The Wrath of God
Fr. Thomas Hopko · October 6, 2009
Fr. Tom Hopko addresses an issue that he gets the most email about - how are we to understand the wrath of God and how does it relate to our salvation?
I have received many emails that have to do with the talks I am doing here on Ancient Faith Radio. I’m glad, very glad, to receive them. I try to consider the questions and the comments that people make, the criticisms, of course, corrections. I also have to say that I am not able, obviously, to answer them all. What I try to do is keep some of them in mind, so that, you know, I could speak a little bit more on those disputed questions, disputed issues, controversial issues in these radio talks. One of the points of disputation that has come up, and I’ve been asked by some people directly perhaps to comment on this issue, and that has to do with the issue of “The Wrath of God.” And the questions arose particularly in relationship to the Crucifixion of Christ, and why it is that the Crucifixion of Christ ransoms us. Why is it an expiation for our sin? Why is it that when Christ is crucified, we are made one with God? Why is it that we are reconciled to God through the Crucifixion of His Son? Why is it that the Cross is said to be a ransom, a buying back with the language of purchase, that we are purchased from our state of cursedness, sinfulness, and mortality being dead by the Blood of Christ, bought by the Blood of Christ?
And one of the questions that emerges is that some folks think that the reason why Christ’s Crucifixion and death on a Cross is an expiation, propitiation, ransom, buying back, redemption, redeeming, making things right, is because God pours out upon Him all His wrath—the wrath that is due to all of us sinners, and there is no one who is righteous, no not one. Jews, Gentiles, we’re all sold under sin. We’re all caught by the devil, and we’re all sold and wedded unto death. But somehow God is angry against us because of all our sins, and then He vents His anger on His Son, Jesus, in the sense that he even punishes Him for all the punishment that we should get for our sins. And therefore enduring this painful punishment, this divine retribution, somehow God’s law is fulfilled because the punishment is paid, and Jesus pays the punishment, and then God, somehow, can let us go. He can let us off. He can remit our debts that we owe him, the debt of punishment. And I’ve been saying, and I’ll say it again til I die most likely…I think, unless my mind can be changed on this. That’s not the proper way to understand that, that it does not have to do with God needing to punish us, that God’s wrath does not come away from us. It’s not removed because He punishes His Son sufficiently so that His wrath can be removed. In fact, I always argue, and will continue to argue, in fact, I’ll do it right now, that the wrath of God is removed from us through Jesus and when we believe in Christ and accept Him as our Savior, we are reconciled with God and the wrath of God is indeed removed from us, but it’s removed from us because of the righteousness of Jesus. The wrath of God is against unrighteousness. The wrath of God is against sin. The wrath of God is against rebellion. The wrath of God is against lack of gratitude to God for what he does to us. The wrath of God is because we forsake and forget God, and we go after idols and we worship idols, and therefore that wrath of God is upon us.
But Jesus doesn’t do that. He is totally, completely, absolutely, obedient to God, His Father. He comes into the world to take on the sin of the world. And as St. Paul says “even to become sin.” To put himself in the place of us sinners, and then being with us in our sin, even becoming sin for us, cause everyone who hangs upon the tree of the Cross is sin, its curse. He endures all the sins of the world; all of our sins crucify Him. God puts upon Him as it says in the Yahweh Servant Hymns: “the iniquities of us all.” And all of our iniquities are put upon Him. And every time we sin, we put another iniquity against him. We put another nail in the cross so to speak, but He endures that all in complete and total innocence, complete and total righteousness, complete and total obedience to God. He doesn’t sin in even the smallest way, and He remains completely obedient to God. God forsakes Him so to speak in the line of the psalm. He has to endure the situation of forsakeness by God, but He does not forsake God. He says to God, His Father: “Into your hands I commit my Spirit.” He says to Him: “Your will be done, not my will.”
And so He absorbs in His flesh in His body on the tree of the Cross, all of the sins humankind against God and against each other, and He expiates them. He purges them out by His righteousness, not by His being punished, but by His righteousness. And therefore when he is so completely and totally righteous, where He is loving God, His Father, with all His mind, soul, heart, and strength, He’s loving all of humankind, all his neighbors, including the enemies, including those who are beating Him, spitting upon Him, reviling Him, ridiculing Him, and nailing Him to the Cross, putting a spear into His side. He says: “Father forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing. They’re caught up in all this darkness. They’re treating me like some kind of scapegoat, pushing me outside the walls of the city, even somehow thinking that if one man dies for the people, then all the people will now be saved from the power of the Romans or something like that.” It’s all madness, but Jesus doesn’t sin. Jesus remains totally, completely faithful to God.
As it says in the Letter of Peter in the New Testament: “He trusted Him who judges justly.” And even in the Letter to the Romans, you have this genitive of faith where it could be translated that we are made righteous by faith of Christ or faith in Christ. But even the faith of Christ, Jesus’ own trusting to God, trusting that God would vindicate him, but the big point—He doesn’t sin at all. He does no evil. Therefore, the wrath of God cannot be upon Him. There’s no way that the wrath of God can be upon Him. The wrath that is upon all the sinners and all the unrighteous, He takes upon Himself, and when he takes upon Himself the wrath that is due to all the rest of us—all the Jews, all the Gentiles, everyone who has lived, “there is no one righteous, no not one,” as it says in the Letter to the Romans, quoting of course the Old Testament Scripture. Then, the wrath of God is assuaged. There is no wrath against Him. God puts Him in the position of the wrath. He puts Him in the position of the sinner, but God’s wrath is not against Him. And because of that, that’s the paradox.
That’s the most amazing thing because Jesus undergoes that, and it’s even the will of God that he would undergo that. The most amazing thing is that it is the will of God that Jesus would endure all the wrath of God, so that the wrath of God would be removed from all the rest of us sinners. That’s the logic there. That’s the theo-logic of it. So when we think of the wrath of God, relative to the Crucifixion of Christ, then His atoning— and by the way atoning in the sense of paying the price by being punished, that’s not a biblical category at all. In fact the term atone doesn’t even exist in the Bible. That’s a later thing developed in theology. Yeah, you can say that we are made one with God. It’s an AT-ONE-MENT, atonement in that sense, but is not an atoning in the sense that is paying the punish so that God can now let us off according to some kind of law.
In fact according to the apostle Paul and all of the Holy Fathers and Mothers of Orthodox Christian history, some of the Fathers are pretty bold in what they say about this, he says: “If you think of God’s justice as some kind of a human law, you’re way off the track.” That’s not how God acts and the Law of God in Holy Scripture is not some sort of a law of the Roman Empires or something like that. It’s a law that has to do with the reality of things. It’s an ontological not a forensic category so to speak in fancy language. It’s not juridical. It’s metaphysical. And then St. Basil will even say: “If you think of God in terms of justice,” like that he gives to us justice, then Basil would say, like virtually all of the Holy Fathers would say “then according to strict justice we should all go to Hell.” According to strict justice, we have no life in us. If we would be saved and come alive by keeping of the law, no one of us would be saved. So if you go strictly speaking by law, so to speak, by the law even in its human form, retributive justice, no one could pay it.
Now of course, St. Anselm of Canterbury in the West, he tried to get out of that one by saying: “No, no. We’ve got to have retributive justice. We’ve got to be punished sufficiently, and since we have offended God and sinned against God then none of us can pay. So God so loves the world,” and don’t forget in Anselm it is love, it is still love, “so much that He sends His Son to get punished.” That’s the paradox in Anselm: He loves the world so much that He sends His Son to get punished. Since the Son is divine, since the Son is God from God, Light from Light, when he pays the punishment then it’s a sufficient punishment. Because the punishment has to equal the crime, the crime is against God, so you have to have a punishment that’s equal to a crime that’s committed against God. But only God can pay that kind of a punishment, because a human being can’t pay it. He interprets all the lines in the Bible about: “Can man ransom himself from Sheol? Can man deliver himself? Can man save himself?” The answer is NO. He can only be saved by God. So God so loves the world that He sends His only begotten Son to punish Him in our place, and then God can legally let us off. Because the law in that sense has been fulfilled because the punishment has been paid.
Now our Holy Fathers, I would say virtually all of them—Gregory the Theologian, Basil the Great, Leo the Great in Rome, even—says that this is not what the payment of the price means. Leo the Great would say that He pays the price to our condition, and our condition is cursed, sinful, and dead. So he’s got to ransom us from that condition. How can he ransom us? Only by being perfectly righteous. Gregory the Theologian says: “Did he have to really pay some kind of penalty to God?” and Gregory says: “Fie upon the outrage!” in the old translation. He says: “You know God was testing Abraham, and he would not let him sacrifice his own son.”
Even the Psalms will say, God is not even satisfied with the blood of goats, bulls and all that stuff. And those bulls and goats and calves, they were not being punished. They were somehow an offering to God of our life so that we would know that He had mercy on us and we would show that we’re thankful. They were sacrifices of praise and thanksgiving, even in the old covenant. And of course in the new covenant, the sacrifice of Jesus on the Cross is a sacrifice of praise, the sacrifice of thanksgiving. It’s the offering of his blood, which means his life, to God Himself in total perfection, and that’s what removes the wrath of God from us.
So getting back to Basil, Basil would say if you think about justice and make justice an antonym of mercy and say: “Is God just or is He merciful?” and then getting into that conundrum, that particular dilemma, people say well if God is just, He can’t be merciful because by justice He should send us all to Hell. And if he has mercy, then that mercy is going against the justice. Basil would say now wait a minute. God’s justice is totally merciful, and His mercy is totally just. Why is that? Because following St. Paul, God shows mercy on everyone. No one is exempt from His mercy. God’s justice would be mercy on some and not on others. Then you could accuse God. You could say: “Hey, that’s not fair. That’s not just.” But the whole point of St. Paul is that God will show mercy on whom He will show mercy, and He will show justice on whom He will show justice. And the Gospel is, this is the very heart of the Gospel, that He shows mercy on everybody without exception— Jews, Gentiles, everybody. No one is exempt from the mercy of God, and therefore no one has a case against God.
Now some folks could think: “Hey, wait a minute. We’re righteous. We’re supposed to deserve going to Heaven. Why are you forgiving all these bad, horrible, sinful people? They should burn in Hell!” Well the Scripture is clear about that one. No one can make such a case! No one could claim that they are deserving eternal salvation and eternal life, especially not according to the law cause if it were according to the law as law, then we’d all be condemned. We are all condemned.
Now some folks…I’m afraid St. Augustine, and PERHAPS Luther, Calvin, Thomas Aquinas—someone asked me to find those texts in those authors; I haven’t been able to do it. Maybe I’ll get to it someday, so that I could read them, themselves— but as I recall my studies it was pretty clear that St. Augustine did teach that according to the law we all deserve to burn in Hell. But God in his divine sovereignty, decides on His own, to save some of us. So he make some to be vessels of wrath and some to be vessels of mercy. And if He decides to show mercy on one and to condemn the other, we still have no case. Because according to that interpretation of the Bible, which I think Ancient Christianity at least in the East would never accept, if God decided to have mercy on some and not on all then we would have a case. We’d say: “Why are you going to do that?!” And I don’t think that any of us should be satisfied with the answer: “God is sovereign. He can do what the heck he wants, and it’s not up to you. You’re a piece of clay, just shut your mouth!” Well wait a minute, you know even Job opened up his mouth a pretty long time in the old covenant. I mean I think we could make the case that if God just had mercy on whomever He had mercy and says: “I’m going to be God, and you’re not going to tell me what to do,” well we could have a case.
But if God says to us, “I am God. I am sovereign, and I will have mercy on whomever I will, and guess what? I’m having mercy on everybody! Without exception!” Then, everybody should be happy. Everyone should rejoice with very great joy, because we are all let off the hook. “And I being the first!” St. Paul came to save sinners of whom “I am the first,” St. Paul said. And we say that in the Orthodox Church every time we go to Holy Communion. We are the first. Everyone is the first. There’s no comparison of people. We are all sinners. So we Orthodox Christians, of the ancient, Eastern Christian faith, we would never say that the Scripture should be interpreted that everyone deserves to go to Hell, but God saves some in His mercy. He predestines them, Himself, to everlasting life. And who goes to Heaven, who goes to Hell, it’s totally up to God in the sense that everyone deserves to go to Hell, but God decides to save some people and nobody could make a case against Him. Well that doesn’t seem to be the teaching at all.
It seems to be the teaching that He has mercy on all. And it seems to be the teaching that the mercy that he gives to all is shown by the fact that His Son comes into the world and takes upon Himself all the sins of the whole world and expiates them in His blood on the Cross. And by being totally and completely righteous, totally and completely sinless, He can say to God: “Accept me as the ransom. Accept me as the propitiation, the expiation. For my sake, have mercy on all. And then those who believe in me can share in that mercy that comes to them through me.” Now it would certainly be the teaching, and we’ll see about that a little bit more in a minute, that those who do not accept the mercy of God in Christ, then the wrath of God remains upon them. That’s the whole point. If you want wrath, God will give it to you.
And here is a very Semitic way of speaking, because God, according to the Bible, you can’t even sin without God in the Bible. If you want a hard heart, God will harden your heart. If you want the wrath of God to come upon you, He’ll send it. If you want to go into outer darkness, He’ll say: “GO!” But you can’t even go into outer darkness, you can’t even go into Hell without God sending you there. Just like you can’t even do any one thing without God’s grace being in you. That’s the Biblical anthropology. That’s how we understand humanity according to the Holy Scripture. And as Gregory the Theologian would say: “We understand things according to the fishermen and their gospels, the apostles, and not according to some Nicomachean Ethics of Aristotle” about justice and not justice, and law and not law, and so on. No, that’s not our way of looking at things at all.
So you could get to the point where a Holy Father like Isaac of Syria, speaking about this issue about God with His law. Is God just according to a law? Man, nobody does St. Isaac of Syria where he says: “God is not just at all. The ultimate understanding about God is that He is not just at all.” Now that’s a manner of speaking. You have got to be careful with that, but what he is trying to say, this dear St. Isaac, is that if you look at God from the perspective of earthly justice, He’s not just at all because He shows mercy on everybody. He doesn’t throw the book at anybody, except those who want the book to be thrown at them. If you want the book to be thrown at you, He’ll throw the book at you. If you want His wrath to be upon you, it will be upon you. But if you want His mercy, then that mercy will be upon you.
Now sometimes people even think that, I think even Anselm would have probably thought this and some more Aristotelian type thinkers or Platonic type thinkers, they would say, in fact Anselm of Canterbury did say that when we speak of God’s sadness or anger or wrath or mercy or love or tenderness or kindness, these things don’t even really exist. In fact, I’m afraid to say, that perhaps even Thomas Aquinas did teach that, perhaps even the Council of Trent in the Latin Church taught that. When the Latins attacked Gregory of Palamas, saying that the Divine Energies are not real, that grace is a created entity, that God is the uncaused cause and the unmoved mover, and supreme, unchangeable, absolutely static Being.
Then, you could not explain why it can say God gets angry, God gets merciful, God weeps, God rejoices, God is glad, God is tender, God is kind. They say:
Well that’s only something that we speak from our human perspective, but it doesn’t really exist.” God is the immobile, static, unmoved mover, uncaused cause. He cannot change at all, and therefore God cannot have a multiplicity of divine virtues and energies and actions, especially not towards creatures. We may experience it that way. We may speak about it that way, but these are only human notions. These are only analogies. They do not really exist.
So in that way of looking at it, theologically folks would say:
You know we could experience God sometimes as wrath, sometimes as mercy, sometimes as kind, sometimes as tenderhearted, sometimes as ferocious, sometimes as terrible, sometimes as awesome, sometimes as humble, but that’s only our experience. Those are not realities for God.
However, our Holy Fathers following Holy Scripture, and this came to a real head in the Palamite Controvery of the Hesychast Fathers in the 13th century, they say: “No, no. Sorry. We don’t follow that. Our God is the Living God. He acts in different ways, at different times, with different people, shows himself different.” In fact St. Gregory of Nyssa, a thousand years before St. Gregory of Palamas, he would of said: “God is different everyday, and he’s really different. He appears to us differently all the time. He acts, he hides, he comes, he goes, he weeps, he shows mercy, he forgives,” and those thing are realities. They’re not just our somehow subjective, human, imaginative, fantasy experiences. God is not the god of Aristotle. He’s not the uncaused cause. He’s not the unmoved mover. He’s not the immobile, static Supreme Being. God is not being at all.
In fact following Gregory of Nyssa, Gregory the Theologian, St. Basil the Great, Maximus the Confessor, and Symeon the New Theologian, St. Gregory the Palamas will say, all that is just baloney. God is not even being. God is beyond being and non-being. He is beyond change and non-change. The Pseudo-Dionysian writings would say that. Dionysius the Pseudo-Areopagite who wrote The Mystical Theology, he says that. God is beyond all these things. He’s completely different. He’s totally different. He’s holy. He dwells in unapproachable light. Nothing on earth can compare to Him as Isaiah says. There’s no way. But when we experience God acting, then we do experience wrath, but we also experience mercy. We know what the wrath of God is like. We know what it is to be in the hands of the living God. We know that God is a consuming fire. But we also know that God is merciful, gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and mercy. He will not always chide, and this is what we actually find in the Bible. This is what we claim, that when we read the Bible this is what we find.
So let’s look at the Bible a bit, from the perspective of the wrath of God. What are the first places that you have God being exceedingly angry? The anger of God was kindled against…Guess who it’s against! It’s against Moses. It’s in Exodus 4 when God is trying to call Moses, and to get Moses to lead the people out of Egypt. Moses says: “I can’t do it. I can’t do it. It is not I, Lord. I can’t do it. Call somebody else. I’m not eloquent. I can’t speak well. I don’t have a good tongue.” Then God says to Moses: “Who made your mouth? Who makes you dumb or deaf or seeing or blind? Is it not, I, says the Lord. Amen Moses. You’re dealing with the Lord God Almighty here. Who do you think you are?” And then God says to him: “I will be your mouth, and I will teach you what you shall speak.” But then Moses he answers God back. He says: “Oh my Lord. Send, I pray, some other person.” And then it says: “The anger of the Lord was akindled against Moses.” And He said:
Is there not Aaron, your brother, the Levite? I know that he can speak well, and behold he is coming out to meet you. And when he sees you, he will be glad in his heart. And you shall speak to me and put the words in his mouth. And I will be with your mouth and with his mouth, and I will teach you what you shall do. And he shall speak to you for the people and he shall be a mouth for you, and you shall be to him as God. And you shall take in your hand this rod, which shall be the sign.
So it’s interesting, the wrath of God is kindled against Moses when Moses is standing against God. I’ll give you another example, again using Moses. Moses when his first wife Zipporah dies, he marries a Cushite woman—that means an Ethiopian by the way. And they said: “Has the Lord indeed spoken only through Moses? Maybe he can speak through us also,” Miriam and Aaron say, cause they didn’t like the fact that he married that Ethiopian woman.
Then, the Lord heard it, and He says to Miriam and Aaron: “Now the man Moses was very meek, more so than all the men that were on the face earth.” And suddenly the Lord said to Moses and to Aaron and to Miriam: “Come out, you three! Come out to the Tent of the Meeting.” And the three came out, and then the Lord stood there and he called Aaron and Miriam to come forward and then he said: “Hear my words. If there is a prophet among you, I, the Lord, make myself known to him in a vision. I speak to him in a dream. Not so with my servant, Moses. He is entrusted with all my mouth. With him I shall speak mouth to mouth, clearly and not in dark speech. And he beholds the form of the Lord. Why then were you not afraid to speak against my servant, Moses?” And the anger of the Lord was kindled against them and departed when the cloud removed from over the tent. And then behold, Miriam is leprous.
The anger of Lord is akindled against Aaron and Miriam and Miriam gets leprosy, as white as snow.
And then Aaron turns to Miriam and behold sees she is leprous. Then, Aaron says to Moses: “O my Lord, do not punish us cause we have done foolishly and have sinned. Let her not be as one dead of whom the fleshes have consumed when he comes out of his mother’s womb.” Then, Moses cries to the Lord: “Heal her, O God. I beg you, heal her.” And then Miriam is shut up for seven days and she is healed by the intercession of Moses.
Now you have a similar story, again with Moses. You have the rebellion of Korah. Korah’s rebellion, where the wrath of God goes forth from God, and the earth opens up and those who made the rebellion against Him are swallowed up in the earth. Then, God says to them: “You shall follow my way and you shall not do what these people did. You shall offer proper sacrifices to the Lord.” And Moses and Aaron come from the Tent of the Meeting, and they stand in the midst of the congregation and they see what the wrath of God produces against those who have sinned against Him.
Then, there’s the famous place that’s even quoted in the Psalter and quoted in the New Testament Scriptures, Letter to the Hebrews, about how Moses has to intercede with God. He has to prostrate before the Lord for forty days and forty nights, not eating bread or drinking water or anything, because of all the sins which the people have committed. “For they did what was evil in the sight of the Lord, and then they provoked Him to anger.” And then Moses said:
I was afraid of the wrath and hot displeasure and anger which the Lord bore against you, the people, and he was ready to destroy you. But the Lord harkened to me that time also. The Lord was so angry with Aaron that he was ready to destroy him, and I prayed for Aaron at that time.
And now it says: “I will pray for you.” And then it says: “Not only was at Midian, but at Taberah and Massah, and at Kibroth-hattaavah.” It said: “You, God’s people, provoked the Lord to wrath! You rebelled against the commandment.” Now this is what you have through the entire Old Testament, and it’s incredibly interesting, at least to me, that the wrath of God, virtually every single time, is directed against his own people. You hardly have a sentence where you have the wrath of God directed against the nations. The nations don’t know God. The nations don’t have the law. The nations don’t know what’s going on; They’re in darkness. But God’s people have been made God’s people by being brought out of Egypt. And almost all of those sentences about the wrath of God are directed against the people that He brought out of Egypt, who then forgot Him, who forsook Him, who started worshiping idols, start worshiping a golden cow, who did not keep the commandments. And when you read the Holy Scripture, you see that for the most time, the people of Israel were not keeping God’s commandments, and therefore the wrath of God was on them. The wrath of God is on those who forsake God, forget God, disobey God, are contrary to God, who break the covenant, who forget the covenant.
For example, again in Deuteronomy, you have God saying to these people: “Would the Lord not pardon those who sinned rather than be angry?” He said: “However, the anger of the Lord against the people is greater than that which was against Sodom and Gomorrah,” in the Book of Genesis, with Lot and all those people in Sodom and Gomorrah. He said:
The Lord is more angry. The heat of His great anger is against the people now. Why? Because they forsook the covenant of the Lord, the God of their fathers, which He had made with them when he brought them up out of the land of Egypt. And they went, and they served other gods, and they worshiped these other gods, gods whom they had not known and whom He had not allotted to them. Therefore, the anger of the Lord was kindled against the land and against all the people bringing upon it all the curses written in this book (Deuteronomy). And the Lord uprooted them from their land in anger and fury and great wrath and cast them into another land even unto this day.
So this wrath of God is against God’s own people. It’s against God’s own people when they forsake Him, when they do not love Him, when they do not follow Him. And you have this all through the Book of Kings: I, II, III, and IV Kings, which in our English Bible is I and II Samuel and I and II Kings, and the Chronicles which repeat the Kings, basically, in a different way. You have sentences like, I’m reading II Kings: “For great is the wrath of the Lord that is kindled against us because our fathers have not obeyed the words of this book and do according to all that is written concerning us.”
And it’s very interesting by the way, that it’s exactly at the time of Hezekiah, who was very, very faithful to God, and at the time of Josiah, who actually found the Book of Deuteronomy, that you have sentences about the wrath of God, the fierce anger of God, perhaps more than in other places. Because Hezekiah is faithful to God, and he is calling all the people to be faithful because he’s seen that the Lord is merciful, gracious, slow to anger. He does not keep His wrath against us even though He’s angered for a moment as it will say in the psalm. He is righteous. He does not forsake us utterly, but you forsake Him. You deny Him; you go after false gods. And that’s why the wrath of God, the fierce anger of God, it says, is upon you. And you have this all the way through it.
In the time of Josiah, for example, it says: “They did more evil than the nations.” God’s people did more evil than the Gentiles, than the nations, whom the Lord destroyed before the people of Israel. Because, don’t forget, God had to show his wrath against those false gods by giving the people the land. He brought them out of Egypt, took them over Jordan; He fought their fight and He says to them: “Listen this ain’t you that’s winning. It’s me! I’m doing this for you and you better be faithful to me” But they’re not faithful. They are not faithful. And therefore the wrath and the fierce anger of God is against them.
Now if we would want to read, what you might call summaries of this, if you want to see all this in a kind of quick, easy way, I would suggest that you read Psalms 77 through 85. Just go through that and you will see how it says that God was angry against the people because they did not keep the covenant. They sinned still more against Him, more and more. “Who is so great a God as our God? Our God is the God who does wonders.” We sing that in the Orthodox Church on Pascha, Pentecost, Christmas, every Great Feast. “Who is so great a God as our God?” I even gave one talk on Ancient Faith Radio, exactly on this psalm. You could look it up and listen to it, if you want to. It’s there.
But it says: “They keep forgetting the works of God. They don’t keep his commandments. They’re a stubborn and rebellious generation, a generation whose heart was not steadfast, whose spirit was not faithful to God.” I’m reading from Psalm 78. It says:
God did all these things, all the miracles, divided the sea, led them with a cloud, fed them in the wilderness, gave them food, struck the rock so water came. Yet they sinned still more against Him, rebelling against the Most High in the desert. They tested God in their heart. They demanded food. They spoke against God. They reviled God. Yet, even though they lied to Him with their tongues, and their heart was not steadfast, and they were not true to his covenant. Yet, He being compassionate, forgave their iniquity. He did not destroy them. He restrained His anger often. He did not stir up all of His wrath. He remembered that they were but flesh, a wind that passes and cometh not again. How often they rebelled against Him in the wilderness and grieved Him in the desert. They tested Him again and again. They provoked the Holy One of Israel. They did not keep in mind his power, and they did not remember the day when He had redeemed them from their enemies, when He had wrought His signs in Egypt, made his miracles in the fields of Zoan, how He turned the rivers into blood, and sent the plagues upon Egypt. They tested and rebelled against the Most High God.” They turned away. They acted treacherously like their fathers, “a deceitful bow. They provoked Him to anger with their high places. They moved Him to wrath with their graven images. When God heard, He was full of wrath. He utterly rejected Israel. He delivered them into the hands of the nations.
Now if you read through the Psalms, you’ll see how this is said again and again and again and again. But the clime of the Psalter, the Psaltist, the Psalm-writer is: “O God, rebuke us not in your anger, no chasten us in your wrath. Our iniquities are heavy upon us.” We in the Orthodox Church every single morning at Matins, Psalm 38. And many of our prayers begin with those words: “Rebuke us not in your anger. Chasten us not in your wrath because we have sinned against you.” Take for example, Psalm 85:
Restore us again, O God of our salvation, put away thine indignation toward us. Will thou be angry with us forever? Will thou prolong thy anger to all generations? Will thou not give us life again that thy people may rejoice in thee. Show us thy steadfast love, O Lord. And grant us your salvation.
Now we have to see one more thing before we leave the Old Testament. And that is one of the most amazing things that God visits his people with wrath for the sake of their chastening, so that they would turn and repent. And there’s a terrible line in Isaiah. It’s in the Canticle of Isaiah, which is sung in our Orthodox Church during Great Lent. It’s actually sung with the Alleluia in the Lenten Service where in the Canticle of Isaiah it actually says that God has to send evils upon the people. He has to show his anger and his wrath because, otherwise, they won’t repent. And so you have this incredibly terrifying line in the Canticle of Isaiah, the 26th chapter of Isaiah, where it says:
If favor is shown to the wicked, if God’s good will, His benevolence, His grace is shown to the wicked, he does not learn righteousness. In the land of uprightness, he deals perversely. He does not see the majesty of God.
And then you actually have the prophet saying:
Render evils unto them, O Lord. Render evils unto them, even unto the proud ones of the earth. Pour out those evils upon them, because it’s only though the evils, only through the demonstration of your wrath that maybe they will turn and be saved.
Maybe, but even then it’s not sure, because people may still love the wrath, face the wrath. There’s a wonderful writer, Karl Stern, who wrote a wonderful book called The Pillar of Fire. It’s a spiritual autobiography about he moved from a totally atheistic, secularized person of Jewish heritage to becoming a practicing Orthodox Jew under Hitler and then became a Christian—He became a Roman Catholic Christian. And in that books he said something absolutely terrifying. He said:
Really evil people, they rather follow under the law of God and say ‘I’m going to Hell, but I’ll deserve it and I’ll go there and you can’t do anything about it’ but what they really can’t stand is when God says ‘No, I’m going to be merciful to you. I’m going to show my grace to you.’ Then, they hate God ferociously.
The Nietzchean, Fauerbachean, Hitlerian type of people, they say to God: “Stow your mercy! Give us that law and send us to Hell! At least we go there in our egocentric desire ourselves.” That’s something terrifying to think about. The wrath of God is meant to be chastising, chastening, to bring to repentance. God desires the mercy of all, and that’s why in all of the Old Testament Scriptures, the end line, the last line is always: “God will not forsake His people. God will show mercy on them. He will chasten for awhile but in the morning comes joy and gladness. He will forgive. He will show mercy. He will not destroy you forever, even though you hate the bowels of His divine mercy.” God will still be faithful to Himself as St. Paul says. He cannot deny Himself. He’s not going to be a destroyer. He doesn’t desire the death of the wicked as Ezekiel says, but he desires that the wicked would turn from his ways and live
And this is what you find in the Old Testament. Then, we find the most amazing thing, that God uses the Gentiles as the instrument of His wrath. One of the most amazing things in the Holy Scripture is when God destroys the city of Jerusalem, itself. He razes the Holy City to the ground because of the evils of the people. And how does he do it? He does it with Nebuchadnezzar, the most wicked king who ever lived on the earth. And in the prophet Jeremiah, God even calls Nebuchadnezzar, His servant. He calls him “my servant, Nebuchadnezzar.” And by the way, when He’s going to restore the temple, how does He do it? He restores it through Cyrus, who’s also a Gentile. And He calls Cyrus “my shepherd”—actually He even calls Cyrus “my anointed,” which in Greek would be “my Christ.” He calls Cyrus at the rebuilding of the temple, under Nehemiah, He calls him “my shepherd, my servant.” But he calls Jeremiah “my servant” that he sends Jeremiah.
And here this would be a Biblical teaching. Every time evils come upon the world, they’re sent by God. I mentioned already on Ancient Faith Radio, how I caused a scandal, by saying that September 11th when those terrorists came into America, and smashed down the twin towers, they were sent by God. As Amos would say: “Can destruction hit the city, and it is not I who done it says the Lord.” God could have stopped them. He didn’t. He let them go their wicked ways. And according to Scripture he even sends the evil ones. In Job he says to Satan: “Have you not considered my servant Job?” Even the evil powers and evil spirits are in the hands of God according to Holy Scripture, and God could use them for his ultimate victory of mercy. And that’s how we would understand the Bible that the wrath of God is upon us cause it’s due to come upon us. We choose it. We take it because of our sin. And God will then use that wrath to try and get us to repent. And hopefully it will, but the final word is not wrath. The final word is mercy. The final word is mercy.
And so in the New Testament, you have the ultimate mercy of God being shown in the crucified servant of Yahweh, the Christ, the Messiah, God’s own very Son by whom He created the ages, God’s own very Son by whom He created all things, God’s own Son for whom all things exist, in whom everything holds together. Everything was made by Him, through Him, for Him, in Him, toward Him. That’s the teaching of St. Paul. But when Jesus was teaching on the earth and he went around, he was saying to these cities where He was preaching that if they don’t listen to Him, the wrath of God is upon them much worse than upon Sodom and Gomorrah even. For example, I’ll read to you from St. Matthew’s Gospel. It says: “Jesus began to abrade the cities of Galilee there, where most of His mighty works had been done because they did not repent.” So he abrades them because they did not repent. Then He says to them: “Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you Bethsaida! For if the mighty works in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it shall be more terrible on the day of judgment,” that’s the day of Christ, the day of the Lord, which I just spoke about on the other channel on Ancient Faith Radio, when I spoke about the day of the Lord connected with the dawn of the new day and the sun that rises and so on. It says: “But I tell you, it shall be more tolerable on the day of judgment for Tyre and Sidon than for you.” And then He says:
And you Capernaum, will you be exalted to Heaven? You shall be brought down to Sheol, to Hades, to the pit of death. For if the mighty works in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this very day. But I tell you that it shall be more tolerable, on the day of judgment for the land of Sodom than for you.
It’s totally amazing, and in St. Luke 10 you have exactly the same thing:
Woe to you, Korazin! Woe to you Bethsaida! For if the mighty works in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago sitting in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, it shall be more tolerable in the judgment for Tyre and Sidon, than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to the heavens? You shall be brought down to Sheol, to Hades.
Now when Jesus was going through those cities with His disciples, when they did not receive Him, sometimes the disciples said: “Hey, let’s do what was done in the Old Testament. Let’s do what was done in Sodom and Gomorrah. Let’s do what Elijah did. Let’s call fire from Heaven and burn them up!” Well listen what it says in St. Luke’s Gospel:
Jesus sent messengers ahead of Him, who went and entered a village of the Samaritans, to make ready for Him. But the people would not receive Him, because His face was set towards Jerusalem. And when His disciples, James and John, saw it, they said: “Lord do you want us to bid fire to come down from Heaven and consume them as Elijah did?” But Jesus turned and rebuked them and He said: “You do not know what manner of Spirit you are of, for the Son of Man came not to destroy man’s lives but to save them.” And they went out into another village.
So when Jesus comes, He doesn’t allow the fire of Heaven to be called down against the unrighteous. He’s come to save the unrighteous by his own righteousness. He saves us by his own righteousness. We are unrighteousness, even through the Crucifixion and death. And we are ransomed by his righteousness. Now in the New Testament, you have Jesus saying to his disciples all the time: “Unless your righteousness exceeds that, even of the scribes and Pharisees who have put me to death, you will never enter the Kingdom of Heaven. Never!” And Jesus also says that people who know the will of God will be judged more severely than people who don’t.
There’s that parable in St. Luke’s Gospel Chapter 12, where he says: “Be ready when the Lord is coming. Be ready. Be vigilant. And if you knew the Lord and knew about His coming, and claimed to believe it, then if you’re not ready it’s going to be really bad for you.” If you don’t want Him at His coming, it’s going to be very bad for you. But then he says that those who didn’t know, they will get a light beating. They’ll be chastened, hopefully they’ll be repentant and be saved, but to whom much is given much is expected.
Now we Christians, when we read the New Testament, we see that if we sin then the wrath of God is really upon us! In fact in the Letter to the Hebrews, it claims there is not even any hope for us because if we sin after being in light, after knowing Christ, it’s impossible to be restored again to repentance. I’ll read it to you. Hebrews 6 says:
It is impossible to restore again to repentance, again, those who have once been enlightened (Baptism), who have tasted the Heavenly gift (Holy Communion), who have been partakers of the Hly Spirit (Chrismation), who have tasted the goodness of the Word of God—O taste and see how good the Lord is. And the powers of the age to come (Angels) if they commit apostasy, since they crucify the Son of God on their own account and hold Him up to contempt.
In Hebrews 10 you find these terrifying words: “If we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth,” and that’s a technical term in the New Testament. “God desires all people to be saved and come to the knowledge of the truth.” We use it in the Divine Liturgy in the Orthodox Church three times in our prayers. We pray to come to the knowledge of the truth, and we actually say that we have already been given the knowledge of the truth—that’s St. Basil’s Liturgy. In fact the whole Eucharistic Prayer in St. Basil’s Liturgy ends with these words: “Make us children of the light and children of the day. For thou, O Lord, has given all things unto us.” We, Christians, claim that everything has been given to us, everything possible that can possibly be given has been given to us in Christ. Now if we sin after that, then the wrath of God is really upon us. And let’s just pray to God that we would never reach that point. So it says in the Letter to the Hebrews:
If we sin deliberately after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a fearful prospect of judgment and a fury of fire which will consume the adversaries. A man who has violated the law of Moses, dies without mercy at the testimony of two or three witnesses if he does not repent. How much more chastisement, punishment, do you think will be deserved by the man who has spurned the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant by which he was sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace. It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
So man it is most fearful for us Christians. We, Christians, have to fear the wrath of God. Now St. Paul said that in the Letter to the Romans. We’re running out of time here, but read the Letter to the Romans where he says: “The wrath of God is against all ungodliness all over the world.” And then he says to the people: “You, all human beings, were created to know God. You were created to know His wisdom and His power and His glory, but you hold to truth in unrighteousness.” That’s a fantastic expression. In RSV it says: “You suppressed the truth.” In Greek it says: “You hold to truth in unrighteousness.” In other words you know what the truth is, but you’re still unrighteous. You know darn well what the will of God is, but you don’t want it. And then he says: “That wrath is against you because you’re not grateful, and you don’t give God the glory and the praise.” You’re not thankful and you forget God and then all kinds of misery comes.
Read Romans 1, 2, 3, and 4 and you will see how St. Paul says it’s even worse for the Jews than the Gentiles. Because the Gentiles have the law written on their heart, and of course they’ll answer for that before God, but they may be excused because they just didn’t know. They were living in ignorance. They were in darkness, the shadow of death. He says:
But we, the Jews, the Israelites, claim to have the oracles of God, to claim to have the laws, the statutes. If we claim that Jesus is the Messiah. If we claim that the salvation and the Gospel has come upon us all, then if we reject that then there really is no hope for us. Then, the wrath of God is really totally upon us.
This wrath that is true and real, it comes from God. But we should remember the final word of the Gospel. Or we might put it another way, we should remember God’s final word. And the final word is: “He has mercy on all if we want it.” The final word is that He’s the Savior, not only of those who believe, but of everybody. He’s the Savior of the whole world, as it says in 1 John, the Redeemer of the whole world. And that what we have to do is to believe this.
So St. Paul will say in Romans 2:
Do you not know that God’s kindness is meant to lead you to repentance, but by your heart and inpenitent heart, you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed. For he will render to every person according to his works. And for those who do not obey the truth, but obey wickedness and love darkness, there will be wrath and fury to every human being who does evil, the Jews first and the Greek, but glory and honor and peace for everyone who does good, the Jew first and the Greek.
But then he does go on to say that there is no one who does good, really, and that we need our Christ. We need our Savior. We need the Gospel. We need the Good News that Christ fulfills the law, does righteousness, removes the wrath of God. And however much we sin, if we get up again and say: “Lord, have mercy,” then the word will be mercy and it will not be the wrath of God. And then we can go on and say that the wrath of God is ultimately is the mercy. Not that God doesn’t have various energies and actions, He does. But when the mercy is rejected, then the wrath is accepted. You cannot reject the mercy, without in that same act accepting and receiving the wrath. That’s how it works. But the mercy is on us all, but in the Bible the mercy is mostly against God’s own people. It’s against the Israelites. It’s against the Christians. But the mercy is shown on all, and that is the teaching. And on the Cross of Christ, the wrath is removed because righteousness is done. And therefore, God cannot be angry at the one who is righteous. He cannot. But we also have comfort and belief that God will not be wrathful against us, who know our sins, who say: “Lord, have mercy,” and who ask God to accept Christ, to accept Jesus as our advocate, as our Savior, our Lord. And when we worship Him, then God deals with us according to Christ our Savior. So there is the wrath of God, but it’s against those who forsake Him, reject Him, disobey Him, forget Him, sin against Him, violate the covenant. And let’s just pray to God that we would not be such people, and that we wouldn’t even look at any other people at all. We just look at ourselves and make darn sure that we are not such people, so that we would not be children of wrath, but children of the light, children of the day, children of the mercy of God.