Repentance (Reflections from a Funeral)

I went to a funeral of the parent of an acquaintance this week. My acquaintance is that flavor of Baptist that is very knowledgeable about the Bible, can slip his faith or God’s blessing into every conversation almost without fail (ie, “witnessing”), and has a very specific and narrow meaning of being a Christian and what’s required to go to heaven. By his standards, his father did not make the cut, and so the funeral was a bitter-sweet event.

The funeral itself had a distinct emphasis on the need for repentance along with a large dose of “we don’t know the hour of our death.” There was urgency in the service (including a couple verses of the hymn, “Just As I Am”). Fortunately there were no direct aspersions cast on the deceased. Instead there was a focus on using our time wisely while still on earth. (That is, by implication, taking the time to accept Jesus as our Savior.)

I’ve been away from Fundamentalism for a long time, and as a result, it didn’t occur to me that all my talk about repentance in recent essays might be put into this conservative evangelical context by my readers. When it comes to how we understand repentance, context is everything.

Orthodoxy begins with a belief in a generous God. God is for us (the affirmation at the heart of Paul’s rhetorical question in Rom 8:31, “If God is for us, who can be against us?”). God is doing everything in his power to help us freely choose him. Orthodoxy moves from the foundation of a generous God to framework of joy. The eucharist is the joyful feast and every week we enter into the joy of God’s presence.

Repentance is also a very big deal. Our understanding of the human side of salvation is structured around repentance. But because Orthodoxy begins with a generous God and the framework is joy, repentance is often called “the joyful sorrow.” We are sorrowful for our own sin and willfulness; we are sorrowful for the corruption of the world, but it is a sorrow that set in the context of the endless joy of the kingdom. The sorrow comes because we know we’re missing out on the fullness of what might be because of our sin.

Fundamentalism begins, not with a generous God, but with a holy God. Furthermore, divine holiness is understood in a particular way. According to this tradition, holiness is such that it cannot abide the presence of that which is not holy. It is a holiness that seems fragile because it can be sullied  by the presence of sin. God can have fellowship with humans only because our sin is hidden by Jesus Christ. When God looks on us, he does not see our transgressions, but only Christ’s holiness. This is why God can bear to be around us.

There is a great deal of joy within fundamentalism, but there is also a great deal of fear. Because everything starts and ends with this particular view of holiness, one must worry a great deal about unrighteousness. Judgment can never be too far away from unrighteousness because can’t bear to be in the presence of that unrighteousness.

It is hard to state how different this is from Orthodoxy. Fr. Sophrony was once asked if he believed that unbelievers would ultimately go to hell. His startling answer was, “I don’t know, but what I do know is that if anyone is in hell, Jesus Christ is with them.

Orthodoxy also has a very strong emphasis on the holiness of God. I would argue that it has a far deeper sense of divine holiness than fundamentalism. But God’s holiness is not fragile as it is conceived in fundamentalism. It is a holiness that gladly veils itself so that it can be in the company of sinners such as prostitutes and tax collectors. Of course Jesus, who embodied this sort of holiness, got into a lot trouble with the religious establishment (who had a view of holiness not unlike my friend’s view).

In this traditional view, holiness is frequently compared to fire. Fire doesn’t mind being in the presence of wood, it is wood that has a problem with being in the presence of fire because the fire will consume the wood. Repentance is the process of getting rid of the wood so that only the precious metal remains. Judgment does not destroy me, it only destroys the wood. But if I am in love with wood of my life, if I confuse the wood for the precious metal, when I enter into God’s presence it feels like I am being destroyed. Judgment is strictly a purification.

And this brings me back to the funeral, and funerals in general. I did not know the deceased and so I have no sense of who he was as a person. I do believe in hell, but my conception of it has changed dramatically from my fundamentalist days. I do not believe God sends anyone to hell. Those who go there do it by their own choice; they prefer the wood over the precious metal. Being absorbed by self and antagonistic to God, they would prefer an eternity in misery, holding on to the eternally burning wood of their false being.

Quite frankly, I have little sense of any other person’s eternal destiny. Some of the most wonderful people I have known have turned out to be truly terrible people. “Holy fools” are famous for being obnoxious people who are actually holy underneath the scabs of their humanity. The funeral is not, or at least should not be, a celebration of a person’s eternal destiny. It is, rather a celebration of Jesus Christ who is the Life of the World, the One who trampled Death by death and led the captives from the grave, the eternal Flame of God who burns away the wood of our false being so that all that remains is the precious metal of what God created and intended in the first place.

There is a “Where’s Waldo” sensibility to a proper funeral. Funerals are at the same time terrible and joyous. They are terrible because a dead person is laying there in our midst. They are terrible because funerals are inevitably a reminder of just how disastrous the corruption of the world truly is. But in the midst of this is the joy of Christ. Those who have eyes to see can find the life-giving Christ in any situation, even death. Funerals are an exercise in finding and focusing on the giver of Life and Light in the midst of death and despair. Whether the dead guy is a holy monk or a backslidden Methodist, the funeral is the same. It doesn’t revolve around the dead person; it revolves around Jesus Christ.

If I were in my friend’s shoes, how would I think about this guy in the coffin who apparently never repented. That’s not my problem. Every moment I am focused on someone else’s repentance is a moment I am ignoring my own repentance. This doesn’t mean that we should not spur each other toward love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24). But after death, it is actually a holy discipline to focus on the reality that God is a generous God. All things work together for good to those who love God (Rom. 8:28). Tallying up the sins and lack of repentance of the dead guy in the casket is in truth a subtle way of avoiding the state of our own soul, or comparing my seeming goodness to the other person’s seeming badness (instead of God’s goodness) and thus coming out looking good.

God is generous and good. The kingdom is preeminently a place of joy. Don’t let anyone, even your loved ones, steal that reality from you. Even in the darkest moment, the good God, living, loving fire of Christ’s presence can be found for those with the eyes to see it. Amen.


A Lectionary Reflection: The Mysterious Case of the Missing Judgement

I haven’t pondered the lectionary readings for a spell. The texts for July 9 are striking because (1) they are about judgment very broadly understood, and (2) the topic of judgment has been stripped out of the readings. Judgment is a subject we are very uncomfortable with.

I propose we are uncomfortable with it because people judge in a facile and thoughtless manner; we have trivialized judgment and thus made it obscene. Matthew 11:16-19 illustrates: John the Baptist, an ascetic, came along and people said, he’s too strict, “he has a demon.” Jesus followed. While not a libertine, he was far more lax about dietary rules than the religious leaders, and people said, “Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!”

The bottom line is that the average person rejected both their messages, because both involved a fundamental change of life. But rather than simply rejecting or ignoring the message, they used a form of judgment that condemned John and Jesus. In this manner they were able, not only to ignore the message of repentance, but justify their doing so.

This should sound familiar, because this is the most common form of moral outrage we hear today. Rather than engage the other person’s ideas, we tend to respond with an emotional burst that we manage to justify by adding a moral component.

The result is that we cover our failures and wounds of corruption with a salve of moral outrage, expressed as judgment, and rarely get around to doing the hard work of changing the things that need to be changed in our own lives (in contrast to demanding change in others’ lives). The former is true repentance; the latter is obscene judgment.

The lectionary leaves out Mat. 11:20-24 and jumps to v. 25. It is the condemnation of the cities that didn’t accept Jesus’ message, Chorazin and Bethsaida. The actual point of this text (a point which has been completely gutted by the lectionary) is that authentic judgment will happen one way or the other. We can judge ourselves (that is, repent of our own corruption instead of judging others), or we can put that off (as the people did to John and Jesus) and be judged by a far more terrible judgment when that corruption that exists within us finally eats us up completely and destroys us.

Jesus ends the text with the familiar, “Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Mat 11:28-30).

The action here is not only getting rid of our burden, but replacing it with Christ’s yoke, the burden that was originally designed for us. This latter burden, Christ’s yoke, is “light” because it is designed as something that, while heavy and hard, is life-giving. The other burden of our own making is life-destroying. Using different language, a different metaphor of burdens and harnesses, Jesus is saying the same thing as when he spoke about judgment.

That process of judgment which does not examine the self but demands change in others is actually a terrible burden. We know deep down that we are truly wretched creatures (see the Epistle reading, Rom. 7:15-25, Paul’s mournful cry of powerlessness to change). Psychologically speaking, this secret knowledge of self that we try to deny by pointing at others will destroy us by manifesting itself as anger, despair, addictions, psychosis, heart problems, and ultimately, death. Jesus simply calls it a burden.

So the choice is ours. We can keep busy judging others for their failures, or we can enter into the very difficult work of judging ourselves (of removing of our burden) and changing our way of life and thinking pattern (putting on Christ’s yoke, or harness). One way will inevitably lead to the fruition of all the corruption that is within us – unbearable judgment, or if we do the hard task of judging ourselves, the other way will lead to life and fruitfulness.

I will finish with a popular internet meme featuring psychologist and professor Jordan B. Peterson. He rails against those who are busy trying to fix the world. Even though he approaches it from a clinical psychological perspective rather than a biblical perspective, his reasoning should now sound familiar. Such people are avoiding the hard work of fixing themselves by changing the subject and fixing others. “But how do we then improve the world?” ask the world-improvers accusingly. Peterson’s now famous answer is, “Clean your room!” (Remember, he’s a professor and his primary audience is college kids.)

Changing the world must necessarily start with changing yourself.  Any other way will ultimately lead to judgment, or chaos, or societal breakdown, or however you want to describe it. So here’s the challenge. We can follow the august example of the people who brought us the Revised Common Lectionary, and pretend that this ultimate judgment (that will ultimately come back and bite us if we don’t judge and fix ourselves) does not exist, or at least is so unimportant that we can skip over it and ignore it, or we can “clean our rooms” and our lives. As daunting as the latter option sounds, it’s actually a light burden compared to the former option. Jesus promised us this was so. Amen.

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.

+ + + + + + +

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.