The Loss of Awareness of God's Wrath and the ironic resultant loss of gratitude

This is a repost from September 2007. Since reading NT Wright’s book on Justification and continuing my study in Revelation for our adult Sunday School class I’ve got more thoughts God’s wrath, and I might tweek some of my statements in this post, but I’ll let it stand for now. It also has a section that is a bit ranty. Rants are fun while you’re doing them but sometimes don’t wear well after the emotional rush is gone.

In terms of projects I think doing some thinking and cultural/biblical translation of the idea of God’s wrath is greatly needed for our churches today. Just yelling about “God’s wrath” in church doesn’t help. Ignoring this massive theme in the Bible or writing it off as “unenlightened, archaic, outdated” doesn’t honor Scripture and simply expresses our own form of cultural provincialism. More work needs to be done in this area.

Here is the repost. I think I originally posted it on CRC-Voices.

A Chimes protest on re-working “In Christ Alone” at Mars Hill Church in GR

The notion of God’s wrath has become unintelligible to our contemporary culture. Willimon in one of the sermons on the CTS CEP archive summarizes Harold Bloom’s assessment of American Religion that “God loves us and is just dying to get close to us.” Christian Smith calls it moralistic, therapeutic deism. God has a cosmic therapist/butler. This is striking because if you do a survey of ancient religious belief the assumption of God’s rather and the need of its satisfaction is near universal. Even in MesoAmerican recent archeological discoveries sees human sacrifice as an attempt to keep the wrath of the gods from destroying their civilizations. Many of us read the Old Testament in horror. “I just can’t buy a god who kills people, orders genocide, etc.”

Why has it gone out of fashion?

Modern psychological critique of guilt and religion. All those ancient societies lived in fear of the gods due to their mythologizing the cosmos. God is fear writ large. Now that we are so much smarter than the ancients we know that hurricanes don’t hit because the gods are upset with us, its all just weather patterns. Continued cultural advancement of pantheism and panentheism. How can God be angry with itself? If you see evil you fail to understand or see through the illusion. Use the force Luke! The success of evangelicalism. “The wrath of God is satisfied.” Join the church, tithe, watch your ten commandments, love Jesus, you’ll be fine.”

Is this a bad thing? If the wrath of God has been satisfied why should we worry about it. Do we fret about small pox now that it has been eradicated?  If evangelicals respond: “Only people in good standing in church live in the satisfaction zone. All other are still vulnerable to God’s wrath” the world will cry “foul! Intolerance! Sectarianism!” They’re not buying that just like their not buying the wrath business. Are we fretting that we’re going to miss out on being gods over our very own planets and preparing having spirit babies for them with our dozens of wives? Deciding first to teach wrath so you can then teach the solution to wrath doesn’t seem promising. That perhaps is Mars Hill’s point, right or wrong.  Should the loss of consciousness of God’s wrath be something to be mourned?

I hear in the voices of some the desire to resurrect a consciousness of God’s wrath to motivate morality and church attendance. “If they’re scared of God’s wrath they’ll seek the solution.” The scared straight approach.  What is also interesting is that while God’s wrath has been forgotten we have elevated God’s responsibility for the mess of this world while both denying our responsibility AND assuming that God is impotent or uninvolved in actual events beyond giving us feelings of peace and meaning. Notice the following:

We can’t believe in God because of pain and suffering in this world OR we’re angry with God over pain and suffering in this world. In my experience people seem to do both of these quite easily and simultaneously without noticing the inconsistency. I’ve had numerous people tell me both at once. We expect that if God existed or if God is good he would fix everything down here to our liking straight away or have prevented the world of pain and suffering we currently see. We are unbelieving or dissatisfied BECAUSE God is not demonstrating any sort of intervention we believe is justified and currently demand. If in fact God would intervene we imagine that he would intervene by stopping OTHER bad people. He would certainly not get involved against us in any way. If he did so we would certainly protest that he has overstepped his bounds and violated our rights by meddling in what we have decide are private or personal matters. “My money, my body, my time are my affairs. Stay out!” This is because we of course believe that we are not doing anything that needs to be stopped.

This is a ironic state of affairs actually. Let’s imagine we’re praying to end poverty in the world. Let’s imagine God opened the clouds and simply took away 80% of our assets and redistributed them to the poor of the world. I think we’d simply complain that God is unfair and he should have left well enough alone. YET we’re disbelieving in this God BECAUSE he fails to intervene and we decide he is not either powerful or not good. When in the Bible we do have stories of God actually intervening we imagine that either these stories are bunk written by the types of primitives who did all those silly things like human sacrifice. We have obviously outgrown this type of thinking. God wouldn’t do something like that BUT we’re still disbelieving and angry because we think he should be angry at the state of the world today AND he doesn’t intervene.

What should this teach us about ourselves? We believe that serious sin and real evil are things that other people do. GK Chesterton summarized it quite nicely. “Men do not differ much about what things they will call evils; they differ enormously about what evils they will call excusable.”

Now apply Pascal’s wager. If God’s wrath is not real but you believe it is, what is the downside? Compare that to the situation if God’s wrath is real but you believe it isn’t. Our society wagers that any democratic sense on the subject must be wrong. Most cultures have assumed the wrath of God or the gods. We simply believe they are all wrong.

I’m not one to promote the scared-straight approach to God’s wrath. I don’t think fear produces goodness or shalom, I think it only really sometimes produces short term compliance. What is lost by the loss of the sense of God’s wrath? Ironically it is happiness.  Gratitude is the surest stimulant to happiness and joy. Happiness, joy and freedom come when we see ourselves as being blessed.

Read the Sermon on the Mount. We have by asserting our own righteousness (and God’s unrighteousness or non-existence) AND our dissatisfaction with the world AND God’s responsibility for the current state of affairs placed ourselves in a position where we cannot feel much gratitude at all. We are both more moral and more wise than God BUT every attempt to actually be God and fix the world fails.  Look at the two sons in Luke 15. One knows himself to have been the cause of much ruin in the father’s household. The Father’s wrath is clearly justifiable. When instead he receives the Father’s mercy what does he experience? The older son ironically is angry because he thinks his father is not as wrathful as he should be AGAINST his brother. In his mind the Father is the problem. He knows no gratitude. He knows no joy.

About PaulVK

Husband, Father of 5, Pastor
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