Big Salvation Words: Wrath

Among Karl Barth’s opening general observations about the Doctrine of Reconciliation, he says that God “does not merely give out of His fulness (sic). In His fulness He gives Himself to be with” us and for us. God “gives Himself , and in so doing gives [us] all things.” Giving us “all things” is a good thing, right? Not so fast!

Barth continues: “Even in his experience of what comes to him from God, man can be blind or half-blind, and can therefore make mistakes, and can find terror and destruction in what God has allotted and gives as a supreme benefit. … Even the divine favour will then take on the aspect of wrath. God’s Yes will then become a No and His grace a judgment. The light itself will blind him and plunge him in darkness” (CD IV/1, pp 40f).

In relation to people who reject God, Barth insists that God is not angry, only merciful. “The love of God burns where they are, but as the fire of His wrath which consumes and destroys them. God lives for them, but the life of God can only mean death for those who are His enemies” [from their perspective, not from God’s perspective] (p. 221).

This idea of God’s light being both the warmth of love, the consuming power of divine passion for us, and in contrast, at the same time the consuming power of vengeance is a common theme in the Holy mothers and fathers. God’s mercy could be described as God’s willingness not to shine his love directly upon us (because it would destroy us) but only in veiled form. Once the chaff is gone and we are purified (that is, once we have arrived in heaven), we will be able to endure this shining love, but now it would destroy us.

It is in this sense that the Holy mothers and fathers also claim that heaven and hell are the same place. The conjecture is that all humans enter the identical presence of God after death. For the righteous this presence is love, glory, and light. For the unrighteous it is the consuming fires of hell.

In short, Barth is in full agreement with the ancient church that the wrath of God is a human reaction to God’s presence. Wrath is a negative human interpretation of the fire of God’s love.

Big Salvation Words: Judgment

In one of his more surprising insights, Karl Barth claims that the Fall of Adam and Eve, the root of their sin, was an act of judgment on their part. Adam and Eve “become sinners in trying to be as God: a judge” (CD IV/1 231). Barth says that to be human in the world as we know it (that is, hostile to God) is to be the “pseudo-sovereign creature” who believes its “most sacred duty [is] to have knowledge of good and evil.” Furthermore, we use that “knowledge” to “be a judge, to want to be able and competent to pronounce ourselves free and righteous and others more or less guilty.”

Unfortunately we are terrible judges. Our standard of righteousness, rather than matching reality, is a sliding scale that puts us into the best possible light. Judgment becomes an instrument of value, making us more valuable in our own eyes while making others less valuable, on (again) a sliding scale that allows me to dehumanize you and others that I especially want to dismiss.

Real judgment is something altogether different. Real judgment establishes our true and indelible humanity (and thus our worthiness as creatures of God) and distinguishes our true self from our failures, allowing God to transform us into what we might becomes. As Barth says, “In [God’s] hand there lies this solemn and powerful and redemptive instrument. In ours there is only a copy, a foolish and dangerous but ultimately ineffective toy” (p. 232)

Because of our confusion about judgment as it is exercised in human hands, it is also necessary to say that judgment does not grow out of anger or divine honor, or a need for cosmic justice. It is rather a relational act. “This is undoubtedly the mystery of the divine mercy. God acted in this way because He grieved over His people, because He did not will to abandon the world in its unreconciled state and therefore on the way which leads to destruction, because He willed to show to it an unmerited faithfulness as the Creator, because in His own inconceivable way He loved it” (p 237). We don’t typically think of judgment as an outgrowth of grief and loss, but true judgment is just that.

Finally, we need to understand that divine judgment is merciful because it is final. Much of our life is spent with a shadow of guilt darkening it. Our experience of being judged is that if I am judged unworthy today, the same will happen tomorrow. Human judgment is too often not an act, but an ongoing attitude or devaluing of the other person. Divine judgment is nothing like this belittling action which we often confuse with judgment. The divine sort is “a judgment beside and after and beyond which there need be no further fear of judgment; a judgment which concludes once and for all with redemption and salvation …” (p. 222).

This is not to say that judgment is pleasant, something to look forward to with longing, or any other such nonsense. But it is equally nonsensical to dread it because we tend to equate judgment with condemnation. Judgment, in the mystery of the divine economy, is the evaluation (or, the revelation of who we truly are in our inmost secret self) that makes grace possible. It is the first step in our rescue from despair. It is indeed the “solemn and powerful redemptive instrument” that God uses to bring us sinful humans to himself.

Life and Prosperity or Death and Adversity

Why is there a “second Law” (the meaning of the word “Deuteronomy”) in the Old Testament? The people of Israel have been desert nomads for 40 years. That is more than a generation of people, so only the old people remember the mighty acts of God: the plagues, the escape from Egypt, the terror of Mt. Sinai when God gave them the Law. For this new generation, life has been like that of the Bedouin, following the herds of sheep and goats as they search for grass and water.

But now they are on the brink of moving into a new territory that is fertile enough to allow them to settle down. The Law God gave them was designed for this new life. It addresses things like land ownership, dealing with permanent neighbors, a holy city and a temple, that were not a part of their life for the last forty years.

This is why it was necessary for the people to reaffirm their commitment to the Law that God gave them (thus, a so-called second Law). This week’s Old Testament text, Deut. 20:15-20, is the culmination of that exercise. They have gathered. They have heard the Law. They must now make a choice. “See, I have set before you today life and prosperity, death and adversity” (Deut. 30:15).

We don’t often think of God’s Law, or any law for that matter, in these terms. When we think of Law we think of an arbitrary rule. But God’s Law is a different sort of thing. It reflects fundamental reality. To oppose this Law is to try to fight reality itself. This is why Moses describes the choice as “life and prosperity” vs. “death and adversity.”

Moses warns the people that if they don’t obey, “I declare to you today that you shall perish; you shall not live long in the land that you are crossing the Jordan to enter and possess” (v. 18).

In a wonderful turn of phrase, Karl Barth describes the result of the sinful life in the following manner: “[The sinful one] stands under the wrath and judgment of God. He is broken and destroyed on God. It cannot be otherwise” (CD/IV:1, 175).

Moses’ words ring of arbitrary rules: If you don’t obey God, you will perish. Similarly, when we hear that Bible word “wrath,” we again think of arbitrariness and probably have a picture of an angry God. But Barth defines wrath in a completely different manner that fits perfectly with what Moses describes in Deuteronomy. Reality is thus and so. In the short term defying reality (by cheating your neighbors, not caring for the poor, etc.) may bring great reward, but in the long term, fighting against reality will only destroy you. As Barth says it, such a person ends up being broken and destroyed on God (note: not by God, but on God) like a race car that cuts a corner, ends up on the grass, and spins into the wall, the problem isn’t an angry wall, the problem is physics and bad driving.

Since we are not big enough to see the full sweep of reality and how it all works together, it is easy for us to see these rules of the road as arbitrary. (Don’t drive ont he grass at 200 mph; don’t cheat your neighbor.) Now that we have made the great turn and have set our faces toward the cross of Good Friday and the upcoming struggle of Lent, we are reminded that what we are about to do is try to align ourselves with reality so that we avoid the rocks in the midst of the storms of life.

This Deuteronomy text is not a call to just obey a bunch of rules, it is a call to be careful so that we can live.

The Trinity as Life instead of Doctrine

There’s currently quite a little tempest going on among Evangelicals about Trinitarianism. Certain high profile Evangelical professor types have gone astray of Trinitarian orthodoxy (specifically in relation to the doctrine of subordinationism) and are seemingly unrepentant. Of course, Evangelicals have no disciplinary structures to speak of, so all that remains for the remaining orthodox Evangelical sorts is to huff and puff with little consequence … oh and offer that little 33 question “Are You A Trinitarian?” test that Tim Challies put together.

A relative of mine posted it on Facebook. I took the quiz because I figured I might flunk it, since I confess and believe the Nicene Creed as it was written and approved by the ancient councils, and not with the “and the Son” phrase that the Western Church has added in order to defend the double procession doctrine. Turns out this little test didn’t touch on the subject of the procession of the Holy Spirit, so I am safely Trinitarian according to this little quiz. (Whew! You can’t believe how relieved I am!! Winking smile)

Beyond the “Are you a Trinitarian?” question is the follow-up question of “So what?” Here is Challies “So what?” answer (from Q31):

Redemption is illogical and impossible without Trinitarian distinctions. For example, in order for the Father to pour out his wrath on his Son and for the Father to accept Christ’s sacrifice on our behalf, the persons must be distinct. That the Son is infinite God also explain how his death can be infinitely valuable and thus able to pay the just penalty of eternity in hell for all those he redeems.

I used to be Presbyterian, so I get that a Presbyterian is going to put emphasis on a juridical framework for salvation, but I was left wondering, “Is that actually all you’ve got?” This is certainly not why Trinitarian doctrine is vital to salvation. I will explain:

We are spiritually dead and Trinitarian doctrine, with all it’s arcane details about oneness, threeness, Jesus’ full humanity and full deity, procession, etc., explains how it is possible for Creator God to enter into creation and offer spiritually dead humans the Source of True Life for now and eternity.

Our physical life is not unlike a cut flower which is beautiful and seemingly alive for days and even weeks. But since it has been snipped from its source of life, it will eventually wilt and die. We too are cut off from our only possible source of life, which is the life-giving Trinity.

Trinitarian teachings show us that it is possible for us to be united, or “made one” with Christ through the Holy Spirit, and thus to be made one with the life-giving Trinity because Christ is actually and truly God. Christ, fully God and fully human, participates in our life even to the extent of dying a humiliating cross death. This participation by God with us and as us in turn allows us to participate in God’s life. All of this talk of judgment is certainly biblical, but it is a side-bar to the content of the Gospel: the mysterious life-giving power of the life-giving Trinity who, in Christ, is fully united with humanity, thus giving humans the gracious opportunity to drink deeply and forever of the actual source of life.

To reduce the doctrine of the Trinity to a riff on divine wrath, divine judgment, and Christ’s sacrifice as a solution to judgment rather than as the more fundamental issue of how we actually access the life that is offered to us through Christ’s participation, is a pyrrhic Trinitarian victory. It is the essence of what we find in 2 Timothy 3:5. “… holding to the outward form of godliness but denying its power.” It is the conceit of knowledge (v. 4) without proper application of that knowledge to the actual problem: we’re dead … still pretty as we stand tall in the vase but decaying and wilting fast. If we don’t want to get thrown out and replaced by tomorrow’s bouquet (ie, judgment), we need to “put off [the] old nature which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful lusts and to be renewed in the spirit of your [nous] (not “minds” as intellectual endeavors, but our true inner being). Eph. 4:22f.

Good doctrine either improperly applied or only partially applied is not a lot different than bad doctrine. Even the demons believe, as James reminds us (2:19). Being a Trinitarian Christian is not a matter of good doctrine, it is rather a matter of understanding how to properly apply it and the will to do so (ie, the putting off) and the humility to allow it to be done to us (ie, the being renewed in the spirit of our nous).

Jesus Doesn’t Judge; Words Judge

In yesterday’s Daily Common Lectionary reading (Jn 12:44-50), Jesus says, “I do not judge anyone who hears my words and does not keep them, for I came not to judge the world, but to save the world.” If Jesus (who is God, after all) doesn’t judge and judgment is real (the Bible is full of that affirmation!), then who does the judging?

I smell a contradiction!!!

Turns out there is no contradiction. In the next verse Jesus continues, “The one who rejects me and does not receive my word has a judge; on the last day the word that I have spoken will serve as judge.” It took some time for the import of these two sentences to sink in.

There was a gospel song that folks in the church in which I grew up loved to sing. It began, “Sing them over again to me, Wonderful words of Life. Let me more of their beauty see, Wonderful words of Life.” But what if you reject those words? Then the words cease to be wonderful and become judgment. Jesus’ statement in Jn 12:47-48 parallels one of my favorite two verse in scripture: Rom 1:17-18. “For in [the gospel] the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, ‘The one who is righteous will live by faith’. [18] For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.” In this remarkable bit of parallelism, Paul seems to equate divine righteousness and divine wrath.

And on this Paul and John agree. Life giving words are the same thing as words of judgment (John). Righteousness is the same thing as wrath (Paul). The Eastern Orthodox commonly teach that heaven and hell are the same place. What believers experience as the warm light of love (because by faith they love God and have been purged of all chaff) the non-believers experience as the hot fire of judgment.

God doesn’t send anyone to hell (in this common Orthodox teaching), rather those who reject God experience the heavenly light of love as a burning hell. Righteousness is wrath. The wonderful words of life will judge us. So indeed Christ does not judge; he’s here to offer salvation! Judgment is all in how we respond to Jesus’ good words.

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.

Is Cowardice Worthy of the Lake of Fire?

So here’s a weird bit of scripture:

He who conquers shall have this heritage, and I will be his God and he shall be my son. But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, as for murderers, fornicators, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death. (Rev 21:7f)

Who’s going to burn in the lake of fire? I understand the faithless, the polluted, murderers, fornicators, etc. But why put “the cowardly” at the top of the list?

I ran across this verse when doing some cross referencing with the word “fear.” (See previous post.) To be clear the Greek word for fear (phobos) is not used here (although the KJV does translate it “fear,” so it showed up in one of my searches). Rather it is the word deilois, an adjective meaning “cowardly” or “timid.”

Remember Martin Niemöller’s famous poem that begins, “First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out — Because I was not a Socialist. … ? Pastor Niemöller was railing against apathy, but timidity can also lead to such inaction. And Niemöller’s contention was that those guilty of innaction are as guilty as those who did the evil deeds. As great a sound bite as that poem is, I always found Pastor Niemöller to be a bit over the top. I attributed it to survivor’s remorse. I argued that reality was a bit more complicated than that. There are, after all, extenuating circumstances. Ethics can always be black and white after the fact; doing the right thing is often gray and murkey in the midst of the crisis. For this reason I always preferred Bonhoeffer, who, in all his absoluteness, was far more nuanced than Niemöller. (That’s pretty funny, heh? Describing Bonhoeffer as “nuanced”?)

(And don’t call Bonhoeffer a martyr. He didn’t die for confessing Christ, he died because he was a spy and was caught in the midst of an act of treason. The cause for his actions was his Christian faith, but that was not the cause of his death. In his Letters from Prison he struggles with the issue of “disobeying Ceasar when we are commanded to respect our authorities.” This gets to the heart of why he is such a great hero of mine. Did he do it because he was a Christian or did he do it because he was a German? I’m not sure Bonhoeffer could fully distinguish the two. It’s this fundamental ambiguity that makes him so great in my mind. He’s a confused Christian and accidental saint. While I’m convinced that God will give him the white robe of martyrdom, it was political expediency that drove him to plot to overthrow and/or murder Hitler.)

But in the end, it may be Niemöller who had the clearer vision of truth: “But as for the cowardly … their lot shall be in the lake that burns with fire and sulphur, which is the second death.

Caveat. I’m not preaching this as gospel truth. I’m just trying to make sense of a really weird verse of scripture.

Satan and the Holy Trinity

Jonathan Tobias, an Eastern Orthodox priest, said in a recent talk, that the devil and other evil powers are ignorant of Trinitarian and Christological theology because it can only be known by revelation of the Holy Spirit. This is why the Devil allowed Jesus as much free reign on earth as he did. This is why Jesus was able to enter Hades and accomplish his final victory over death. The Devil didn’t (and probably doesn’t since it comes through revelation) know that Jesus was fully God. If he was a human, or even some sort of demigod, Satan could have defeated him; conversely, if he truly knew the depth of who Jesus was, he never would have messed with him. Granted, this is speculative, for it is never revealed anywhere, but as a thought experiment it opens up a door that is critical to proper interpretation of scripture.

If we don’t take seriously (1) the trinitarian nature of God and (2) the truth that Jesus Christ is both fully God and fully human, and (3) if we don’t appreciate the fact that this was not revealed in its fullness until the coming of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost, we simply cannot understand the relationship between the Old Testament and the New Testament.

From the Old Testament we know that no one can see God and live. Said another way, any time God approaches us frontally, with no intermediary in between, we will be destroyed. That sounds a lot like our human conception of wrath. An Old Testament person, even an Old Testament saint, would be excused for thinking that God is a god of destruction who may even have it out for humanity, given the experience of the people of God from the time of the expulsion from Eden to John the Baptist (who is typically understood as the last Old Testament person).

But Trinitarian theology allows us to see this from a different perspective. God no longer has to “confront” (a negative term, rooted in the experience of the Old Testament) us “frontally” (same root as “confront”). Rather the Son, through the miracle of the incarnation, can clothe himself with flesh. The glory of God, that burns and destroys our sinful self, is veiled and toned down. Suddenly we gaze into God’s face (in Christ) and not be destroyed, and what we discover is that love was there all along, rather than wrath.

Similarly, the Holy Spirit (fully God) can enter into us and exist in veiled form, and transform us from the inside out so that we can increasingly experience the blazing love of God without being burned and destroyed.

My childhood was spent in the Bible Church. I was a pastor in the mainline Presbyterian church, but because of my background, a number of people I rubbed shoulders with were part of the very conservative branches of Presbyterianism. For both groups the wrath of God is a big deal. In the Orthodox Church, on the other hand, divine wrath is rather specifically downplayed for specific theological reasons. The catch is that the reasons both groups emphasize what they do has to do with presuppositions. As a result the subject of the wrath of God is very difficult to talk about across presuppositional divide of the two groups.

Fr. Jonathan’s remarks provide an interesting bridge across this presuppositional divide, since both groups take Trinitarian theology very seriously. What is the relationship between wrath and love? While not having the status of dogma, it is certainly a commonplace within Orthodoxy to say that they are the same thing. Take heaven and hell for instance, which are the same place, according to the story. The difference between the two is that those who know God and have entered into union with him experience the burning brightness of God as holy love and communion (heaven) while those who don’t truly know God experience the same thing a the flames of wrath (hell).

On the face of it, this explanation seems too esoteric and paradoxical for most of my Protestant friends. But Fr Jonathan’s remarks may help explain the seeming paradox. After Eden, God was an outsider to the world from the perspective of human experience. He was person behind the messengers that came to Lot; he was the flame in the burning bush; he was the lightning and cloud that came from heaven down to Mt Sinai, engulfing it, and hiding his glory. Conversely, the Son of God came into the world from the inside out. Creation first experienced him inside the womb. He was the helpless baby the angels sang about, the shepherds wondered about, and King Herod tried to kill. This was possible because the flaming love of deity was clothed with flesh. People and all creation could look upon him and what they saw, without the eyes of divine revelation, was a baby, a boy, a human, an odd Rabbi who was crucified by the Romans.

But those who accepted the revelation of who he actually was by faith (“Flesh and blood did not reveal this to you” Mt 16:17) began to be transformed and began to do the work necessary to become transformed, so that eventually, through the eyes of faith, they could begin to see Jesus as what he really was — the Son of God, that is, God himself. What they experienced was love, acceptance, warmth, but also awesome power that worth fearing. And this is something that as a Protestant who liked the idea of a friendly God, who was like a father with whom I could snuggle when I was sad (as in the John Fischer song, “Rest In Him”), is worth remembering: Love can be towering and overwhelming. It can be at the same moment, inviting and frightful.

So it is, according to this line of thought, that the difference between wrath and righteousness, judgment and love, is the revelation of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity and its embrace by the believer.

It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘from’ is

Proper manners include refraining from talking religion at work. But at my recent jobs it’s been known that I used to be a pastor, so manners be damned. People come to me with the strangest religious questions, conversations, and controversies. Most recently, a colleague asked about a fringe heretical group who believes in the destruction of the soul after death. (The person asking is a fiery Baptist and prefers eternal torment of wicked souls in hell fire and brimstone.) The text in question was 2 Thess. 1:9. The context is vv 5-10, so I’ll quote the paragraph.

[5] This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, that you may be made worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are suffering — [6]  since indeed God deems it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, [7] and to grant rest with us to you who are afflicted, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, [8] inflicting vengeance upon those who do not know God and upon those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. [9] They shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction and exclusion from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, [10] when he comes on that day to be glorified in his saints, and to be marveled at in all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.

The specific answer to this question, by the way, is twofold. First, there is no exact equivalent to the Greek word used for “destruction” (olethros). It does not mean “annihilation.” It is closer (but not exactly like) “corruption.” So destruction is a sort of ongoing and progressive death. It is what happens when there is an absence of life. One might think of the lives of Adam and Eve after the Garden. In the Garden they had ongoing life because in the Garden the source of life was present and renewing them regularly. Outside the Garden, they died. It wasn’t instantaneous (as if they were annihilated), but rather progressive; and it occurred precisely because they were then separated from the source of life in the Garden. So this verse about the destruction of souls is not contradictory to the idea of eternal punishment.

Second, the overwhelming New Testament evidence is that life continues for all after death. Building a doctrine on one passage which seems to disagree with the majority of evidence is a dangerous business indeed!

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But what is the “punishment” to which this text refers? (v. 9) Well, it turns out (to misquote former Pres. Clinton), “It depends upon what the meaning of the word ‘from’ is.”

The cubicle conversation was notable for me because it brought 2 Thess. 1:9 to my attention, and I’ve been looking for this verse for some time. My problem was that my preferred English translation is the RSV (quoted above) and the way it chooses to translate the verse is rather opposite of the classical understanding of what this verse says. So I kept overlooking it because what I was expecting it to say something other than what the RSV says. The problem is in the prepositions.

The preposition in question is “apo,” which means “from” (translated as “exclusion from” in the RSV) But there is subtlety to the word that cannot be captured very well in English. The picture (below) is a graphical representation of the most common Greek spatial prepositions. It is adapted from Lexical Aids for Students of the New Testament Greek by Bruce M. Metzger, p. 80. The Greek is transliterated into English for the sake of this blog audience.


Note that there is a preposition (ek), which is graphically similar to the preposition “apo.” Both represent the same movement but are spatially different. “Apo“ implies a sense of distance that “ek“ does not. So, if I was going to say, “The light comes ‘from’ the sun,” I would use “ek” because the sense is that the light and the sun are, in a sense, the same. But, if I was going to say, “The shock waves that tipped the Humvee on its side came ‘from’ a bomb beside the road, I would probably use “apo” rather than “ek” because this is an action that emphasizes the distance and the disjunction of the bomb and the Humvee.

As a result, the Greek preposition “apo” can also be translated “away from” in many instances (or “exclusion from,” as in the RSV). The command, “Get “away from” me!” would probably use the preposition “apo” (although there would be other ways to say it in Greek that would add the word “away” so that the meaning would be clear.

And here’s the problem. You could properly use either “apo” or “ek” in the sentence about the bomb and the Humvee, but it would not be correct (or at the very least, quite misleading) to use “apo” when saying, “Light comes ‘from’ the sun,” or “ek” when saying, “Get ‘away from’ me.” In short, discerning the force of “apo” in English is a bit tricky and involves as much art as science. And this brings us back to 1 Thess. 1:9.

I do not have the resources to  trace this back in an authoritative manner, but it appears that the Greek East tends to understand this verse as, “[The wicked] shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction [resulting] from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” The Latin speaking West tends to understand it in a manner similar to the RSV: “[The wicked] shall suffer the punishment of eternal destruction [and exclusion] from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might.” Both are grammatically legitimate understandings of the verse, based on different interpretations of the force of the preposition “apo” (from).

Given the fact that the original text is in Greek rather than Latin, I would tend to agree with the former version that the ancient Greek speaking Christians preferred. (Full disclosure: I am Eastern Orthodox, and that is the normative understanding of the text throughout the Orthodox Church.) So, what does that version of the text mean?

The divine presence (the glory of God, the face of God, the divine fire … whichever Old Testament image you want to use) is a double-edged sword. The normal human was warned against approaching it because it would kill them (or destroy them, to use the word from 1 Thess. 1:9). Human sinfulness is incompatible with the purity of the Divine Light. To switch metaphors slightly, if we are nearly pure gold, the fire will only purify us further. If we are primarily impurities rather than gold, the fire will destroy us.

It is this very metaphor (based on 1 Thess. 1:9) that gets at the heart of the Eastern Orthodox understanding of heaven and hell (and “vengeance” in v. 8). They are the same place, the same thing. God casts no one aside; everyone comes in. But this is no sloppy universalist vision of eternal bliss for everyone. For the Christian, who has been transformed by life in Christ, there will be no more night “for the Lord God will shine on them” (Rev. 22:5). But for those who have rejected Christ, his presence is “the punishment of eternal destruction resulting from the face of the Lord and the glory of his might.”

This idea is not new with the ancient Greek speaking Christians. The very same sensibility can be found in Prov. 25:21f, “If your enemy is hungry, give him bread to eat, and if he is thirsty, give him water to drink, for you will heap burning coals on his head, and the LORD will reward you.” (Paul quotes this  passage in Rom. 12:20.) Furthermore, this perspective solves many of the tensions between the love and justice of God and the problem of divine vengeance that has befuddled the Christian West for 1500 years. And thanks to the fact that a co-worker was rude enough to talk about religion in the workplace, I managed to find this verse once again.

Jesus’ Final Word on Judgment in John’s Gospel

Although it wasn’t the original plan (the “original plan” was no plan at all, this all just sort of happened), I’ve ended up writing essays on all the significant passages about judgment in the Gospel of John. This essay is about the final significant passage found in Jn. 12:31. John 12 tells the story of Jesus’ Entrance into Jerusalem (ie, Palm Sunday). Verse 31 itself is in the middle of a longer passage that is difficult to summarize, so I’ll quote the whole thing.

And Jesus answered them, “The hour has come for the Son of man to be glorified. [24] Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit. [25] He who loves his life loses it, and he who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life. [26] If any one serves me, he must follow me; and where I am, there shall my servant be also; if any one serves me, the Father will honor him. [27] “Now is my soul troubled. And what shall I say? `Father, save me from this hour’? No, for this purpose I have come to this hour. [28] Father, glorify thy name.” Then a voice came from heaven, “I have glorified it, and I will glorify it again.” [29] The crowd standing by heard it and said that it had thundered. Others said, “An angel has spoken to him.” [30] Jesus answered, “This voice has come for your sake, not for mine. [31] Now is the judgment of this world, now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; [32] and I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself.” [33] He said this to show by what death he was to die. [Jn 12:23-33]

Verse 31 itself is a rather odd sentence. It is three declaratives (essentially, stand-alone sentences) connected with the Greek equivalent of a semicolon. The three declarations are: “Now is the judgment of this world; now shall the ruler of this world be cast out; … I will draw all men to myself.”

“I will draw all men to myself” seems self-evident, in light of the New Testament as a whole. This is Jesus’ mission in the world. The second declaration is almost as obvious. The “leader of this world” is Satan and he will be (or is now) cast out of his role as ruler. Furthermore, these two declarations are interrelated. It is the Passion specifically (that begins with the Entrance into Jerusalem) that marks both the defeat of Satan and the glorification of the Son (as punctuated in the resurrection). That leaves the first declaration. What does Jesus mean when he says, “Now is the judgment of the world”?

If the Passion ties the second and third declarations together, it is likely that the Passion is also at the center of the first declaration about the judgment of the world. The words bring to mind Jn 1:10, “the world knew him not.” It is the cross that puts an exclamation point on this statement from Jn 1:10. The crowds celebrated the hot new Rabbi and Messiah-hopeful on Palm Sunday, but as soon as the tide began to turn, they were just as willing to shout “Crucify him!” as they were to cry out “Hosanna in the highest.” Hope is not the same as knowledge, and while the crowd clearly hoped for some theoretical salvation, they didn’t actually know Jesus as Christ and Son of God.

This is also our condition. I’ll offer a couple of examples. If we grew up in an American Evangelical church, chances are we invited Jesus into our hearts as children. (I did.) But how much of that decision had to do with wanting to please our parents, or peer pressure, or the seductive coerciveness of an altar call on a hot and humid summer night? An evangelical conversion experience is far more realistically one small step on a long journey than an absolutely life-transforming moment. (Of course there are exceptions to this. Saul of Tarsus, who, in one blinding moment became Paul, is the obvious example. But even Saul/Paul spent a couple years in the desert before becoming the Apostle, missionary, and author of much of the New Testament.) Similarly, for those who grew up in church without a specific identifiable moment of conversion, but rather simply grew into their faith, the profound implications of Jesus as the Son of God, the Christ (Messiah), and Lord of all who sits at the right hand of God, were not (and likely still are not) obvious. The path from initial recognition to full-blown faith and Christ-likeness is a long path.

One of the great challenges of familiarity with the faith is that we don’t know that we don’t know. We assume we know far more than we actually do. We even occasionally assume false things to be true. And that misplaced trust in familiarity instead of actual knowledge is a very dangerous confusion that Jesus addressed in Mt. 7:23f. “On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and coast out demons in your name, and do many might works in your name? And then will I declare to them, ‘I never knew you; depart from me, you evildoers.’”

This brings us to the role of judgment in every person’s life. Judgment (see the previous two essays) is not a declaration of what is to happen to me in the future, but rather a revealing of the way things are here and now. Every professor (ie, one who professes Christ) must, at some point be made aware of the way things really are, in contrast to the way they think things ought to be. The profound truth of the matter must be revealed. (Typically this happens many times in a lifetime, for we can only handle the truth in bits and pieces, little by little, over time.) And every time “the truth of the matter” is revealed to us, we must recommit to this new insight into the truth and consequent new way of living. And this can be extremely difficult because often we are shackled to cultural misperceptions that cause us to reject the truth.

We see this very dynamic in John 6 where Jesus offers a particularly difficult and profound teaching (ie, revelation of who who was). John tells us that “after this many of his disciples drew back and no longer went about with him” (v 66). The truth of the matter was revealed (ie, it was a moment of judgment) and the result was that many of his disciples (not tag-alongs, not interested followers, but disciples) no longer followed him.

It is this very dynamic that is so profoundly described in Jn 12:31. Judgment, the defeat of Satan, and Jesus drawing all men to himself … these three seemingly separate things … are in fact a single event. In our own lives and in the life of the church corporately over time, we know that it is a single event repeated over and over in the lives of disciples. Something new is revealed; the implications are made clear; the disciple is freed from his or her shackles, and in that moment the disciple must decide whether to continue on with Christ or draw back and no longer follow him.

If, as a believer, I take each of these moments seriously, then I am constantly judged in an ongoing manner. And if I step up and through each of these revelations/judgments, willingly letting go of my precious falsehoods and grasping on to the much harder truth of the matter, the Final Judgment is not that big of a deal, because the truth of Christ has already been truly revealed, and my own attitudes, actions, and conscience have also been revealed. I have been revealed to be a follower of Christ. Judgment is life. Judgment is the defeat of Satan. Judgment is my very salvation. At least that is the implication of Jn. 12:31.