God’s love vs. God’s wrath; or, when a doctrine’s unpalatability suggests its reexamination
by Steve Douglas
July 19th, 2010 | 3 Comments
Michael Patton, a man I respect immensely, has just reminded his readers that, “The palatability of a doctrine does not determine its veracity.”
This is a principle based in logic, of course. As a case in point (which was probably also his post’s inspiration), he brings up many Christians’ emphasis on the love of God disproportionate to their acknowledgment of the wrath of God. He defends the Reformed view of God’s nature and character by his playfully caricatured example of an objection:
“God’s love? Oh yes, give me two helpings of that. God’s wrath? Pass. I don’t have enough room and it does not sound good. God’s grace will be great, but I will have to skip the atonement—too bloody and odd. Predestination? Sovereign election? No way!”
In the end, he admits that, “For the most part, I find Christianity very palatable. Grace, love, righteousness, our future hope, the restoration of all things, etc. are all doctrines that I would gladly take from a smörgåsbord. But,” and this is his main point,
when it comes to things that are not quite so palatable and lovely, I must take them too as my final authority is not that which is reasonable to my taste buds, but that which God has revealed in His word.
I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately. That sentiment is fully consistent with a view of Christianity that views the Bible as the final, crystalized, and most importantly complete version of all truth, revealed personally by God. But if we are more consistent in the typical Evangelical belief in “progressive revelation”, which despite arguable limitations correctly acknowledges mankind’s understanding of God as a trajectory, jet-powered and steered by the example of His Word, Jesus of Nazareth, we find less justification to ignore the nuanced sense of God found in the New Testament even in the interests of bowing to the authority of texts that speak of God as a wrathful deity perpetually on the warpath against those who transgress His moral code.
There are certainly plenty of those texts. And let’s be clear: the Old Testament repeatedly describes God as merciful, overflowing with lovingkindness and tender mercies, and in the New Testament we do indeed hear much of a coming judgment said to be officiated by Jesus himself. But who can doubt that the understanding of God in the New Testament has developed more fully into a God for all humanity and not only Israel, a God who sends His shepherd out to seek and save the lost?
“Ah, but there is still judgment against sin, even in Jesus’ own teachings.” The point I am making does not erase the wrath of God, but it does focus it on things other than mere abstract moral transgressions or ritual violations, and instead seems to target particularly those things which are harmful. Can we miss the fact that the judgment described in the Olivet Discourse is characterized as a punishment of specifically those who, even despite their outstanding morality and fidelity to prescribed rituals, utterly fail to fulfill God’s primary mission for them, which is revealed to be ministering to God by working in the interest of compassion? An intolerable system that fleeced the poor and obstructed the worship of the needy seems to have been the source of Jesus’ sole example of “wrath” in the Temple. (Note also that those endlessly tortured in the lake of fire in Revelation are not disobedient humans, but otherworldly forces of evil who have offended God most grievously by leading humanity away from Him.)
In a guideline largely alien to the Old Testament, Christians are told that they must imitate God’s character as nearly as possible. Yet although we are sundry times called to do so specifically by loving and forgiving one another, we are never told to be wrathful, to hold people to standards too high to reach, or harbor unforgiveness of those who have actually committed grave sins. We are instructed to be holy as He is holy, but are never led to demand holiness from one another except for the purposes of restoration. Paul tells the Corinthians to judge within their congregation, to be sure, but remediation is stated as the goal for church discipline in 1 Cor 5.5. If we are to judge those “inside” our community (v.12) in the hopes of eventual reformation, is it unthinkable that God should exercise His judgment on those “outside” (vv. 13) for the same reason, and more successfully?
So even if Michael Patton agrees with many other theologians among the Reformed that there are Scriptures that depict God as intent on inflicting a singularly loveless, hateful pain upon those who offend His standards, shouldn’t any theologian trying to understand God’s heart use the whole tenor and testimony of Scripture in order to do so? Are we not justified in being loathe to characterize God as a tyrant, individual scriptural illustrations of God’s anger notwithstanding? Should we put God’s love on par with God’s wrath as though one arm were extended to embrace the wayward son and the other to pitilessly strike him down?
Here I am being influenced by, or perhaps rather I am finding my lifelong suspicions unexpectedly articulated in, the ideas of George MacDonald. This passage from his sermon Justice (already referenced on this blog) makes the point that God would prefer us to err, since err we must, on the side of the most loving view of God we can imagine:
The lord of life complains of men for not judging right. To say on the authority of the Bible that God does a thing no honourable man would do, is to lie against God; to say that it is therefore right, is to lie against the very spirit of God. To uphold a lie for God’s sake is to be against God, not for him. God cannot be lied for. He is the truth. The truth alone is on his side. While his child could not see the rectitude of a thing, he would infinitely rather, even if the thing were right, have him say, God could not do that thing, than have him believe that he did it. If the man were sure God did it, the thing he ought to say would be, ‘Then there must be something about it I do not know, which if I did know, I should see the thing quite differently.’ But where an evil thing is invented to explain and account for a good thing, and a lover of God is called upon to believe the invention or be cast out, he needs not mind being cast out, for it is into the company of Jesus. Where there is no ground to believe that God does a thing except that men who would explain God have believed and taught it, he is not a true man who accepts men against his own conscience of God. I acknowledge no authority calling upon me to believe a thing of God, which I could not be a man and believe right in my fellow-man. I will accept no explanation of any way of God which explanation involves what I should scorn as false and unfair in a man. If you say, That may be right of God to do which it would not be right of man to do, I answer, Yes, because the relation of the maker to his creatures is very different from the relation of one of those creatures to another, and he has therefore duties toward his creatures requiring of him what no man would have the right to do to his fellow-man; but he can have no duty that is not both just and merciful. More is required of the maker, by his own act of creation, than can be required of men. More and higher justice and righteousness is required of him by himself, the Truth;–greater nobleness, more penetrating sympathy; and nothing but what, if an honest man understood it, he would say was right. [emphasis mine]
This reminds me of one observation highlighted by Rachel Held Evans in her delightful new book Evolving in Monkey Town. “His ways are higher than our ways” is an oft quoted justification for claims made about God’s inexplicable behavior. What Evans notes is that this verse actually showcases God’s desire to show mercy, once that verse’s context within Isaiah 55 is identified: “Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts; and let him return to the Lord, and He will have compassion on him, and to our God, for He will abundantly pardon. ‘For My thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are you ways My ways,’ declares the Lord” (vv. 7-8). Evans explains:
Isaiah 55 provides an entirely different framework for thinking about God’s justice, because it suggests that we have it backward — the mystery lies not in God’s unfathomable wrath but in his unfathomable mercy. God’s ways are higher than our ways because his capacity to love is infinitely greater than our own. (p. 136)
And if this weren’t enough dynamic quotes for one post, I can’t resist recapitulating another that I posted as an entire entry a few days back, this time re-situated amongst the thoughts that prompted me to publish that entry in the first place. It’s from none other than the true father of the Reformed, St. Augustine, who nonetheless understood these points I have made and voiced them more succinctly and profoundly by far:
Whoever thinks he understands divine scripture or any part of it, but whose interpretation does not build up the twofold love of God and neighbor, has not really understood it. Whoever has drawn from scripture an interpretation that does fortify this love, but who is later proven not to have found the meaning intended by the author of the passage, is deceived to be sure, but not in a harmful way, and he is guilty of no untruth at all.
Without assuming, as the inerrantist must, that every Scripture speaks univocally, we may still recognize a clear emphasis upon love and forgiveness throughout the NT that we should not feel guilty about focusing on. In the Synoptics, Jesus is depicted identifying the greatest commandments as a love for God that is somehow codependent upon love for our neighbor; in John, the “new” commandment Jesus gives is to “love one another” as exemplified by his own love; in Paul, the greatest of all virtues – above faith itself – is “love” for one another after the model of God’s selfless love toward us; the author of 1 John feels comfortable defining God’s very nature in this way: “God is love”; another well known and perhaps only apparently contrastive description of God is found in Hebrews 12.28, where He is described as a “consuming fire” — but surely we must see in that metaphor the OT motif of a fire of refinement that eats away the impurities for the purposes of purification, not destruction.
If after all God’s wrath is a force of His nature dueling with His love, not subject to His love as MacDonald insisted, then surely we will be forgiven for upholding the noblest view of Him possible, that of a God who is, at bottom, Love personified — especially since such an understanding is securable by the deafening testimony of Scripture. Beyond our beliefs or our incredulity, our faithfulness or our failings, the greatest of these is still love.