January 31, 2009 Length: 10:10
Fr. Stephen looks at the Orthodox understanding of the wrath of God and the patristic teaching that His wrath is nothing other than His love given to us. The wrath is our own hatred for His love. It is an understanding of the good God who loves mankind.
What shall we make of the wrath of God? We have this quote from the Gospel of St. Luke. We read:
And it came to pass, when the time was come that he should be received up, Christ steadfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem, and sent messengers before his face: and they went, and entered into a village of the Samaritans, to make ready for him. And they did not receive him, because his face was as though he would go to Jerusalem. And when his disciples James and John saw this, they said, “Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elijah did?” But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, “Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of” (Luke 9:51-55).
In this passage, sending down fire from heaven in the pattern of Elijah is rebuked as somehow belonging to “another spirit.” Fans of New Testament wrath are quick to point out the passage in Acts concerning Ananias and Sapphira, which we read from the fifth chapter:
But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession, And kept back part of the price, his wife also being privy to it, and brought a certain part, and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, “Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land? Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God.” And Ananias, hearing these words, fell down, and gave up the ghost: and great fear came on all them that heard these things. And the young men arose, wound him up, and carried him out, and buried him.
And it was about the space of three hours after, when his wife, not knowing what was done, came in. And Peter answered unto her, “Tell me whether ye sold the land for so much?” And she said, “Yea, for so much.” Then Peter said unto her, “How is it that ye have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? behold, the feet of them which have buried thy husband are at the door, and shall carry thee out.” Then fell she down straightway at his feet, and yielded up the ghost: and the young men came in, and found her dead, and, carrying her forth, buried her by her husband. And great fear came upon all the church, and on as many as heard these things (Acts 5:1-11)
For accuracy’s sake, it must be noted that we are nowhere told that Ananias and Sapphira died as the result of the action of God. We are told that they fell down dead—and this is not unimportant.
Of course the New Testament makes reference to the wrath of God. Indeed, there are 45 verses which make reference to the wrath. It is little wonder that interpreters should want to make a theological point out of so common a reference. Of course, many of those verses refer to our own wrath and tell us to put it away from us. But the wrath of God we do read about. Here is a typical passage from Colossians 3. Paul says:
Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry: For which things’ sake the wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience (Colossians 3:5-6).
A legitimate question has to be this: Has the Spirit “of which we are” changed between Luke 9 and Colossians 3, or is there a deeper understanding at work? With this I offer an Orthodox answer. First, Christ himself is the definitive revelation of God, and that revelation is not corrected by either an Old Testament reading (for Christ himself said, “These are they which testify of me”) nor by an epistle, for Christ as witnessed to in the gospels is the definitive revelation for interpreting even the epistles. Of course my citation of Luke 9 is often countered with, “What about the money-changers in the Temple?” to which I can only say that he “drove them out with a whip” which is not the same thing as saying that Christ beat them, nor did he call down fire from heaven to consume them.
For various reasons, some people are determined to make the economy of salvation to be linked with the wrath of God: If you do not repent, then God will do thus and such. I have always considered this representation of the Gospel to be coercive and contrary to the love of God. I have heard convoluted ways in which this wrath is interpreted to be “the loving thing to do,” but I do not buy it.
The common witness within Orthodox Tradition is that the wrath of God is a theological term which describes not God himself, but a state of being in which we find ourselves when we are opposed to God. Thus the work of many Church Fathers uses this same image and makes ample citation in this matter. We can place ourselves in such a position that even the love of God seems to us as fire or wrath.
There’s a wonderful story in the book of Genesis when the people of Israel are backed up against the Red Sea. It’s said the pillar of cloud which had been guiding them went around behind them and stood between them and the Egyptians who had come to kill them. It says that the pillar of cloud stood between them throughout the night, and to the Israelites it gave light, whereas to the Egyptians it was darkness and confusion. Same pillar of cloud: to one it was light, to another it was darkness. This was not unlike Christ’s own saying in the Gospel of John when he speaks of condemnation, which we could simply say, “hell.”
He says, “This is condemnation: that light has come into the world and men preferred darkness to the light.” This is not saying that God brought darkness; it is rather saying men hated the light. This is much our understanding of what it is to be in the wrath of God. It is to be in the love of God and hate being there. Thus, our God who is a consuming fire, who should be and is light and love to us, for those who hate him, his light is as torture because they prefer the darkness. But we’re not told that we’ll be given what we want; we’ll be given God, and if we don’t want God, we’re still given God.
It is essential I think in our witness to the God who is, to always relate the fact that he is a loving God, just as we say in virtually every Orthodox service we finish it: “For he is a good God who loves mankind.” It is essential I think that we should always relate the fact that he is a loving God, not willing that any should perish, as Scripture says, but that all should come to repentance. He is not against us but for us. This is utterly essential to the correct proclamation of the Gospel. Those who insist on exalting the wrath of God as a threat, inevitably mis-portray God and use anthropormorphism, that is, the image of humanity projected onto God, as a substitute for the Gospel of Jesus Christ. If we should want to know what true humanity is, we should look at Jesus Christ who is truly Man, and not simply look at ourselves and project that onto God.
Intricate theories of the atonement which involve the assuaging of the wrath of God are not worthy of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. I can say it no plainer. Those who persist in such theological accounts do not know “what Spirit they are of.” It is not ever appropriate to exalt a biblical system over the plain sense communicated to us in the Gospel. No matter the chain of verses and the rational explanations attached—we cannot portray God as other than as he has shown himself to us in Jesus Christ. To do so makes the Bible greater than Christ.
It is very difficult in our culture, where the wrathful God has been such an important part of the Gospel story, to turn away from such portrayals—and yet it is necessary—both for faithfulness to the Scripture, the Fathers, and the revelation of God in Christ.
I commend the writings of the Fathers. There’s different writings of modern works that point to this understanding of the wrath of God and the love of God. I again commend them to you and encourage you to read them. I also beg other Christians to be done with their imagery of the wrathful God. They do not know the God of whom they speak. Forgive me.