What does God without retribution look like? Ask Jesus (Michael Hardin part 3)

What does God without retribution look like? Ask Jesus (Michael Hardin part 3) April 10, 2014

Today we have part 3 of a 4-part series by Michael Hardin, “How Jesus Read His Bible.” Hardin (see full bio at part 1) is the co-founder and Executive Director of Preaching Peace a non-profit based in Lancaster, PA whose motto is “Educating the Church in Jesus’ Vision of Peace.” Hardin has published over a dozen articles on the mimetic theory of René Girard in addition to essays on theology, spirituality, and practical theology. He is also the author of several books, including the acclaimed The Jesus Driven Life from which these posts are adapted.

In today’s post, Hardin continues his discussion of Jesus’s use of the Old Testament. Hardin argues that the manner in which Jesus quotes his scripture shows us the God Jesus proclaims is not retributive. And, as you’ll see, John the Baptist was confused about this (as you might be).


We ended the last post by saying,

Nothing irks some folks more than losing a God who is wrathful, angry, retributive and punishing. This is only because we want so much to believe that God takes sides, and that side is inevitably our side. 

So much of Jesus’s teaching subverts this sacrificial way of thinking.

One example is the parable of the Pharisee and the tax collector found in Luke 18:9-14, where what counts as righteousness is completely and totally turned on its head!

If, in fact, as I argued in my last post, that Jesus begins his ministry by asking what God without retribution looks like (Luke 4), and if he acts this way in his ministry, and if he interprets his Bible to say such things, the question arises:

  • Shouldn’t we also follow Jesus in interpreting our Bibles in the same way?
  • Is biblical interpretation also a part of discipleship?
  • Does following Jesus include more than just living a virtuous life?
  • Might it also have to do with helping folks change the way they envision God?

Such was the case for Jesus who called people constantly to “change your thinking.” This is what repentance is, changing the way you think about things (Greek metanoia). When we change the way we see and understand the character of God, everything else changes and we turn back (Hebrew shuv) to the living and true God.

We can see Jesus doing the same thing in Luke 7:18-23 when he responds to the followers of John the Baptist. Herod had imprisoned the Baptist for his preaching against the Herodian family system. John did not want to die without knowing whether Jesus was the one to come.

Now what could possibly have created this doubt in John’s mind? The answer comes in Jesus’ response to John’s followers. “Go and tell John what you have seen and heard,” Jesus says and then follows a list of miracles. Is Jesus saying, “Tell John you have seen a miracle worker and that God is doing great things through me?”

Doesn’t John already know these things about Jesus? Surely he does. Healers were rare but they were not uncommon in Jesus’ day. What then is Jesus really saying?

Luke 7:22ff is a selection of texts, mostly from Isaiah but also including the miracles of Elijah and Elisha (blind, Isaiah 61:1-2, 29:18, 35:5; lame, 35:6; deaf, 29:18, 35:5; poor 29:19; dead/lepers, I Kings 17:17-24 and 2 Kings 5:1-27).

The Isaiah texts all include a consequent or subsequent reference to the vengeance of God none of which Jesus quotes. As in Luke 4 what is at stake is the retributive violence of God that was an important aspect of John’s proclamation (Luke 3:7-9).

John, like the prophets before him, believed that God was going to bring an apocalyptic wrath. Nowhere in Jesus’ preaching do we find such and this is what confused John, just as it confused Jesus’ synagogue hearers.

Jesus implicitly tells John, through his message to John’s followers, that the wrath of God is not part of his message, rather healing and good news is. That is, Jesus is inviting John to read Isaiah the way he did!

The last thing Jesus tells John the Baptists’ disciples is “Blessed is the person who is not scandalized on account of me?” What could have caused this scandal? What had Jesus said and done that would cause people to stumble on his message? The clues are here in both Luke 4 and 7.

Jesus did not include as part of his message the idea that God would pour out wrath on Israel’s enemies in order to deliver Israel. Violence is not part of the divine economy for Jesus.

Sad to say, most Christians still think more like John the Baptist than Jesus.

Christians have lived a long time with a God who is retributive.

  • We say that God is perfect and thus has the right to punish those whom he deems fit.
  • We say that God will bring his righteous wrath upon all those who reject God.
  • We say that God can do what God wants because God is God.

All of this logic is foreign to the gospel teaching of Jesus about the character of his heavenly abba.

Jesus does not begin with an abstract notion of God or Platonic metaphysics, but with the Creator God whom he knows as loving, nurturing and caring for all persons regardless of their moral condition, their politics, their ethnic background or their social or economic status. God cares for everyone equally and alike.

By removing retribution from the work and character of God, Jesus, for the first time in human history, opened up a new way, a path, which he also invites us to travel.

Sadly few have found that this path and church history is replete with hundreds, even thousands of examples of a Janus-faced god, a god who is merciful and wrathful, loving and punishing. Some have said that we need to hold to both of these sides together.

Jesus didn’t and neither should we. It is time for us to follow Jesus in reconsidering what divinity without retribution looks like.

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  • Chip

    I’ve not read the book. Only these three posts. But is seems to me like he began with a premise and then went into the Bible to prove the premise. Today’s post started with the Pharisee and the tax collector. Jesus said, “I tell you this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God.” What does Hardin think of Jesus’ assessment of the Pharisee?

    • Ash

      Shame on Michael for being forthcoming about the influences on his hermeneutics. I’m glad you don’t use hermeneutics and just read the Bible objectively instead.

  • Ross

    Thanks Michael for a few reasons to increase my wrestling with God :-{ I was quite happy recognising other peoples’ errors in what they thought about God and now have to make time to look at my own. I have found the whole idea of forgiving others, turning the other cheek etc a very mind-twisting concept, but one I should follow, even if I fail often.

    One place where I find my mind twisted beyond normal is the practical area of law and justice here on earth and how this fits with Jesus’ message. Such as how do we deal with criminal behaviour and punishment through the legal system etc. It seems that there is some practical necessity in the here and now to do something with sin/wrongdoing/crime/what-ever. Admittedly the principal of rehabilitation rather than pure punishment seems to me to be important here too.

    Additionally it seems in the Luke 18: 9-14 section there seems some conditionality on the justification/forgiveness line, involving repentance, I.e. recognition of the “sin” and genuine remorse.

    I’m wondering to what extent the message is to ourselves, recognising that we are forgiven we need to forgive others and not demanding punishment. To this extent is not vengeance or punishment purely for God, not for us? Are we here being commanded to let go of our own desires for revenge/punishment?

    This in my mind leaves at least the option open for God to be punitive in some way manner or form, along with being a loving and forgiving Father, we just let go of that role for ourselves.

    • Michael Hardin

      I can only reply that in seeking to overturn the standard Protestant model of biblical authority and re-ground it in a way that does not require a ‘sacrifice of the intellect’ I have had to write quite a bit. These blog posts are teasers of a sort for those who do not have a ‘cement theology’: one that is all mixed up and permanently set. They are an invitation to see what a truly Christological hermeneutic approach to the Bible might look like. But to answer your question simply: yes, we are commanded to let go of our own desire for retribution and punishment, not because God will in the end be retributive on our behalf (or on behalf of some abstract law) but because our Abba loves those who hurt us as much as we are loved. God as Love (I John) is our hermeneutic, not some Janus-faced God whose attributes are in tension. That kind of god needs medication.

      • Ross

        Thank you for the time and effort for your reply. Generally I have few “set” bits of theology, which others seem to find annoying?!:-} I usually resort to “it’s a lot of mystery” can’t figure that out. Maybe ultimately all theology is just a scrabbling search for either God, or excusing all our own excesses. I find your approach as well as myriad others over the centuries, a good help to grasp at least some of a picture of God’s face and give reason to keep following and searching. I’m not sure if a fixed theology is ever really possible, particularly if it goes beyond the view from limited broken people to trying to express God’s mind for him.

        I’m also wondering a bit, whether the more recent “squeamish” approach and rejection of Gods Wrath/judgment etc, is more to do with a change in culture where we are much less likely to want to see a wrathful God. Whereas historically this “felt” more acceptable. If culturally conditioned maybe it can change away in future, or perhaps it is more revelation, that with a recent history of total war, genocide, WMD etc. that we are seeing the real horror of death and destruction and like God are getting heartily fed up of it and really wish it to all end ASAP.

  • mark

    Chip wrote:

    I’ve not read the book. Only these three posts. But is seems to me like he began with a premise and then went into the Bible to prove the premise.

    I think that’s exactly right. And unfortunately that “going to” the Bible involved selective quotations, tendentious interpretations, and an anachronistic use of “the Bible” as a handbook of moral theology.

    Michael wrote re Lk 4:

    Jesus did not include as part of his message the idea that God would pour out wrath on Israel’s enemies in order to deliver Israel.

    As I pointed out before, the target of Jesus’ polemic is the concept of a divinely chosen, ethnically defined, “people.” He is not addressing the issue of retribution as such. He’s addressing the larger issue of the relation of God and the entire human race–an issue that is transparently at the core of Jesus’ message and of the Good News that the early Christians proclaimed throughout the Mediterranean world and beyond. The answer to the question that Jesus raises is a relationship to God based on faith in Jesus. There are, indeed, moral ramifications to be drawn from God’s self revelation in Jesus, but those moral ramifications are to be addressed through reasoning about the identity of God as revealed by Jesus and knowable by reflection upon God’s creation (Romans), not by proof texts from the early Christian writings.

    • dopy

      yeah, the more I read this, the more I see that Michael is also using the Bible as a diving board, string of pearls, and 7th grade dissection laboratory. I had high hopes that we would see something fresh, but alas, he is using the Bible to hunt down answers of his own presuppositions. I would prefer a more thoughtful analysis of wrestling with the fact that Jesus said a lot about judgement, rather than hand waving and saying “no, no, Jesus didn’t mean that”.

      Mark, I think you are right-on about Jesus’ whole message was about saying its not the way you think: its not about an ethnic identity – the Kingdom of God is open to everyone. That is the good news of the gospel.

      I’ve also read more of Michael’s work, and its centered on Renee Girard’s mimetic theory – been there, seen that.

      • Michael Hardin

        First Rene is a male (not Renee). Second anyone who could say ‘been there, done that’ has obviously not read very widely or deeply in the mimetic theory. Third, these posts are from the second chapter of a book whose exegetical methodology is spelled out in the Introduction. Fourth, one must still ask the question as to where ethic identity originates; Girard’s hypothesis about social identity being formed in the double transference of the scapegoat mechanism is the most viable option anthropologically. Perhaps, Dopy, instead of just laying over in the airport of mimetic theory, you might actually get out and wander the city before you claim to have seen it all.

      • Michael Hardin

        As a mimetic theorist what is fascinating to observe about ‘dopy’s’ and Jerry’s responses is the mimetic doubling; the use of my language in their reply as though quoting my words back at me vitiates my position. This rhetorical strategy already indicates that they have entered into a rivalry rather than a conversation.

  • David

    Michael, thanks for haring your views. To some extent I kind of agree with Chip below. But before I prejudge , I am going to give you the benefit of the doubt by requesting that you deal with those other scriptures which seem to allow for a Jesus of Wrath and Judgment. What do we do with passages like Romans 1: 18, 32 and Romans 2: 1 – 16? ( Not to mention Hebrews 12: 23-29 and Rev 16). We cant exegete these passages away. Yes I know that Revelation etc cannot always be taken with a wooden literalism but the new testament uses the word “wrath” at least 45 times . Wrath seems to be as much a feature of God’s economy, as is forgiveness, mercy and grace. Of course psalm 103 poetically says that: “The Lord is merciful and gracious,slow to anger, and plenteous in mercy”. So while God’s grace does trump and exceed His judgment/wrath it seems to me that, with God, wrath and mercy does co-exist, even if not as equal partners.

    • Michael Hardin

      Yesterday I posted a brief response on Romans 1:18-32 here http://brianmclaren.net/archives/blog/guest-q-r-with-michael-hardin-th.html. Along with Douglas Campbell I see Romans 1 as an example of prosopopoia where Paul is quoting ‘the false teacher.’ I also understand the Bible to contain two perspectives, that of myth (where violence against victims is justified) and gospel (where innocent victims are vindicated). The first is the stream of religion, the latter revelation. I understand that inerrantists or infallibilists would have a very difficult time with the view I am advancing. I would refer you to the more nuanced discussion in my other writings, esp., http://www.preachingpeace.org/documents/New_Philly_Essay.pdf
      and http://www.preachingpeace.org/documents/The%20Babylonian%20Captivity%20of%20the%20Gospel%20Spaced.pdf

      • I was wondering if you had read Deliverance of God. I guess you have. I’m in the process of writing a project on Rom 1-4 and its a variation of his rereading. If you’ve got nothing better to do have a gander.


        Its a link to the first part of three docs;
        Romans – Part 07 – Dialogue – Author, text and audience
        Romans – Part 08 – Dialogue – Framing Romans 1-4
        Romans – Part 09 – Dialogue – Sneak peak

        • Michael Hardin

          Fascinating but I was looking for the use of prosopopoia where Rom 1:18-32 was Paul speaking but speaking as the false teacher! Thus Rom 1:18-32 is not Paul’s theology but precisely the anti-Gentile rhetoric (which you rightly noted is also found in Wis. Sol 13-14) of the false teacher, which Pal will then rebut in 2:1ff. On the other hand, I did like the cartoons!

          • Thanks for reading! I do get Douglas argument about Paul speaking in the teachers voice and it being different theology, etc. I actually tried to argue it for a time in my paper (working with Rom 3.9; 2.1-5), but in the end I guess I chickened out because I didn’t think in the text there was enough evidence to sway people and so I tried a both/and solution. The ‘therefore’ in Rom 2.1 does suggest Paul said Rom 1.18-32 in his own voice, its hard to get around that…

          • Michael Hardin

            That’s the point Josh, the ‘oun’ (therefore) in the text need not imply that Paul believes Rom 1:18-32 but precisely that because the false teacher has/or will argue this in Rome, he is without excuse for he/his kind are just as guilty. I think Campbell makes this point well. It sounds to me like you attend a conservative school. I understand minding your P’s and Q’s, and not getting into hot water, but no amount of evidence is going to sway those who will not see. I go through this every single day on Facebook. I have learned to stick with what I know (what I am comfortable with). There is no such thing as certainty, that is an illusion. Those who need certainty don’t live in the real world. Best to you on your project!

          • Likewise Michael. God bless.

    • Orton1227

      Romans 1 is dealing with the Jews, as is Jesus’ other “wrath” passages in the gospels. He was telling them that if they didn’t repent (turn from their hope put in Judaism) that they would experience the wrath God was going to pour out on the Old Covenant system (using Rome to destroy Jerusalem and the temple). That was certainly a terrible time to be Jewish. And Jesus knew it was coming. Has they repented of Judaism and listened to Jesus they would have been saved because He told them the signs before they should flee the city and into the mountains.

      • David

        Thanks Orton 1227,
        However Romans 2: 9-11 seems to suggest that this wrath is not limited to the Jews but is applicable “to the Jews first and also the Gentiles for there is no respecter of persons with God”. Further many of the “wrath passages” in Revelation are Post the temple’s destruction in 70-AD

        • Orton1227

          First, you assume a late date for revelation. I’ve never seen a good argument for it. The only argument seems to be “how could john know what was going to happen unless he’s writing after 70 AD?”

          Second, think about how Paul talks about wrath. It’s not an attack but God sitting back and doing nothing, letting those who don’t follow enjoy their consequences.

          • Jim

            Can you provide absolutely verifiable evidence (maybe even an autograph) for Revelation being pre-70s. If you can, a publication on the evidence in a refereed journal would be guaranteed.

          • Orton1227

            No of course not. However the author mentions measuring the temple in the near future. How could that be done if it already fell?

            Plus if the temple was already destroyed, why wouldn’t the author mention that. That was such a huge eschatogical event and for an eschatological book not to mention it is like a book on roger Maris that doesn’t mention his 61 Homer record breaking season

          • Jim

            Ty for your reply. I’m not saying that a pre-70 date is totally impossible for the book, however it seems that the majority view is for a 90’s CE date. As to why the author doesn’t mention the destruction of the temple, I really don’t know and am totally guessing that the event was 20 years in the past and the author was not living in Judea and was writing to those in Asia minor. Just my opinion though, I don’t even know who the real author of the book of Revelation was, so I just refer to him as John of Patmos (Patmos being his last name 🙂 ) I do think the author was a Jewish writer though.

          • Orton1227

            Gotcha. I think most past scholars went for the ~90 AD dating. But I’ve read most current scholars see it as pre 70.

          • Jim

            Interesting, would you have a reference – this something I should look in to (since I’ve been spewing the consensus for the 90’s and may need to reevaluate). I must admit I haven’t kept up much with this since Elaine Pagels book. Thanks.

          • Orton1227

            I think where I read the broad claim “majority have early date” was in a Greg Boyd book. But I’ve seen blogs/books that mention it from Scot McKnight, NT wright and Peter Leithart. I would guess Pete sees it that way too after reading some of his books, but I don’t want to put words in his mouth.

          • Jim

            Thanks for the info, I’ll try to chase some of those leads down.

          • Andrew Dowling

            It hasn’t changed, only among conservative evangelical scholars. When scholars posit a date earlier than what the earliest patristic sources claimed (which was during the reign of Domitian in the 90s), and those sources had every incentive to claim dates as early as possible regardless of what was actually the case, something is fishy. Frankly there is more evidence to date it even later (during Pliny the Younger in the early 2nd century) than during the time of Nero.

          • Jim

            Thanks Andrew. I was interested in the references Orton1227 was alluding to. It’s been awhile since I’ve looked into Revelation, but it latently popped up in the discussion of Michael Hardin’s posts as somewhat going against the Girardian grain.

      • Ross

        I can’t agree with the idea that Jesus wanted them to repent from “Judaism”, he seemed pretty Jewish himself and didn’t want to start a new “religion”. Admittedly, a lot of what had preceded and was going on at the time needed overturning and turning from. Paul was Jewish as were most of the early disciples and it seems to me that what was required was that Judaism should be transformed and the Gentiles were also now included. At this point the “exclusiveness” of Judaism really needed a rethink.

        However I suppose a lot may depend on what is meant, or understood by the term Judaism here.

        • Orton1227

          Yeah “Judaism” isn’t the correct term. He wanted them to repent of their belief that circumcision and what that represented (nationality or flesh) would save them.

          • Ross

            Thanks for the clarification:-)

      • Andrew Dowling

        No, that is later Christian post-diction making sense of the destruction of Jerusalem. The idea that God “destroyed” Jerusalem as some sort of divine judgement against the Jews for “rejecting Jesus” is as sordid and deluded as any of the “difficult” passages one finds in the OT. It was a bad belief spurred by Christians and Jews separating in the latter half of the 1st century and Christians painting Jews as having “foregone the covenant”

  • Nate

    Great piece, Michael. Just to find a place of possible departure, so that I can best understand, here are two of your quotes (and my comments) that would help me process.

    1) John, like the prophets before him, believed that God was going to bring an apocalyptic wrath. Nowhere in Jesus’ preaching do we find such and this is what confused John, just as it confused Jesus’ synagogue hearers.

    2) Jesus did not include as part of his message the idea that God would pour out wrath
    on Israel’s enemies in order to deliver Israel. Violence is not part of the divine economy for Jesus.

    I have corresponding short points to your quotes above.

    1. Agreed, John expected apocalyptic wrath, but this was because he expected the arrival of the KINGDOM, right? With the kingdom comes apocalyptic wrath, but being in jail for righteousness’ sake did not comport with John’s notion of ‘the arrival’ of the kingdom. Wrath is a substratum (never symmetrical to the kingdom) and covers rejection and therefore the implementation of strict justice.

    2. Here I disagree, because you seem to imply that wrath is negated altogether, but John’s confusion seems to consist in an all or nothing mentality. Either the kingdom (and therefore wrath) is here or it is not. But with God’s plan (already/not yet), neither the full arrival of God’s kingdom, nor his judicial wrath of final judgment, is part of the divine economy, because the kingdom is coming IN TWO STAGES. It seems like the witness of Scripture attests to the kingdom has having ‘already arrived’ in some sense (Luke 10:9,11), even though it is ‘not yet’. And wrath too, in some sense, has already arrived (John 3:36; Rom 1:18), yet not its full outpouring.

    In summary, it seems to me John the Baptist, then, simply didn’t get the TWO-STAGE arrival of the KINGDOM and its accompanied JUDGMENT. Just curious where
    you would depart in formulation?

    • Michael Hardin

      I am not a good Evangelical inasmuch as I don’t hold to a view of Scripture that requires to take everything it says at face value. Frankly, I think the biblical writers could be and were wrong about certain things, particularly those related to sacred violence, penal judgment etc. I am not a very good Barthian in this regard either.

      • Jeff Y

        This is very late in the game here – and I doubt it will be read; but, while I would really like to agree with Michael and I hope one day to read his book, I see a fundamental problem on this point: if the biblical writers could be wrong about certain theological matters – they could also be wrong in their constructs of Jesus’ words and recordings – including whatever he said or did not say about vengeance. The same writers we might argue have some element of problematic theology on judgment/vengeance/wrath – are the same ones who gave us Jesus; it would seem to relativize and undermine any text.

  • Nash

    Michael, I like your instincts, and desire to move away from the wrathful portrait of God, which in think is damaging to humanity. However, there are a couple issues I have.

    One is that I have a hard time seeing Jesus radically break with the Jewish view of YHWH. Jesus was an apocalyptic prophet who joined John’s movement. I don’t think he is disavowing traditional Jewish thought about God, I think he is developing a picture of the ethics of the coming kingdom that will be brought about by God.

    Another is that others have pointed out, you downplay the parts of the NT that discuss wrath against those who don’t believe or whatever.

    I firmly believe that the loving portrait of God is much preferable to the wrathful portrait, but I don’t think that does justice to the scripture. Of course another question entirely is how accurately Jesus’ words were passed down. It is possible all these sayings reflect the views of later authors as much as anything else.

    • peteenns

      A thought, and I am just riffing here. What if Jesus and the later reflections of Jesus in the NT are instigating a trajectory away from retributive justice, but as both Jesus and the NT writers were very much part of the ancient world where retributive justice was a given, they cannot wholly divest themselves of the idea (NOR SHOULD WE EXPECT THEM TO).

      Apart from the obvious problems this causes for inerrancy (which I feel won’t help this problem anyway), what other problems might there be in such a position? Let me ask this as a series of questions: To what extent does the Bible tell us what God is like vis-a-vis how people at the time understood him to be? If Jesus as a first century Jew participated in Jewish apocalyptic modes of thought that wind up being temporary, are we left with a “low” Christology or is a Christology like an implication of the incarnation?

      Perhaps the OT makes moves in a non-retributive direction in places, and then the NT turns on the afterburners to set the course more clearly, but the highway landscape doesn’t disappear in an instant.

      I undertand that this will raise eyebrows about “knowing more” than biblical writers–or even Jesus–but don’t we already say that re: cosmology, Israelite history, mosaic authorship, and other issues?

      Another way of putting it is: does our continued journey on the trajectory set in Scripture, and esp. the Gospel, mean we are arrogant and rebellious, or does it mean we are “keeping in step with the Spirit” as he keeps speaking into the world through the church?

      Again, just riffing, but this strikes me as much less convoluted than feeling every passage of Scripture has to conform to one type of theory.

      • Guest

        These are good questions. I think another important question is: what is the theological purpose behind the constant theme that runs throughout Scripture from the O.T. through the N.T regarding consequence of sin? Jesus talks about hell more than anyone else. Why? Was he just mistaken? Or is it a matter of reconfiguring what hell is? That is, sin still has consequences but its a “giving over” rather than active? And if its a giving over, does that really make much of a difference since hell is still there and God allows it (however you define hell)? In other words, if we are going to understand God in a new way–apparently a God without any wrath–what do we do with the obvious theological importance throughout Scripture that does speak clearly about consequences?

        It would render a significant portion of the Bible’s theology as irrelevant. Is the proposal to discard these sections as essentially we are moving beyond them on a trajectory? Or is it a matter of re-reading these passages of wrath to understand the theology of it differently? So, far in these blog post the hermeneutic is not being applied to passages on wrath. The notion that Jesus never talks about wrath is a bit difficult to swallow since its all over in the book of Luke and elsewhere so unless I am misunderstanding Michael’s statement, I have difficult taking it seriously. I understand Jesus is saying there will not be a physical overthrow (of the Romans for example–so no physical violence), but there is certainly a spiritual overthrowing.

        Also, what does this do for the prophetic message against injustice? Since God is often angry in the Old Testament about exploitation. The prophets were often calling for social justice. God was angry that the orphan and widow were being oppressed. Do we really want a God who never gets angry? Is not righteous anger good? Should we not be angry that a five year old girl is being raped in a brothel right at this moment?

        • BHB

          I think we need to recognize wrathful prophetic messages against injustice in the OT are also a mixed bag. They certainly contain redemptive depictions of God moving to confront injustice and exploitation, but they also use rhetoric and metaphor that portray God as an abusive husband, an authoritarian father, and an angry warrior. Surely we should not perpetuate all of this cultural baggage. Maybe there is a sense in which God is angry, but even if so, it seems like whenever we have tried to depict or convey that anger we do it in a culturally broken way that somehow distorts the character of God.

          • Guest

            I agree the concept of divine anger can be greatly misused and is certainly misused by Christian legalists, but I don’t think its misuse or the possibility of a “mixed bag” negates the concept of righteous anger (which is very different from sinful anger). What I see with a lot of disenchanted evangelicals (and I have wrestled with this myself having been raised in fundamentalism) is a reactivity that takes the pendulum to the opposite extreme, which is just as unhelpful. So if legalists preach fire and brimstone and hate, let’s just do the opposite and rid ourselves of any notion that God is actively concerned and responsive to sin in the world. That is, let’s throw out any concept of God’s righteous anger. But God’s righteous anger is quite different than legalistic, sinful anger. Its fairly common for the Enemy to propose something that looks like the truth and so makes truth look destructive causing us to then throw out truth itself.

          • Michael Hardin

            I think I am with you Kim. I am not advocating for a God who is just some sloppy sentimentalist. However, my problem with differentiating “sinful” and “righteous” anger is this: Why is my anger always “righteous” while another’s anger toward me is “sinful?” In other words why is God always on our side of the fence? Who has ever said, “You are right my anger is sinful and yours (the enemy other) is righteous?”
            So, e.g., how many American thought, following 9/11 that going to war was a “righteous” response while flying planes into building was “sinful?” Certainly those who flew those plans that terrible day would have argued the opposite. So who is right? This leads me to then ask, how can one define “righteous” anger” and how does one differentiate “righteous” anger from sinful anger? Is it righteous anger to say “enough with taxing the rich? They worked hard to get to where they got?” Is it sinful anger to say “Tax the rich for the richest 300 persons in the world are worth more than the bottom 3 billion?” Is it righteous anger to say, “America is a corrupt nation and is bleeding the world dry with its militaristic support of corporate interests?” Is it “sinful anger” to say “real Christians should stand up against all forms of terrorism and hunt down all the terrorists ‘in the name of the Lord?'” Who is making these judgments, and from what perspective? On what grounds can we make them? Are we not led round and round our little hermeneutical circles? Is this not the divide between conservative (and often Republican) and progressive (and often Democrat) Christianity in America?
            If God has ‘righteous’ anger what does that look like and who gets to determine that? How does one understand anger in light of perspective? Is the conqueror’s anger justified? The victim’s? The abuser’s? The abused? Or is anger itself the problematic here? Is it possible that we humans have imported our own anger issues onto God, and that this is also the case for the biblical writers? is it possible that Jesus came to show us what God without anger looks like? And if we didn’t let go of our angry gods we would end up destroying ourselves, as though we were in Hell itself?
            And who is this ‘enemy?’ What if one does not believe in a ‘personal devil’? What if we are the enemy? What if our greatest fault lies in our self-justification, not simply as an act of religion (justification by works) but also as a social action where I can justify being righteously angry at those who hurt me? Why wasn’t Jesus angry on the cross? Why didn’t Jesus come back from the dead with a message about God’s anger or wrath? Is it not the case that the category of “righteous anger” is a falsehood? Might it not be that we need to look at injustice from the perspective of the victim? And who gets to claim that status?
            Was America ‘victimized’ on 9/11? Or were we targets of “righteous anger?” Does perspective count in all this? I think this is where Girard’s theory of religion becomes most helpful. For, unless we first see ourselves as those who are consistently engaging in “sinful anger” (displacing our hostility onto random victims), we can never find ourselves as those named “forgiven persecutors, nor can we learn to follow the Forgiving Victim, Jesus.
            For Christians who still have a place for ‘law’ in their theology, there will always be justification for anger at real or perceived slights, there will always be justification for scapegoating others. For those who recognize that Law is the problem, never the solution, anger will always be that which is shed. Does this mean we don’t speak truth to power? No. It does mean though, that we can no longer use the Bible as a hammer to condemn those whose moral choices or biology do not affect us (e.g, homosexuals). Rather should we not use Scripture to speak truth to those who continue to rely on structures and institutions that marginalize, ostracize and create enemy ‘others?’
            Does the Sermon on the Mount not speak to us today? has not the justification of “righteous anger” and the use of the Law in Evangelical Christianity created a polarization in this country (the USA) whereby some would deny ‘the other’ the same civil rights as the privileged on the grounds that “God is righteously angry” at them for their behavior, and they can quote a few paltry Bible verses to justify such condemnation? Is this righteous? Or is this religious? What does righteous anger have to do with Jesus?
            What does hell have to do with Jesus except to say he has harrowed it and led captivity captive? Why is it always the ‘other’ who is in hell? Why do we not say “yes, you are different and God loves you but I am going to hell?” Why do we always consign the different ‘other’ to hell?
            Some questions worth pondering I think…

          • Guest

            All good points Michael, but still does not negate the possibility of righteous anger. Your examples refer primarily to sinful anger (e.g. why is it always the other person who has ‘sinful anger’ and not us), and the reality that it can be difficult to discern the difference between the two. But the fact that knowing the true heart of God and the fruit of the Spirit requires careful discernment does not mean these categories don’t exist. As for Jesus, did he not express righteous anger in overturning the tables? Also at the death of Lazarus, the text says he was angry (angry at death itself I would say).

        • Andrew Dowling

          “Jesus talks about hell more than anyone else.”

          To start, we need to realize that 1st century Jewish conceptions of the afterlife had some variety, but none included a “hell” akin to Christian theology which arose a couple of centuries later.

          • Guest

            There are various views of hell within Christian theology. I am assuming you mean the one that refers to eternal conscious torture? Perhaps. But it doesn’t negate my point that Jesus talks about an unpleasant place where there is “weeping and gnashing of teeth” (figural, of course, but its pointing to some kind of reality and consequence). What do you think Jesus meant by hell? Why did he talk about it so much? What was his point?

      • Nash


        Yes, the NT projects a trajectory away from retributive view of God toward a more merciful one. And yes, the writings reflect the authors’ culture.

        But that is my point, that the bible writings reflect the opinions and culture of the authors more than any absolute truth about God. This isn’t an original thought on my part. The earliest scripture portrays God as a tribal deity, with human emotions, and as time goes by he becomes more remote and mystical.

        Either there is a complicated hermeneutic behind this, or it reflects the simple fact that the writings reflect a changing world.

  • Jim

    The reply to John B in Luke 7.22-23 seems to be more related to (prophetic) healings and not violence based on the examples provided. Is it possible that Jesus viewed himself more as the Messiah figure than the Dan 7.13 Son of Man figure who was to be responsible for the retribution stuff. It seems that Mark 8.38 could be read as Jesus thinking the Son of Man was someone other than himself. So his understanding of the select parts of the Isa passage that he read in Luke 4 were more in line with his role as a Messiah (restorative) rather than the judgmental role of the anticipated cosmic judge (Son of Man). Or have I gone off the rails on a crazy train?

    • Michael Hardin

      Not necessarily although Rudolf Bultmann had a sort of similar take (at least regarding Jesus and the Son of Man). One might also observe that, acc. to Geza Vermes, bar enasha (son of man) could also be a circumlocution for “I” which is why in parallel sayings it is translated with ‘ego.’

      • Important issues from Jim and you here…. I almost never see Schweitzer’s last book (1951, published posthumously in ’67/68, German, then English), “The Kingdom of God and Primitive Christianity”, cited on Jesus’ self-identity issues. I’m not sure if he was working fully aside from Bultmann or not (the book is for popular audience and not heavily documented… I don’t recall ref. to Bult. or other key scholars, tho may be forgetting).

        I’m not sure WHY he’s not “in the mix” (the much-later Schweitzer) but think he should be… a major “take-away” for me was his change-of-mind to believing Jesus did not see his pending death as an atoning sacrifice. But he deals significantly with messiahship issues… insightful, though the Dead Sea Scrolls were not yet fully available, nor any of helpful post-’50s scholarship. What is also nice is the book is highly readable (and quotes tons of Heb. Scripture!… BTW, I’ve reviewed it here: http://wp.me/p5oBn-hz )

  • So I might have missed it Michael. But is it possible Jesus has not spoken of God’s wrath on others because he knows he will take it on himself?
    ‘Father, if you are willing, remove this cup from me.’ (Lk 22.42)?

    • Michael Hardin

      I have a book on this (Stricken by God?), essays, podcasts, videos, seminars and such where I seek to demonstrate this that is exactly what Jesus knows will not occur. The penal substitution theory of the atonement is, in my view, if I may say so, the greatest/worst lie ever told (the second greatest is the perfection of Scripture).

      • Thanks for the article, first, Michael! Excellent. This (above) statement is powerful and refreshing to hear! My eventually (after 27 adult years as “orthodox” evangelical) getting such points was very freeing and enabled me to be more intellectually/emotionally honest in my faith (now Process/progressive, for a short-hand though inadequate “location” for me). I hadn’t encountered your work before, so you may well cover the same or similar ground, but I’m wondering if you are aware of the extensive analysis of Ken Pulliam on “PST” of the atonement (his abbrev. on his blog).

        Ken, who I knew a bit personally, was a wonderful guy who died suddenly of a heart attack in Oct., 2010. His blog is still up, though hardly updated since then… a few of his own post-dated posts went up after his passing, and comments by his wife and readers. The blog is here: http://formerfundy.blogspot.com/. He had been a biblical studies prof. a number of years… a brilliant and caring man. In his last couple years or so, he’d been focused mainly on researching and writing about the “ills” of not only the orthodox paradigm wholly, but particularly what his sidebar (and elsewhere) is labeled as “the PST”.

        It is the single largest (probably book-length in total) collection of material and documentation on PST that I’m aware of, aside from published books on the subject. In fact, Ken had stated, if I recall rightly, that he WAS working on eventually creating a book out of his collections and much writing. (Maybe you’d be one who could obtain appropriate permissions to quote from and otherwise utilize his work to complete that task… unless it’s considered public domain already, which I doubt.)

        • Michael Hardin

          Thanks for the heads up Howard!

  • Andrew Dowling


    Great post, and I largely agree, but as can be seen in the comments below, I find it difficult to traverse the numerous passages in the Synoptics (especially in Mark and Matthew) that do speak of divine justice/judgement and the ministry of Jesus without unearthing some higher criticism. If one starts with all of the Gospel passages attributed to Jesus on an equal playing field, I think confusion is bound to occur.

    For example, the most doomsday passage in the Gospels, Mark 13. I (and I’d say a majority of mainstream scholarship) sees that passage largely as an interpolation of a separate apocalyptic text that Mark thought was appropriate for the Gospel’s audience at the time of writing (most likely right around the Fall of Jerusalem), as Mark clearly thought the end times were near. But does it make any sense that the same preacher who said “don’t worry about the future ,tomorrow will take care of itself” also said “in this generation the sun will blacken and the stars fall out of the sky etc.” Yes, Jesus may have not always been consistent, but I find this a rather large bridge to cross.

    Point being, much of the apocalyptic/judgement language in the Synoptics I think reflects more the evangelists’ allegorization of Jesus sayings/parables and their own theology of a coming judgement moreso than what Jesus taught and preached. I don’t go as far as the Jesus Seminar as saying that Jesus never said anything about justice coming and God righting the wrong (complete disconnect from JBap) but I do think a large amount of the textual evidence when you look at what is most likely the earliest sayings/parables from the oral tradition and compare how the different traditions altered the language, strongly suggests Jesus’s message did have some significant divergences from the Baptists’, and I think you lay that out in your post.

    Peter also made a great point below about cultural/historical factors showing their place but not over-riding the larger concern of the overall trajectory.

    • Guest

      Andrew, do you believe we can find the “historical” words of Jesus? I’ve never found such historical Jesus quests to be very fruitful or useful. If we cannot trust the witnesses that were closer to the actual events and person of Jesus, the Gospels seem fairly pointless. The fact is, all the words themselves have undergone some kind of translation–assuming Jesus did not teach in Greek. And as anyone who translates from one language to another can attest, translation can affect meaning. So it seems impossible to really arrive at the actual “historical” words of Jesus regardless of what kind of reconstruction efforts are made. Its all translation–all the perspective of the witnesses. So deriving knowledge about Jesus necessarily requires a trust of those witnesses. I understand that is contra post-Enlightenment tendencies. But, I find reconstruction efforts to be so speculative to the point of being even less reliable.

      • Andrew Dowling

        It’s not about finding any “exact words” . . that’s a fools errand. But knowing what we know about oral tradition and oral cultures, we can definitely begin to discern what is more likely to be historical/earlier (basic sayings and short stories) and what is likely to be later development/the author’s rhetorical flourish. Historians do this all the time with ancient sources.The search for the historical Jesus rests on probabilities.

        For a basic example, look at John and the Synoptics. Do we just take the ‘witness’ report and believe Jesus said short, pithy sayings and parables some days, but then spoke in long philosophical discourse the next? Of course not. Also, look within just the Synoptics, the different allegories the authors choose to sandwich the parables in. These are tools in helping us discover what are (highly probable) older and newer layers of tradition.

        • Guest

          Oh, there is no question the authors of the Gospels are writing their narratives from their particular perspective and theological emphases. No doubt about it. But I guess I don’t find that problematic. It may just be a difference in research interest. There are things we might be able to determine generally, but it is still a highly speculative task. And in terms of the Church, which is what I do most of my research for, I am more interested in the world in the text than the world behind the text. However, I do find redaction criticism and looking at layers of tradition interesting in terms of how Scripture developed over time. For example legal revisions in the OT, etc. But again I hold it lightly due to its speculative nature.

          • Andrew Dowling

            I don’t find it “problematic” in and of itself, but I do think when we run into theological hurdles, just like the discussion here about God’s wrath, and we see these conflicting statements in the Gospels, doing that detective work can be very helpful.

          • I like and agree with Andrew’s comments above and just below, Karen. We can expect no better than something like “highly probable” or “highly improbable” for even the concepts put in Jesus’ mouth, with no expectation of exact wording. But the search IS crucial, particularly if one is prone to put complete divine authority on all the wording.

            It’s impossible to completely avoid “cherry-picking” from the Bible, or even from the “red letter” parts of the Gospels. But to justify any conscious practice of such, one has to have reasonable, describable reasons for saying Jesus probably didn’t think or say a given thing. I think it’s pretty clear, in the Gospels and elsewhere in the NT, that already, 40 and 40+ years later (depending on the doc and reasonable dating ranges), the early churches’ (not just church’s) perspectives were different than that of Jesus… largely tied to the massive trauma and upheaval of the 66-70 war and destruction of Jerusalem/Temple. Thus, you get the phenomenon of putting certain things into his mouth… and sometimes it IS out of sync… this issue of judgment/retribution being a key one.

          • Guest

            Thanks for sharing your thoughts Howard. What do you feel is out of sync? So far from this blog series, I am not yet convinced that the judgement aspect is out of sync. Jesus says far too much about judgment to extract it all. Plus, I think perhaps we misunderstand what judgment means. In Isaiah, it says judgment is what makes the people righteous. In other words its purpose is to chasten. The lack of judgment means a people has been truly abandoned. Although I am still working through what a final judgment would look like. The word judgment is actually neutral–it means to decide a case. And God’s judgments as just tend to lean toward mercy.

            I think we may have a different approach to Scripture as well? I would be interested to hear more on your take. I read it as a whole. The entirety of Scripture has many different viewpoints and trying to make God’s Word have only a singular meaning is overly-modernist and tries to make Scripture something it is not. It flattens the text. I like the complexity and plurality since I think that is more reflective of reality and the attempt to articulate transcendent ideas. The attempt to cut and paste the text feels too much like flattening the text to me to make Jesus conform to our own narrow vision of who he is. The Gospels are rich because they provide a broad perspective–one that I think is inspired.

  • Ted M. Gossard

    I respect how you are transparent in trying to make clear just what you’re about, and what your take is, Michael. I was wondering how a jaunt through what is supposed to be the final book of the Bible, the Revelation with the vision of the new heaven and earth, the ending of the old world and beginning of the new with all the judgment before that–might help us see your hermeneutic at work.

  • James

    In approaching this proposed change (repentance) in biblical perspective, we need more than hermeneutical healing. We need a good philosophical base that seems to fit. Could you elaborate more on yours? I do agree growth of general knowledge and the ways we live it out should (and do) affect our interpretations.

  • Jerry Shepherd

    Jesus: “The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

    Jesus: “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. Rather, be afraid of the One who can destroy both soul and body in hell.”

    Jesus, finishing a parable: “In anger his master turned him over to the jailers to be tortured, until he should pay back all he owed.” Jesus, after telling the parable: “This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you unless you forgive your brother from your heart.”

    Jesus: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory . . . and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats . . . Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

    What does a God with retribution look like? Ask Jesus. That is, if you really want an answer.

  • Michael, Thanks for this great article (and series). I don’t know if you get notice or check on ongoing comments, but I have a “referral” for great penal subst. atonement material, with explanation, that I wrote in a comment-reply to your reply to Josh of 3 days ago.