Rejoice in God’s Wrath

Felix offered an interesting response to my post, Yancey, Kushner, and Prayer. I was complaining about the existence of evil and life’s unfairness (as usual), and Felix replied as follows:

“That is why I stubbornly believe in an ‘Apocalypto’ —which means an end of an era of this age. God at some time in human history (which you and I may or may not see in the flesh) will balance the books. It is His nature. For anyone to coldly and stoicly argue the opposite does an injustice to the ‘justice and fairness’ of God. Plus having a belief in God balancing the books keeps me sane, though others seem to enjoy being afraid of the concept.”

I agree with Felix overall. The problem of evil does pose a significant challenge to Christianity, but (unlike atheism) Christianity at least offers the hope that God will bring evil to an end.

And that is why there are people in the Bible who actually rejoice in God’s wrath. Isaiah 14:5-7 says about the fall of Babylon:

“The LORD has broken the staff of the wicked, the scepter of rulers, that struck down the peoples in wrath with unceasing blows, that ruled the nations in anger with unrelenting persecution. The whole earth is at rest and quiet; they break forth into singing.”

Similarly, the final verse of Nahum says concerning the destruction of Nineveh, the capital of Assyria:

“There is no assuaging your hurt, your wound is mortal. All who hear the news about you clap their hands over you. For who has ever escaped your endless cruelty?”

As these passages make clear, Assyria and Babylon wreaked destruction and terror on a lot of nations. So it is no surprise that these nations are happy about their oppressors’ downfall. Not only do they have a sense of satisfaction that justice has been done and that God cares about their pain, but they also get a respite from oppression. What victim wouldn’t be happy about this? It’s like the defeat of the Empire in Return of the Jedi, or (more realistically) the deaths of Hitler and Saddam Hussein.

But here is my problem with the whole wrath issue, and here is why some may be afraid of the concept: For evangelicals, anyone without Jesus is going to hell. And this does not only apply to Hitler, Stalin, and Saddam Hussein. It applies to your nice Jewish or Buddhist neighbor, or that happy-go-lucky secularist you know who has problems with religion and church. Some of them are really good people who help others. And many are not particularly good or bad–they’re just regular people, like me. I have a hard time rejoicing in God’s wrath against them.

I often feel that, when evangelicals defend hell, they appeal to the worst examples of human wickedness. In Christian scholar N.T. Wright’s defense of the doctrine, for example, he refers to people who sell young girls as sex slaves. For N.T. Wright and other Christians, such activity cries out for justice.

But not everyone going to hell in evangelical doctrine is that bad.

At the same time, evangelicals have a point. If they are wrong, then there is a question that confronts us: How good do you have to be to go to heaven? And how bad do you have to be to go to hell? At least for evangelicals, one has to be perfect to go to heaven, period, and, since no one can reach perfection, we all need Christ as our personal Savior. Such a binary system seems less fuzzy than other systems.

About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting. I have degrees in fields of religious studies. I have an M.Phil. in the History of Biblical Interpretation from Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio. I also have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University.
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14 Responses to Rejoice in God’s Wrath

  1. FT says:

    This is all more the reason I look forward to the day when more Christian scholars that will embrace the concept of “divine perseverence” of God in which God makes a righteous provision for the unevangelized dead. At least with Tony Compolo in no way believes in that petty nonsense that people go to hell where they didn’t have a chance but go there because they rejected Jesus Christ.

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  2. James Pate says:

    Hey Felix,

    But an issue I have with that is this: In a sermon, Ron Dart talked about going to a woman’s home, and her husband was a big time Pentecostal. Ron Dart was grilling him on hell (or actually they were grilling each other), and he replied, “Everyone who dies not hearing the Gospel is saved.” Ron Dart responded, “Then why do you want to send out all those missionaries? To get people lost?”

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  3. FT says:

    The problem with preaching the gospel it has become “hell-o-centric” as opposed to “Christocentric”. You might want to check my post at http://lifeafterwcg2.wordpress.com/category/tony-campolo/ which leads to a Christianity Today link which discusses the topic we’re discussing. It remains my firm belief that God will make no provision under any circumstances to anybody who has persistently led a life of sin and was given every opportunity to make course corrections. That individual will have to face the eternal consquences of his actions that he did in the body.

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  4. James Pate says:

    Good article! I hope to eventually read McLaren’s book on hell.

    When you say that the preaching of the Gospel should be Christocentric rather than hell-o-centric, what do you mean? What do you emphasize in your own preaching of the Gospel?

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  5. FT says:

    What I am saying James is that we as Christians need to stop using the gospel as an escape hatch from hell. That is NOT good news. The good news is that we all have an opportunity be in the wonderful, glorious kingdom of Christ and to be LIBERATED from a dark, evil and oppressive kingdom of Satan the devil. This is what the good news needs to be centred on. Oh by, the way, I take the “Christus Victor” view of Atonement instead of Anselm’s penal substitution where Christ’s sacrifice appeases God’s anger. This is not a loving Father but a vindictive Law and Order Jack McCoy type.

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  6. James Pate says:

    Hi Felix,

    It seems like a lot of people who comment here like the Christus Victor model. I need to read more about it, personally.

    Personally, I think there are a lot of biblical ways to present the Gospel. Paul’s mission was to open the eyes of people under the power of Satan so they could be under the power of God, which is what I hear you saying. Yet, there is also “free from the wrath to come.” And, often in Acts, the message mostly centers on Jesus doing good and becoming exalted through resurrection–that is the reason to believe. And, also in Acts, Paul at times just told the story of his conversion. So there are a lot of models, and “flee from the wrath to come” is one of them.

    Another issue I have is this: I wonder where exactly Jesus fits in. And that applies to both the Anselm and the Christus Victor model. For Anselm, I wonder why Jesus had to die, when God was already forgiving sins in the OT. For what you have presented of the Christus Victor model, I also wonder why Jesus was necessary, since people in the Old Testament were also living righteous lives.

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  7. FT says:

    James,

    Again, I view the death and ressurection of Christ is an act of liberation for humanity from Satanic oppression. His return to make men totally free from death and sin will be mission accomplished. The people of the Old Testament were waiting for that liberation and yes there was righteous living in the Old Testament but the OT saints died, waiting for their reward. Christ came to make that reward certain.

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  8. James Pate says:

    That makes sense, Felix, since Christ’s resurrection is what leads to everyone else’s resurrection.

    I have another question about the Christus Victor model: Does it connect Christ’s death with atonement at all? What I’ve heard is that it involves the recreation of humanity or (in Brian McLaren’s description) Christ setting us an example of goodness. But does it relate to atonement or propitiation, things that the New Testament associates with Christ’s death?

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  9. Nathan K. says:

    Sorry; this post is probably going to be long and unfocused; I am trying to organize my own thoughts somewhat.

    I am probably pretty firmly in the category you describe as evangelical, James. That’s not to say that I do not struggle with the questions you are asking here– hell is one of several issues I have brought to God and asked “Why?” a lot of times, since I know many very good people who do not trust in Jesus, and I usually can’t blame them, in the sense that I would probably agree with them about religious matters if my experience were similar to theirs.

    God hasn’t told me the answer to how it works– I think that our ideas about hell, as well as heaven, are probably not entirely right and have gotten mixed up with some unbiblical notions over the centuries (but I am not studied in that area, so this isn’t really an answer). In the end, I must trust that the judge of the universe will do right, as Abraham put it.

    One thing that may be significant is that when we try to measure the guilt of others, we are usually thinking in terms of their offenses against each other (and comparing our own records to theirs). But the problem is our offenses against God, which seem to require a whole other level of punishment (I’m thinking of the mentions in some of the epistles about being enemies of God before coming to Christ.) It doesn’t seem like the situation is that dire based on what we can see, but if it weren’t, why would such a drastic measure as the death of God’s Son need to happen in order for reconciliation to take place?

    The most direct verse I can think of talking about the unevangelized is Romans 1:20, where Paul says that God has made his invisible attributes, eternal power, and divine nature evident through creation, and this leaves people “without excuse.” This makes me think of things like every culture having some sort of moral code, and the idea that people get from looking at the stars that there must be “something more.” That is not enough for people to know the way of salvation (how can they know Jesus’ name without hearing it?), but it is apparently enough to make them responsible before God to some degree.

    What that degree is, again, I don’t know. I think the Bible indicates in both the Old and the New Testament that greater knowledge of God brings greater responsibility, and I adamantly believe that God does not punish all sins the same, because I think both testaments also indicate that God distinguishes between lesser and greater sins.

    Sorry if I’m being frustratingly vague; as I said, these are questions I struggle with. Does this mean that those who die without hearing about Christ can still go to heaven? Is there such a thing as a “light” punishment in hell? I don’t know. I am left to rely on what I know of God’s character based on the Bible.

    He knows everyone’s heart.
    He is present even where people have never heard of him.
    He doesn’t want anyone to perish.
    He delights in giving mercy.
    He saves the ungodly.
    I can’t think of anyone else I would want to be making the decisions in such matters.

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  10. Nathan K. says:

    I also have a thought about one of your other questions, James.

    “For Anselm, I wonder why Jesus had to die, when God was already forgiving sins in the OT.”

    I believe that even when God forgave sins in the Old Testament, it was still ultimately on the basis of Christ’s sacrifice which was to come.

    I get this from the book of Hebrews, which says in 10:4 that the blood of animal sacrifices cannot take away sins.

    I also think that this was a part of Old Testament faith– that animal sacrifices were performed in obedience to God, but that this was still done in faith that looked forward to a greater, more perfect sacrifice.

    One passage I have heard in support of this is Psalm 51, which, according to the title, was written by David after he was confronted by the prophet Nathan about his sin of adultery with Bathsheba and murder of Uriah. Verses 16 and 17 of the psalm say

    “For you do not delight in sacrifice, otherwise I would give it; you are not pleased with burnt offering.
    The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken a contrite heart, O God, you will not despise.”

    What I have heard taught about this (though I confess that I am far from an expert in the Old Testament sacrificial system) is that the psalmist is exactly right; David’s crime of adultery and especially his planning of the murder of Uriah was not unintentional (there were sacrifices for unintentional sin); it was premeditated over the course of months and he knew that he was acting in defiance of God.

    David’s sin could not be covered by a sacrifice, so why did he believe that a broken spirit and contrite heart would be enough? I would argue that this could only be true if the atonement was ultimately going to be made in another way, in this case one that God would have to bring about himself.

    David’s response, then, was one of faith, similar to the faith of the Jewish people you referred to in your previous post that God would one day solve the problem of sin that had haunted their relationship with him for so long.

    I don’t know if that interpretation helps; thanks for the thought-provoking posts!

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  11. James Pate says:

    Hey there, Nathan!

    Actually, I like reading you thinking out loud, so to speak. And I want to make something else clear: even though I criticize evangelicals, they’re welcome here. In fact, I hope they keep commenting because I’m looking for answers.

    Your interpretation of Psalm 51 seems to appear in the New Testament. Hebrews 10:3-5 says, “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. Consequently, when Christ came into the world, he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me; in burnt offerings and sin offerings you have taken no pleasure.'”

    I’m not sure where Hebrews is getting that, since the Septuagint doesn’t say such a thing. But I’m sure it’s getting it from somewhere.

    I need to wrestle with what you said about the blood of Christ being applied retroactively to the Old Testament saints. I touched on that in my post, Zechariah 9:11: Blood: Part II, though in a scattered way. I appreciate any thoughts you can offer on that. But I need to organize my thoughts to write a more comprehensive post, and that may take a little time.

    But, as I think more and more, I realize that Christ gave us something that the OT people did not have. I don’t understand why Hebrews says that animal sacrifices did not take away sins, since they seemed to have done so in the Old Testament. But he offers an intriguing support for his argument–they didn’t take away sins because the Israelites had to keep offering them year after year, whereas Christ only needed to die once.

    But I’ll stop here for the time being. I’ll be wrestling with Jesus’ resurrection after church this morning, and I appreciate any thoughts you want to offer on that.

    BTW, are you a Lutheran pastor? Maybe I have you confused with someone else.

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  12. James Pate says:

    Actually, Nathan, I probably won’t write that post on the resurrection. I may save that for next Easter.

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  13. Nathan K. says:

    Thanks for your reply, James.

    The passage being quoted in Hebrews 10:5-7 is actually from Psalm 40:6-8. I do notice a difference between the wording of the two passages in my Bible (NASB) “My ears you have opened” becomes “A body you have prepared for me.”

    I haven’t studied the Septuagint, so I can only offer an explanation other than what’s in my Bible’s study notes written by John McArthur. He says that the writer of Hebrews was using the Septuagint version, and that the Greek translator had taken “My ears you have opened” as an idiom where the part stands for the whole (ear -> body).

    Probably a whole other matter than what you were asking about, but anyway. I do find the quoting of the OT in the NT interesting. I know the gospel writers do some things in their interpretations that would raise eyebrows if people did them today!

    No; I’m not a Lutheran pastor; that must be another Nathan K. I got a bachelor’s degree in Bible and physics at Cedarville University, a Christian college in Ohio. I found this blog through a group for people in the Cincinnati area with Asperger’s syndrome, which I have.

    Happy Easter! : )

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  14. James Pate says:

    Oh, THAT Nathan K. My mom gave me your e-mail address (if you’re the person I’m thinking about), but I haven’t gotten around to e-mailing you yet. I’m glad that we got to correspond through this blog. I read some of your comments on the Asperger’s forum, and I could identify with what you said about academia. Maybe we’ll get to meet in person sometime soon. I go to the Cincinnati Asperger’s meeting every month.

    I also like the MacArthur’s commentary. I have it on his Lifeworks library.

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