Street Corner Society

Skip to site-wide links.

Reflections >  Quaker Thought & History  >  The "Wrath" of God

Quaker Thought & History

The "Wrath" of God

By Edward Grubb


The "Wrath" of God

During the years of war, conscientious objectors to military service were often faced with the argument that they were denying a root principle of the moral government of the world — the principle that wrongdoing must be punished, and that men must not hesitate, when necessity arises, to be made the instruments of Divine vengeance against sin. Not only the Old Testament, but the New also, was freely appealed to by religious people in support of this argument. And some found it no easy matter to discover a convincing reply. The letter even of the New Testament seemed in places to contradict the deep instinct which led them to oppose all war as contrary to the spirit of Jesus Christ.

I wish to examine the teaching of the Bible about the "wrath" of God, in order that we may if possible discover what the New Testament writers really meant, how far they had penetrated into the depths of their Master's thought, and how far they had not shaken themselves free from current Jewish ideas. It will be found, I believe, that even a brief study of this subject will take us near to the heart of things — not only of our social and political ideals, but of our Christian faith itself.

The first thing that strikes a conventional Christian who hears "the wrath of God" called in question is that the questioner is making light of sin. To suggest that God does not wreak vengeance on the unrepentant seems like pleading for an easy-going and immoral universe. It may be well therefore at the outset to make clear that the question before us is not whether the universe is so constructed that wilful and persistent wrongdoing leads sooner or later to disaster. Assuming, as any religious view of the world must assume, that it is so constructed, the question is whether such disaster can be thought of as part of the Divine will and purpose. We take for granted that sin is contrary to that purpose, and in measure defeats it; we take for granted that sin brings suffering to the sinner and to others. The point we are to consider is this: are we or are we not to say that its inevitable consequences, due to the fact that the universe is rational and moral, are deliberately "sent" by God as retribution? Nor is the question before us whether punishment may not be corrective and disciplinary. We are not considering such chastisement as the best human father may at times feel bound to administer, in all love and tenderness, that his child may learn to do better. What we wish to know is whether punishment in itself, as bare retribution, the visiting of sin with suffering as penalty and not as chastisement, is a part of the way in which God deals with men.

This vital question has lately been treated, with deep insight and wide knowledge, in a book, The Lord of Thought, by Miss Lily Dougall and the Rev. C. W. Emmet, of Oxford.1  Without attempting to review the book, which I most cordially commend as of the first importance for anyone who wishes to understand the present trend of religious thought, I wish here to express my deep indebtedness to the authors. They have confirmed and cleared much that I had vaguely thought before I read their book. What, in a sentence, they endeavour to prove is that Jesus Christ saw deeper into the ways of God than any of His predecessors or contemporaries; that neither His first followers (including the Synoptic evangelists), nor the Christian Church at large, rightly understood His meaning, and that to recover it is a prime necessity for the reconstruction of Christian thought and practice.

Taking first the Old Testament, there can be no question that its teaching, with little or no exception, is that punishment is God's final way of dealing with persistent wrongdoing. There is the story of the Flood. The earliest writer ("J") whose narratives are embodied in the Pentateuch, tells of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah for their vileness, and says of two sons of Judah that for evil practices "the Lord slew them." The Book of Deuteronomy pronounces abundant curses from God upon a disobedient nation. The priestly writer of I Chronicles xxi. reports that for David's sin in numbering the people the Lord sent a pestilence upon Israel in which 70,000 died. The prophets with one voice pronounce disaster from God as the penalty of Israel's disobedience, and warn surrounding nations that He will punish them for their iniquities. Some of them, however, especially Hosea and Jeremiah, see in the calamities that will come upon Israel the working of a purpose of love, that the nation may be rescued from idolatry and fitted for its world mission. Sometimes, as by the author of Jonah, the Divine punishments are spoken of as conditional, and as removable by penitence and amendment. Jehovah is a forgiving as well as an avenging God, but the two aspects are not clearly shown to be consistent. The writer of Psalm xcix. perhaps comes nearest to this when he says, "Thou wast a God that forgavest them, though thou tookest vengeance of their doings." The author of the "Servant" passages in the later Isaiah sees that the sufferings of the afflicted nation are not merely vindictive but are to be the means of the salvation of others. But, speaking broadly, the teaching of the Old Testament is that God's ultimate reaction against sin is vengeance and the destruction of the sinners.

In the Apocalyptic writers who follow, and whose work was done for the most part between 200 b.c. and a.d. 100, these thoughts are intensified. The chief conception is that of the coming of a mighty conflict between God and the powers of evil, seen and unseen, in which the Lord will intervene to save the righteous among His people, destroying with terrible torments alike their human oppressors, the unseen spirits of evil, and the wicked in Israel itself. This belief, and the questioning which in the later part of that period it produced in the minds of some devout Jews, are set out in ample detail and with painful quotations in the earlier part of the book to which I have referred. The following passage, from the Book of Enoch (i. 9, quoted in Jude 14, 15), is typical of this literature:

"And lo! He comes with ten thousands of His holy ones to execute judgment upon them, and He will destroy the ungodly; and will convict all flesh of all that the sinners and ungodly have wrought and ungodly committed against Him."2

The chief function of the Messiah, so far as He appears in the Apocalyptic writings, is to execute God's vengeance on the wicked, and especially on the oppressors of the Jews.

"Jesus Christ," says Miss Dougall (p. 37), "came into a world which could not conceive of a God who did not, in the long run, take terrible vengeance on all His enemies." This unquestioning belief is reflected abundantly in early Christian literature. John the Baptist, in the Synoptics, calls his people to repentance under warnings of "the wrath to come," and foretells the coming of Another (the Messiah of popular expectation) who will "baptize with (avenging) fire."3  In the Epistle to the Hebrews God is One to whom "vengeance belongs," who is "a consuming fire," and into whose hands "it is a terrible thing to fall." (Heb. x. 30, 31; xii. 29.) The Book of Revelation, like the other Apocalypses, is full from end to end with lurid pictures of Divine vengeance on the wicked.

Before considering whether our Lord Himself held these thoughts of God, it will be well to look at the writings of Paul and "John." Paul's earliest letters, those to the Thessalonians, are deeply coloured by this idea of Divine vengeance. There is, happily, some doubt about the genuineness of 2 Thess., in which it appears in an extreme form. The writer speaks of "the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with angels of his power in flaming fire, rendering vengeance to them that know not God . . . who shall suffer punishment, even eternal destruction from the face of the Lord" (i. 7-9). In the first letter, which is certainly by Paul, the tone is milder; but there are several allusions to "the wrath" which is to come ("is come" in ii. 16) upon the unbelievers. From this "wrath" Christ delivers us (i. 10, cf. v. 9). It is in the Epistle to the Romans that this expression is most often used, though it is seldom called "the wrath of God," and Paul seems carefully to guard himself against speaking of God as angry. "The wrath is revealed" (ch. i.) in the fact that sin works out its inevitable consequences when God leaves sinful humanity to go its own way. Paul writes of it, not as if it were a passion in the mind of God, but "as the increasing horror of sin working out its hideous law of cause and effect."4  It is the same thought as in Gal. vi. 7, 8: "whatsoever a man soweth, that shall he also reap; for he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption." In the two epistles to the Corinthians the thought of Divine vengeance is not, I think, expressed at all; in the later group of epistles it only occurs, with the same meaning as in Romans, in Col. iii. 6 (repeated in Eph. v. 6): "for which things' sake cometh the wrath of God upon the children of disobedience." It seems then that reflection and Christian experience led the Apostle to a profounder conception of the Divine reaction against sin than the conventional Apocalyptic views he held at first.

In the Johannine Gospel and Epistles a still deeper view appears, though here and there (as in John iii. 36) the older language is used. The "Judgment" is spoken of, not as an event in the future when the wicked shall be sent into punishment or destruction, but as an inevitable result of the coming of light into the world, which separates good from evil just as physical light shows the contrast between black and white (John iii. 19-21, cf. xii. 46-48). Jesus has not come to judge but to save, not to destroy "the world" but to overcome it (xvi. 33). The author has reached thoughts about the work of Christ which are worlds apart from those of the current eschatology, and which the Christian Church has been slow to learn.5

Turning lastly to the Synoptic Gospels, where we must seek our most authentic record of the words of our Lord Himself, we are at first dismayed to find that, especially in the first Gospel (which is undoubtedly the most widely read and best known), the idea of Divine vengeance appears to be clearly and emphatically taught. In "Matthew" we are constantly reading of "unquenchable fire," "the outer darkness," "the worm that dieth not," "the wailing and gnashing of teeth." There is no suggestion anywhere that this punishment is corrective or remedial; it is represented as God's final answer to human sin. To many earnest minds this fact presents a grievous problem. They cannot believe in such a God; and, if Jesus really spoke of His Father in these terms, then His authority as a Revealer seems to be gravely shaken. Faith in God and faith in Christ seem to be at cross purposes — a parlous position for anyone who wishes to be a Christian. For he feels that the best human father could never treat his children, however long and wilful their disobedience and neglect, in the way in which Jesus appears to teach that God treats the obstinately sinful.

It is here that such a book as The Lord of Thought brings light and hope and confidence. For it shows, with great power and as the outcome of accurate study, strong reasons for believing that the evangelists, and especially the first, have reported and interpreted the sayings of Jesus in the light of the Jewish Apocalyptic conceptions of which their minds were full. "Jesus above the heads of His reporters" was one of Matthew Arnold's canons for the interpretation of the Gospels; and it receives ample proof and illustration in these pages. In the first place the evangelists, and especially Luke, report many things about Jesus and His teaching which cannot be reconciled with the current Jewish belief about God. God loves all His children, bad and good alike (Matt. v. 45, Luke vi. 35). His "justice" does not lead Him to render to every man what is deserved; He gives a full day's wage even "unto this last" (Matt. xx. 14). He who knew not his lord's will is to be beaten with few stripes (Luke xii. 48). In the synagogue at Nazareth Jesus reads from Isaiah lxi. as far as "the acceptable year of the Lord," and stops short before the words "and the day of vengeance of our God" (Luke iv. 19). The massacre of the Galileans by Pilate, and the death of those on whom the tower fell, were not calamities "sent" by God as punishments for sin; though the clear warning is added that if the Jewish people persist in the course they are taking the end must be destruction (Luke xiii. 1-5).

It is clear that the presence and words of Jesus were felt to bring a "gospel" — a message of hope and joy and restfulness, as contrasted with the gloom of the Baptist's preaching (Matt. xi. 16-19, also Luke). How could this be, if Jesus held the same thought of a God of vengeance? The truth must have been that He first thought, with entire certitude, of a God who could be absolutely trusted because He was low and nothing else. Because God is completely love. He is completely forgiving. He cherishes no bitterness against even the vilest, does not wait even for him to repent, but goes out like a shepherd to find the sheep that is lost. And because God forgives, men must forgive also — not only private wrongs, but the oppressors of their nation. God overcomes sin as Jesus overcame it — not by overwhelming it with irresistible force, but by taking it upon Himself, bearing it and forgiving it, restoring and saving the sinner. The Cross is the manifestation of the inmost nature of God. We are here at the very heart of the Gospel.

But, if this is so, what are we to make of the "unquenchable fire"? Did Jesus say nothing of the kind? Probably at times He did, but not in the way suggested by the first evangelist. He must have intended to give warnings of the terrible consequences of sin — the hardness of heart and blindness of eye that it produces, the alienation from God and goodness, the poisoning of the inner life. These warnings the evangelist has interpreted in terms of the current ideas. This subject is very fully and carefully studied by Mr. Emmet in the later portion of the book I have referred to. It is shown that the threats of punishment frequently occur in the explanation of parables, where the wording must be attributed to the evangelist and not to Jesus. In many cases they are omitted by Luke — not because He disliked Apocalyptic notions, but because he has reported more faithfully. It would seem that in these matters he understood the real meaning of Jesus better than "Matthew" did; and it may be that "John" understood better than either.

What is the practical outcome? It is not only the reconstruction of Christian theology, urgently as this is needed — for half our official theology has been based on the idea of a God whose "justice" compels Him to visit sin with retribution. Beyond that, the outcome ought to be a reconstruction of our personal, social and international relationships. Nothing is more practical than to reach true thoughts of God; for as is the God we worship so do we tend to become. When men's gods are sensual, deceitful, intolerant, revengeful, so are they themselves. If we believe that God's final way with sin is to destroy the sinner with overwhelming force, we also shall take force to be our remedy for the crimes of individuals and nations. If, on the other hand, we see that God's way is always the way of perfect love, we shall begin to believe that this is practicable for us also. When the Christian Church recovers its Master's thought of God, it will become, in a way it has never yet been, a guide for men.

Chapter VI ...>

From Quaker Thought and History: A Volume of Essays. By Edward Grubb, M.A. Published in 1925 by The MacMillan Company, New York.)

Notes and Links

 1  Student Christian Movement. 12s. 6d. net.

 2  Translation by R. H. Charles, Book of Enoch, p. 59.

 3  This is thought by many scholars to be the earliest form of the tradition, which Mark has altered to the "Holy Spirit" in accordance with the belief that John was referring to Jesus. Matthew and Luke have combined the two. (See Manson, Christ's View of the Kingdom, p. 71.)

 4  Quoted from The Meaning of Paul for To-day, by C. Harold Dodd, where this subject is impressively treated (pp. 62-64).

 5  The "sin unto death" of I John v. 16 may be an echo of Mark iii. 29, "blasphemy against the Holy Spirit."