This is the fourth segment in the series, Putting the Wrath of God in Perspective.
We should never be afraid to confront the most difficult questions or statements. Truth is truth, and God and truth must necessarily be harmonious. Richard Dawkins says,
“The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all fiction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control-freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, filicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully.”
― Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion
The angry God of the Old Testament problem is often a line of first defense (or is it offense?) for those who do not believe in God, or at least do not believe in “the God of the bible”. It is a problem that believers wrestle with too.
The sermon in church today was on the book of Ezra. Ezra 8:22 reads,
“The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him, but his great anger is against all who forsake him.”
This is the kind of thing that people like Richard Dawkins criticize, but they do so without any understanding (and likely no desire to understand) what they are criticizing.Most people who make these statements, in my experience, have not read through the Bible. For the most part people are quoting or alluding to passages that are quoted or referenced by others and have not even read the those passages for themselves. Others have read the Bible (or portions of it) looking only for evidence to prove their conclusions that they have already reached.
If a person has an open mind, we need to start with the idea that God is God. We are on no position to judgment Him or make demands. But, to our relief, we are told that God is love. (1 John 1:14) With that basis, we begin to see that God’s wrath has both historical context and eternal context. Neither can be understood without understanding the Bible as a whole.
As I was sitting listening to the sermon today, I began thinking about some things that have occurred to me before. These thoughts go a little “off the reservation” and should not be considered doctrinal. At the same time, I don’t think these thoughts are inconsistent with most accepted doctrine.
The Bible purports to be the Word of God spoken through men (and women). We like to put labels on what that means, like “inerrancy” or “literal” or “inspired”. Labels can be helpful, but can also be limiting and, if we hold too tightly to them, they can be rigidly dogmatic. Jesus showed us what He thinks about rigid dogmatism in the way he addressed the Pharisees. We should always keep that in mind.
While God “spoke” the Ten Commandments by etching them in rock, the vast majority of the time He spoke through people. There is a danger, of course, that those people may have gotten it wrong. If God is God, however, it seems He could preserve the integrity of His communication, even if filtered through the minds of men.
This distinction about the Bible stands in contrast to other writings claimed to be the Word of God, or Allah as the case may be. Mohammad claims that he was nothing but a scribe who took down what God said, word for word. Joseph Smith claimed the same thing of the Book of Mormon.
For the reason that they are claimed to be God’s exact word, verbatim, it seems to me that those claims are suspect on their face, given the frailties of men. Indeed, the internal and external conflicts in those purported Scriptures belie the claims that they are the word of God.
The Bible is not like that. The Bible does not make such an extreme claim. There is no attempt to hide or explain away the fact that these words are received by and filtered through the minds of the people receiving them in a particular time and under particular circumstances in historical time. Yet, we see in them universal and timeless application.
When Ezra speaks of the gracious hand of God on those who look to God and God’s great anger against those who forsake Him, Ezra is speaking through his human understanding. The believer sees no disharmony in that. Though filtered through human mind, these are the words of God.
We should be mindful, however, that God’s words are filtered through human minds. This is where some might say I am going off the reservation, but I don’t think so, at least not in disharmony with the clear truths the Bible reveals: God is love; God is sovereign; God is the Maker of time, space and matter.
From a human standpoint, we see people experiencing grace and mercy who submit to God, and we see people experiencing condemnation, anger and opposition to God who reject God and oppose Him. Our experience of these things is described by us in human terms that reflect a human perspective.
On the one hand, what we see may be exactly what is going on. God may be angry. God is God, and who are we to question or judge Him. God can morally do whatever He wants, because He is the moral standard. We are not.
But maybe something else is going on. What looks like wrath from the human perspective may be something else.
This idea lows, I think, from the fundamental truths expressed elsewhere in the Bible. God does not change His mind. God keeps His promises. God does not fluctuate. God is the same yesterday, today and tomorrow. God is life, and apart from God there is no life. God is love, and apart from Him there is no love.
If we draw near to God, we will naturally experience His love and His grace. Even though we may be unworthy, and certainly may feel unworthy, we also feel God’s welcoming love when we move toward Him and, as a result, experience His love and grace towards us.
If we set ourselves against God, or remain distant, the unworthiness we feel translates to condemnation because we do not feel God’s love or grace. God seems to withhold love and grace, which appears to us as condemnation. If God is the Source and Giver of life, but we remain aloof, we feel the death and annihilation that is the experience of life outside the presence of God. We experience what feels like anger or wrath.
This may also explain, to some extent, why some people see God as an angry tyrant, while others see Him as a loving Father. God does not change, but our relation to Him changes, and our relation to Him, which is largely our own attitude and posture towards God, colors our perspective of Him.
We see God filtered through our posture toward God.
The fact that God’s Word is filtered through men in the Old Testament is also an explanation for why God appears to be angry, jealous and tyrannical compared to the New Testament. In the New Testament we hear the voice of God through God, Himself, in the form of the man Jesus. His Word is made flesh in Jesus, and Jesus gives us an unfiltered view of God.
Through Jesus we not only see God on our level; we hear God in God’s own voice. We have a direct, unfiltered view of God who loves us enough to empty Himself for our sake and die for us so that we might live.
Even in the New Testament, people stood opposed to God. In fact, Jesus was such that one could not remain neutral. He was either embraced or shunned. In interactions with Jesus, provided a taste of God’s anger and wrath to the people who rejected Him: Jesus called the Pharisees snakes, a brood of vipers, and hypocrites! The truth is that we can’t experience the love and grace of God if we stand opposed to Him or do not receive Him.
While He leaves us the choice, the failure to choose God feels like wrath, condemnation and death because apart from God there is no life, no love, no grace.
See part 5 in the series on Putting the Wrath of God in Perspective – The Sun Shines on Sinners and Saints.