Saturday, January 23, 2010

Embarrassed by the Wrath of God?

I find it interesting that when some people begin to talk about the wrath of God or hell they begin with something like this: "Now if it were up to me I wouldn't have a hell or wrath but that's what the Bible teaches so we should believe it."  I've never been comfortable with that sentiment because it implicitly questions the wisdom of God not to mention his very goodness.  Why should we shy away from one of God's attributes or anything that he deems worthy of creation?  So I was a bit surprised to read this by D. A. Carson in an essay he wrote on the wrath of God.

"Would it be churlish of me to admit that, had I been given my choice of topics from the advertised list, I would have chosen most of the others before choosing the one actually assigned me?  Yet my reluctance to leap at the topic of the wrath of God may merely reflect a broadly based Western sensibility that is uncomfortable with easy talk about God's anger or God's wrath, a sensibility that reads the ancient nqm in terms of a vengeful spirit fed by a bad temper and understands the ancient hrm in a fashion unable to be differentiated from genocide and ethnic cleansing, a sensibility that reads Jonathan Edwards in terms of Elmer Gentry."  ("The Wrath of God" in Engaging the Doctrine of God edited by Bruce L. McCormack, p. 37)

I was a bit taken aback even with his nuance.  As I read the essay I couldn't shake this initial paragraph from my head.  But then I got to the end of the essay, and as Carson usually does, he anticipated my question and answered it head on. I was much more satisfied. He writes:

"If I began this essay by intimating that the wrath of God is a 'problem,' in certain respects this intimation must be seen as an exercise in misdirection.  God's wrath is a 'problem' in that people withdraw from the category and often refuse to face realistically its prevalence in Scripture.  But the biblical writers are not embarrassed when they treat the theme.  This is surely because, for them, the wrath of God is an entirely just and therefore admirable display of holiness as it confronts sin.  To be embarrassed by what Scripture so clearly and repeatedly sets out as belonging to the character of God when he deals with rebels is not the stance of sophistication and moral superiority.  Rather, it is the stance of arrogant disbelief.  What right does the creature ever have to be embarrassed by the Creator?  To disown the theme of judgment is to slouch toward the very first reported instance of doctrinal disavowal--the insistence of the serpent, 'You will not certainly die' (Gen 3:4).  Far better and wiser is it to see that the theme of God's wrath provides, inter alia, another angle into who God is, into the blinding brilliance of his holiness (cf. Is. 6).  And this must end in worship."  (p. 63)

I had to shout a hearty amen!


Scripture Zealot said...

I've been thinking about this a lot lately. If we shy away from God's wrath, how can we appreciate his love, mercy and forgiveness? Otherwise he's just our buddy who loves us a lot.

Paul said...

Who was it that said "The wrath of God is the holiness of God in action?" Oh was Dr. Bruce Demarest in a systematic theo on the attributes of God.

Louis said...


Your point is exactly right. I would only want to add that we should appreciate the wrath of God in and of itself as an attribute of God. It is one of those attributes (like mercy and forgiveness) that we would never see in God if it were not for the existence of sin. Love, mercy and forgivenss definitely become more robust in the light of God's wrath.


You're quote does not go far enough and I'm sure Demarest would agree that the wrath of God is not simply "holiness in action" (holiness was in action prior to the fall but there was no wrath) but holiness in action "in the face of sin." But, I know you know that.

Scripture Zealot said...

Good point. Thank you.