Friday, April 6, 2007

The Wrath of God

Father Dan Martins and I disagree on the issues of sexuality now rocking the Episcopal Church, but he is a kind, thoughtful priest, and I have learned to think hard about what he says. In an earlier post on Jeffrey Johns and atonement, I quoted at length from Father Dan. One of the comments he made was:

The wrath of God is not an appealing concept, and one can make a case that it has been overblown at some times within the tradition of Christian preaching and catechesis. But just because it's difficult doesn't mean we can cast it aside. Quite the contrary; it is the difficult parts of the faith that demand our closest attention and deepest struggle. If the historical development of Christian thought shows us anything, it is that we do the truth no service by resolving apparent contradictions too hastily or too cleanly. Deep truth--meta-truth--emerges from a sustained struggle, earnest wrestling, with notions that appear to be irreconcilable.

In my post, I suggested that I did not buy into the concept of a wrathful God. On reflection, I think that I was too quick to reject what Father Dan was trying to say.

Clearly the God of the Old Testament displayed great wrathfulness, but that may be the reflections of an agrarian tribal people rather than an accurate statement of the nature of God. I don't believe, for example, that God demanded the genocides described in Joshua and Judges. I view this as instead a record of religious rationalization for decisions made by the Hebrew people themselves.

To me, the New Testament is the better source of the nature of God. For Jesus was God incarnate, and we can learn much about the mystery of God's nature from the Gospel accounts. And, I must admit, that Father Dan has a point--the Gospels are surely filled with examples of Jesus' anger and indignation, and we can't ignore these episodes of anger and moral indignation in trying to understand the nature of God. After all, Jesus rebuked the disciples, expressed great anger at Pharisees, and his behaviour with the money changers at the Temple was anything but peaceful.

What is fascinating to me, however, is that Jesus is consistently loving and forgiving to ordinary sinners like prostitutes and tax collectors. He seems to save his wrath for the elite and the powerful, such as with the Pharisees in Mark 3:1-6 and with the money changers at the Temple in John 2:13-17 , Matthew 21:12-13, Mark 11:15-18, Luke 19:45-46) . And this same anger directed at the powerful and elite is surely consistent with the wrath and anger we see in many of the Old Testament prophets (Amos and Micah certainly come to mind).

As Father Dan said, we need to wrestle with the tensions between our concept of God as all loving, and the examples of Jesus' wrath and indignation, and we do no service to ourselves by ignoring the tension.

What do you think?

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