Archives For God’s Wrath

Grace and Justice

Jason Micheli —  June 20, 2016 — Leave a comment

13508867_1727468317501237_4081123759408282246_nFor the sermon this Sunday, I sat down with my good friend and congregant, Brian Stolarz, and the innocent man he got off of death row, Alfred Dewayne Brown. Dewayne is only the 13th exonoree from the state of Texas. Not only is it a story of Brian’s incredible challenge and the injustice done Dewayne, it’s also a story of the Church- both the big C Church that formed Brian into believing that the death penalty is unethical and our local congregation that sustained him during the decade he spent trying to free Dewayne.

Brian’s and Alfred’s story is told in Brian’s forthcoming book, Grace and Justice. Check it out on Amazon here.

Here’s the sermon:

imagesDeadly Sins and Atonement Theories are both on my mind and on the preaching docket this Lent.

This weekend I’ll have limited preaching time due to our Worship Through Service event, but I hope to give a few minutes to reflecting on how Wrath plays into our understanding of God and ourselves.

Spoiler: Jesus’ (the True Human) Wrath is most usually directed at mistreatment of the poor and marginalized.

I blame it on Dennis Perry, who gave me Aquinas to read as soon as I came to faith as a teenager, but I’ve always been troubled, theologically and intellectually, by the notion that salvation’s balance requires Jesus’ death to be paid to God.

Such a transaction- and that’s exactly the language used by proponents- posits a change in God’s disposition towards us because of Jesus’ suffering and death.

I’ve always found this problematic and partial because God, by (ancient) definition is immune to change.

God is not a god.

The God of ex nihilo fame is not a being within the universe. God is pure Essence. Perfect. Changeless. Eternal.

God, as John says, just is…LOVE.

God isn’t loving; God is LOVE with no potentiality. No room for any addition of anything. No cause, as the FIRST CAUSE, to be affected by anything.

God, for good and for ill, is not affected by us at all.

God just loves. Us. God’s creatures. Gratis. Just as we were created. Gratis. The gift never ceases to be given.

Which begs the question:

How is it possible that God is ‘offended’ by our Sin?

How is God’s mind, disposition or will changed by anything we do or don’t do?

The Bible speaks of God in the masculine, which we all recognize is an anthropomorphism made for communication’s sake.

Is it possible God’s anger, wrath, jealousy is also a necessary anthropomorphism made for very urgent, compelling reasons within the life of God’s People? To narrate their experience of the world and with God?

I understand the above will strike many as overly metaphysical, the oft-repeated if ill-informed indictment that metaphysics represents a Hellenization of the Biblical God. Understanding such a disagreement, I nonetheless assert that mine isn’t a solitary perspective but is one with at least half of Christian history behind it.

UnknownGiving articulation to that ancient Thomistic perspective is Herbert McCabe:

God, of course, is not injured or insulted or threatened by our sin.

So, when we speak of him forgiving, we are using the word “forgiving” in a rather stretched way, a rather far-fetched way. We speak of God forgiving not because he is really offended but accepts our apology or agrees to overlook the insult.

What God is doing is like forgiveness not because of anything that happens in God, but because of what happens in us, because of the re-creative and redemptive side of forgiveness.

All the insult and injury we do in sinning is to ourselves alone, not to God. We speak of God forgiving us because he comes to us to save us from ourselves, to restore us after we have injured ourselves, to redeem and re-create us.

We can forgive enemies even though they do not apologize and are not contrite. But such forgiveness … does not help them, does not re-create them. In such forgiveness we are changed, we change from being vengeful to being forgiving, but our enemy does not change.

When it comes to God, however, it would make no sense to say he forgives the sinner without the sinner being contrite.For God’s forgiveness just means the change he brings about in the sinner, the sorrow and repentance he gives to the sinner.

God’s forgiveness does not mean that God changes from being vengeful to being forgiving, God’s forgiveness does not mean any change whatever in God.

It just means the change in the sinner that God’s unwavering and eternal love brings about. … Our repentance is God’s forgiveness of us.

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 

544900_608245191477_257197599_n Scot Mcknight has this up over at his Jesus Creed site. This week Dennis continues our sermon series through Romans by looking at Romans 1.18-32 in which lists the symptoms of a creation suffering under God’s wrath, or, better put, suffering un-righteousness. Romans 1.18-32 is the antithesis to Paul’s thesis in 1.16-17.

Since ‘wrath’ is the subject, I thought I’d offer this reflection on God’s wrath from Amos 7.


I’m sure you’ll know what I mean when I say that being a pastor is a lot like having a family member who is constantly in the tabloids.

I mean: here I am with this public relationship with someone who routinely shocks and outrages a reliable percentage of the population. While I can only guess what kinds of questions relatives of Lindsay Lohan and Tiger Woods are forced to answer, I do know the feeding-frenzy kinds of questions I consistently have to suffer thanks to my relationship with a different sort of celebrity.


This week I found myself in a conversation with a Unitarian Universalist clergywoman named Janice. Interrogation might better describe our exchange. Her every question to me was like the glare and flash of a paparazzi’s camera.

For those who might not know- Unitarianism began a few hundred years ago during the Enlightenment. As such, it was very much a reflection of its time. The Unitarian movement sought to strip traditional Christianity of its primitive, out-dated and superstitious trappings.

In many ways, Unitarianism is like Christianity but with less vocabulary for you to memorize since words like Trinity and Incarnation and Atonement and Resurrection have all been kicked to the wayside.

Janice has long, unnaturally black hair. She was wearing a hippie-sort of linen dress, had tattooed clover wrapped around her arm and, appropriate to her enlightened tradition, she was wearing not one but at least five different religious symbols on her hemp necklace.

She had a notepad on her lap which she wrote in whenever I spoke, as if she were the therapist and I was the delusional, misguided patient. She even kept referring to me as a ‘pre-enlightened’ Christian.

Now I’m sure you all know someone in your family or in your neighborhood who is a Unitarian and I’m sure they’re wonderful people. And I know there’s a Unitarian Church just down the road from us, and I’m sure that it’s filled with wonderful people. So the last thing I want to do is offend anyone when I tell you that I just wanted to slap Janice.

We were sitting around a coffee table: Janice and me and three other clergy from varying denominations. I was the last one to show so I got stuck sitting in a low, awkward butterfly chair with everyone else towering over me. And obviously given my height I’m sensitive to such things.

The chair was narrow across too; it kept me from being able to cross my legs or move my arms and only increased my sense of being trapped and on trial.

Because our meeting had no clear ending, the conversation unraveled quickly with Janice electing herself grand inquisitor. So with me trapped in my butterfly chair, like a reporter from the Enquirer Janice fired question after question at me:

Do you still believe in the Resurrection?

Surely you don’t still believe in Jesus’ miracles do you?

You don’t seriously think Jesus was God-in-the-flesh?

And the virgin birth…don’t tell me you…?

With her every question and my every yes she grew more incredulous.

How do you still hold to a pre-enlightened faith, she pressed, given everything we now know about the universe?

As if to teach me a thing or two about the universe, Janice’s next round of questions proved that she could make time stand still.

She kept me on the defensive, wanting me to explain every inconsistency and every troubling passage in scripture, every wicked thing ever done in Christ’s name, every theological claim we make in here that can’t be proven empirically. And the whole time she kept writing in her notebook!

Towards the end of the interrogation, Janice looked up from her pen and paper and she took a sort of cleansing breath and sighed, and, adopting a good-cop tone of voice, she said: I just don’t see how anyone can reconcile the God of the Old Testament with the God of the New.

I kept my mouth shut. By that point I knew exactly what I wanted to tell her but it wasn’t of a theological nature. Besides, I was afraid I might need her help to get out of the butterfly chair.

So I didn’t say anything.

Then she looked at me and she said:

Okay, you tell me. When you read the Old Testament what sort of God do you see?

As much as I wanted to slap her and throw her through the window, the truth is on some days, with certain passages of scripture, it’s a good question.

It’s a good question today because when you read through the Book of Amos you might end up with an answer that troubles you. You might decide that what you see in this book is a God who is incongruent with the God you know in your heart. You might conclude that the God who speaks a Word to Amos can’t be the same One who said to the Father ‘Forgive them for they know not what they do.‘

What do you see? It’s a good question.

God asks Amos that same question in today’s text. And in that moment, what Amos sees is how Israel doesn’t measure up, doesn’t make the grade, doesn’t meet God’s expectations. But a ‘plumb line‘ is not the only thing Amos has seen in these seven chapters.

Amos is a prophet, which means ‘seer.‘ Prophets see what will come to pass.

And God has given Amos a lot to see.

Amos has seen God sending locusts to devour Israel’s crops. Amos has seen God ordering a shower of fire to eat up the land. He’s seen God’s anger roaring like a lion. He’s seen God shipping the Israel off into exile. He’s seen God made nauseous by the worship of his People.

And in today’s text he sees God vowing never again to pass Israel by, in other words, never again to forgive.

What do you see?

The hard fact is that in the Book of Amos God threatens to kill and destroy, God promises to send fire and pestilence and famine.

The hard fact is that in the Book of Amos there are 28 different verbs to describe God destroying what he’s created.

The hard fact is that even when you come to the end of the Book of Amos there is no word of hope.

There is no good news.

That wherever God’s mercy is mentioned it’s done so in the past tense because God’s mercy is all dried up, his patience has run out. God’s no longer willing to wait for us to change.

There’s a lot to SEE in Amos.

But I wonder- is that all there is to see?

I spent time not long ago in Cambodia, visiting with our mission partners there. I think it must be because of the language barrier I experienced there but most of my memories from Cambodia are visual. Most of my memories are of what I saw.

And so I don’t recall many conversations I had there. I don’t remember much of what I or anyone else said, but I do remember seeing.

I remember seeing:

Young men fishing for food in a thickly polluted pond.

Toddlers playing tag barefoot in an alley strewn with broken glass while others their age cried for breakfast.

School children walking home from school and disappearing into the smoke and smog of a garbage dump- because that’s where home was for them.

I remember seeing.

An old woman- a Sunday School teacher- sitting in a dark, hot corner of a decrepit old apartment building.

The hands that reached out for bread as I served the Eucharist- rough hands, broken and worn-down hands, wrinkled hands, dirty hands.

Teenage girls praying frantically and loudly and with tears on their cheeks, leaving no mystery about how hard their lives were.

Shanty towns filled with the poor and the forgotten, displaced from their homes in the city to make room for ‘progress.’

What sticks with me is what I saw.

And I’d like to be able to tell you that my reaction to seeing all of that was a sense of fulfillment that despite all of the challenges there this church is doing so much to help. I’d like to be able to tell you that my reaction to seeing all of that was one of humility- humility that the people I met there had such faith and joy despite having nothing.

And even though those things are all true; they’re not what I felt upon seeing everything I saw.

No, what I felt first, what seeing made me feel:

Anger and Indignation – that so many could be forgotten and so many others refuse to see them.

Impatience and Exasperation – that things are still so far from what God intends and so many assume there’s no other alternative.

I wanted to Judge…someone… anyone.

When you read the Old Testament, what sort of God do you see? Janice asked me.

I knew what she was getting at.

I knew she was hoping to checkmate me into seeing that the God of the Old Testament is angry and vindictive and impatient, that He frequently threatens to punish and to destroy and to call off creation completely and start over, that this God bears little resemblance to the One who, while we were yet sinners, died for us.

And the truth is-

If that’s what you’re looking for, then there’s plenty of examples to find. In the Book of Amos especially.

But if you read through scripture and see only an angry, arbitrary God,

then you’re not seeing all there is to see.

We think of prophets as future-predictors, as fortune-tellers. We think of prophets as people that God empowers to see what God will one day do. And so Amos sees plagues of locusts and famines and showers of fire and punishment and destruction.

But as much as that, prophets are people empowered by God to see the present, to see what God sees right now, to see how things are today, to see the things we refuse and choose not to see.

And so when you read through scripture, when you read through the Old Testament, when you read through the Book of Amos you don’t see a God who is arbitrary or petulant or vindictive.

You instead see a God who is righteously angry.

Angry over the way his people use violence on one another. Angry because they value silver and gold more than each other. Indignant for how they obey convention over covenant and for how they’re more faithful to the propriety of their worship than to the message of their scripture.

What you see is a God who is angry because His People refuse to see the poor, refuse to lift up the weak, refuse to remember the forgotten.

When you read the Old Testament, what sort of God do you see? Janice asked.

And I didn’t take the bait. I didn’t say anything.

After a moment or two she closed her notebook and, sounding disappointed, she said to everyone around the table: ‘Well, I don’t see how a loving God could ever be angry.’

And struggling to get out of the butterfly chair, I replied: ‘I don’t see how he couldn’t be.’

IMG_0593The Satisfaction or Substitutionary theory of the atonement is what many Christians take to be the only understanding. It’s the perspective you hear before altar calls or read in religious tracts.

This metaphor is rooted in biblical passages that suggest vicarious suffering as the way in which human sin is redeemed (Isaiah 53); that is, Jesus suffers in our place and we benefit from it. 

Paul writes using this metaphor, especially in 2 Corinthians and Romans. This theory, despite its omnipresence today, wasn’t that widespread in Christianity until it was popularized by St Anselm in his book, Why Did God Become Human? 

     Though many Christians assume this is the only biblical model for atonement, it’s critical to note that Anselm bases his understanding in the vassal-lord relationship of Medieval feudalism. Anselm draws a parallel between judicial and legal imagery used by Paul to the relationship of serfs and lords.

Sin, according to Anselm, is like the social disobedience shown to a lord. Just as satisfaction for the ‘debt of honor’ must be a paid to a serf’s lord, so too does God demand satisfaction for our sin. Like a Medieval lord, Anselm believes our sin offends God and God’s honor.

We’re guilty of offending God.

Sin is a debt that needs to be forgiven.

As Paul says, the punishment our offense merits is death.

     This theory focuses on Jesus’ suffering on the way to and on the Cross. In this understanding, Good Friday is the day that changes history.

It’s called the substitution theory for reasons that will be obvious.

Substitution imagines salvation as a law court in which you and me and all of humanity stand in the dock as the accused, on trial for the evil we do to one another and to God’s creation.

     God is the Judge.

The angry, wrathful Judge.

These are charges that we’re guilty of and our guilt is so severe that there’s no recompense we could ever make. What we deserve is eternal punishment, for God to just wipe his hands of us and be done with this thing called creation.

But Jesus suffers in our place.

      This is also called the objective theory because Jesus’ suffering changes how God sees us whether we believe or not.

The Protestant Reformers used the term ‘double imputation’ in reference to this theory of the atonement.

Human sin is ‘imputed’ to Christ, who had no sin himself, and Christ’s righteousness in turn is imputed to us, who have no righteousness on our own. Double Imputation recalls Paul’s letter to the Corinthians when he writes that ‘God made Jesus to be sin.’ Christ’s death objectively imputes Jesus’ righteousness to it. It objectively, once for all time, how God regards us. It reconciles, literally it sets things right.

This theory takes seriously the sin in the world. After all, who could look at the newspaper or travel to a third world country and not think God has ample reason to be ticked off at us. 

This theory also takes seriously the nature of Jesus’ death. Why is it, after all, that Jesus dies on a cross and seems to foreshadow from the beginning that this is what would happen to him? According to this theory, Jesus dies on a cross because its the lowliest, more forsaken death we can experience. Jesus dies the sort of death we deserve. It’s not the extent of suffering Jesus endures, it’s the lowly, abandoned nature of his death.

On the other hand, this theory can focus so much on the necessity of Jesus’ suffering and the severity of his suffering that God can seem more determined by his wrath than by his grace.

Does God, for example, really need to have his wrath satisfied?

The notion that our sin can offend God seems to put our sin in the driver’s seat. 

Most importantly, this theory seems to put God in contradiction with God’s self. God’s mercy is at odds with God’s righteousness. Grace seems conditional on Christ’s act of sacrifice. It seems to imply that incarnation is a last ditch effort to save humanity, that prior to Christmas and Cross God was not inclined to forgive humanity.

     What emerges therefore is a depiction of God that is at times distasteful. It presents a God who seems to need to be reconciled with us rather than a God we need to be reconciled to.

Think again of the tracts passed out by evangelists, the ones that describe God’s wrath, how death is what we deserve in God’s eyes, how God made Jesus die in our place. To someone with no other knowledge of Christianity, do you really this rendering would lead them to think God is a God of infinite love and peace?


 Karl Barth, a 20th century theologian, addressed some of these troubles while trying to recover the power of the substitutionary understanding of the atonement. Primarily Barth did it by more explicitly grounding the atonement in an act of the Trinity. It’s not, therefore, that God makes Jesus in our place; it’s that God-in-Christ suffers in our place.

     To say God is a wrathful Judge is not incorrect but it is incomplete. God, as Jesus Christ, God in the flesh, is the Judge Judged in Our Place. Whatever wrath God feels towards us for our sin, God assumes and suffers for us. In this way, God has always been, eternally, the God ready to die for us. God’s wrath is subordinate, even on the cross, to God’s love and mercy. 

     The cross, the sign of abject humiliation, is actually exaltation. It’s the complete and final disclosure of who this God really is.