On a pan-Lutheran blog I have sometimes visited there is a discussion which asks whether salvation is being save from God’s wrath. The question arises, can a loving God really be a wrathful God.. The subject is uncomfortable to modern ears. We have a hard time resolving the conflict between a wrathful God and a loving God. So I have been thinking of this a lot this week.
The concept of God’s wrath is pretty central to the doctrine of forensic justification in which God’s wrath is visited upon Jesus in the crucifixion rather than us, a concept called “Cosmic Child Abuse” by some modern theologians. It was also vital to the Kennedy Method of Evangelism, a truncated version of which I had some contact with in the 70s as a teen participating in Ongoing Ambassadors for Christ. The method was pretty bare law and gospel in which the evangelist was to tell first about hell and sin and the wrath of God and then lead the listener to faith in Christ that would save him or her from all that.
That way of thinking of God fit well in the 70s when we were all “on fire” for something, whether it was God or peace or justice. Dire warning were all over the place about nuclear war, the pollution of the planet, communism or Vietnam. Warnings about hell just seemed to fit in world where we are constantly being cautioned about apocalyptic events of one kind or another. But it doesn’t fit well in our modern philosophy.
Nevertheless, I think if God is loving then He has to be angry. He has to be angry about what we do to each other, to ourselves and to His creation. He has to be angry because of His love, not in spite of it.
In the letter to pastors I told of how an adult man did something to me in a bedroom when I was 7, almost 8. I brought this same event up in a discussion about repentance an the same Lutheran discussion board I mentioned before. I said that in such a situation repentance would be necessary to forgiveness because, in order to restore or create a relationship in the Body of Christ, the perpetrator must acknowledge the worth of the victim. As I mentioned in the illustration in my letter, only the cross can fully acknowledge the worth of the victim and, therefore, the cross is central to our life together in the Body of Christ. One particular pastor, who does not seem to be very enamored with the concept of God’s wrath, responded that the victim could forgive even if the perpetrator did not repent.
He missed the point.
Of course the victim will forgive.
I recall, some time after the incident in the bedroom, sitting either in or next to the closet in the room I shared with my brother. I was looking at the window which faced west as the sun went down. The sky was that odd brownish orange color it turns just before full night falls. I was overwhelmed by a feeling of worthlessness and wrongness, that I was wrong. Not that I had done or thought something wrong. But that my very existence was wrong. Apparently others have felt a similar sense of existential guilt and wrongness after being sexually molested. Martin Moran describes a pretty similar sensation after being sexually abused at the age of 13 by a youth leader. Oddly enough, his existential crisis occurred at the same time of evening.
Forgive? Of course the victim would forgive. He believes himself to be worthless anyway and believes his existence is a crime. So, in his mind, what was done to him merits little anger anyway. After all, is there anything wrong with treating garbage like garbage. Yes the victim will forgive without the perpetrator repenting. But it is a forgiveness based on a sense of self worthlessness, it is a twisted forgiveness based on shame. This does not create the relationship of brotherhood in the Body of Christ. It can’t.
The question is, does God forgive in the same way? If God is a loving God then, no, he can not forgive merely by overlooking the damage. Were He to do that He would be no better than the Catholic bishops in the recent scandals in the RCC. He has to be angry, angry at the damage done to the innocent, angry because of the ruined families and broken bodies and kids caught up in drugs and suicide that result from the damage we do to one another. If God is loving, he has to be very angry. If we are worth anything in His eyes then he has to feel the anger we can not feel for the damage done to our selves.
Thus the cross and the call for repentance. Only the cross can repair the damage and restore worth. And repentance itself is a reflection, in a dark mirror, of that love of God. Repentance acknowledges the worth of what was destroyed and mourns at being the cause of the damage and the sorrow and anger of God.
Back in the 70as when, it felt like, we were trying to scare people into faith by focusing so strongly on the anger of a just God, we were, to be honest, misusing the wrath of God as the tool of conversion rather than the Gospel. But the modern God in which there is no anger is no less unloving than the God we presented back then. A God who feels only anger is not a loving God but a God who has no anger is no loving God either.
If God truly loves then God must be angry and, yes, that anger is just and, yes, we need saved from that wrath.