When I look back on my early childhood images of God I realize that such notions as wrath and judgment really had little influence on my budding faith in the Creator. Perhaps it was my theologically protective parents who chose to emphasize the goodness of the One to whom I recited my simple prayers each night, or perhaps it was the Presbyterian Church where I spent my Sunday mornings contemplating a God who was sometimes indistinguishable from Santa Claus, or perhaps it simply boils down to my sheltered middle-class upbringing, but the first ten or so years of my life were entirely devoid of any conception of divine retribution.
Even in adolescence, when my periodic resolutions to read the entire New Testament resulted only in an intimate understanding of the first ten or so chapters of Matthew, I was still unlikely to use the words "divine" and "anger" in the same sentence. No, the Sermon on the Mount, which formed the core of my insights into the nature of God's relationship with the world, seemed to leave little room for such associations. Call it selective reading if you will, or perhaps it was just wishful thinking.
All of this changed, of course, when I ventured out beyond the comfortable confines of Gahanna, Ohio, and enrolled in college. I was in a new place, with different friends from varying backgrounds. It was my sophomore year when I was first introduced to the notion that the world can be easily divided into neat little groups of insiders and outsiders. The former – as this particular line of reasoning went – were those who could demonstrate the work of the Holy Spirit in their lives by speaking in tongues; the latter… well, God had plans for them. And it wasn't pretty. If there was any doubt on this score, there was an entire arsenal of Bible passages – the real zingers coming from the Old Testament – that could be enlisted to make the point. Scripture was clear: the apostate were sure to endure a terrible day of wrath, and you certainly didn't want to be on the business end of it:
... the sound of the day of the Lord is bitter. …a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and doom, a day of clouds and thick darkness, a day of trumpet blast and battle cry against the fortified cities and against the lofty battlements. I will bring such distress upon people that they shall walk like the blind; because they have sinned against the Lord, their blood shall be poured out like dust, and their flesh like dung (Zeph. 1:14-17).
If this doesn't send you running back into the welcoming arms of the Beatitudes I don't know what will. I never did catch on to tongues, so these images were frequently featured in my shame-filled, outsider's imagination.
After college I worked as a community volunteer in eastern Kentucky where they play the insider-outside game with even greater gusto. One afternoon while I was having lunch with some of my fellow workers I committed the unpardonable sin of suggesting that the theory of evolution is not necessarily incompatible with the doctrines of the Christian faith. In college, this kind of innocent salvo was usually a prelude to a fairly engaging discussion. But the Appalachian coal country was a far cry from college, apart from the familiar experience of having the wrath of God offered up to me as a certain consequence of my insolence in the face of biblical truth. The recipe was pretty much the same: one part spilled blood, two parts fire from heaven, mix thoroughly with wailing and gnashing of teeth, simmer eternally over high heat. Serves a wayward multitude.
Thankfully, twenty years hence, I've moved past this, and when I am asked to summarize succinctly the content of my faith I find myself once again at the very place I started: the Sermon on the Mount. But I still bristle every time I run across one of those painfully familiar scripture passages that are employed among the fear-mongers to keep the faithful in line. It's the stuff of emerging demagoguery on every college campus I've ever known, and it still somehow consoles the hearts of many in congregations where the last chapter of salvation history seems always to take center stage. And it's biblical.
Or is it? This is the question we have been considering in my Contemporary Theology course, especially with respect to the traditional interpretations of atonement. The most popular professed over the last several centuries, however – as any survey of church hymnody is likely to demonstrate – has been the penal substitution theory, which explains Jesus' death on the cross as a self-offering to God. Christ endures the punishment that is rightfully due to fallen humanity. Our reconciliation with God is thus a direct consequence of this perfect act of submission. God's wrath, so evident among the Hebrew prophets, is finally appeased.
This sounds so reasonable and matter-of-fact when it's on the lips of a true believer: "Christ died for my sins." "He bore the punishment that I deserve." "I was saved by his blood." But when this is paraded in front of a few bright and skeptical college students – and especially those who have heard this mantra one time too many – the response usually goes like this: "OK, so let me get this straight. Jesus' death on the cross saves you. But what I'm hearing you say is that it saves you from God. I'll pass on that silliness, thank you very much."
Other objections can be raised against the belief that reconciliation takes place when God's anger is somehow mollified through the spilling of blood, as if redemption can only be achieved through some heinous act of violence. This emphasis seems simply to turn God into a celestial version of John Brown.
One of the books we have been using in our course – Recovering the Scandal of the Cross: Atonement in New Testament and Contemporary Contexts, by Joel B. Greene and Mark D. Baker – has been very helpful in unpacking the biblical foundations for the atonement theories that have been advanced over the last two thousand years. It is particularly critical of penal substitution, primarily for the reasons I have just described. I am most grateful, however, for how the authors have isolated passages of scripture so that we can hear them again in their original socio-historical context. One result of our careful reading of this text has been a renewed understanding of how God relates to a fallen world. I now see "divine anger" in an entirely new light -- I call it "wrath of God 2.0."
The idea is Pauline and deceptively simple, but it has afforded me a kind of release from some of those old fears that still linger in my mind in times of weakness. I am still vulnerable to my trepidations about somehow provoking the anger of God with my bad choices. But Green and Baker offer me some breathing room.
To put it pointedly, here [Rom. 1:18ff] Paul has nothing to do with an emotion-laden God who strikes out in frustration or vengeance against we who are implicated in sin. Sinful activity is the result of God letting us go our own way – and this "letting us go our own way" constitutes God's wrath. In Paul's own words, the wrath of God is revealed in God giving humanity over to their lusts, over to their degrading passions and over to their debasement of mind…. Our sinful acts do not invite God's wrath but prove that God's wrath is already active (emphasis in original, p. 55).
I know this is counter-intuitive, especially for those of us who have been victimized by the threats of hell-fire and brimstone as just retribution for our wicked ways. But if what Green and Baker are suggesting is correct – and I want to believe it is based on my intimations of the divine and their expertise as scholars – then this changes everything.
Welcome to version 2.0.
God's wrath has long been misunderstood as a consequence when all along it has been a condition. It's not a response to human sin, not vengeance called down by our wicked ways. Rather, it's the refusal to acknowledge the original grace by which we were created and are redeemed. It is an existential choice of darkness in the face of light, and it is made all the more disruptive by the fact that we perceive it as coming from without instead of from within. We are all the more likely, then, to bury our talents deep in the ground, where no one can find them, believing with every fiber of our being that God is a harsh master, reaping where he does not sow, and gathering where no seed has been scattered (Matt. 25: 24b). This overwhelming fear of divine consequences only further attests to our sinful condition, to our ingratitude in the abiding presence of grace.
Adopting this perspective is the only way I can come to terms with what appear to be very harsh words in the conclusion of Jesus' Parable of the Talents. Now, I read it like this:
For to all those who have (i.e., to all those who affirm the goodness of God as foundational to their lives), more will be given, and they will have an abundance; but from those who have nothing (i.e., those whose human calling is stifled by the fear of God's wrath, an unfortunate attribute of their sinful condition), even what they have will be taken away. As for the worthless slave, he is already living in the outer darkness amidst his own weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Like many, I have suffered long under the original version of the wrath of God, but I find that it is no longer compatible with my operating system. Thank goodness Joel B. Green and Mark D. Baker have furnished us all with an attractive and worthwhile upgrade. I'm still trying to work out some of the bugs of course, but all indications seem to suggest that I'm going to be an enthsiastic advocate of 2.0.