Is God Angry?

Is God Angry? image

‘So, do you think God is angry at human beings?’

‘Well, yes-’

‘Because I think that idea is abhorrent. In the first place: how can we think of the God who is love – and that’s 1 John 4:8! – as angry? Is he two-faced? And second: isn’t anger one of the baser human emotions that overwhelms us and drives us to do the things we don’t want to do? How we imagine God having an emotion like that – where he lashes out against us?’

‘Well-’

‘God is surely bigger than that, right? You hear people talk about God’s wrath needing to be satisfied – but that sounds remarkably as if either God himself were subject to some eternal law of the universe, or that he had some built up frustration that he need to release… but is this a proper way to speak of the divine? There’s that song: ‘and on the cross when Jesus died/ the wrath of God was satisfied’. I notice the new Archbishop of Canterbury had it sung at his enthronement. But can it be right? The Bible never once uses the language of God’s wrath need to be ‘satisfied’ like that.’

‘Hmm, that’s right. But don’t you think the language of ‘sacrifice of atonement’ in, say, Romans 3:21-31 means that God’s anger against sin is borne by Jesus on the cross?’

‘Wait just a minute. I’ve read that that language means that God was Christ making a cleansing of human sin – reconciling us to him, but not him to us. Isn’t that right? After all, don’t the sacrifices in Leviticus make the people holy? God is already holy – he doesn’t need sorting out. It is we who have the problem, not him.’

‘Right, but-’

‘So, the blood of Jesus cleanses us from our sin, but it doesn’t involve God spending his anger on Jesus. Otherwise it all sounds a bit like the story of Jephthah and his daughter – where Jephthah makes a rash promise that he will kill the first thing he sees when he returns home, and the first thing he sees is his daughter, so he has to kill her to uphold his promise. At which point, most of us think ‘what a stupid man’. Is God no better?’

‘OK, well you’ll have to give me a chance to respond to all of this! Some of the things you have said come from common misunderstandings of what we mean when we say ‘God is angry’. God is certainly not angry in the way that we become angry. He is not the victim of his emotions. In fact, one of the most famous statements about God’s character declares him to be ‘slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love’. His anger is not a case of him flying off the handle, nor does it mean we need to fear catching him on an off day.’

‘Go on’

‘But it is also the case in that passage, from Exodus 34:6-7, that he goes on to say that ‘he will not leave the guilty unpunished’. God does not have a short fuse, but neither is he to be mocked as great giver of giant lollypops. He is a God of justice and righteousness, and that means that he will act according to his character.’

‘Right-‘

‘We don’t have to think of God’s love as the contradiction of this, of course. God’s righteousness does not mean that he services some great principle, or some eternal law in the universe. He is true ultimately to himself – and he is love. So his determination to eradicate evil and sin is in fact exactly what makes his love meaningful. As a lover, he hates that which threatens and corrupts that which he loves.’

‘Hates? Woah, that’s strong language!’

‘Well I think it is not too much if we are also to use the strong language of God loving too. The Old Testament prophets are of course filled with the language of God’s loathing of the corruption and idolatry of Israel and the nations that surround her.’

‘But isn’t the language of God’s wrath really just a warning shot? A message to wake us up and drive us to grace?’

‘Well I am not unhappy with that up to a point – the severe and even scary language that we read in the Bible about the wrath of God against the evil that human beings do is there precisely to drive us into the arms of God’s grace. His ‘No’ to humanity is given precisely so that we can discover that there is indeed a ‘Yes’. And the ‘No’ confirms what we expect and really want: I think human beings know that all is not right with the world, with themselves and with others. We wouldn’t want a God who stood by and did nothing. In our good moments, we hate evil, and rightly. Shouldn’t we expect him to as well?’

‘I guess so’

‘Isn’t it right to be angry against evil?’

‘OK!’

‘It’s important too, to see that the problem of sin is not simply that we are self-wrecking in sin. Sin doesn’t simply sadden God: it offends him, right? It’s personal. Our transgressions are not simply like getting a series of parking tickets. The Parking Officer feels nothing towards you as he writes out the ticket, and you simply make amends by paying the fine. But in the case of God, his law is an expression of his own character. It is right to use the language not simply of justice but of anger or wrath because our disobedience is not like the breaking of an impersonal law – it is a contradiction of God’s will and purpose for human life.’

‘Hmm’

‘Romans is the book to look at. Paul starts off by saying ‘the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people (Rom 1:18 NIV)’. And quite clearly, Paul thinks there is going to be a day of God’s wrath on which he judges humankind. Without that idea, Romans doesn’t make a lot of sense, does it?’

‘Well I guess not. But how does this relate to the cross of Jesus? Aren’t you making God complicit in the violent execution of Jesus? As if he would kind of endorse it as the punishment due to sin? And I have a problem with this whole notion of retributive punishment anyway.’

‘Well, there’s more to say of course, and we can get to that. But for now I’ll say two more things: first, God is gracious! I don’t want to be thought to be saying that God is not loving or good or gracious or merciful! On the contrary. But those things in him align with his hatred of the things that threaten the things he loves. And second: it is important to see, as I said before, that Jesus isn’t some random guy punished for the sins of some people he has nothing to do with. He’s the obedient Son who freely goes to the cross to bear the punishment deserved by others. That’s what John Calvin said – and he was very careful in his language about this. See you next time.’

‘Bye’.

 

 

Feature photo: ergates

Michael Jensen is rector of St Mark's Darling Point and is the author of the book My God, My God: Is it Possible to Believe Anymore? He's on twitter: @mpjensen

Comments (3)

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  • Hamish Blair
    April 8, 13 - 11:08am
    thanks for the helpful article Michael.
    Some people think that since "God is love" he could never judge or punish.
    My response is that God loves justice, purity, holiness (all the things I am not).

    I read a really excellent article last week called "Why can't God just forgive" which I was going to bring to your attention, and am highly embarrassed, having now just found it, that it was written by your good self.

    At least people are reading these articles and making connections between the two.

    • Michael Jensen
      April 8, 13 - 4:16pm
      :-)
  • Ali Sulian
    April 8, 13 - 11:27am
    "You are not a God who takes pleasure in evil; with you the wicked cannot dwell. The arrogant cannot stand in your presence; you hate all who do wrong." Psalm 5:4-5

    "The LORD examines the righteous, but the wicked and those who love violence his soul hates." Psalm 11:5