home | FAQ |

Guest Q & R with Michael Hardin: "The wrath of God stuff bothers me …"

I'm pleased that my friend Michael Hardin agreed to offer a guest response to this question. You can learn more about Michael here. Don't miss his books and podcasts either. Michael has so much to offer ...
Here's the Q:

“Personally , I've gotten so much from your writings over these last several years since I was introduced to your work. Last week I was especially struck by this :"Privilege should not lead us to guilt . Privilege should lead to service and compassion;to strive for restorative justice ; contemplation and action which leads to great fun and joy." … Maybe you can help me with two questions.
1. Just this Sunday the epistle reading was Romans 5:1-11 . Verse 8 and 9 : 
New Revised Standard Version, Anglicised (NRSVA)
8 But God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us. 9 Much more surely then, now that we have been justified by his blood,will we be saved through him from the wrath of God.[a]

The Wrath of God stuff bothers me .I reviewed Chap 22 in your New Kind of Christianity, and I had written in the margins R. Rohr's thoughts on the the Jesus hermeneutic:
"that Jesus consistently ignored or even denied exclusionary, punitive, and triumphalist or imperialistic texts... in favor of passages that emphasized inclusion, mercy , compassion and honesty ." So should we ignore Paul here in this instance ?

2. Also, in Ephesians 5:2, Paul seems to speak of Jesus as a sacrifice to God. That doesn't make sense if God's wrath doesn't need to be appeased by sacrifice. Can you explain?”

Here's MIchael's R:

These are excellent questions. Inasmuch as Protestant Christianity specifically (and Western Christianity generally) are oriented to what I call a ‘sacrificial paradigm’ it is important to unpack some assumptions.

First, note that in Romans 5:9, the words “of God” are not in the Greek text, they are supplied by the translators. This raises the question as to what Paul is referring to when he speaks of the ‘wrath’ (orge). It is possible that ‘wrath’ could refer to a distant future punishment in hell, but would that be consonant with Paul’s theology throughout this letter (and his other authentic letters)?

With regard to the Romans text here are the particular places Paul uses the term ‘orge’ (wrath): 1:18, 2:5, 8, 3:5, 4:15, 5:9, 9:22, 12:19, 13:4, 5. Note that other than 1:18, no other text in Romans has the phrase “wrath of God” only “the wrath.” How shall we then understand this word “wrath?”

Second, in order to understand Romans 1:18-32 (and thus the phrase “wrath of God”) we have three options:

1. The phrase has traditionally been understood to refer to God’s eschatological wrath where unbelievers are consigned to eternal conscious torment. The phrase need not necessarily imply some sort of emotional disturbance in God as Calvin noted in his Commentary on Romans (1:18): “The word wrath, referring to God in human terms as is usual in Scripture, means the vengeance of God, for when God punishes, He has, according to our way of thinking, the appearance of anger. The word, therefore, implies no emotion in God, but has reference only to the feelings of the sinner who is punished.”

2. The phrase is to be interpreted contextually in light of the three-fold use of the word ‘gave over’ (paradidomi). This way of understanding ‘wrath’ suggests that God takes a hands off approach to sin and turns sinful human beings over to the consequences of sin.

Both of these alternatives interpret ‘wrath’ as a divine behavior, whether active or passive. There is however a third alternative which depends upon reading the Epistle to the Romans from a literary perspective and has been advanced by Douglas Campbell in his book The Deliverance of God (Eerdmans, 2010). Campbell argues that Romans, much like Galatians and 2 Cor. 10-13 (Paul’s ‘tearful letter’) is directed against a specific false teacher and that it is the false teacher’s perspective which is being quoted in 1:18-32, a perspective which Paul will repudiate in chapters 2-4. In this case the phrase ‘wrath of God’ is the false teacher’s perspective. It is well known that Romans 1:18-32 reflects the kind of Jewish anti-Gentile rhetoric one finds e.g., in The Wisdom of Solomon 12-14.

Paul’s use of the rhetorical strategy of prosopopoia whereby an opponent’s view is cited and then debated, according to Campbell (and Ben Witherington III as well) would have been understood by the hearers of this epistle inasmuch as Paul always sent readers of his letters and they would know where and when to change the ‘tone of voice’ when reading the letter aloud. This third view then understands the phrase ‘wrath of God’ to be antithetical to the gospel, but part of the false teacher’s position. Following on this, all the subsequent uses of the word wrath could, if part of the rhetorical strategy, be understood as the calamity of social breakdown. The eschatological character of the ‘wrath’ seen in societal collapse prior to the advent of ‘The Day of the Lord’ became in time itself God’s eschatological wrath. Campbell’s reading of Romans is one way to ameliorate this type of reading.

With regard to Romans 5:8-9 then one might understand Paul to be saying, “Look. Even when we were at our worst, even when we had conceived of God as our enemy, Jesus came to show us that God was not our enemy but our friend (“Christ died for us”). How much more then if we have been deemed in right relationship with God even though we killed Jesus (“through his blood”), will God deliver us from the coming social breakdown when human culture returns to chaos.” In other words no matter how evil we become as humans, God will heal humanity (sozo, often translated “to save” also has the connotation of “healing”).

Regarding Ephesians 5:2, it is true that the author of Ephesians uses the word sacrifice (thusia). It is also the case that he uses two quite different terms, prosphora and thusia. The first is often translated ‘offering’, the second ‘sacrifice.’ Two essential point need to be made here: first is the use of the verbs “to love” (agapao) and “to give” (paradidomi). Jesus’ giving is a self-offering, not the offering of another. Sacrifice, understood as the act of the taking of the life of another, is contrasted by self-offering (or self-sacrifice). It is one of the merits of the New Testament that this shift occurs. One can see this especially in Hebrews. In my book The Jesus Driven Life I noted that

“Language related to the cultus, namely, thusia and its cognates, is avoided in the New Testament; rather, language related to phero and its cognates occurs. The New Testament uses the more cultic terminology only once at 1 Corinthians 5:7. Oscar Cullmann has argued that even here sacrificial terminology is clearly related to the active self-giving of the “servant of Yahweh.” The reason for this is that thusia belongs to the process of propitiation, the God-directed activity of the creature; whereas phero and its cognates, especially anaphero and prosphero have more of the sense of bringing a gift. But this gift giving is not a Do ut des (giving to get in return). To offer a gift, as the author of Hebrews later argues, is to offer it as an extension of one’s very self.”

One can see this logic at work also in Romans 12:1-2 where the “living sacrifice” is oneself. Offering one’s self to God has nothing to do with propitiating a deity, but a ‘giving over’ (a subversion of the word paradidomi) of one’s own self to be used by God in fostering reconciliation between persons. This self-offering emphasis in the New Testament thus has less to do with religion and more to do with ethics than has hitherto been noticed.

Both of these ‘shifts’ are part of the new realization that the gospel is not about appeasing an angry deity and that the violence or retribution in the death of Jesus in not God’s but humanity’s. This new approach to atonement has created both a crisis and a horizon for moving beyond views of God which portray God as a vampiric deity with an anger management problem to understanding the person, message and work of Jesus to be that of revealing our tendency to make God in our own image and to show us that God is only love, light and shalom.
Thanks, Michael, for this helpful response. Your phrase "vampiric deity with an anger management problem" evokes Dallas Willard's statement about a "vampire Christianity that wants Jesus for his blood and little else." Speaking of Dallas, I once asked him to preach at the church I pastored. I asked him to speak simply about God, and he chose as his text 1 John 1:9: "God is light and in God there is no darkness at all."