I have to say that I was quite surprised by the choice of topic for the Holy Scripture portion of the General Ordination Exams, God’s wrath is not something that we typically hear discussed in Episcopal Churches, and when it comes up the notion is usually roundly condemned by many in our comfortable denomination. Because of this, I was more apprehensive about my answer on this section of the exam than I was on others (most of which dealt more with factual information that was either right or wrong, but unlikely to incur the ire of overly liberal readers). I found somewhat contrary motivations at work within me as I considered this question. On the one hand, I wanted to be honest about what I thought about God’s wrath, i.e. that he does judge and punish as well as bestow grace and forgive. On the other hand I didn’t want to paint the issue in such stark terms that it might offend the sensibilities of a reappraising reader. It might be true that “everyone” in the orthodox camp expects the GOE’s to be biased, but I still wanted to do well. Imagine my surprise when the one critique of my answer (I got a 4 of 5) was that I exhibited a tendency to downplay God’s wrath! At any rate, here’s the question and my response.
The Wrath of God
Holy Scripture makes many references to God’s anger. In Romans 12:19, Paul alludes to the wrath of God and cites Deuteronomy 32:35:
Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengence is mine, I will repay,” says the Lord (NRSV)
The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews, in alluding to the wrath of God, also cites Deuteronomy 32:35 in Hebrews 10:30:
For we know the one who said, “Vengence is mine, I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” (NRSV)
In an essay of three pages, devote equal space to each of the following questions:
How does the immediate literary context of Romans 12:19 elucidate the meaning of the wrath of God? How does the broader context, the whole of Romans, indicate Paul’s understanding of the wrath of God?
How does the immediate literary context of Hebrews 10:30 elucidate the meaning of the wrath of God? How does the broader context, the whole of Hebrews, indicate the author’s understanding of the wrath of God?
What place does the wrath of God have in contemporary Christian life? Make use of your analysis of Romans and Hebrews in composing your answer.
The wrath of God is surely a difficult concept to deal with in the contemporary context. We rarely hear sermons on God’s wrath or judgment and perhaps this is for the best, since the more comfortable one becomes with preaching God’s judgment or wrath, the more tempting it would be to replace God’s righteousness with our own self-righteousness. And yet, it is clear that the biblical writers, those who gave us the New Testament included, were not fearful of speaking about God’s wrath. Perhaps this can be attributed to how they viewed the wrath of God.
Paul for example, in the twelfth chapter of Romans, speaks of God’s wrath within the context of his exhortation to the community to live holy lives, presenting themselves as “a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God” (v. 12:1). In this context Paul is rehearsing what it means for the community to live within God’s will, accepting the gifts they have been blessed with and humbly putting them to use within the context of the Body of Christ (v. 4-8). Part of the expectation associated with their membership in Christ’s body is that they will live peacefully and in harmony among themselves and with their neighbors. Echoing the words of Christ, Paul exhorts the Roman Church to “Bless those who persecute” them, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep,” and as part of living in harmony with one another Paul admonishes them not to “claim to be wiser” than they are (v. 14-16).
Coming as it does on the heels of chapters 9-11, where Paul demonstrates the continuing plan of God for Israel and her rejection of Christ, chapter 12 is clearly–at least initially–directed at the Gentiles within the Roman Church who are lording it over their Jewish compatriots. In effect, Paul is admonishing the Roman Church to recognize the manner of life they are called to communally and their individual role within that life. In the context of his exhortation to endure and live holy lives the apostle reminds his hearers of their place, demonstrating that they are not to subvert God’s authority by presuming to avenge themselves: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord'” (v. 19). This admonition reflects the similar warning in the Epistle of James, so often placed in opposition with Paul, where the Brother of our Lord declaims:
“Do not speak evil against one another, brothers and sisters. Whoever speaks evil against another or judges another, speaks evil against the law and judges the law; but if you judge the law, you are not a doer of the law but a judge. There is one lawgiver and judge who is able to save and to destroy. So who, then, are you to judge your neighbor?” (Jas. 4:11-12)
The truth that both Paul and James were attempting in their particular ways, to get across to their hearers is that there can be no harmony within the Body if one member of the body ascribes to themselves an authority that belongs only to the head, i.e. Christ/God. In James this is put in the context of an overt challenge: “who, then, are you to judge your neighbor,” while in Romans Paul places it within the context of hope, i.e. endure your persecutions from the outside and your differences within the community trusting that the Lord will have his day and injustices will be set aright by the judgment and wrath of God.
In this sense then, the wrath of God as demonstrated within the context of Romans is part of God’s providence, the outworking of his covenant with his people. Vengeance, if it is to transpire, finds its appropriate place within the realm of God’s wrath and judgment and is emphatically not part of the human realm of action. In this context, to avenge oneself is to forsake a holy life, usurp God’s authority and, by putting oneself in the place of God, to commit the sin of idolatry. This takes one out of the will of God and in fact makes us subject to God’s wrath, i.e. the way God’s love and will for us feels when we work contra his ends.
This theme of rejecting the Will of God and working counter to his ends inviting the wrath of God is taken up in the Epistle to the Hebrews. The author of the Epistle to the Hebrews is unknown, yet while most agree that the eastern tradition of Pauline authorship is incorrect it seems clear that whoever the author was, both Pauline and Johannine schools of thought had influenced them. In addition to the ambiguous authorship, it is by no means clear exactly what community the letter/sermon was intended for, though most scholars agree that it must have been directed at a community in danger of falling away from the faith and rejecting Christ, perhaps because of persecution. Because of this background the author of Hebrews is chiefly concerned with demonstrating the superiority of Christ to any other means of intercession or achieving relationship with the father.
The first ten and a half chapters of the Epistle to the Hebrews are spent methodically and ingeniously demonstrating the superiority of Christ to all alternatives. The author argues that Christ is superior to Moses, i.e. as the Son of God, Christ is superior to Moses, a servant of God. Additionally, Christ is the great High priest after the order of Melchizedek, that is, he is superior because, like the Melchizedek of scripture, he has no beginning or end, but exists eternally. This superiority is demonstrable too, the author argues, because Abraham (and through him all Israel) tithed to Melchizedek, demonstrating his superiority (Heb. 7:1-10). The superiority of the priesthood of Melchizedek to that of the Levites is also demonstrated, as is in chapter 8, the significance of the eternal priesthood of Christ, exercised in the heavenly sanctuary, the reality of which was only approximated by the earthly one. In chapter 9 the full implications of Christ’s sacrifice unfold, the recognition that there is no longer any need or use for imperfect sacrifices. Indeed, Christ did not enter a sanctuary made by human hands, “Nor was it to offer himself again and again, as the high priest enters the Holy Place year after year with blood that is not his own; for then he would have had to suffer again and again since the foundation of the world. But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb. 9:25-26).
Chapter 10 continues the theological outworking of Christ’s sacrifice, demonstrating the superiority of the Gospel of forgiveness to the law, which is said to be “only a shadow of the good things to come and not the true form of these realities,” and it is this foundational proclamation: that Christ’s one full, perfect oblation of himself once offered for the sins of all is the only way to be free of sin and in relationship with the Father, that leads the author to reflect on the wrath of God later in the chapter (10:30). Indeed, this section of Hebrews, after demonstrating the superiority of Christ in every way, and the wonders of his sacrifice, is concerned with warning those who would reject Christ’s gift for something lesser. The affirmation of God’s wrath in verse 30 occurs within the context of reflection on what happens to those who reject Christ:
Anyone who has violated the law of Moses dies without mercy “on the testimony of two or three witnesses.” How much worse punishment do you think will be deserved by those who have spurned the Son of God, profaned the blood of the covenant by which they were sanctified, and outraged the Spirit of grace? For we know the one who said, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb. 10:28-31).
The primary truth underlying this reflection upon God’s vengeance or wrath is not the negative proposition that our God is an angry, punishing God, but rather the affirmative belief that Christ’s offering of himself was the only sufficient sacrifice, both in manner and substance, to cover the sins of the world. It is significant that this section is speaking willful sin, in particular the overt rejection of Christ and his saving work, i.e. apostasy. As with Romans and James, the concern here is with idolatry, placing something or someone else in the place of Christ. Such an idolatry, coupled with an outright rejection of the only means of hope and salvation in the world, and one inevitably finds oneself living in the midst of God’s wrath, i.e. continuing in a manner of life that is contrary to his will while having closed the door of hope by rejecting Christ’s saving love.
Just as the message of Romans regarding God’s wrath is at heart a message of hope, so too is the warning found in Hebrews a warning based upon the fact of our hope in Christ Jesus. The warnings against idolatry and the ramifications of taking usurping God’s authority are set forth to remind us to submit ourselves again to the will of God in Christ. Indeed, even the affirmation of God’s wrath in Hebrews is hopeful; the hopelessness described in Hebrews is a hopelessness brought about by a purposeful rejection of hope itself.
This consideration of God’s wrath and judgment certainly has ramifications for our own day. The recognition that living outside the will of God necessarily places us at the mercy of the world should encourage us to seek God’s will in our lives. This often means forgoing the inclinations we have toward judgmentalism, arrogance, self-aggrandizement and idolatry. In so doing, as Paul tells us, we will find the necessary humility to live in community with one another in spite of our differences. Indeed, we will learn to celebrate the various graces given to us as members of the Body of Christ. In struggling together to lead such a life we will be able to develop the practices and strengths necessary to endure the hardships and persecutions of this life. In enduring, we are offered the reassurance that vengeance is not ours, but God’s–and while we may not see this vengeance in our day, nor understand it when it comes, we can see the result of rejecting God operative in the lives of those who persecute or reject us as followers of God. Since peace, harmony and reconciliation are gifts given by God, the results of rejecting God’s grace are apparent and painful, demonstrating themselves again and again in the broader society.
In summary, the Epistle to the Romans and the Epistle to the Hebrews each convey admonitions and warnings, which are as applicable in our own day as they were at the time of writing. They are not invitations to preach “hell-fire and brimstone” sermons, but rather exhortations to recognize God’s faithfulness and hope as conveyed in Jesus Christ and to live according to that hope and the affirmation of God’s authority. Such an affirmation negates the possibility that we would take it upon ourselves to judge someone’s salvation or to harshly condemn them. Instead, trusting in God’s righteousness, we should seek to live in which we let “love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor” (Rom. 12:9-10), always seeking to convey the message of salvation, so well presented in Hebrews, “But as it is, he has appeared once for all at the end of the age to remove sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Heb. 9:26)
Coogan, Michael D., ed. The New Oxford Annotated Bible: New Revised Standard Version with the Apocrypha. Third ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2001.
This well-crafted essay opens with a clear, discerning presentation of the difficulties contemporary Christians often find in considering God’s wrath. It suggests appropriately that many biblical writers encountered no such difficulty because they understood God’s wrath differently. the essay proceeds to a lucid articulation of the meaning of the wrath of God in both Romans and Hebrews, analyzing each passage in its immediate context and within the letter as a whole. The contrasts between Romans and Hebrews are clearly delineated. The essay is somewhat diminished by tendency to minimize the wrath of God. In the third and final part of the question, the essay builds upon the analysis of the texts to present a modern understanding of the wrath of God.