This is the fourth segment in the series, Putting the Wrath of God in Perspective, beginning with Warming Up to the Wrath of God, then moving to The Wrath of God in History, and then to The Wrath of God and Eternity.
The idea of the “wrath of God” comes with a certain amount of discomfort, but 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 with no desire to understand) what they are criticizing.
Most people who make these statements, in my experience, have not read through the Bible with any attempt at real understanding. Many critics of the Bible haven’t read much of it (or any of it at all). Many people who quote or allude to passages are just parroting others (who also may not have studied the matter). Others read the Bible (or portions of it) only looking for evidence to prove their conclusions that they have already reached.
There is very little scholarship or robust understanding among the vocal critics of Christianity and the Bible. People who have taken the time to study and understand what they are criticizing, who have reached their conclusions in a thoughtful and careful manner, I respect, but I believe they are the few.
If a person has an open mind and wants to understand (whether for the purpose of believing it or not), we can start with the idea that God is God. We are in no position to judge God or make demands of God. God created the universe and established its parameters.
If God exists, God creates the rules by which all created beings live – not the other way around. This is not meant to be a conversation stopper. I don’t asset this principal as proof of God, but simply to be mindful of the Entity we are considering when we talk of “God”.
The story is more complicated than that, however. God is not only revealed to be sovereign; He is revealed to be love. (1 John 1:14) He isn’t just loving; God is love.
One of the most challenging things for people to wrap their heads around is how God can be both sovereign and loving in the world as we know it. How can God be wrathful and loving at the same time? We tend to think those are two mutually exclusive characteristics.
As I was sitting listening to a 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 orthodox Christianity, but I am going to “try them on” here.
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. We understand them to be the words of God, but we also understand that they are filtered through the minds of a man.
From Ezra’s human standpoint, we see people experiencing grace and mercy who submit to God, and we see people experiencing anger 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 do whatever He wants, whatever is in His nature to do as a moral agent, because He is the moral standard. We are not.
But maybe something else is going on. Maybe what looks like wrath from the human perspective may be something else.
This idea flows, 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 may feel unworthy), we also feel God’s welcoming love when we move toward Him. Because God is love, when we move toward Him, we experience His love and grace towards us.
When we move away from God, we do not feel His love or grace, because there is no love apart from God. When we set ourselves against God, we feel the tension of being out of sync. If we are distant from God, what we experience feels like anger, condemnation and wrath because God is love – if we stand apart and in opposition to God, we are separated from the source of love.
We feel as if God is withholding His love and grace, and that appears to us like condemnation, when we are moving away from Him. If God is the Source and Giver of life, but we remain aloof, we feel the reality of death and annihilation that necessarily attends existence apart from 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. 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 became flesh in Jesus, and we meet God through Jesus with all the “glory of God” emptied into human form.
Through Jesus we not only see God on our level; we hear God in God’s own voice. We get a different view of God, and we God’s love demonstrated in his humility, service and sacrifice, even to the point of dying for us so that we might live.
Even in the New Testament, though, people stood opposed to God. In fact, Jesus was such that one could not remain neutral. He was either embraced or shunned.
We see in the interactions with Jesus 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 and refuse to embrace Him. We have to come to Him to receive His love. The choice is ours.
While He leaves us the choice, the failure to embrace and submit to God feels like wrath, condemnation and death in relation to Him, but that is inevitable. Apart from God there is no life, no love, no grace. If we oppose him and walk the other way, we are opposing and walking away from the very source.
See part 5 in the series on Putting the Wrath of God in Perspective – The Sun Shines on Sinners and Saints.
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”.
I have often thought that labels can be helpful, but they can also be limiting and get in the way of nuanced understanding. If we hold too tightly to them, we become overly rigid and dogmatic.
Jesus showed us what He thinks about rigid dogmatism in the way he addressed the Pharisees (to whom he was less than delicate). 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 who communicated what they received from God. Did you ever wonder if those people may have gotten it wrong? That is an honest question, and one we should shy away from.
If God is God, however, I have often thought that He could preserve the integrity of His communication, even if filtered through the minds of men. That still doesn’t mean that they got it exactly right! Paul calls the Bible inspired (God-breathed), but he doesn’t call it inherent (not anywhere).
This distinction about the Bible (spoken by men interpreting God’s message to them) stands in contrast to other writings claimed to be the Word of God, or Allah as the case may be. Mohammad claims that he wrote down what Allah said, word for word. Joseph Smith claimed the same thing of the Book of Mormon.
The claim that Quran or Book of Mormon are God’s (or Allah’s) exact words, verbatim, is immediately suspect if any inaccuracies, internal conflicts or inconsistencies exist in those purported scriptures. Obviously, they can’t both be true, because they paint completely different portraits of who God or Allah is.
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.
The fact that we see in them universal and timeless application we owe to God’s sovereignty in choosing who would be the people to whom He would reveal Himself and doubtless countless other factors that would ensure his message was filtered as accurately as was required for His purposes. That doesn’t necessarily mean that every word, jot and tittle is exactly what God “said”.
I say this while holding to an extremely high view of Scripture. We have to take all of it seriously, else we run the danger of filtering it all through our own biases and ending up with Scripture according to us. Yet, acknowledging some element of human expression in the “word of God” that we have is not out of the question.
God, in his sovereignty, chose to communicate Himself through earthen vessels. He even became one to reveal Himself intimately, face to face. That means something! The revelation of God, the “picture” of God that we get through Jesus, is (perhaps) more accurate than the revelation of God through Moses who had to hide his face.