I recently read The Wrath of Almighty God, a book of essays by Jonathan Edwards (reviewed in this issue of Tabletalk, p. 59). I had read these essays before and was more than vaguely familiar with their contents. However, as I read them this time I had an epiphany of sorts. It was not a pleasant one. I suddenly realized I have been guilty of skirting the matter of the wrath of God in my teaching and preaching. I have taken pride in proclaiming the whole counsel of God. But this epiphany revealed that my pride was the sort that precedes destruction and, like a haughty spirit, precipitates a fall.
In subtle ways, it is easy to flee from dealing with the wrath of God, and many preachers and teachers do so. It is not a popular subject, for it violates all the canons of political correctness.
Though an emphasis upon divine wrath was in vogue during the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century, it quickly passed from the scene, and the “scare theology” of the likes of Edwards, Wesley, and Whitefield gave way to the more sanguine approach of nineteenth-century liberalism. We can summarize the message of the eighteenth-century preachers as “Man is very bad and God is very mad.” The nineteenth-century litany ran, “Man is not so bad and God is not so mad.” Today, wrath has been so extricated from the divine character that God is portrayed as loving everyone “unconditionally.”
In the early twentieth century, some Continental theologians reacted against the reductionism of liberal theology, which not only reduced God’s wrath to a minimum but denied it altogether. These newer theologians insisted that if one is going to have a Biblical view of God, it must contain an element of the reality of God’s wrath. Sadly, this attempt to restore a Biblical perspective on divine wrath carried with it perhaps an even more diabolical distortion of the nature of God.
Influenced by the passion motif and the drug of irrationalism that inoculated existential philosophy, these men argued that though God’s wrath is real, it is based on an impure and chaotic element within the personality of God Himself. They spoke of the “shadow side” of God that barely concealed the demonic element within His character. Good and evil were said to exist in a dualistic tension within Him. The evil was manifested in the paroxysms of fury that erupted in God, particularly in the Old Testament. The outbursts recorded there included God’s rage against Uzzah for touching the ark of the covenant (2 Sam. 6:6–7), His instant execution of Nadab and Abihu for offering “strange fire” on the altar (Lev. 10:1–7), and the swift destruction of Korah and his cohorts in their rebellion against Moses (Num. 16:1–35). His raging fury also was seen in the deluge that wiped out almost the entire human race, the slaughter of the Egyptian children in the Passover, and the merciless annihilation of the Canaanites. These episodes were cited as evidence of irrational and evil anger in God, of God simply venting His wrath for no good reason and to no good end.
This view stands in stark contrast to the Biblical view that God’s wrath does not reveal a defect in His character but His perfection. His wrath is a manifestation of His holiness. A holy being who is indifferent to or tolerant of evil is simply not holy.