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.

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The Story of King Midas and The Gospel of Mark

After studying Tuomo Mannermaa and Galatians and Romans for the last couple of months I needed to get away from that particular narrow slice of Christian theology and focus on something else. I decided to turn my attention to the Gospel according to Mark (the oldest of the four gospels).

I was immediately struck by the fact that Jesus (you know, “fully human and fully God”) had no problem rubbing shoulders with sin and debauchery.

There is a theory promoted by numerous systematic theologies over the centuries (but most closely associated with Anselm, if you want a good historical reference point) that God’s holiness is of such a character that it cannot stand to be around sin and debauchery. If you only read the Old Testament an excellent case can be made for this theory.

Growing out of this theory of holiness is the idea that Jesus had to become human and die a brutal and horrible death in order to assuage the anger (or wrath) of God toward sin and evil. In short, God was really angry, he took it all out on Jesus, the result is that now Holy God can invite us into his presence as long as we accept what Jesus did on our behalf.

Reading through Mark’s Gospel, the idea kept coming to my mind that this picture of God is completely wrong because Jesus (who is fully God) had no problem rubbing shoulders with sin and debauchery. While not said explicitly, the implication is clear: The problem in this relationship is not on the divine side, it’s on the human side.

In both ancient Christian theology and contemporary Eastern Christian theology it is commonplace to say that love and judgment (or righteousness and wrath, to use Paul’s terminology) are essentially the same thing. Divine love is a consuming fire, and if we are not pure and were to attempt to approach God’s essence, that burning divine love would consume all that is not pure, which is pretty much all of our being. Thus, we experience divine love as wrath and judgment in much the same way a straw bale experiences a warm and merry hearth fire as a holocaust.

Imagine the “fully human” part of Jesus Christ functions as a very special permeable material that allows what we might call the “love” portion of holiness through while turning back what we might call the “consuming fire” portion of holiness. Thus in Jesus, who is fully God and fully human, the sinners of all sorts (Pharisees and prostitutes, Scribes and tax collectors) could approach and touch Fully-God-Jesus without getting consumed and destroyed by the fire of holiness.

In the ancient Greek myth, King Midas was given the gift/curse of being able to turn stuff to gold. Everything he touched (loved ones, food, etc.) turned to solid gold. But what if Midas had a special glove that did not turn to gold when he put it on that allowed him to touch that which he truly loved and desired without immediately and destructively purifying those loved ones into gold?

That’s the incarnation! Jesus’ humanity is that glove that allows God to come and rub shoulders and be with those he truly loves (Pharisees and prostitutes, Scribes and tax collectors). But because the burning brightness of holiness is veiled (i.e., gloved, but not absent), we are not immediately destroyed in the loving divine embrace.

That is the Good News of Mark in a nutshell (or in this case, a glove)! Thanks be to God.

No Fear in Love

Over the past few days I’ve been reviewing how the word “fear” (Greek  phobos) is used in the New Testament to make sure my memory about it was correct. The reason for this exercise was because I’ve heard a couple of people use 1 Jn 4:18 (“There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear.”) as a proof text for condemning the current fear of Muslims that is so prevalent in the U.S. What I discovered is that while my memory was correct, I had forgotten how profound a reversal this verse (along with Paul in Romans 8) offers up.

Fearing God is normative. It is a major theme in the incarnation story. To offer one example, when the birth of John the Baptist was foretold to Zacharias, “fear fell upon him” (Lk 1:12). It is also a big part of Jesus’ life. The disciples were seized with fear after Jesus calmed the sea (Mk 4:41). After another miracle, “Fear seized them all; and they glorified God, saying, ‘A great prophet has arisen among us!’” (Lk 7:16). Notice that in this instance – and this is a common theme in the Gospels – a natural response to fear is to worship God. The two seem to go hand in hand.

This connection between fear and God continues right into the Church age. For the Church, fear of God is a tool of discipline. “As for those who persist in sin, rebuke them in the presence of all, so that the rest may stand in fear” (1 Tim. 5:20 RSV). That pattern began (in Luke’s telling of the story, anyway) with the judgment of Annanias and Saphira. After they died, “great fear came upon the whole church, and upon all who heard of these things” (Acts 5:11).

In short, fear (phobos, powerful fear; possibly a better translation would be “terror”) is our normative relation to God. And this makes sense. He is our Creator and Sustainer. God is holy. Anyone who sees God will certainly die, according to the Old Testament, because sin cannot look upon such holiness. As sinful people it would be unnatural and wrong for us not to be terrified of our Creator and Sustainer in our state of being controlled by sin and death.

It is into this context that both Paul and John turn fear on its head.

For you did not receive the spirit of slavery to fall back into fear, but you have received the spirit of sonship. When we cry, “Abba! Father!” it is the Spirit himself bearing witness with our spirit that we are children of God, and if children, then heirs, heirs of God and fellow heirs with Christ, provided we suffer with him in order that we may also be glorified with him. (Rom 8:15ff)

John takes Paul’s sentiment to a more profound level in 1 John. “God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them.” This verse is a restatement of one of the great truths of John (that stretches across the Gospel, the Epistles, and the Apocalypse). Just as there is a coninherence between the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit that is at the very heart of the life of the Holy Trinity, so there is a potential coinherence between God and the believer that can be completed through love. As God dwells in us and as we accept his transformation within us, we begin to dwell in God. This action of each dwelling in the other results in true unity not just a familial connection. This is the very thing the first epistle says in 4:16. This “cause” has an “effect” found in the next verse. “Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment.”

Judgment should instill fear in us. No one wants to go before the judge. But as we enter into unity with Christ, a miracle occurs and fear is driven out by divine boldness. Even though God is our Creator, Ruler, and Judge, true believers can approach the judgment seat with boldnesss. This is the point of v. 18. “There is no fear [of judgment] in love, but perfect [or complete – the Greek word is telios] love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection [telios] in love.

I have great sympathy for the contention that we should be far more afraid of our own fear than we should be of the terrorists. As Churchill famously said, “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” But don’t drag 1 Jn 4:18 into this particular argument, this verse has very specifically to do with our relationship to God, and how, as we enter into union with God and God’s love flows directly into our deep heart to deify it, the normative fear that we have of God is banished by a bold, living love. Thanks be to God.