A Deep Dive on Divine Wrath

​In the previous post I said that the idea of the wrath of God might better be looked at as a metaphor rather than a dark attribute of God’s character. I did get some blow back on that so in this essay I want to take a deep dive into the Old Testament idea of divine wrath, the day of wrath, and other related words and ideas. As in English, in Hebrew there are several synonyms are related words that express the idea of anger, wrath, fury, etc., but it seems that the Hebrew words, while being more emotive, function less on an emotional level than their English counterparts.

Hebrew words for anger are rooted in images such as a bucket being tipped over and water gushing everywhere, the nose on one’s face turning red, fire that is just being kindled, while another word is rooted in fire that is massive and consumes everything in its path. Another word can be used both for anger and the poison in snake venom. While not the most common word for wrath, by far the most significant is ‘ebrâ (5678) [see note below], the root of which refers to something that overflows. This is less an image of anger or emotional outburst and more an image of judgment. Consider, for instance, the rebellious provinces in the Roman Empire (of which Judea during the New Testament period was one). Rome was actually quite permissive, but eventually, when action was taken, it was almost always decisive and overwhelming (think of the modern term “shock and awe”). This action was taken, not because the Emperor was angry and emotional about the situation – quite the opposite was usually the case – after careful and calculated responses, the final response to the rebellion occurred. This is the sense of ‘ebrâ (5678), an overflowing and overwhelming response; that is, an image of judgment.

This is not to say the emotion of anger is not applied to God in the Old Testament. Consider Psa 38:1, “O LORD, do not rebuke me in your anger (qeṣep 7110), or discipline me in your wrath (ḥēmâ 2534).” God warns the covenant people of his wrath also. “You shall not abuse any widow or orphan. If you do afflict them, and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry; and my wrath (‘ap 0639) will burn (ḥārāh 2734), and I will kill you with sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless (Exo 22:22-24).  Or there is this verse that piles synonym upon synonym: “The Lord uprooted them from their land in anger (‘ap 0639), fury (ḥēmâ 2534), and great wrath (qeṣep 7110), and cast them into another land, as is now the case” (Deu 29:18).

When these words are applied to humans they are often clearly overlaid with emotion (Pr 14:29; 15:1;19:19; etc.) But these words that appear to be charged with emotion in English, appear to at least sometimes have a different character in Hebrew. In Isaiah 16:6, in a prophecy about Moab, we read, “We have heard of the pride of Moab—how proud he is! — of his arrogance, his pride, and his insolence (‘ebrâ 5678); his boasts are false.” (Also in Jer 48:30, etc.) In this verse, rather than anger, what we find is an overflowing of pride and arrogance. The key to ebrâ (5678), whether anger or pride, is not the emotion, but it’s characteristic of overflowing excess.

So what are the implications of applying these sorts of words to God? Let’s begin with a basic interpretive principle. God is not a human; ultimately God is unknowable because the divine is so utterly different than the created things that we can know. It is therefore problematic to apply human characteristics, such as emotions, directly to God. Emotive words certainly refer to a particular divine activity, but the meaning of those words is necessarily a shadow of what is actually happening in the Divine Counsel.

With that in mind, consider one of the key phrases that looms large in the New Testament, although the phrase is only used once. In Deuteronomy God’s judgment is called ‘âkal ‘êsh (0398 0784 consuming fire Deu 4:24; 9:3). That phrase is also picked up in Heb 12:29, “Therefore, since we are receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken, let us give thanks, by which we offer to God an acceptable worship with reverence and awe; for indeed our God is a consuming fire.” This idea expressed the very heart of what the Bible frequently calls judgment, the Day of Wrath (Job 21:30; Pro 11:4; Zeph 1:15; Rom 2:5). But again, there is no emotional content indicated in these verses. The emotion is drawn from the English term “wrath.” For as terrible as this day will be, it is not a consequence of God lashing out at humanity in anger, only the inevitable consequence of humanity’s rebellion.

So, when I say that “wrath,” when applied to God is metaphorical, I’m not saying that judgment won’t happen, rather I am saying that we are not given specific reasons (with certain exceptions, such as breaking the covenant) for why God does what he does. Wrath is a way of describing, from a human and earthly perspective, what happens, but it tells us very little about God’s character and nothing of his attributes. It is rather a way of trying to put divine activity into human context. When Jesus comes, that process of putting divine activity into human context will become much easier. But in the Old Testament we need to be very humble and circumscribed in any pronouncements as to what God is actually like.

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GENERAL NOTE: In order to make this essay accessible I have chosen to not include any Hebrew; instead I have transliterated the words trying to stay consistent with the ISO 259 transliteration standards. I have also included the associated Strong’s number. This is not a foolproof method of tracing down Hebrew words because the Strong numbering system sometimes gives multiple numbers to single roots (ah, the joys of trying to translate a Semitic language into the Romantic or Anglo-Saxon family of languages!), but that numbering system is so common that I believe it will make the content more accessible.

Hebrew is notoriously difficult to search for any one particular Hebrew term. For those who want to pursue this further, I have provided an extensive (although likely not exhaustive) list of Old Testament references where the main synonyms for anger appear.

ebrâ 5678 – outpouring, overflow, excess, fury, wrath, arrogance
Gen 49:7; Job 21:30; 40:11; Psa 7:6; 78:49; 85:3; 90:9, 11; Pro 11:4, 23; 14:35; 21:24; 22:8; Isa 9:19; 10:6′ 13:9, 13; 14:6; 16:6; Jer 7:29; 48:30; Lam 2:2; 3:1; Eze 7:19; 21:31; 22:21, 31; 38:19; Hos 5:10; 13:11; Amos 1:11; Hab 3:8; Zeph 1:15, 18.

qeṣep 7107 – wrath, anger, a splinter or broken twig (last meaning dubious)
Gen 40:2; 41:10; Exo 16:20; Lev 10:6, 16; Num 16:22; 31:14; Deu 1:34; 9:7, 8, 19, 22;Jos 22:18; 1Sa 29:4; 2Ki 5:11; 13:19; Est 1:12; 2:21; Psa 106:32; Ecc 5:6; Isa 8:21; 47:6; 54:9; 57:16; 64:5, 9; Jer 37:15; Lam 5:22; Zec 1:2, 15; 8:14.

ḥēmâ 2534 – heat, rage, hot displeasure, indignation, anger, wrath, poison, venom
Gen 27:44; Lev 26:28; Num 25:11; Deu 9:119;29:23, 28; 32:24, 33; 2Sa 11:20; 2Ki 5:12;22:13, 17; 2Chr 12:7; 28:9; 34:21, 25; 36:16; Est 1:12; 2:1; 3:5; 5:9; 7:7; 7:10; Job 6:4:19:29; 21:20; 36:18; Psa 6:1; 37:8; 38:1; 58:4; 59:13; 76:10; 78:38;79:6; 88:7; 89:46; 90:7; 106:23; 140:3; Pro 6:34; 15:1, 18:16:14 19:19; 21:14; 27:4; 29:22; Isa 27:4; 34:2; 42:25; 51:13 (2x), 17, 20, 22; 59:18; 63:3, 5, 6; 66:15; Jer 4:4; 6:11; 7:20; 10:25; 18:20; 21:5, 12; 23:19 25:15; 30:23; 32:31, 37; 33:5; 36:7; 42:18 (2x); 44:6; Lam 2:4; 4:11; Eze 3:14; 5:13, 15; 6:12; 7:8; 8:18; 9:8; 13:13, 15; 14:19; 16:38, 42; 19:12; 20:8, 13, 21,  33, 34; 21:17; 22:20, 22; 23:25; 24:8, 13; 25:14, 17; 30:15; 36:6, 18; 38:18; Dan 8:6; 9:16; 11:44; His 7:5; Mic 5:15; Nah 1:2, 6; Zec 8:2.

ḥēmâ 2528 (Aramaic form)
Dan 3:13, 19

ḥārôn 2740 – anger, heat, burning anger (always used of God in O.T.)
Exo 15:7; 32:12; Num 25:4; 32:14; Deu 13:17; Josh 7:26; 1Sa 28:18; 2Ki 23:26; 2Ch 28:11, 13; 29:10; 30:8; Ezr 10:14; Neh 13:18; Job 20:23; Psa 2:5; 58:9; 69:24; 78:49;85:3; 88:16; Isa 13:9, 13; Jer 4:8, 26; 12:13; 25:37, 36 (2x); 30:24; 49:37; 51:45; Lam 1:12; 4:11; Eze 7:12, 14; Hos 11:9; Jon 3:9; Nah 1:6; Zeph 2:2; 3:8.

ḥārôn 2734 – a related to form of the above term
Gen 4:5, 6; 18:30, 32; 30:2; 31:35, 36; 34:7; 39:19; 44:18; 45:5 (kindle); Exo 4:14; 22:243 ;32:10, 11, 22 (wax hot); Num 11:1;, 10, 33, 24:10; 25:3; 32:10, 13; Deu 6:15; 7:4; 11:7; 29:27; 31:17; Jos 7:1; 23:6; Jud 2:14, 20; 3:8; 6:39; 9:30; 10:7; 14:19; 1Sam 11:6; 15:11;17:28; 18:8; 20:7; 20:30; 2Sam 3:8; 6:7, 8; 13:21; 19:42; 22:8; 24:1; 2Ki 13:3; 23:26; 1Chr 13:10, 11; Neh 3:20; 4:1, 7; 5:6; Job 19:11; 32:2, 3, 5, 42:7; Psa 18:7; 37:1, 7, 8; 106:40; 124:3;Pro 24:19; Isa 5:25; 41:11; 45:24;Hos 8:5; Jon 4:1, 4, 9; Hab 3:8; Zec 10:3

‘ānap 0599 – to be angry or displeased, to breathe hard
Deu 1:37; 4:21; 9:8, 20; 1Ki 8:46; 11:9; 2Ki 17:18; 2Ch 6:36; Ezr 9:14; Psa 2:12; 61:1; 79:5; 85:5; Isa 12:1.


God, Salvation, and Word Pictures

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.

A Follow-up on Judgment and Repentance

After posting my previous essay, I listened to this installment of Praying in the Rain (also available in essay form here) with Fr Michael Gillis. He is able to explain certain aspects of how the ancient church and contemporary Christian East understand heaven and hell better than I can. If you are interested in further reading or listening, I recommend it.

A Science Fiction Author Meditates on Judgment and Repentance

I am currently listening to a SciFi audio book (Abaddon’s Gate, by James S. A. Corey) that features a very bad young woman (Clarissa) who was pushed over the edge by the arrest of her father and her denial of just how evil her father’s actions were. She kills lots (lots!) of people in her hope of revenge.

Once all the shooting is done and there’s time for reflection, the questions of forgiveness and redemption vs judgment become key themes in the book. This part of the book is amazingly insightful. (Okay, maybe I’m selling SciFi short, but I typically don’t turn to this genre for deep insights into theological themes.) It has me doing a lot of thinking about judgment and forgiveness.

I inhabit two very different worlds when it comes to this subject. Protestantism (the faith of my youth and pastoral ministry) contends that God’s primordial reaction to sin is wrath. God is holy and a holy God cannot abide the presence of sin. This puts God into a posture of wrath (and note that wrath is not an emotion, it’s an existential reality in opposition to that which is not holy) until the sin problem can be solved.

I am no longer Protestant and am now Eastern Orthodox. The Orthodox argue that this view of holiness is fundamentally flawed. It’s not God who cannot stand the presence of evil; God wants to stand in the midst of evil, to be present “to, with, and for” all his creation. Jesus’ favorite people were not the religious folks; he preferred the company of sinners and tax collectors. Thus, God’s primordial reaction to sin is not wrath, it is sorrow and longing for reunion. Wrath is a sinful human’s interpretation of what happens when we brush up against holiness; it’s not actually an attribute of God.

The two starting points are, from what I can see, diametrically opposed to each other, and these two radically different starting points lead to subtly different perceptions of judgment. From the Protestant perspective, since the “problem of holiness” is a divine problem (that is, a holy God cannot look upon sin), then judgment is inevitable unless extraordinary measures are taken. Those measures are the death of God’s Son which (from within this “juridical model” as it’s often called) is necessary to appease God’s wrath, and the sinner’s acceptance by faith the free gift of forgiveness which can now be offered by God because of the death of Jesus Christ.

From an Eastern Orthodox perspective, the problem is death (or separation from God, who is the source of life) and the sin which comes about because of the corroding effects of death. The life-giving connection between God and his creation was broken because of Adam’s sin. Without that life-giving connection, creation is slowly dying. The incarnation (God becoming human) re-linked God and his creation allowing divine life to flow back into creation. Humans, created as God’s priests on earth, are the means of that re-linking. Certainly the person must participate in the life-giving gift through faith. The person must repent and go to the work of assuming the proper posture that will allow this divine transformation to take place. But the ultimate goal is not to save the sinner, it is the transformation of the entire creation through the very life of God.

These two views on the matter of God’s relation to the world lead to subtly different views of judgment and what happens after death. The author of the Letter to the Hebrews says,  “And just as it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment, so Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him” (Heb 9:27f). For Protestants (and more specifically, for Evangelicals) the question is, “Did a person accept Christ as their Savior, or in the words of Hebrews, are they eagerly waiting for him?” The judgment hinges on that question and will determine whether you go to heaven or hell. For the Orthodox, the question is, “What is the state of the deep heart?” If one’s true self recognizes that I cannot help myself and is not fundamentally antagonistic toward Christ, the judgment will reveal that, no matter what one’s outward actions look like. One might have never made a conscious decision to become a committed follower of Christ and even appear to be antagonistic to Christ while their deep and hidden heart recognizes the hopelessness and eagerly awaits salvation offered in Christ. The heart, often ineffable to humans, will be fully revealed to Jesus Christ.

Another judgment text that is every bit as important as Hebrews 9 is 1 John 3:2 and it speaks to this. “Beloved, we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” What we look like and act like is not the actual determination of who we truly are. The judgment therefore isn’t a ruling of “you’re in” or “you’re out” it is rather a discernment of what truly is and what is only ephemeral.

All of us need to admit that we don’t know exactly what happens after death. Eternity is described in broad strokes (the judgment, we will be changed) or in fascinating metaphor (the Banquet of the Lamb, the Lake of Fire). Beyond this, scripture is mostly silent on the specifics. In my experience as a Protestant, I would say that Protestants think in terms of instantaneous change. When I get to heaven, I will immediately be perfected and purified. The Orthodox tend more toward seeing what happens after death as a process. Death itself marks a moment of no return; the die is cast in terms of your ultimate circumstance. But the process from my current state to my ultimate union with God will remain a process, even after death.

Jesus used the image of gold and its impurities. The heat and light of holiness will purify gold while burning away the impurities. If we lived a life of repentance and purgation, that process will be relatively painless in heaven under the discerning eye of our loving Father who longs for us to unite with him. If, on the other hand, I did little with my talents (to use the imagery of a different parable) and did not live a life of repentance and purgation, that process of fully entering into the Kingdom and becoming one with God might be quite a lot more painful as the chaff is stripped and burned away. This is not judgment in a moment, but judgment as a process of revealing my true self and allowing the “what we shall become” to finally appear through all the junk.

Although it is certainly not official Orthodox teaching, a surprising number of Orthodox theologians, bishops, and faithful suspect that in the end everyone will be saved. This is not a dismissal of the seriousness of sin and evil in the world. It rather begins with the assumption (described in some detail above) that divine wrath is certainly not a divine attribute but rather a sinful human perception of holiness. With that assumption in mind some people are able to discern the spark of repentance and possibility of forgiveness in even the most recalcitrant sinners they have met. This leads to speculation (and let’s be clear, this is not a dogmatic position, but only a counterfactual speculation) that all people may actually be open to entering into union with God once it is revealed who they truly are.

Again, let me reiterate, this speculation among some Orthodox that all might be saved is not a denial of the necessity of the Incarnation and Cross, nor is it a denial of God’s abhorrence of sin and evil. It’s not even a way of letting sinners off the hook because repentance and purification toward holiness will be an ongoing process in heaven, not an instantaneous transformation. It is rather a meditation on what it means to be created in the image of God and the fact that the divine image is never completely obliterated in sinful humanity. It is an attitude of confidence that Gen. 1:31 is literal beyond our comprehension when it says, “and behold, [God’s creation] was very good! And there was evening and there was morning, a sixth day.”

At this point I want to return to the novel. Clarissa, having returned to herself after the insane and all-consuming rage, is lost in despair for the evil things she has done. She is almost catatonic with grief. She only wishes that they would quickly find her guilty and execute her, for that is what she deserves. Anna, a minister of the Gospel who is working with Clarissa, seeks desperately to postpone the trial and the execution that is certain to follow. She fervently believes that there is something deep within Clarissa that can accept forgiveness. She is afraid that if Clarissa dies before she discovers that hope deep within, she will indeed be lost forever.

This interplay is remarkably Orthodox in its sensibilities. Even in the face of ineffable evil, Anna, the Christian, can find the goodness of God’s creation and believes in the reality of forgiveness and transformation. Paradoxically it is a perspective that should cause us to fear divine judgment even more. (It would be a fearful thing to be Clarissa, even a repenting Clarissa, before the penetrating eye of God.) God will look deeply into us and not just make the bad stuff disappear as if all that sin stuff was a mistake, giving me a pass directly to perfection, rather he will see me for what I truly am and proceed to burn away the chaff and transform me into what I was truly meant to become. This is the glory … and terror … of true faith in Jesus Christ’s perfect offer of salvation. Amen.

I’m Not Sure Whether This Is A Post About Wrath or Pressuppositions

I am reminded how difficult it is to change one’s presuppositions, in this case, about divine wrath. Back in 2009 Thomas Hopko offered a three part podcast on the wrath of God (found here, here, and here, both in podcast and transcript form). It turned my thinking about the subject around. In short, he observes that in the overwhelming majority of cases divine wrath is aimed at his own people. He concludes that divine wrath is not a species of judgment; it is rather a species of love.

Parents are properly angry with their children when they run out into the street, play with fire, or other dangerous things. This anger grows out of love: the parent’s desire for the child to be safe and hope that they grow into mature adulthood. It is not the sort of anger that causes the parent to consider throwing the child out of the family, it is rather an anger that causes the parent to do the difficult thing (discipline) in order to draw the child back into a proper family relationship.

Similarly, God’s wrath is pointed, not at the world, but at his own children, at people of faith, who willfully turn their back on the truth they know and follow their own devices. The goal of wrath is not to judge humans in general, but rather to draw children back children to God in particular. Of course divine wrath is more complex than just this, but it is the necessary starting point when the topic is viewed from the perspective of incarnation and cross.

When I first heard this three years ago it turned my thinking upside down. As I was rereading the Old Testament I discovered just how right Hopko was. I had the whole wrath of God thing completely backwards.

Then I stopped thinking about it. But a couple of weeks ago I heard the three podcasts on divine wrath again and realized that I had pretty much slipped back into the old way of thinking (that is divine wrath as a species of vengeance rather than a species of love). Old presuppositions die hard. After you think you put them away they manage to come creeping out again.