Mad Dad: What the Wrath of God Cannot Be

For the most part, Christians view the first Person of the Trinity particularly as Father.

Now, I know there is pushback on that designation from progressive folks who promote an equal use of Mother or maybe a more neutral Creator or Divine Parent or Source or something along those lines. For the record, I’m really comfortable with Father primarily because, personally, I desperately desire a heavenly Father. And, biblically, Jesus used this designation almost exclusively. Finally, theologically, I don’t really associate Father with stereotypical maleness [toughness, leadership, headship, etc.] as much as creative and redemptive firstness. God the Father initiaties – one might say, inseminates – the processes of creation and redemption, in partnership with the divine family, the earth, and the beloved human creation. I realize there are sociological issues here, but this post really isn’t about all that.

This post is about the wrath of God.

Predestined

When I was doing youth and small group ministry at a Reformed Baptist church heavily influenced by The Gospel Coalition and Mohler’s Southern Seminary, I was asked to lead a home group Bible study on the topic of predestination. And this was a bit of a sticky wicket. See, the senior pastor was the leader of our home group, and I was one of the assistant leaders, so it was kind of important for me to represent the pastor’s perspective on things since he was watching my every move (and was definitely one of those kinds of pastors). And, as it so happens, the previous Sunday this pastor had preached on predestination, and he had forcefully taken it to its fullest logical conclusion:

Reprobation.

And as he gave me the assignment to lead that Bible study, he told me to be sure to present the doctrine of reprobation clearly to the group, and reinforce his Sunday message. This mandate put me in a rather compromising position, as I was pretty sure I didn’t believe in reprobation (and I was already on my way to disbelieving Calvinistic predestination entirely). It was only slightly less compromising than the time he asked me, on the spot, to lead the group in prayer for Jerry Falwell’s ministry and legacy after his recent death. In retrospect, that one was clearly a test.

For the uninitiated, there are a couple of classically Reformed options for the doctrine of predestination (forgive me for oversimplifying). The first is a kind of soft predestination. This perspective sees God as granting authentic free will to Adam and Eve in the Garden, but, once they made their initial fateful choice, the will of everyone born thereafter would be bound by sin and dead to the possibility of choosing to repent and believe and be saved. Thus, God must sovereignly choose some for his own, and this is a unilateral, “monergistic” action without reference to the will of the individual sinner. Likewise, the act of saving this relatively small group – the elect – is unilateral. The atonement is limited, covering the sins of only the elect. The regenerating grace is irresistible, reaching in and softening the sinner’s heart by no choice of his own. The sanctifying grace will make the saved sinner persevere until the end, by the will of God alone.

And, in this softer view, those who are not saved (the vast majority of the human race) have already been condemned under Adam’s sin, are powerless to choose repentance and faith, and thus willfully enter an eternity without God since they hate him anyway in their heart. Predestination is an active decree – God actively choosing some – but condemnation is a passive decree, God simply passing over the rest and letting them seal their own fate. The wrath of God, then, is simply revealed at the judgment upon all sinners who are still spiritually dead “in Adam.”

Bear with me.

The second perspective is a kind of hard predestination. Depending on the variety, it may opt, as my old pastor did, for supralapsarianism, a view developed after Calvin’s death by his disciple Beza that essentially says the decree of choosing some for salvation occurred before the decrees of creation and the Fall in the mind of God. If that makes no sense, that’s because it kind of doesn’t, and it is certainly a very-far-off, sort-of-logical inference from anything actually present in the text of scripture. But the point of that view is to uphold the central tenet of hard predestination itself: that both God’s decree to save some and his decree to damn the rest are very, very active. 

That is, hard predestination presents something beyond a mere “passing over” the vast majority of human beings who are powerless to repent and believe. Instead, it says that God has actively destined this population for the flame, determining before the foundations of the world (perhaps even before he had foreordained the Fall itself) that his own glory would be served by the eternal torture of most of the human race. This is the doctrine of reprobation. While my readers will likely find this absurd at best, odious at worst, it deserves highlighting the fact that this harder version may present a more logically honest version of the system than the softer version.

It is a system built entirely on the axiomatic words of Romans 9: “Jacob have I loved, but Esau have I hated.”

And nothing less than this supralapsarian hard predestination was the focus of my study outline for the Reformed Baptist home group.

An Angry Adoption

If we stick to the Father metaphor for the first Person of the Trinity, then classical Reformed predestination presents us with rather huge dilemma.

Namely, it makes God an overwhelmingly angry Father. Now, in fairness, most Reformed folks would nuance this by saying that God’s disposition toward the non-elect is that of a Judge, not a Father. He is a Father only to those whom he’s adopted – sovereignly, monergistically, chosen before the foundation of the world. The elect. And he is not angry toward the adopted.

But, before the application of that adoption (regeneration), God’s wrath abided on all of us, right?

And that wrath equates to a desire to torture all sinners (condemned in Adam) eternally, yes? Apart from anything they have done, good or bad, and with no power to choose repentance and faith? The same horrific judgment upon any and all sins, great and small? Right?

So, no matter how you slice it, this God is most definitely a very mad Dad.

Further, the adoption itself is conditioned upon a rather angry act – the venting of the Father’s fearsome wrath onto his only Son in that stormy moment of (limited) atonement.

Now, here’s the thing. I affirm the wrath of God. But I cannot affirm this perspective on his wrath.

Because this God is not a good Dad.

And if adopted by him, I would run the hell away.

Which is why I hedged my way through that home group study, presenting all the information without affirming any of it, sure I had aroused the ire of the Reformed Baptist pastor and, perhaps, confirmed my own reprobate status from the neo-Calvinist God himself.

Not Just Because He Does It

Perhaps on the logical ground floor, underneath the predestinarian wrath superstructure, is a fundamental belief: that God’s justice is beyond our comprehension, and everything God does is just simply because he does it.

In my Reformed Baptist church this lead to an interesting cultural reality. People had a very difficult time knowing whether or not they were actually saved. In fact, it was common to hear, from the pastor on down, that none of us would know until the judgment whether we were truly elect.

Which meant that fear of the wrath of God toward the slightest sin seemed pathologically present in everything the church did and said.

Now, I’m not saying that’s normative for all Reformed churches today, nor even all neo-Calvinist churches like the present one. However, to fundamentally insist that God is just in damning and eternally torturing the vast majority of human beings – all of whom were condemned by the sin of one person (Adam) and powerless to repent or believe – while also insisting that he is just to choose a select few – based on nothing good or bad they have done nor anything present in their person or character – to escape said eternal torture is, to say the very least, going against everything we as human beings define as “justice.” This clearly brings us to a point of acknowledging that God’s version of justice can’t be known. God’s “will of decree” must be submitted to, such as it is, while his “will of command” serves to govern justice in the human sphere.

This is where God becomes the worst Father of all. Not only is he overwhelmingly and ferociously angry – but he is fundamentally untrustworthy.

How does a belief like this square with Jesus’s own words about the fatherhood of God?

“So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened.

“Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion? If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him!” (Luke 11:9-13).

If we resist squeezing this into some kind of Calvinistic soteriological system and simply let it stand, the message is startlingly simple: Jesus wants us to trust that God is a good Father. He is not messing with us. He is not filled with anger toward us (and everyone). And in his trustworthy, loving disposition he gives good gifts to his children and doesn’t demean their own sense of justice when they ask for something. Rather, he works in total concert with it. The Father is not fundamentally unlike us in his sense of justice, but just like us and even better than us with perfect, patient fairness and equity!

And his gracious gift is not closed off to anyone, as if God were a respecter of persons. The entire ministry of Jesus, and the instructions for the Prayer given just before these verses, are predicated on overturning insider/outsider categories and confronting the religious conception of “elect” privilege. 

Indeed, we are all God’s offspring.

A Very Good Dad

So yes, I believe in the wrath of God.

But it simply cannot be the capricious wrath of a Deity bent on glorifying himself by unilaterally sentencing the vast majority of humanity to the overwhelming, all-consuming fire of his anger.

And it cannot be balanced by the volatile, disingenuous choosing of a Deity showing off his “grace” to produce “gratitude” in the lucky ones unilaterally plucked from the flame (which really can only produce survivor’s guilt).

No, the wrath of God is the anger of a good, trustworthy, and just Father when he encounters anything that may harm his beloved children and his good world. It’s the anger of a Dad whose daughters are in danger. It’s the anger of a Father whose precious child has been defrauded, demeaned, desecrated. And this anger is shown not in active or passive decrees without reference to the actual actions and choices of human beings, but is a response to those real, authentic actions and choices. It is a divine acknowledgment of those choices and the consequences that they inherently produce. God is no respecter of persons, indeed. He answers all who call upon him, and grants honor and eternal life to all who patiently do what is right. He understands the difference between a lie and genocide, reads the hearts of those who make choices because they were first abused by others, works restorative justice into the lives of those he loves rather than kneejerking into wild retribution. He will put the world to rights.

Jesus, of course, is the one who shows us this. He is the express image of God. He only did what the Father was doing. His anger is God’s anger. His justice is God’s justice. His love is God’s love. His sacrifice is the covenant-restoring mercy of God, his resurrection the healing victory of God’s grace.

Thus, Jesus shows me that God is a Father I can trust. [Tweet This]

An adopted Dad that I never want to run away from, but run towards instead.

Oh, and I almost forgot to mention. The good gift that God will always give to his children if they ask for it? It’s the Holy Spirit. Not irresistibly granted to the elect, but abundantly showered on anyone who asks. Because God is a good Father who gives liberally to anyone, anywhere, who might be seeking him.

Even you, and me.

Wherever we are, no matter what we’ve done, right at this very moment.

Because he’s a very, very good Dad.

About Zach Hoag

Zach J. Hoag is a writer and missional minister from notoriously non-religious New England. He blogs here at Patheos and HuffPost Religion. His book, Nothing but the Blood: The Gospel According to Dexter, released in 2012. Most importantly he binge-watches TV dramas and plays in the snow with his family.

Find him on Twitter & Facebook!


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