God’s Wrath

wrath-of-god

What shall we make of the wrath of God?

We have this quote from the Gospel of St. Luke:

And it came to pass, when the time was come that he should be received up, he stedfastly set his face to go to Jerusalem, And sent messengers before his face: and they went, and entered into a village of the Samaritans, to make ready for him. And they did not receive him, because his face was as though he would go to Jerusalem. And when his disciples James and John saw this, they said, Lord, wilt thou that we command fire to come down from heaven, and consume them, even as Elias did? But he turned, and rebuked them, and said, Ye know not what manner of spirit ye are of  (Luke 9:51-55).

In this passage, sending down fire from heaven, in the pattern of Elijah is rebuked as somehow belonging to “another spirit.”

Fans of New Testament wrath are quick to point out the passage in Acts concerning Ananias and Sapphira:

But a certain man named Ananias, with Sapphira his wife, sold a possession, And kept back part of the price, his wife also being privy to it, and brought a certain part, and laid it at the apostles’ feet. But Peter said, Ananias, why hath Satan filled thine heart to lie to the Holy Ghost, and to keep back part of the price of the land? Whiles it remained, was it not thine own? and after it was sold, was it not in thine own power? why hast thou conceived this thing in thine heart? thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God. And Ananias hearing these words fell down, and gave up the ghost: and great fear came on all them that heard these things. And the young men arose, wound him up, and carried him out, and buried him. And it was about the space of three hours after, when his wife, not knowing what was done, came in. And Peter answered unto her, Tell me whether ye sold the land for so much? And she said, Yea, for so much. Then Peter said unto her, How is it that ye have agreed together to tempt the Spirit of the Lord? behold, the feet of them which have buried thy husband are at the door, and shall carry thee out. Then fell she down straightway at his feet, and yielded up the ghost: and the young men came in, and found her dead, and, carrying her forth, buried her by her husband. And great fear came upon all the church, and upon as many as heard these things (Acts 5:1-11)

For accuracies’ sake, it must be noted that we are nowhere told that Ananias and Sapphira died as the result of the action of God. We are told that they fell down dead. This is not unimportant.

Of course the New Testament makes reference to the wrath of God. Indeed there are 45 verses which make reference to the wrath. It is little wonder that interpreters should want to make a theological point out of so common a reference. Of course many of those verses refer to our own wrath and tell us to put it away from us.

But of the wrath of God we read a typical passage:

Mortify therefore your members which are upon the earth; fornication, uncleanness, inordinate affection, evil concupiscence, and covetousness, which is idolatry: For which things’ sake the wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience (Colossians 3:5-6).

A legitimate question has to be: has the Spirit “of which we are” changed between Luke 9 and Colossians 3? Or is there a deeper understanding at work?

With this I offer an Orthodox answer. First, Christ Himself is the definitive revelation of God and that revelation is not corrected by either an Old Testament reading (for “these are they which testify of me”) nor by an Epistle, for Christ as witnessed to in the gospels is the definitive revelation for interpreting even the Epistles. Of course my citation of Luke 9 is often countered with, “What about the moneychangers in the Temple?” To which I can only say that He “drove them out with a whip” which is not the same thing as saying that Christ beat them, nor did He call down fire from heaven to consume them.

For various reasons, some people are determined to make the economy of salvation to be linked with the Wrath of God. If you do not repent, then God will do thus and such…   I have always considered this representation of the gospel to be coercive and contrary to the love of God. I have heard convoluted ways in which this wrath is interpreted to be “the loving thing to do” but I do not buy it.

The common witness within Orthodox Tradition is that the wrath of God is a theological term which describes not God Himself, but a state of being in which are opposed to God. Thus the work of Kalomiros, The River of Fire, makes ample citation of the fathers in this matter. We may place ourselves in such a position that even the love of God seems to us as fire or wrath.

But it is essential in our witness to the God Who Is, to always relate the fact that He is a loving God, not willing that any should perish. He is not against us but for us. This is utterly essential to the correct proclamation of the Gospel. Those who insist on exalting His wrath as a threat, inevitably misportray God and use anthropormorphism as a substitute for the Gospel of Jesus Christ.

Intricate theories of the atonement which involve the assuaging of the wrath of God are not worthy of the God and Father of Our Lord Jesus Christ. I can say it no plainer. Those who persist in such theological accounts do not know “what Spirit they are of.” It is not ever appropriate to exalt a Biblical system over the plain sense communicated to us in the Gospel. No matter the chain of verses and the rational explanations attached – we cannot portray God as other than as He has shown Himself to us in Jesus Christ. To do so makes the Bible greater than Christ.

 It is very difficult in our culture, where the wrathful God has been such an important part of the gospel story, to turn away from such portrayals – and yet it is necessary – both for faithfulness to the Scripture, the Fathers, and the revelation of God in Christ.

I commend the referenced work, the River of Fire, for its compliation of Patristic sources. I also beg other Christians to be done with their imagery of the wrathful God. They do not know the God of Whom they speak. Forgive me.

 

 

About Fr. Stephen Freeman

Fr. Stephen is a priest of the Orthodox Church in America, Pastor Emeritus of St. Anne Orthodox Church in Oak Ridge, Tennessee. He is also author of Everywhere Present and the Glory to God podcast series.



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119 responses to “God’s Wrath”

  1. […] memorable posts I have read from Fr. Stephen concerns the wrath of God. A link to it can be found here. I hope that you will find his words as challenging and inspiring as I have found […]

  2. […] Eastern Orthodoxy, Reformed Theology and Responses This post will largely be a response to another blog post written by Father Stephen Freeman at his blog Glory To God For All Things. Father Freeman attempts […]

  3. Drew Avatar
    Drew

    Hello Father Steven,

    Thanks for your post. Just a quick observation and a question. You said “for Christ as witnessed to in the gospels is the definitive revelation for interpreting even the Epistles”. To my understanding, I have read and hence thought that the epistles were written BEFORE the Gospels, rendering the epistles closer to to representing Christ. How can we see the Gospels as the definitive revelation of Christ when the epistles have been written before them. Just a question and kind of an observation. If I have misunderstood what you are trying to say, please let me know. thank you

  4. fatherstephen Avatar

    In simple terms, the gospels have a pre-eminence within the life of the church – they are given a singular honor. If you are working in a strictly historical model your point would be quite valid – but Orthodox interpretation, traditionally, is not a primarily historical approach. But the Christ as witnessed to in the gospels is the same Christ as witnessed to in the Epistles. I could have said, “Christ as witnessed to in the Scriptures)…

  5. Drew Avatar
    Drew

    Thank you Father Stephen for your response.

    Would you please elaborate on what you mean when you say “Orthodox interpretation, traditionally, is not a primarily historical approach.” What role does the historical approach play in your hermeneutic of Scripture? How important is history in the way you approach Scripture? The reason i ask these questions is that it is harder for me (as a Protestant leaning more to Orthodoxy) to understand the kind of criteria used in Orthodoxy to interpret Scripture. Quite frankly, it is sometimes very frustrating to me because some of the criteria seems to be an ever elusive target. How would you respond to a critic who says your interpretation of Scripture is too subjective and therefore conveniently dodges difficulties or challenges when raised against your way of “doing” hermeneutics? When talking to my wonderful and brilliant orthodox friend on the issue of interpreting Scripture, I sometimes feel like we are on two different planets. I understand that he and I share some different fundamental assumptions about various beliefs, but sometimes I feel his response in this area borders too much on fideism. I think I feel that way about Orthodoxy (concerning hermeneutics) in general right now. I understand the so-called Enlightenment has influenced our way of thinking very deeply, but I sometimes feel that the Orthodox understanding of hermeneutics is too subjective for me. I think of the rodeo clown fallacy sometimes when I hear my friend speak on this issue:

    “The Rodeo Clown Fallacy falters into illogic not in virtue of being a false target (straw man, red herring), but by being an ever changing and ever elusive target. That is, it evades logic. Just as the horns of an argument are about to make their point, some guy in a clown suit yells, “Yeah, but what about…” This clown is certainly a legitimate target in his own right, but the problem is that there will forever be another rodeo clown ready to distract with a giggly, “Yeah, but what about…,” so no bad ideas ever get gored.”

    This kind of sums up how I have come to understand (at least so far) the criteria used in Orthodox hermeneutics. Is there genuinely anything that could legitimately challenge or prove difficult for an Orthodox Christian regarding their hermeneutic.? Is not questioning the authority of the church at all fideistic in nature?

    I know I have said a lot here and probably have unintentionally misrepresented some Orthodox views. My goal is understanding and intellectual honesty. I apologize in advance brother if I have offended you. I just had to get my feeling out there. Thank you.

  6. fatherstephen Avatar

    Drew,

    For someone in the West who is used to various rationalistic hermeneutics, the Orthodox approach can seem subjective. It is certainly a “doctrinally ruled reading of Scripture” to use a phrase of a Dominican scholar. One of the earliest described hermeneutics in the Orthodox Church was St. Irenaeus’ description of the “Apostolic rule of faith.” This is a phrase particularly common the the late 2nd and early 3rd century. That “rule of faith” (roughly similar to what would be stated in the Apostles’ Creed and a bit more) was the faith accepted universally by the Church and formed the basis for the interpretation of Scripture. It remains so to this day. However, Orthodoxy would want to say more about forming and shaping the reader (acquiring an Orthodox phronema or “mind”) such that the understanding of Scripture is a very natural thing, rather than merely rationalistic. The NT speaks of having our minds transformed, or being of the same mind, etc., which is still operative within the life of the Orthodox faith.

    The rationalism of Christianity in the West, after the Enlightenment, is an aberration in the history of Christianity rather than an authentic part of the faith. It is not found in the life of the early Church. The “historical” approach is also largely a post-enlightenment phenomenon in which history is understood as the place where truth resides. Orthodoxy, would rather say that the truth resides in the “eschaton” in “that which is to come.” This eschaton (which is the Kingdom of God) has manifested itself in throughout history, and particularly in certain events such as in Incarnation – as well as all of sacred history – but what we are looking for when reading is the manifestation of the Kingdom. Thus, though an event has an historical meaning, it may also manifest another meaning (such as a typological or allegorical). The “control” on such interpretation is the received Tradition of the faith, an Orthodox phronema, etc. The literal meaning or historical meaning is not discarded but may or may not be the primary use of a passage. The story of Jonah is an example. It’s primary use in the Church has been as a type and foreshadowing of the resurrection. Jonah’s hymn from the belly of the whale makes reference to being in sheol or hades rather than the belly of the whale, for example, and Christ himself uses the book in such a manner “the sign of the prophet Jonah.”

  7. Barbara Avatar
    Barbara

    Drew,

    I found Andrew Louth’s book, “Discerning the mystery: an essay on the nature of theology”, really helpful on this topic.

  8. […] at: glory2godforallthings.com/…/15/gods-wrath/ Published […]

  9. […] The whole idea that Jesus came to save us in the first place from the wrath of God would be totally alien to them. To quote American orthodox priest Father […]

  10. […] It is also important, I think, to understand what is meant by God’s wrath.  The Orthodox don’t much like the term, but it is worth noting that even the Roman Catholic apologist Peter Kreeft has written “Hell […]

  11. S.David Avatar
    S.David

    God’s immediate response to Adam’s disobedience was not Love but His wrath and punishment.

  12. fatherstephen Avatar
    fatherstephen

    Neither of which do you understand.

  13. jrj1701 Avatar
    jrj1701

    S.David, where in scripture does it say that God was wrathful with Adam??? God did indeed pronounce Adam’s penalty, yet Scripture doesn’t talk of God’s wrath toward Adam at that time. If so then present your evidence.

  14. Karen Avatar
    Karen

    I recently came across another good article on God’s wrath as understood within the Church:

    https://www.facebook.com/PatristicsProject/posts/1983807098564683

  15. Paula Avatar
    Paula

    Karen,
    Thank you for posting that link . The article was very very helpful and most timely. I am keeping it in my favorites, as I will need to re-read it until it is solid in my mind. Thank you again.

  16. […] We may place ourselves in such a position that even the love of God seems to us as fire of wrath. –(Fr. Stephen Freeman, “God’s Wrath”) […]

  17. David Morrison Avatar
    David Morrison

    I am Orthodox but I must take “the whole counsel of God”. The Scriptures do speak of God’s wrath coming on the unrepentant. And they speak of Christ’ death as “an offering and a sacrifice to God.” Several years ago I had an Orthodox priest actually say to me, “You don’t believe, I hope, that the Blood of Christ actually did anything for you?” He said it arrogantly and demeaningly. I told him, I do, yes, as do cripture, the Fathers, and the saints. I think that often, Father, sometimes in trying to distance ourselves from the West, we go overboard. If “the life is in the blood”, then the Blood of Christ is/was the Life of God. And that Blood “cleanses us from all unrighteousness”.

  18. Fr. Stephen Freeman Avatar

    David,
    Well, you’ve dug all the way back to 2009 for this article. The topic has been discussed many times on the blog over the years.

    You might note that I did not say that God’s wrath is not in the Scriptures, indeed, I noted that it was mentioned 40 some-odd times in the New Testament.

    What I suggested was how we are to understand the phrase and what we are to make of it – and referenced (with a link) Kalomiros’ River of Fire. But, you probably didn’t bother to read that. I’m sorry.

    I certainly would never say the blood of Jesus was of no effect. Perhaps it is the case that you have might thoughts here confused with those of someone else, and are taking me to mean something I have not said.

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