Reading the Daily Common Lectionary, which is going through Hebrews at the moment, I am reminded that there are different metaphors for salvation, and those metaphors are not necessarily compatible with each other. If the metaphors are taken too literally or too far it will appear that there are contradictions within scripture. The four big salvation metaphors are slavery and freedom (based on Israel’s escape out of Egypt), the temple and the sacrificial system (based on the Law given to Moses after the escape from Egypt), the banquet and the invitation of unworthy people to the banquet (one of Jesus’ favorite metaphors, at least according to John), and the legal system (Paul’s favorite metaphor).
God is unknowable to us in a manner similar that human culture and pathos is unknowable to an ant. But God takes things that are within our experience and that we can understand (systems of sacrifice, big banquets, the court system, jails, and fines, etc.) and says, “I am like this,” or “The reasons for my actions are similar to this.” But I suspect we forget that God’s relation to us is ultimately beyond our understanding and that the only way to get a handle on God’s actions is to speak of it in metaphorical terms. Heaven won’t literally be a big banquet hall where we will eat forever and ever, but it is a helpful image that offers a counterpoint to our getting kicked out of the Garden where food was both easy and always available.
Growing out of the idea of metaphor or analogy is a second principle in talking about God called apophatic language. The essence of apophatic thinking is to say what God is not, rather than what God is. A simple and hopefully obvious example, since we began with my reading of Hebrews and the metaphor of the sacrificial system is to start with a metaphorical statement, “Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God,” and then add an apophatic clarification, “But Jesus is not a lamb,” or “Jesus had skin, not wool.” Or, as I wrote in the previous paragraph, “Heaven won’t literally be a big banquet.” That’s an apophatic clarification.
Once we understand metaphorical language, then we begin to realize that the whole sacrificial system in the Old Testament is a gigantic metaphor about God and humans. Even the ancient Jews understood this: “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams” (1 Sam 15:22).
The origins of sacrifice have been lost beyond the time horizon. Granted, God “made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them” (Gen 3:21). This is often called the first sacrifice and is considered a pointer toward Jesus Christ’s death on the cross, but in truth that is speculation. The text actually says nothing about sacrifice. What we do know is that God used practices common to humans and then revealed glimpses of his true self by redefining those common practices and giving them new meaning.
Anthropology has shown us that sacrifice, for ancient cultures, was a way of appeasing and manipulating the gods who were either angry or non-cooperative. It was an attempt to gain some small amount of control in a capricious and dangerous natural world. Some of that same sensibility is present in the Old Testament system. Appeasement is certainly a big part and is at the root of the theological arc that we might call the “wrath of God.”
Going back to our original exploration of analogic and apophatic theology, the question of divine wrath must be explored. Is wrath actually a divine attribute, a dark side to the attribute of holiness? Or is divine wrath actually a metaphorical description of the distance between Almighty God and his human creatures? And if that’s the case, must we put wrath into the context of other things God has revealed about himself and say, “God is not literally full of wrath (ie, an apophatic statement); making wrath an attribute takes the metaphor beyond its reasonable conclusion. Making wrath a metaphor (in contrast to an attribute) gives the distance between God and us a great deal of emotional punch.
No doubt it’s obvious by now that I fall into the camp that believes the idea of the wrath of God is a helpful metaphor, but metaphorical none the less. Not all interpreters take this same position. But I hope this essay helps us move beyond the idea that to reject divine wrath as an attribute of God is to somehow reject or deny scripture. It is rather an attempt to allow scripture to mean what it wants to mean rather than to force what we want scripture to mean on to the text.