God doesn’t put slugs in your ears to make you his willing slave… the wrath of God is not the wrath of Khan. But what exactly is it?
It’s biblically inescapable, for one thing. I don’t see any way around it — I mean the doctrine. If we accept the Bible, we need to accept that God has wrath. It’s not just in the Old Testament either. Jesus talks more about hell than any Old Testament writer.
Some folks try to explain wrath away by arguing that those who end up in hell have really chosen to be there. By rebelling against God, they are getting exactly what they want: eternal separation from him. This makes it seem like God has nothing to do with it, that they just end up there as some sort of natural consequence. Biblical language usually suggests that it’s God actively putting them there. Their choice does seem to have something to do with it — God giving them over to their sinful desires — but it’s not like God is passive about it.
We don’t like this idea. Why would a loving God want to put anyone in hell, we ask? I’m not sure “want” is the best word choice. A loving parent doesn’t want to discipline their child. Then again, hell isn’t discipline… discipline is all the stuff God does before we die, in order to turn our hearts towards him (I first wrote “hurts”… interesting typo). Hell doesn’t offer any chance of repentance. In a way, it makes sense that there has to be a final day… good parents generally never stop giving their child another chance, but since parents and child are both mortal, there’s a final day for them, too. We think we’d like God to give people infinite second chances, but we don’t really know what that would be like. Can there be heaven as long as there’s uncertainty about anyone? Don’t we need some closure at some point? This is starting to make sense to me, although for one thing I’m not sure time will function in eternity like it does here, and for another I’m still not sure I like it. Then again, I don’t think God asks us to like the idea of hell… I’d better leave this subtopic before I start running circles in it.
But what is wrath?
We already know God and sin/evil don’t get along. They’re opposites, mutually exclusive, like light and dark. But we can’t use a yin yang style balance to describe the opposition of God and sin/evil. Wrath suggests not mere difference, but active opposition — God opposes sin and evil, and sin and evil oppose God.
Is this opposition anger or hatred or both or neither? Can God burn with passionate wrath against sin and evil without hating the person? (Does he even hate the devil?) Maybe he burns with wrath precisely because he loves the person and wants to destroy what’s destroying the person. In that case the wrath of God is not against the person but against their sin. And yet the biblical language doesn’t explicitly make that distinction… it seems to set people as the objects of God’s wrath. Hmmm.
Christians talk about such a distinction: love the sinner but hate the sin. Hell looks like hating the sinner. Why can’t God remove the sin he hates, and save the sinner? Hmmm… well, that’s what he does for those who are saved. So the question becomes, why isn’t everyone saved? Some will answer that it’s because God won’t force his will on anyone. But those of us in covenant / reformed circles believe that we can only be saved through God’s intervening gift of faith. Isn’t that forcing his will on us? What else is “irresistable grace” (one of the points of Calvinism) but forcing his will? This may be yet another reason for me to adopt a hybrid Calminianism… that somehow it’s both predestination AND free will.
My final thought on this today is this: why did Jesus have to suffer God’s wrath? Is his wrath like a bomb that, once released, cannot be recalled, but only redirected? I would have thought that Jesus’ death, paying the debt for sin, would have cancelled the need for wrath. Is God like one of those people that has to hit a punching bag or throw something in order to relieve their anger?