The following brings together on my responses to a series of addresses on the subject of God’s wrath, given by Rev’d David Stone, Canon Precentor of Coventry Cathedral during Holy Week 2016
Whether we like it or not, the bible says a lot about Wrath. It is alluded to often in both the old and new testaments, and while it does make me squirm, to deny its existence would be to ignore a significant part of what the bible tells us of the nature of God. Yet what it doesn’t do to any great extent is explain what God’s wrath is like. We see it in action, but, like so much of the nature of God, it is to some extent beyond our knowledge. We can only try to consider what is written in a wider context of what we understand about God and the world, and try to piece together a clearer picture of what God might actually be like.
God loves us. This is our indisputable starting point. He is deeply invested in our world, and our shared life. That means that our sins will inevitably elicit what we would think of as an emotional response; to suggest that our failures do not pain the Divine Will is to create a God at one remove from our lives, in place of one who shares in our suffering. Of course, God does not feel emotion as we do. Rather, what we recognise as an emotional response is something like what happens to the Divine Being when we do anything which damages our relationships with one another or with God.
There are two natural responses to such damage. As a child, when I misbehaved, when I was unkind or rude, my parents’ responses were typically divided between anger and sadness. The latter feels to me more understandable, but they are two sides of the same coin, resulting from the same failures. The question is not if our actions upset God (though upset feels too weak a word), but what happens as a result of this, especially what happens after our brief span of days. The problem is that wrath seems to me to be inextricably entwined with punishment, with God taking out his anger on us in a way which is petty or capricious.
Consider – none of us can ever be perfect. If we were, we would be divine. This means that we can never earn God’s love, yet it is freely given to us and all forgiveness is an act of grace. Salvation by grace alone is a central tenet of the Protestant reformation. Thus punishment from a Being so much greater than us is inherently petty. If we are punished, we must either be punished arbitrarily, or on some remunerative scale, or we must all be forgiven. It is pretty clear that there is no remunerative scale in action in life – no Divine karma. Put simply, bad things happen to good people, and vice versa. So then, either God doesn’t normally intervene in this life (except as part of some bigger narrative), or He enacts punishment, in a way which is fickle or arbitrary. If the latter is true, then frankly He is not worthy of our worship. Last year we marked 800 years since the signing of Magna Carta, a document written to curtail the arbitrary abuse of power by kings. If we don’t accept it from our monarch, we shouldn’t accept it from our deity.
This picture is even clearer if we look towards death, when, accepted protestant teaching tells us, God makes an all or nothing choice. We are either damned for eternity, or granted never-ending bliss. If we are paid according to our sins, then why should those of us who have been a bit bad suffer the same punishment as those who have been very bad. Any eternal punishment is arbitrary, especially when one considers that we can never be perfect in the eyes of God. Any decision to grant some people grace and not others is frankly appalling. Eternal punishment suggests that God has abandoned someone, has given up all hope of their salvation, which defies the idea of an all loving and all-powerful God with eternity to act.
So, punishment by God is either obscure or arbitrary, and whichever of those it is, eternal punishment is logically incompatible with the nature of God. Yes, of course God is hurt, upset, angered by the times we fail him and each other. But He does not, He *could* not take it out on people who are never able to meet his standards and still be what we mean when we say God. A being like that would be known by an altogether different name. No, any punishment we suffer is self-inflicted. There is no time cut off from God (since outside life there is no time), but a movement, a dance around the Still Point, now closer, now farther away, but always in its presence. Sometimes we draw others in, sometimes we turn away ourselves.
As for me, if I am wrong, if there is eternal punishment for our finite sins, well, that is a God not deserving of our worship. If there is a hell, that is where we should all seek to be, because anyone condemned to that needs all the love and support we can offer. That would be a ministry worthy of our loving energies.
Except of course, that Christ already covered that part of the relationship, eternally and universally. His response to our failings was to suffer, to be hurt by our sins, directly and personally. And in so doing, to make them as nothing. His wrath lead not to punishment, but to embrace.
St Anselm thought that human sin inherently elicits, even requires some form of retribution from the Divine Being. The abhorrence of sin, to Love itself, so damages the relationship between man and God that it cannot be repaired without some act of reparation, some punishment. In that light, God’s death on the cross is a paying of the bill, which allows our forgiveness. A way to clear a debt which we automatically owe.
But that seems to misunderstand what love is, and to place to great an emphasis on a human view of cause and effect. Love does elicit anger or sadness when it is abused, but it remains love, which “beareth all things, believeth all things, hopeth all things, endureth all things”. To love is to accept failings (particularly when one party cannot but be perfect, and the other cannot help but disappoint). It is thus to forgive those failings, to be there waiting with open arms for the return of the prodigal son.
That raises the question of where the cross is in all that. Something about the cross feels like a truer reflection of the Divine Nature. God can be found elsewhere, but He is most Himself on Calvary. And it is more than just an example, an illustration of what God is like. For an eternal God, all time is co-eternal. Time and cause and effect fall apart, and all time is present to God. And thus, Christ’s life on earth is constantly happening to God. The incarnation and crucifixion are eternally part of God’s experience, of His very being. God is eternally choosing to be human, and to take the very worst of that humanity to himself, in the ultimate act of inclusive love. In that light, it is clear that He forgives through the Cross, not because the cross allows Him to pay off a debt that is owed for sin, but because the cross makes his very nature one of forgiveness. He could not be other than merciful. He can be nothing other than that Himself.
“…Our Lord descended into Hell
And found his Judas there
For ever hanging on the tree
Grown from his own despair
So Jesus cut his Judas down
And took him in his arms
“It was for this I came” he said
“And not to do you harm
My Father gave me twelve good men
And all of them I kept
Though one betrayed and one denied
Some fled and others slept…”