Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The wrath of God

While watching some TV preachers before church yesterday (Nov. 13, 2005), I was reminded that there appears to be a growing movement in contemporary Christianity which seems to downplay or ignore anything having to do with judgment. The idea seems to be, just focus on the positive, be tolerant, tell people how God loves them and wants to improve their lives so they can be healthy, wealthy, happy and prosperous.

Contrary to the impressions left by some preachers, God’s judgment is a significant theme in biblical literature. The Garden of Eden story is a story of people who rebelled against their Creator and came under judgment (Gen 1-3). The story of Noah’s flood is a story of God’s judgment on human rebellion (Gen 7-8), as is the story of the Tower of Babel (Genesis 11), Sodom and Gomorrah (Genesis 19), the plagues on Egypt (Exodus 7-11), the golden calf (Exodus 32) and the rebellion in the wilderness (Numbers 14). The Book of Deuteronomy warns of terrible judgments for persistent rebellion against God. The story of the conquest of Canaan is also a story of God’s judgment (Joshua) and the theme of judgment thoroughly pervades the book of Judges. God’s judgment is seen throughout the books of Samuel, Kings and Chronicles, in fact, the stories end with the forcible deportation of Israel from the Promised Land in a devastating act of God’s judgment. And of course the prophets, from Isaiah through Malachi strongly and repeatedly warn of divine judgment for idolatry and rebellion against the Creator.

Don’t even think about dismissing this theme of judgment as if it were only in the Hebrew Bible/Old Testament! In the New Testament, John the Baptist is consistently presented as a fiery preacher of judgment. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus ends his Sermon on the Mount with warnings of eternal judgment (Matthew 7:13-29) and many of Jesus’ parables warn of future judgment, including weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matthew 13). What is particularly sobering to me personally is Jesus’ scathing denunciation of self-righteous religious leaders and scholars, with names like hypocrites, blind guides, whitewashed tombs, snakes, vipers and sons of hell (Matthew 23)!

St. Paul follows Jesus’ example in warning of judgment. For example, Paul sums up his argument in the first three chapters of his letter to the Romans by quoting from his Hebrew Bible: “No one is righteous, not even one…no one does good, not a single one. Their talk is foul, like the stench from an open grave. Their tongues are filled with lies…they have no fear of God at all” (Romans 3:9-18). In those same three chapters, Paul says “a day of anger is coming, when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5), and that God “will pour out his anger and wrath on those who live for themselves, who refuse to obey the truth and instead live lives of wickedness” (Romans 2:8).

Similarly, in his letter to the Galatians, Paul speaks of “sexual immorality, impurity, lustful pleasures, idolatry, sorcery, hostility, quarreling, jealously, outbursts of anger, selfish ambition, dissension, division, envy, drunkenness, wild parties, and other sins like these.” Paul continues, “Let me tell you again, as I have before, that anyone living this sort of life will not inherit the Kingdom of God” (Galatians 5:19-21). In Second Thessalonians the author speaks of the return of Jesus “with his mighty angels, in flaming fire, bringing judgment on those who don’t know God.” The writer says, “They will be punished with eternal destruction” (Second Thessalonians 1:9).

The writer of Hebrews warns of “the terrible expectation of God’s judgment and the raging fire that will consume his enemies” (Hebrews 10:27). The writer of Second Peter warns of a coming judgment in which “the heavens will pass away with a terrible noise, and the very elements themselves will disappear in fire, and the earth and everything on it will be found to deserve judgment” (2 Peter 3:10). The letter of Jude is filled with judgment and damnation, and of course almost everyone is familiar with the graphic depictions of divine judgment in the book of Revelation (which, by the way, sounds less and less far-fetched now than at any other time in history in light of the terrors of Islamofacism, state-sponsored terrorism, and the consequences of global warming).

Regardless of whether you dislike or disbelieve these stories, the fact remains that the Bible is, from cover to cover, filled with stories of divine judgment on human beings who, metaphorically speaking, have extended their middle fingers in the face of their Creator, saying, in effect, we will not worship or serve you and we will not follow your rules—we will do it our way!

The rest of the biblical story, of course, is about how God patiently and consistently warns people of the consequences of their rebellion and calls them to repentance. In the Bible, the story of God’s love is not about some abstract, warm-fuzzy feeling. It is a story about how, in spite of the fact that humans have essentially spit in the face of their creator, he patiently and persistently calls people to turn back to him in repentance and faith. The New Testament in particular is about how God enters humanity to save those who will genuinely repent of their rebellion (sin) and turn to Jesus Christ, the Son of God, in sincere loving devotion (faith).

The New Testament never commands believers to engage in holy wars to execute God’s judgment, but rather to warn people of divine judgment, with the goal of calling people to faith and saving them from this wrath. The whole point of this little theology lesson is that preachers who only preach about the love of God, without also warning about the wrath of God, are simply not telling the whole truth about the message of the Bible. On the other hand, some people today are no different than those over 2,500 years ago who, according to Isaiah 30:10-10, told their prophets, “Don’t tell us what is right. Tell us nice things. Tell us lies. Forget all this gloom. Get off your narrow path” (All quotes are from the NLT).