5 – The Wrath of God

Home Learning Hub Violence in Scripture 5 – The Wrath of God
What happened in the Garden is similar to what happens in many families today. A child comes of age and decides to go his or her own way. He believes that the parents don’t have his best interests at heart. There are various degrees in which this happens, and it is often one of the most saddening experiences a parent can go through. This happened with God and he had to let it happen, because if he stood in the way, then the person would never learn for himself the knowledge of the truth.

This is where the “devil’s advocate” steps into the Garden, or into our lives, and says, “Your creator doesn’t love you.” His aim is to separate the creation from the creator, so he can then fill our heads with further destructive ways.

Once this happens, the next step is for guilt to set in. The person becomes conscious of the selfcentred decisions he has made, and of his disloyalty to his creator, and therefore becomes ashamed. This results in a rift formed in their previous close relationship. This rift doesn’t come from God’s side, but from man’s. As in the Garden, man hears God coming and hides behind the bush. It is from behind the bush, in his guilt and fear, that man now views God. He sees God as angry, condemning and punishing, because this is what he feels he deserves. This view of God isn’t a true view, but is a reflection upon God that comes from our own view of ourselves.

This guilt becomes one of the most destructive forces in human existence and history. It becomes a place of captivity for humankind. Man must find a way out of it. One way is to hide form God and try to make it on our own knowledge. Another way is to blame others, to transfer the guilt onto those around us. We see this immediately, with Adam and Eve’s response, as it is said, “Adam blamed the woman, the woman blamed the serpent, and the serpent didn’t have a leg to stand on.”

Guilt becomes one of the main sources of violence in our fallen world. It results in constant bloodshed. Seeing sin in others and cleansing that sin through punishment of the others, is a very good way of satiating our own conscience and also the conscience of our wider communities. This guilt, the accusing voice, has become the satan of our societies, working his destructive plans through the world.

We have built whole religious systems of this guilt. It is the source of our sacrificing and scapegoating practices, not only to appease our own consciences, but also to appease offence in our communities. It is the basis of the law of Moses, to limit and appease this wrath that works within us. It is wrath at self, which we transfer and pass on to each other. This sacrificial/law based culture is truly a satanically inspired culture.

But this law is what we chose. We use it to try to balance our books with God. But we fall short of it. And so the law keeps on working wrath in us, God says (Romans 4-5, and he was speaking there about our conscience), and as we transfer our guilt to others, the law continues to work wrath throughout our societies.

The surprise of the gospel is that the offence is ours. God isn’t offended. That’s why he came out of the separated holy place we put him, and why he came to us in incarnation and visited us in our homes, and forgave and healed us on our streets and died for us: to show us he isn’t offended and he welcomes us back home.

This trick is, how can God redeem man in such a place. When the accuser lives inside their conscience, separating them from the God who loves them, how can God bring them back, and 28 restore that relationship? He can’t do it by force, because this would play into the hands of the accuser as unjust. He has to let the accuser have his day and defeat him on his own turf.

This is the cross. God comes into our accusing satanic culture and becomes the victim of that accusation himself, suffers and dies. It’s a master stroke. Self-giving is always the only way to expose an accuser. In dying, God proves his love for us and sets our conscience free from guilt and delivers satan out of our hearts. This is of course if we want this reconciliation. By the cross, we know we are forgiven and loved by God and this is the path for us to return on, for the healing and restoration in every part of lives. But those who don’t want that and prefer the selfishness and destruction of their own way, are free to continue on that path.

And all this shows how we misread the Genesis narrative. We see God from behind the bush, seeing him as angry and vengeful. We see the curse narrated in Genesis 3 as a list of punishments for our disloyalty to God. But all the while God just wants what is best for us, despite the accusations to the contrary. A person said recently, “I am sorry that I broke God’s rule and upset him.” The thing for each of us to see, is that God just wants what is good for us. He is out for us, for our futures, for our wellbeing. He is not out to give us rules.

Have you ever listened to an audio Bible? I heard one with an angry voice. God came into the Garden, and angrily demanded. “Adam, where are you? Who told you that you were naked? Now I am going to do this, this and this to you!” This is a voice angry at the sin and ready to punish it. It’s a voice of someone thinking of them self and how they have been wronged.

But then I threw that audio Bible out and got another one with a different voice. The text was the same, but the meaning was very different. Now the voice was that of a parent. The voice was that of one deeply concerned for the wellbeing of his creation, and ready to lay down his life to get that creation restored; not just restored, but even lifted higher than before. It’s the voice of the father of the prodigal son. But we would be deaf to that voice and would not hear that voice until Jesus would come, who demanded no sacrifice and who had no wrath.

This is one of the ways wrath works in the Old Testament. Throughout the Old Testament, we think we see an angry God who must visit his punishment upon someone. Jesus came to show us the true God, and no one recognized him. The Pharisees preached the first god, and Jesus said concerning the true God that they had neither known him, nor seen him, at any time.

God is constantly on trial before the cosmic courts. The actual description of these courts is hard to pin down. The members of these courts are called principalities and powers, or the sons of God. This often means the high opinions of mankind. Today, we call it being judged by history. God’s justice is always being scrutinized by the opinions of man, whether or not these opinions are being motivated by satan.

The principle critique is whether God is being fair. Is he showing favouritism? This was the trial God was under in the book of Job. It was said, by the sons of God, that Job only “loved” God because God blessed him. If this blessing was removed, Job would “curse God to his face.” The allegation was that God didn’t really have any true followers; that God had no righteous business in the affairs of men, to save any, or to save the world; that God had no right of protection over any people, because there was no love in the world – hatred ruled the day and God had no right in preventing this hatred from overflowing into Job’s household and destroying him. “God must let down his hedge of protection over Job, if God was just.”

In the book of Zechariah 3, it was this same allegation that came against God, in regard to Joshua the High Priest of Israel. Israel were returning, in part, from their captivity in Babylon, and satan was challenging the legitimacy of this return. “Israel had broken their covenant with God… God had no right to show them favour and return them to their land.” God debunked this satanic, accusative claim. He said that he had taken upon himself the sufferings of his covenant with Israel, and therefore he would show kindness to whom he wanted. But as for justice, Israel would not be treated with favouritism. Judgement would still come to their house, just as to any other nation.

This is how the discussion on justification begins in the book of Romans. In chapter 3, the accuser begins: “God is unjust for judging Israel, if their sin glorifies him.” And conversely, “God cannot justly judge the world if he doesn’t judge Israel, but shows them favouritism.” This is how Paul’s discussion on justification is launched. It is a defence of God. God hasn’t overridden the punishment, or wrath, of the law, but instead he has taken it upon himself, on the behalf of his people, those who believe.

This isn’t unjust, because the process still requires repentance. The people who believe show the fruits of that faith, like Job did. Our lives vindicate God at the cosmic courts. God forgives us for past sin, but our transformed lives show God hasn’t bypassed the law, but rather fulfilled its just requirements, through our new kingdom of God orientated lives. In the end, satan is without one plea.

This is how the discussion concluded in Romans 8, after it has been seen that God has justified us and also the Spirit has glorified us, meaning he has renewed our righteous walk in the world: “Who shall lay any charge against God’s people? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns (where is the accuser now?). It is Christ who died and is now even raised, and is at the right hand of God standing on our behalf.”

So the text shows us that the “wrath of God”, Paul is speaking about in Romans, is one where God is laying down his life for those accused. He is then working in our hearts by grace to restore a righteous living. So whether it’s the law, or whether it’s the lifestyle of believers, that God is being accused over, he is found to be just. Satan is the accuser Jesus saved us from. The cross is not saving us from God. God is the justifier.

Let’s carry this discussion on through another passage of Paul, in Thessalonians. I mentioned this passage in an earlier chapter, but here I want to look at the language used in Hebrew culture, when Paul speaks on the topic of God’s wrath.

“Therefore we ourselves boast of you among the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith during all your persecutions and the afflictions that you are enduring. This is evidence of the righteous judgment of God, and is intended to make you worthy of the kingdom of God, for which you are also suffering. For it is indeed just of God to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to give relief to the afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus. These will suffer the punishment of eternal destruction, separated from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of his might, when he comes to be glorified by his saints and to be marvelled at on that day among all who have believed, because our testimony to you was believed.” (2 Thessalonians 1:4-10)

As mentioned in the first chapter of this book, people have rejoiced over this passage, through our church history. The passage seems to celebrate God’s retributive anger, especially against nonchurch people. People have seen themselves as God’s avengers, going forth into the nations to punish the ungodly. So many times this passage has been used as a licence to kill and persecute, for 30 those viewing themselves as “God’s armies.” How wrongly this passage has been understood. The passage has been taken in the Greek sense, of the Greek god of war, Ares, sending us forth in his name. This theology is seen in Western war theory to this present day. However, God is saying nothing remotely like this in this passage.

The text is to be understood in its Hebrew background, as Paul wrote it. It is the same story as we saw in Job and in Romans. God is being justly vindicated by the courts of history. The people he has justified by faith have shown the righteousness of that faith in their lives, by suffering in persecution. Rather than retaliating, they have loved and served their enemies. Surely, there can be no accusation against them, nor against their God. And by this lifestyle of his believers it is seen that God’s judgment against those who persecute them is also just.

But the recompense of God, in this Hebrew language, is not God personally punishing these people, but rather his handing them over to their own fate. He saved his people, but he didn’t save the wicked. This is his judgement. And it is just.

The kind of language Paul uses here is normal, Hebrew style, apocalyptic language. That is, it is symbolic. We are taking the scripture very wrongly when we have not read it in its Hebrew intention. Terms for judgement, like fire and destruction, are used, but in the Hebrew mind, these do not represent God’s personal destruction of his enemies. They do not represent in any way at all, either God’s own direct violence, or a violence God has inspired in the hearts of people to carry out against others. The violence and destruction in no way at all comes from God. He is completely separate from any form of violence. His coming in the flesh, in Jesus, shows us this.

It’s amazing how we can read passages like this and feel they celebrate a type of retributive nature in God. How opposite this is to Jesus, who is the very image and likeness of God. When the disciples wanted to call down fire from heaven against the sinners, Jesus replied that they did not know what spirit was speaking through them. It was not the Spirit of God. Jesus rebuffed the idea that God was in some way the one who executed judgement against people by his own acts of destruction. This was not at all in Jesus and it is not at all in God.

Contrary to this, God claims: “I take no delight in him who perishes. My heart is that they turn and live.” This is always God’s heart, to the very end. He is never desiring that any perish. This is why we are told to love our enemies, to pray for those who persecute us and to do good to those who mistreat us. So that we may be like God, for this is what he does. He does nothing other than this good to his enemies.

From the Hebrew background, the way in which the judgement of God is exercised is very clearly shown. Paul expressed this in Romans 1-2. This is one of those places in scripture in which theology is carefully explained. In regards to God’s wrath or judgment, Paul reflected the same ideas as does the book of Job. God’s judgement is God handing people over to their own ways; it is removing his hedge of protection around them; it is giving them over to their own steadfast resolutions, after constant and long pleading with them to change. In the end God allows man his will, because this is love also. He can’t make man do what is good for himself. He created man to make his own decisions. This is love.

The judgement of God is when God stops striving with man; when he stops pleading with our conscience. It is when our conscience is past hearing and past responding to God’s call to change. Then we are left to our own ways and devices. Then we bring upon ourselves the fruit of our own ways. This is the judgment of God; his handing us over to ourselves. It is a most terrifying thing and it is described in the Hebrew apocalyptic literature in terrifying symbols.

This is what Paul was describing in 2 Thessalonians 1. He was speaking about the judgment coming on Jerusalem in his own generation. We can see it in James, in Peter, in John, Jude and the Revelation. The Jews of Jerusalem, after hearing the gospel and the constant call of repentance from all the Prophets, from John the Baptist, from Jesus, and from the church, would finally be handed over to themselves. Horrible civil war broke out among them and then the brutality of the Roman army came against them to bring peace. The suffering was immense, but it was in no way motivated by God. Rome was motivated by greed, for empire and wealth. The rulers of Jerusalem were motivated by the same thing. God was motivating none of them to bring about what came to pass. It was entirely from man, from start to finish.

God’s judgement was that he handed them over to their own destruction, and he saved with eternal life those who repented and who served their fellow man in love, as God does, and according to the new kingdom God is building in the world. And this judgement was just. And it was necessary to save and renew his creation. This is how God acts in history, and will act still in our world, until his promises of a renewed world come to pass. In Hebrew style, apocalyptic language, this judgment is depicted by symbols of the Lord coming on clouds, or of fire. These symbols are all taken from the Old Testament, where they are used repeatedly, and they are never literal.

Coming back to the book of Job, we see the same issues unfolding, as we see in Thessalonians; God’s justice in world affairs on trial. Satan accuses God, claiming he must act against Job. Instead of destroying the accuser with violence, and becoming like satan himself, God allows this “devil’s advocacy” to be tried in history. This still happens today. The righteous will go through trials as history vindicates the program of the kingdom of God in renewing this world.

These trials don’t mean we are being judged by God, but that we are his servants, the same way Jesus served and overcame the enemy on the cross. We all have this calling. And if we love God, this calling shouldn’t seem strange to us. Satan has his way in this world because of sin. We have been redeemed from his destruction and we are now serving God in overcoming this accuser in our nations.

God gave permission to satan to come against Job, but to a limited degree. This attack occurred in different ways. One was the fire which fell from heaven. Another was a strong wind which came up against his house. Another was a horde of criminals that came in and destroyed his properties. We are not told what this fire was and how it came about. The meaning of the term “fire from heaven” is that it was a judgment from God. It doesn’t mean the fire literally came down from heaven upon the people. It means that God passed the judgement and removed his hedge of protection, allowing the calamity to come in.

The text is specific that it wasn’t God who was doing this. God wasn’t the “destroyer.”

The text is clear that satan motivated the hearts of those who came against Job, and he was entirely the one who brought the destruction. It is unclear to us still how he can influence wind, etc. I am not sure that he can directly. But if God, moved by the accuser, removes his keeping hand from our world, things like this can happen. Weather patterns in the world are in large ways impacted by the greed of man, in our environmental degradation. This is very plain to see. Just fly across the Sahara Desert and feel the strong winds on a clear day. Man, over the years, has done much to destroy these environments.

It is plain in Hebrew text that this is what the judgement or wrath of God means. It is God handing man over to his own destruction. It is his removing of the hedge. I am convinced this is what happened in the Flood. When you read the text in Genesis carefully, it is clear to what extent 32 mankind destroyed the world. It happened over a long period of time. Everything was destroyed by his greed, his wars, his empires, his killing. Not only humanity and animal life, but also all of the vegetation. Look how wars have destroyed the land in Israel over the years. And that is minimal compared to what happened before the Flood. There was a large population. There was no goodness. Every thought of man was wicked all the time. Somehow this destruction unlocked weather patterns in the world that brought about this deluge.

God’s judgment was to remove his hand and allow it to come, in order to save his creation. God is not the destroyer. Man is. God is the saviour.

The recent cinema movie about Noah shows this in graphic details. It’s funny that many people decried this movie as environmentalism. It just shows what an un-holistic “gospel” we have developed in recent years.

In the deluge, God removed his hand, and allowed human activity to run its course upon nature. He took away his grace, his protective hedge. He didn’t kill the people. Man did it to himself. The language says God sent the flood, but in Hebrew culture the meaning is clear. Just as with Job, it means God opened the door by removing his hedge.

The same is the case with the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. The point comes, in which God can no longer sustain a just case for leniency, when he must allow the accuser his rights. Sodom and Gomorrah had come to the point that God could not uphold a case for their survival, and so he took away his hedge.

This is judgement in the Hebrew view, in the Hebrew texts of the scripture. But God did not destroy Sodom, expect in the Hebrew sense of the word, in that his rule in heaven passed the decree that allowed it. This is the fear of the Lord. It was man who destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, by opening the door through their continued sin. “Fire from heaven” means that God passed the decree that allowed it. It does not mean that God did it. Sin brings about its own destruction in the end.

This is the meaning of the term “wrath of God” in the Wilderness wanderings of Israel. Satan was daily accusing God of favouritism. “How can you judge Egypt and bring out the Hebrew people who are likewise sinners, just like the Egyptians? This is favouritism.” Satan was tempting and then accusing Israel all through the Wilderness wanderings, building a case for the “wrath of God:” permission to destroy.

Satan was accusing God based on God’s own principles of justice, trying to destroy God’s attempts to renew the world. Satan is after the destruction of the whole of creation. The destroying angel was present in Egypt at the Passover, and according to Paul, it was the same destroyer who brought these calamities upon Israel throughout their Wilderness wanderings. It wasn’t God. God is the author of life. Satan is the destroyer, through temptation, accusation and then the legal case to have the hedge of protection removed, to give man over to his own self destructive devices. This is judgement.

God is not a god of wrath or anger in the human sense of the term. Anger is used as an anthropomorphism in scripture, to warn mankind of the consequences of sin, in a language we understand. But God is not a man, nor is he a Greek god, and he does not have our human tendencies.

It’s time we stop supporting our anger by an appeal to God’s anger and start seeing God’s anger instead as compassion, suffering and calling sinners to repentance and love. This is the way we also should express our anger at the destructive forces of the world. We show compassion to sinners and 33 to our enemies, to care for them, to show them God’s love, which has saved us. We don’t accuse them and then destroy them.

God hates sin and destruction and what it does to people, and his response is to call us out of it, calling us by his own cross. Our anger at the sin in the world is to be expressed by “com-passion:” which means “to suffer with,” as we call ourselves and others out of this form of behaviour.

The anger of God, as seen in Jesus, is carried out through serving our enemies. If we are angry at sin, we do the opposite, which is to love and help those who are overtaken by it in this wold. And there is no use appealing to Jesus’ cleansing of the temple, or his harsh worlds against the Jews. These actions were aimed at us, God’s people, calling us to serve our enemies, as God does. Jesus was warning us, that if we don’t serve our enemies, then we will have our part with them in the end. And in the temple, Jesus took a small shepherd’s whip to move the animals, not to beat them and not to whip any people with it.