Friday 3rd March, 2023
When I talk about my more liberal beliefs I’m regularly warned by more conservative Christians that I face the wrath of God. When I’ve finished rolling my eyes I usually tell them that God is love, not wrath, and that we don’t need to fear God, the word we have translated as fear might be more accurately translated as awe.
I think much of the description of God’s wrath in the Old Testament is better understood as the authors’ understanding of God. I do not accept that God sent the Israelites to commit genocide or that God punished humanity with floods, burning sulphur or hungry bears. That’s just not the God I know, love and have a relationship with. I know full well I do not need to fear the wrath of God because God has made that clear to me. God has made clear I am loved and cherished, that God delights in me and is proud of me. Has God had a personality change in the last 4000 years? I don’t think so. I believe those stories from the Old Testament may well have been how the ancient Israelites understood God to be, but Jesus showed us they were wrong.
But not entirely.
In fact, I think I have been wrong to say that God is not wrathful or someone to fear. Perhaps the Old Testament stories are there to remind us that God is so incredibly powerful, capable of divine wrath, of destroying the earth just as easily as they spoke it into existence, capable of wiping out entire nations with just a whisper. God made us in their image, we experience wrath and anger, which suggests that God does too. And like when we experience wrath and anger, it’s what comes next that makes all the difference.
God is awesome, God is the very source of every power in the universe, the Old Testament tells us that one cannot see the face of God and live, so awestruck would we be by the sheer magnificence. God’s anger and wrath is indeed an utterly terrifying thought, I think we liberals sometimes forget that, and that somehow lessons our understanding of just how amazing God’s grace is.
I was wrong to say there’s no such thing as God’s wrath, or that God is not scary. But I was right to say we do not need to fear God, or God’s wrath. This is the wonder of grace. Not that God does not have wrath, not that God is not awesomely terrifying, but that God actively makes a choice not to exercise any wrath, not to rage with holy terror but instead to give up that power, to become not only one of us in our most vulnerable form, a mewling baby, to make themselves tiny, so that we can see them face to face, so that we, small as we are, can look the creator of the entire universe in the eye as they tell us how much they love us, so that we can see the face of God, and live.
One of my favourite hymns is “In Christ Alone” but I’ve found myself unable to sing it in recent years because I cannot square the line “‘til on that cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God, was satisfied” but I feel a bit differently about this now. I still reject wholeheartedly the barbaric theology of penal substitution, God does not require a blood offering. But through his willingness to allow us to crucify him God demonstrated that he was prepared to stoop down to us as low as necessary, in all the mud and blood and sweat that is humanity, in order to have a relationship with us, to demonstrate to us, that God’s wrath is fully satiated, and we need not fear it. Now THAT’s grace!