Toward an Understanding of the Wrath of a Loving God

If there is no God whose wrath will produce ultimate justice, we who are justice-minded have no recourse other than to respond in kind

I am currently reading, A Gentle Answer: Our “Secret Weapon” in an Age of Us Against Them, by Scott Sauls. The following statement in the book reminded me of similar observations made by Miraslav Volf:

“Some [people] object [to the idea of God’s anger] strongly: ‘…. If there is a God at all for me, it’s not an angry God. My God is loving. My God would never lash out or punish or judge or get angry at people.’ When I hear someone discount or downplay the biblical idea of God as a judge, whose holiness sometimes includes expressions of anger, I wonder if they have ever been the bullied kid, or the abused woman, or the oppressed slave, or the assault victim? I wonder if they have sat down and listened to the story of a holocaust victim, or of someone whose child was kidnapped, or of a woman whose husband abandoned her for a younger mistress?’”

I have heard Tim Keller talk on the subject, and the most poignant source of his ideas that he quoted was writings by Miraslov Volf, the Croatian theologian, professor of Theology and Director of the Yale Center for Faith and Culture at Yale University.

Volf was influenced by his own experience with the Yugoslav Wars, characterized by the ethnic cleansing that raged in what is now known as Croatia in what is, perhaps, his most influential writing: Exclusion and Embrace: A Theological Exploration of Identity, Otherness, and Reconciliation (1996). According to Wikipedia, “Exclusion and Embrace deals with the challenges of reconciliation in contexts of persisting enmity in which no clear line can be drawn between victims and perpetrators and in which today’s victims become tomorrow’s perpetrators—conditions that arguably describe the majority of the world’s conflicts.”

That context might represent a large portion of the world we live in at various times and places. Think Hatfields and McCoys, for instance. In a later work, Volf reflected:

“I used to think that wrath was unworthy of God. Isn’t God love? Shouldn’t divine love be beyond wrath? God is love, and God loves every person and every creature. That’s exactly why God is wrathful against some of them. My last resistance to the idea of God’s wrath was a casualty of the war in former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come. According to some estimates, 200,000 people were killed and over 3,000,000 were displaced. My villages and cities were destroyed, my people shelled day in and day out, some of them brutalized beyond imagination, and I could not imagine God not being angry. Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandparently fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.

“Once we accept the appropriateness of God’s wrath, condemnation, and judgment, there is no way of keeping it out there, reserved for others. We have to bring it home as well. I originally resisted the notion of a wrathful God because I dreaded being that wrath’s target; I still do. I knew I couldn’t just direct God’s wrath against others, as if it were a weapon I could aim at targets I particularly detested. It’s God’s wrath, not mine, the wrath of the one and impartial God, lover of all humanity. If I want it to fall on evildoers, I must let it fall on myself – when I deserve it.

“Also, once we affirm that God’s condemnation of wrongdoing is appropriate, we cannot reserve God’s condemnation for heinous crimes. Where would the line be drawn? On what grounds could it be drawn? Everything that deserves to be condemned should be condemned in proportion to its weight as an offense – from a single slight to a murder, from indolence to idolatry, from lust to rape. To condemn heinous offenses but not light ones would be manifestly unfair. An offense is an offense and deserves condemnation…” (From Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture Stripped of Grace pp. 138-139)

These poignant reflections work toward the “appeal”, or at least makes some sense of, the idea of a wrathful, but loving God. I sense, though, that people of modern sensibilities may still be reluctant to credit the goodness of a wrathful God. This is where Miraslov Volf brilliantly exposes the faulty thinking of the western mind that has been largely untouched by evils that are reality in many other areas of the world:

“My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind.” (From Exclusion and Embrace)

The antidote to the viscous and seemingly endless cycle of violence, of perpetrators and victims who become perpetrators, revenge killing and the injustice of man to man is the notion that God metes out ultimate justice – that those  who perpetuate injustice in the world without repentance will have their due. When Scripture says, “Vengeance is mine….” (Deut. 32:25), it is saying that we should leave the judging and the outcomes to God.

To be vengeful and vindictive, which is the brute and natural inclination of the heart of a person who feels the need to exact justice, we are denying that God is who He us. Thus, Paul urged the Romans, who were persecuted in much or the first couple of centuries after Christ, to “repay no one evil for evil…. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’” (Romans 12:17, 19)

Only by the virtue of a wrathful God, might we have the ground on which anchor the hope of living in peace with other people. When we don’t contribute our energy to the notion that every wrong must be recompensed, we begin the process of laying the foundation for peace that can grow into understanding and reconciliation motivated by love. We stop contributing more fuel to the fire and leave space for that fire of endless hostility to be quenched by the love of God and love for fellow man.

If there is no God whose wrath will result in ultimate justice, we who are justice-minded have no recourse other than to respond in kind, perpetuating the very injustice we seek to redress. We are doomed to taking vengeance into our own hands and perpetuating the never ending cycle of vengeance that is our fate apart from God.

Think about it: if you parents didn’t get angry when you were mistreated by others, wouldn’t you doubt their love for you? Good, loving people get angry precisely because they are good and loving. It’s certainly no less true of God. Should we not feel anger when we witness injustice in the world? How much more God?

We know this instinctively. Yet, when we seek to take vengeance into our hands, we are denying that God is such a loving Parent, that God is not interested in justice, and we become gods.

On this point, Gavin Ortlund observed:

“I would go so far as to say a God who never gets angry—a God who leaves the cry of the victim and the downtrodden echoing without answer for eternity—such a God would not be good, and therefore would not be God.” (From 4 Problems with Downplaying God’s Wrath, Gospel Coalition, January 5, 2018)

On this point, we stand at a confluence of history and circumstances in the United States in which the predominant paradigm for redressing past injustice, especially on the matter or racial injustice, is characterized by cultural Marxism – the idea that there is no God; that justice must be taken into our own hands; that justice must be accomplished by the oppressed rising up against the oppressors and vanquishing them. But that paradigm only replaces one class of oppressors, ultimately, with another.

I say these things as a white man viewing this history unfolding in my time. I say these things not to the class of the oppressed who are seeking justice, but to the people who are viewed as the oppressors. As the world becomes increasingly violent and that violence is increasingly aimed at me and “my kind”, how will we respond? How will I respond?

“If vengeance is mine”, says the Lord, I will not respond in kind. Mine is to take up the cross and to follow my savior – and the savior of all humanity – to absorb the anger of man because God is a wrathful God who hates injustice but loves mankind. God who sees and offers His grace freely to each person will have the ultimate say. If I am a man of faith, I will not pick up my word. I will pick up the cross and let God be God.

May I have the courage and the faith and be so absorbed by the Spirit of God who loves me, loves my neighbor and even loves my enemy, to stand and not be tempted to take vengeance into my own hands. That I believe is the way God desires. That is the message of the Sermon on the Mount. That is the Christian ethic – more than an ethic but the character of God who didn’t consider equality with God a thing to hold onto, but emptied Himself; and born into humanity as one of us, was true to His character, even to the point of death on a cross. (Phil. 2:4-8)

I can do this only if I believe in the wrath of God who is motivated by His love such that His anger is directed and will meted out on those who would perpetuate injustice unrepentantly. I can afford to be weak and let God be strong.

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