When you've been in ministry and theological studies long enough, you discover there are a number of common issues raised by Christians and non-Christians alike regarding Christianity, the Bible, and theology, in general. When people find out that I teach theology, one of the things that I hear often goes something like this: "You know, I don't believe in a God of wrath and judgment. I just can't bring myself to believe in a God like that." Having experienced this sort of statement numerous times, it seems clear to me that many people object strongly to a doctrine of God that involves God being angry or executing judgment on sinners.
On the one hand, I find myself very sympathetic to their objections. Many times (maybe even most of the time?), the rejection of a wrathful God arises from experiences of heavy-handed,"fire and brimstone" preaching by angry pastors and evangelists or the overzealous manipulation of children by adults who badly want to see conversions. Many times, these people have been threatened with God's wrath and hellfire due to their clothing, language, behavior, or other things. The persons hurling such threats tend to be legalistic and unloving themselves and they create a picture of God who (surprise!) looks very similar to them: hating what they hate and punishing what they want punished.
I've gone through these kinds of experiences myself. Among others I could share, I have a vivid memory of an evangelist visiting our church several years ago and describing in detail the scene of a bad accident where someone had the horrific misfortune of listening helplessly as a person was burned to death in their own truck. The preacher used this terrible story to frighten the audience into converting to Christianity, offering the prospect of an eternity of conscious torment in hell if they refused. I found this both repugnant and embarrassing to the Gospel of Christ (which is beautiful beyond compare and should not be reduced to such levels).
All that is to say, I think I get it. No one who experiences such things enough times can easily take pleasure in the notion of a wrathful God. When you've been overdosed with wrath and judgment, it makes sense that you'd seek to correct that with an overdose of mercy, love, and grace. (And, frankly, if I'm going to be accused of erring on a "side" in this discussion, whether in my writing or preaching, I'd much rather err on the side of mercy, love, and grace.)
But, even as I am sympathetic to the objections made against a wrathful and judgmental God, even as I reject evangelistic methods that use fear and manipulation to make converts, even as I try to major on the love of God in my own life and work, I still can't let go of the wrath and judgment of God. I do believe in a God of wrath and judgment. Not only is the justice of God a common theme throughout the Scriptures and the Great Tradition of Christianity, but I think it is also an essential Christian conviction in light of the ever-present reality of suffering and pain. Let me explain...
Put simply, I believe in a God of wrath and judgment because evil is real. And, I believe evil is real because I've seen it--in fact, I see it all around us every day. National governments conspire to kill off hundreds and thousands of their own people and then do so unopposed. Terrorists intentionally bomb civilian locations, taking out anyone who happens to be nearby. Children are kidnapped, raped, and murdered. Women are repeatedly terrorized in their own homes, beaten and berated into submission by men who believe their penis and fists make them Lord. GLBT adolescents are bullied until they can no longer bear the pain and take their own lives. Entire ecosystems are destroyed en masse by corporations, who are not held accountable for their actions. Soldiers go off to war with bravery and self-sacrifice only to return home with debilitating brain injuries and PTSD. Elections are bought. Land is stolen. Sex is forced. Conversion is coerced. Children are enslaved. And, the list goes on and on.
I believe evil is real and I believe God is real. I believe God is revealed to us in the person of Jesus Christ. This being the case, then God must be the kind of God who sets all things right. The God revealed by Jesus is a God who reaches out to sinners, embraces prostitutes, includes the marginalized, rebukes the religiously self-righteous, drives out the money-changers, and exorcises the demonic. This loving God loves so fiercely and with such fury that wrath is the inevitable result when harm is done to one of his beloved children. In human experience, we are used to rage being the opposite of love. We cannot imagine that judgment and love can co-exist. But, I am compelled to assert that in God's nature, wrath is not the opposite of love, but a necessary expression of it. God is wrathful because God is love.
On my most irritable days, on the days when I'm overcome by the pain and suffering all around me, I tell my husband pointedly: "Only the most sheltered and over-privileged of people have the freedom to not believe in the judgment of God." What I mean by this is that, the rest of us--the ones who have suffered and have walked through the dark valley with others who suffer--believing in a God of wrath is a vital source of hope. Maybe not everyone who has suffered or witnessed suffering feels this way. But, as for me, I find that in light of suffering, I must believe in God's judgment. I just can't let it go. With this conviction, I know that there is an end to the injustice, pain, and suffering. There will come a day, after the resurrection of the dead, when God will set everything right.
The thing to keep in mind, of course, is that God's wrath is not like human wrath. God is not capricious, petty, petulant, and self-indulgent, as we often are. When I say God burns with anger at injustice, I do not mean that he is like your rage-aholic father or harsh, domineering grandmother. And, the wrath of God is not primarily destructive (as our human experience might imagine), but actually an active, redemptive force. Like the Spirit of God hovering over the chaotic "deep" in the beginning, so also God's Spirit works powerfully to renew the face of the earth today. Righting wrongs and judging sin is part of this work, as is rescuing hateful hearts from bondage and allowing the violent to reap what they have sown ("those who live by the sword will die by the sword").
Of course, there are other reasons for accepting the idea that God is wrathful and will come in judgment. The Bible speaks of this kind of God with regularity, in both the Old and New Testaments. If you take the Bible seriously as God's revelation, then you have to reckon with these portrayals. This is particularly the case, in my opinion, when Jesus speaks of God's wrath and the reality of the final judgment. When the "fullness of God" dwelling in bodily form (Col. 1:19) speaks of God as possessing attributes of wrath and judgment, we do well to listen up. (Still, the "God said, I believe it, that settles it," approach to biblical interpretation will not work here. More nuanced thinking about God's justice and mercy is needed. The thoughts provided above are obviously just a small contribution to that larger task.)
So, I do believe in a God of wrath and judgment. I believe that God hates sin, but has a particularly strong hatred for systemic evil and wrongdoing done against the weak, innocent, and defenseless. I believe that Jesus Christ, the firstborn from the dead, will raise us all to resurrection life at the end of time and finally set everything right--finally completing his work to make "all things new" (Rev. 21:5). And, the furious love of the Triune God that compelled the Son to rescue creation from bondage to sin, evil, and death through his own body will further compel the work of final judgment--the eternal righting of wrongs--as God comes at last to dwell with his people.
There is much more that could be said, of course. But, I'll stop now. What do you think? What are your hang-ups about the judgment of God? What have I missed or failed to say? I'd love to hear your thoughts.