One of the things that Christianity most fundamentally teaches is that God is loving. We all find divine love attractive. So we should – if we regard God’s love as anything other than overwhelmingly beautiful, we misunderstand it.
However, we’re also aware that the Bible contains a lot about God’s anger and wrath. This seems rather less attractive – in fact, it seems rather repulsive. Liberal theologians often try to ignore it, saying that the Bible simply tells us untruths about God. However, even if it were legitimate to treat parts of the Bible in this way, it would be hard to do that with wrath – there’s just so much of it in there!
Other theologians point out that divine wrath can easily be seen as a part of his love. For example, the theologian Miroslav Volf writes:
I used to think that wrath was unworthy of God. Isn’t God love? Shouldn’t divine love be beyond wrath? God is love, and God loves every person and every creature. That’s exactly why God is wrathful against some of them. My last resistance to the idea of God’s wrath was a casualty of the war in the former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come. According to some estimates, 200,000 people were killed and over 3,000,000 were displaced. My villages and cities were destroyed, my people shelled day in and day out, some of them brutalized beyond imagination, and I could not imagine God not being angry. Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandparently fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators’ basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.
Once we accept the appropriateness of God’s wrath, condemnation, and judgement, there is no way of keeping it out there, reserved for others. We have to bring it home as well. I originally resisted the notion of a wrathful God because I dreaded being that wrath’s target; I still do. knew I couldn’t just direct God’s wrath against others, as if it were a weapon I could aim at targets I particularly detested. It’s God’s wrath, not mine, the wrath of the one and impartial God, lover of all humanity. If I want it to fall on evildoers, I must let it fall on myself – when I deserve it.
Also, once we affirm that God’s condemnation of wrongdoing is appropriate, we cannot reserve God’s condemnation for heinous crimes. Where would the line be drawn? On what grounds could it be drawn? Everything that deserves to be condemned should be condemned in proportion to its weight as an offense – from a single slight to a murder, from indolence to idolatry, from lust to rape. To condemn heinous offences but not light ones would be manifestly unfair. An offense is an offense and deserves condemnation.
– Miroslav Volf, Free of Charge (Zondervan, 2005), p. 138-139.
If a God of love is faced with human sinfulness, he cannot do anything but be angry. Indeed, anger is an embodiment of love – it shows what love does when it faces that which stands against it. It may not be something which we are comfortable thinking about, but the very intensity of wrath is itself a display of the intensity of the love that underlies it.
I’ll shortly post a couple of follow-ups looking at how this ties in with the fundamental Christian teaching of forgiveness.