The wrath of God, or the inevitable consequences of sin?

Sam Norton, an Essex vicar, has written an insightful short series of posts on the wrath of God: part 1, part 2, part 3. He starts with this seeming contradiction, and then goes on to explain it:

There are two things that I believe about wrath: that the phrase “the wrath of God” refers to something real but also that, as Julian of Norwich taught, “there is no wrath in God”.

First, he clearly distinguishes the pagan idea of sacrifice from the biblical concept. The pagan idea is that

there is an angry god who has been offended and needs to be appeased

but the biblical concept, as shown at the Day of Atonement, is that

it is God who is active, who moves towards the sinners.

Sam continues, in part 2, by showing how the idea of the wrath of God developed into the New Testament. He makes the interesting point that

In Paul for example, it is a theme in Paul’s writings, but there tends to be “wrath” rather than “the wrath of God”. Of some twenty to twenty five references to wrath, only two or three are to the wrath of God. Mostly Paul refers to wrath as a concept. …

So what is a properly Christian understanding of wrath? Wrath is when we experience the consequences of our own sin.

Now I want to inject a word of caution here. In my post The Maltese Cross, or the Christian one? I argued against the position, which I consider sub-Christian, that “justice” is some higher authority than God which can oblige God to act against his character of love. Similarly I would reject any idea that “wrath” is a separate concept which imposes obligations on God. But Sam carefully avoids that danger by explaining that wrath, in the sense of experiencing the proper consequences of ones actions, is part of the consistent order of the universe which God created.

Sam continues in part 3 by suggesting that there is a human tendency to set up idols and to make pagan type sacrifices to them. This is true even today:

If the governing idol is Mammon, then the scapegoated minority will be the poor, who will be described as deserving their poverty due to some moral failing, such as laziness.

Thus Sam concludes:

Wrath is first and foremost about when we go against the natural order and suffer as a consequence, but it is also about the nature of who we are as a human society when we are fallen. If we do not focus our human society on the Living God then we will end up having this process of scapegoating and sacrifice repeating itself for ever.

This is an important contribution to a debate in which Christians have become increasingly polarised, in which an important figure like John Piper has apparently written off as non-Christian another, Rob Bell, on the basis of mere rumours that he is not sound on the matter of hell. See this discussion of the controversy. Bell may indeed have argued

that a loving God would never sentence human souls to eternal suffering.

But Justin Taylor is wrong to conclude, without even reading Bell’s book, that this implies “full-blown hell-is-empty-everyone-gets-saved universalism”. It doesn’t. There are other real possibilities. One, with some biblical support, is that hell is populated by those who have chosen for themselves to go there. Another, and this would seem to be Sam’s position, is that people go there as the natural consequence of their sin. There is room for proper debate here, but not if some people prejudge others without even listening to them.

0 thoughts on “The wrath of God, or the inevitable consequences of sin?

  1. Thanks for reading Peter, and for the comments. My position on hell is probably closer to the ‘people choose to go there’ position (which I think was CS Lewis’). There’s a couple more posts on this theme coming up (they are a chapter of my book – just about finished now!)

  2. Pingback: The wrath of God and apocalyptic events - Gentle Wisdom

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