Do We Idolize God’s Wrath?

Jason Micheli —  March 19, 2014 — 6 Comments

barth_in_pop_art_5This weekend I’ll continue the Lenten sermon series, 7 Deadlies and the 7 Ways Jesus Saves Us, with a brief homily on anger.


In the tradition, each of the capital vices is thought to have a correlative virtue: humility to sin’s pride.

But what about anger? Wrath?

And how is it that a word that counts as a deadly sin (wrath) when applied to humanity can simultaneously count as a divine attribute when applied to God?

Is our wrath part of what it means for humans to be made in the image of God?

Or is God, in God’s wrath, less human than us?

Wrath is perhaps the easiest of the deadly sins to put into the context of the atonement- how Jesus saves us- for the most pervasive understanding of the Cross in the modern West is that of penal substitution, the idea that on the Cross Jesus suffers the full wrath of God otherwise directed against sinners like us.

While the language of substitution is certainly biblical, I’ve commented here before that I think the suggestion that Jesus suffers the Father’s wrath raises a number of moral and theological problems:

How is one Person of the Trinity directed against another Person?

How is it that the God who in the Son spoke of peace and putting away the sword and dies without resorting to violence uses violence to redeem?

And how is it then that the message of the Son bears no resemblance to how the Father redeems?

How is God, who is not a Being in the Universe, affected by my or your sin?

How is it that God, who is immutable and impassible, has God’s disposition towards us changed by the Cross?

Fred_Phelps_10-29-2002Above all, though, the death of Fred Phelps has me wondering if Christians make an idol out of God’s wrath, defending its scriptural warrant and theo-logic in order to justify our own prejudices.

In this suspicion I have an ally in Karl Barth, who famously reworked penal substitution in his Church Dogmatics. Elsewhere, Barth recognized how dangerous a doctrine like ‘God’s Wrath’ could be in the hands of sinners.

We are exhorted in the Epistle to the Romans to a particular line of conduct, not in order that we may adopt the point of view of God, but that we might bear it in mind, consider it from all sides, and then live within its gravity.

To judge involves the capacity to assign guilt and to envelop an action in wrath. God has this capacity and exercises it continuously. But, as the capacity of God, it is invisibly one with His forgiveness and with the manifestation of His righteousness.

Our action in judging possesses, however, nothing of this double-sidedness. We do not possess the divine freedom of rejecting AND electing.

When we permit ourselves to judge others, we are caught up in condemnation: the result is that we merely succeed in erecting the wrath of God as an idol. . . .

When God rejects and hardens there is hope and promise. . . .

How different it is when men, putting themselves in God’s place, put stumblingblocks in the way of other men. They seek only to harden, and not to liberate; only to bind, and not to loose; only to kill, and not to make alive. . . . Here once again the supreme right is the supreme wrong, if we suppose that right is OUR right.

Epistle to the Romans, 516 

Jason Micheli


6 responses to Do We Idolize God’s Wrath?

  1. You write:

    “And how is it that a word that counts as a deadly sin (wrath) when applied to humanity can simultaneously count as a divine attribute when applied to God?”

    Because we’re not God. That is Barth’s point (based on what you quote here): not that God doesn’t have wrath, but we humans get into trouble when we have it. This is why, a few posts back, I said you ought to read Volf’s _Exclusion and Embrace_. As he discusses, those Christians who are most committed to non-violence in this world, the Anabaptists, are also those who are most comfortable with God’s violence at the end of history. It’s a “comfortable suburban theology” that says God doesn’t avenge evil.

    I could talk about all of God’s violence and killing in Revelation—not to mention “vengeance is mine,” etc.—but citing scripture seems useless at this point.

    Jesus also teaches us not to judge, which doesn’t imply that God doesn’t judge.

    “And how is it then that the message of the Son bears no resemblance to how the Father redeems?”

    It does, you’ve just filtered out much of what Jesus actually says—based on your “love hermeneutic,” I guess.

  2. Brent, you make a lot of very good points in this post and others, and your contributions are adding a lot of value to this blog by drawing attention to other points of view. However, I think your points can stand on their own without getting personal. Thanks!

  3. I’m sure you’re right, Jean. And thanks. I decided this morning to back out of this blog because I can’t change my tone. I’m not the Incredible Hulk, but when I read this blog, I feel like my skin is turning green, and I don’t like this angry and defensive person I become. I’m not that person, or at least I’m trying not to be.

    So, I apologize to you, Jason, and I hope you’ll forgive me for my unseemly tone. God’s blessings on you and your ministry.

    • Brent, I would urge you to not abandon the blog, at last for a while. Jason has a lot of very good insights on a number of topics and I think he means well. His atonement theology, theology of biblical ethics and morality, and perhaps view of the authority of scripture are weaknesses, but hopefully a work in process. I hope he would also urge you to keep on challenging to make this blog a better forum.

      • Other than atonement theology, theology of biblical ethics and morality, and view of the authority of scripture I’m alright? 🙂

        • Absolutely! I love your insights into Christian art, and if I’m ever in the DC area, I would love to join you for some Pub Theology. I deeply respect your outreach efforts and many of the sermons you post are very inspirational. I’m glad I found your blog.

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