choosing, but it is not the word of God in an objective sense. I think Barth’s fear about limiting God’s freedom was misplaced, because the ethical obligations that accrue to speakers when they speak also accrue to God as well, but that is no limitation of his freedom. Rather, it is an expression of it. God is free to obligate himself to his creatures through a definitive word revealed and written. Scripture is the inerrant word of God as an expression of God’s freedom to enter into relationships with his creatures; it is by no means a limitation on that freedom.

  5. ali Says:

    That is a good point. I guess the question is whether God’s character would allow him not to speak those words. You may be right that it does.

    My thoughts go along these lines (they hover around the incomplete series on Love and Glory on my blog):

    Within himself i.e. the Trinity, God both loves himself completely (through the Spirit) and glorifies himself completely (through the Son) and so these characteristics are aseitic (can you use the word that way?). Therefore, having created creation, the purposes will be both to love himself completely and glorify himself completely, therefore needing the to save and to damn.

    This, however, doesn’t explain that God had to create…so I’m going to think on this and perhaps come back and agree.

  6. Brian Says:

    Certainly the idea of God’s wrath is inextricably tied to his holiness, but is his wrath a passionate response to sin, or is his holy presence wrath enough to the ungodly? God is called a “consuming fire” in Deuteronomy and in Hebrews. Again in Malachi, God’s fire purifies the righteous as gold and silver, while the arrogant and the evildoer are burned up like stubble. It is not that God sets the evildoer on fire, but rather he is the fire. Again in 1 Corinthians 3, man’s work is put to the test of fire. His holiness is either that which purifies us and makes us clean through his grace in Jesus Christ our Lord, or that which burns us up in everlasting torment by our rebellion against Him, but the judgment comes in his holiness, not because of his holiness.

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