In New Church theology, we hold to the idea that God is not wrathful or angry or vengeful – an idea that at first blush can come across as contrary to the clear teachings of the Bible and Christian tradition. I recently started reading the works of the early Christian fathers, though, and was surprised at a few statements there on God’s wrath. The classic collection The Ante-Nicene Fathers begins with the first epistle of Clement of Rome to the Corinthians. According to Wikipedia, “[this] letter dates from the late 1st or early 2nd century, and ranks with Didache as one of the earliest — if not the earliest — of extant Christian documents outside the canonical New Testament.” Clement writes:
Wherefore, having so many great and glorious examples set before us, let us turn again to the practice of that peace which from the beginning was the mark set before us; and let us look steadfastly to the Father and Creator of the universe, and cleave to His mighty and surpassingly great gifts and benefactions of peace. Let us contemplate Him with our understanding, and look with the eyes of our soul to His long-suffering will. Let us reflect how free from wrath He is towards all His creation. (Chapter XIX)
The next item in The Ante-Nicene Fathers is a letter from an anonymous disciple to someone named Diognetus, “The Epistle of Mathetes to Diognetus“:
For God, the Lord and Fashioner of all things, who made all things, and assigned them their several positions, proved Himself not merely a friend of mankind, but also long-suffering [in His dealings with them]. Yea, He was always of such a character, and still is, and will ever be, kind and good, and free from wrath, and true, and the only one who is [absolutely] good. (Chapter VII)
Those are some pretty clear statements on God’s lack of wrath. Unfortunately, the authors don’t go any further to reconcile those statements with the clear references in the Bible to God’s wrath.
Here’s how I reconcile it. First, the most fundamental teaching about God is that God is love (1 John 4:8). And if God is love, then as I see it, there cannot be anything in Him that desires to see anyone suffer, that has anything of the hatred that is inherent in human wrath. As I see it, then, we’re left with two options: either God’s love is different from human love, or God’s wrath is different from human wrath.
I know some people, in particular staunch Calvinists, who argue for the first of these options: that God so infinitely transcends humanity that we cannot at all base our concept of His love on our love. The problem is that I see passages throughout the Bible that suggest just the opposite – that the only way to know God and His love is through our experience of love. For example:
“Therefore be imitators of God as dear children. And walk in love, as Christ also has loved us and given Himself for us, an offering and a sacrifice to God for a sweet-smelling aroma.” (Ephesians 5:1-2)
“No one has seen God at any time. If we love one another, God abides in us, and His love has been perfected in us.” (1 John 4:12)
“You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbour and hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemies, bless those who curse you, do good to those who hate you, and pray for those who spitefully use you and persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven; for He makes His sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the just and on the unjust. (Matthew 5:43-45)
Several other passages, particularly in the works of John, make similar statements about the link between God’s love and human love.On the other hand, the human experience of wrath is almost universally condemned in the New Testament, and listed among the works of the flesh:
So then, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath; for the wrath of man does not produce the righteousness of God. (James 1:19-20)
But now you yourselves are to put off all these: anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy language out of your mouth. (Colossians 3:8)
Let all bitterness, wrath, anger, clamor, and evil speaking be put away from you, with all malice. (Ephesians 4:31)
So while the experience of love is presented as a good way to know God, the human experience of wrath is presented as merely human and contrary to God.
Now to be clear: there still are many references to the wrath of God throughout the Bible, and I don’t want to dismiss them. But what I contend is that a.) this “wrath of God” has little in common with the human experience of wrath, and b.) there is “wrath of God” but no wrath in God. That is, there is an experience of “wrath” that comes on those who rebel against God when He draws close to them. But that is more accurately described as their wrath against God. The same presence for someone who loves God is experienced as joy, fruitfulness, love. It is not that God is angry at sinners and His Son needed to reconcile Him to those who had rebelled; it is that we who have rebelled need to be reconciled to him. “God was in Christ reconciling the world to Himself, not imputing their trespasses to them” (2 Corinthians 5:19). In Him there is “no shadow of turning” (James 1:17) – He constantly looks at us with love, and it is we ourselves who turn away.
And that’s what we mean in the New Church when we say “God is not angry at you” – not that there is no consequence for sin, but that the solution for sin is for us to turn back to God. We are able to do because we can have Him in our hearts in His manifestation as Jesus Christ. The “wrath of God” is simply the human experience of wrath that comes from God’s presence when we have not submitted our wills to His – and His will is purely and simply that we love.
Here’s how it’s put in the book Apocalypse Revealed:
The wrath of God symbolizes the evil in people, which, because it is in opposition to God, is called the wrath of God. Not that God is angry at people, but that people’s evil causes them to be angry at God. Moreover, because, when a person is punished or tormented on account of his evil – as happens in hell after death – it seems to him that it is God’s doing, therefore in the Word we find anger and wrath, even evil, attributed to God. (AR 658)
“And Your wrath has come, and the time to judge the dead” (Revelation 11:18). This symbolizes the destruction of and the last judgment on those people who were without any spiritual life. “Your wrath” symbolizes a last judgment, thus their destruction. This is the symbolic meaning of the Lord’s wrath because it appears to people as though the Lord casts people into hell out of anger, when in fact an evil person casts himself into hell. Indeed, the case is similar to that of an evildoer who blames his punishment on the law, or on the fire that burns him if he sticks his hand into it, or on the sword held out in the hand of someone protecting himself if he is pierced through when he rushes upon the blade. Such is the case with everyone who sets himself against the Lord and out of anger rushes upon those whom the Lord protects. (AR 525)
That’s the New Church doctrine – not that there is no consequence for evil, but that the consequence comes from man’s anger and rejection of God, not God’s rejection of man.
(Note: New Church doctrine does speak positively of something like anger that a person feels and expresses toward evil, but this is consistently referred to as “zeal” rather than “anger” or “wrath”. I’ll put up a post on that in a few days.)