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.

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.

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.

God, Salvation, and Word Pictures

Reading the Daily Common Lectionary, which is going through Hebrews at the moment, I am reminded that there are different metaphors for salvation, and those metaphors are not necessarily compatible with each other. If the metaphors are taken too literally or too far it will appear that there are contradictions within scripture. The four big salvation metaphors are slavery and freedom (based on Israel’s escape out of Egypt), the temple and the sacrificial system (based on the Law given to Moses after the escape from Egypt), the banquet and the invitation of unworthy people to the banquet (one of Jesus’ favorite metaphors, at least according to John), and the legal system (Paul’s favorite metaphor).

God is unknowable to us in a manner similar that human culture and pathos is unknowable to an ant. But God takes things that are within our experience and that we can understand (systems of sacrifice, big banquets, the court system, jails, and fines, etc.) and says, “I am like this,” or “The reasons for my actions are similar to this.” But I suspect we forget that God’s relation to us is ultimately beyond our understanding and that the only way to get a handle on God’s actions is to speak of it in metaphorical terms. Heaven won’t literally be a big banquet hall where we will eat forever and ever, but it is a helpful image that offers a counterpoint to our getting kicked out of the Garden where food was both easy and always available.

Growing out of the idea of metaphor or analogy is a second principle in talking about God called apophatic language. The essence of apophatic thinking is to say what God is not, rather than what God is. A simple and hopefully obvious example, since we began with my reading of Hebrews and the metaphor of the sacrificial system is to start with a metaphorical statement, “Jesus Christ is the Lamb of God,” and then add an apophatic clarification, “But Jesus is not a lamb,” or “Jesus had skin, not wool.” Or, as I wrote in the previous paragraph, “Heaven won’t literally be a big banquet.” That’s an apophatic clarification.

Once we understand metaphorical language, then we begin to realize that the whole sacrificial system in the Old Testament is a gigantic metaphor about God and humans. Even the ancient Jews understood this: “Has the Lord as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the Lord? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams” (1 Sam 15:22).

The origins of sacrifice have been lost beyond the time horizon. Granted, God “made garments of skins for the man and for his wife, and clothed them” (Gen 3:21). This is often called the first sacrifice and is considered a pointer toward Jesus Christ’s death on the cross, but in truth that is speculation. The text actually says nothing about sacrifice. What we do know is that God used practices common to humans and then revealed glimpses of his true self by redefining those common practices and giving them new meaning.

Anthropology has shown us that sacrifice, for ancient cultures, was a way of appeasing and manipulating the gods who were either angry or non-cooperative. It was an attempt to gain some small amount of control in a capricious and dangerous natural world. Some of that same sensibility is present in the Old Testament system. Appeasement is certainly a big part and is at the root of the theological arc that we might call the “wrath of God.”

Going back to our original exploration of analogic and apophatic theology, the question of divine wrath must be explored. Is wrath actually a divine attribute, a dark side to the attribute of holiness? Or is divine wrath actually a metaphorical description of the distance between Almighty God and his human creatures? And if that’s the case, must we put wrath into the context of other things God has revealed about himself and say, “God is not literally full of wrath (ie, an apophatic statement); making wrath an attribute takes the metaphor beyond its reasonable conclusion. Making wrath a metaphor (in contrast to an attribute) gives the distance between God and us a great deal of emotional punch.

No doubt it’s obvious by now that I fall into the camp that believes the idea of the wrath of God is a helpful metaphor, but metaphorical none the less. Not all interpreters take this same position. But I hope this essay helps us move beyond the idea that to reject divine wrath as an attribute of God is to somehow reject or deny scripture. It is rather an attempt to allow scripture to mean what it wants to mean rather than to force what we want scripture to mean on to the text.

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

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

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

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

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

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