Many people today feel that the notion of a wrathful God is unworthy and should be scrapped. In particular, they feel that the notion that God could be wrathful means that God is somehow touchy, irritable, easy to alienate, and profoundly unloving and, well…unlovable. That is because we all know of all people who are broken like this and who are touchy, irritable, easy to offend, judgmental and unloving, and they are indeed profoundly unlovable. Some people, such as saints or mothers, might find a way to love them anyway, but normal and healthy people are usually well-advised to give them a wide berth. It was no doubt the popular depiction of Yahweh, the God of the Old Testament, as wrathful and irascible, that provoked Richard Dawkins to describe Yahweh as “the most unpleasant character in all fiction”. And Mr. Dawkins is hardly alone. Many people today find the concept of a wrathful God unpleasant.
I suspect, though no statistics exist to support my suspicion, that this conviction about God’s unpleasantness is rooted in Evangelical soteriology. When I was an Evangelical in my teenage years in the Jesus People I believed that everyone who was not a confessing Christian—i.e. who was not an Evangelical—was going to hell. That is, I believed that everyone in the world, being sinful, had already been condemned. I had not read enough Church history to know about St. Augustine or his very western doctrine of original sin (i.e. original guilt), or his assertion that all unbaptized babies dying in infancy were lost because they were born with the guilt of Adam’s sin. I did not know about how Calvin inherited this system as did the rest of the West. All I knew was what my fellow-Evangelicals told me, and we knew that unless a person had asked Jesus into their hearts and said “the sinner’s prayer”, that person was doomed. If they died before they had asked Jesus into their hearts and been born again, they were sure to go to hell when they died. This conviction certainly made us zealous in our evangelism. It also made our evangelism a lot harder than it might have been.
This all contributes to the popular idea present in the minds of many that all Christians assert that all non-Christians are going to hell. This notion produces a kind of disconnect in the hearts and emotions of those non-Christians exposed to this idea. They look at their average non-Christian person and have trouble believing that they are bad enough to deserve an eternity of punishment. They ask, What about the persons who have never really heard about the Christian Faith? What about kind pagans? What about self-sacrificing and good, but not really religious secular people? Is it fair that they all be swept into the lake of fire simply because they never said the sinner’s prayer? If God is such a character as to condemn these people to an eternity of torment simply because of their unintentional omission, that God does indeed sound unpleasant, if not perhaps more than a little pathological. Who could love such a deity? And who could believe the Christians when they asserted that such a deity was a God of love?
On one level, however, pretty everyone admits that a doctrine of divine wrath and of hell makes sense. When one looks steadfastly at certain individuals, one sees that admitting them to paradise as they are outrages justice. Please note: the outrage consists in admitting them to eternal bliss as they are, with no admission of the guilt of their crimes and no shred of remorse for them. One thinks of war criminals, of Hitler, Stalin, Joseph Mengele, and a multitude of others whose crimes are so heinous that they cry to heaven for judgment.
Everyone with a functioning conscience admits the justice of divine wrath upon such crimes, and therefore upon such criminals. If they repented and wept a little for the suffering they caused, they could perhaps be forgiven, and their crimes provoke less outrage. But admitting them to eternal bliss while they still persist in their hateful attitudes and would recommit their crimes if given half a chance—that is what provokes the outrage. The victims of their crimes deserve something, and to admit their tormentors to bliss while they still breathed unrepentant hatred for their victims would be to inflict even more suffering upon the victims. In this sense, the wrath of God is good news. It assures the victims that the universe was on their side, and that the truth will finally somehow prevail. The earth will not forever cover their blood which cries for justice. Eventually their case will be heard, and the real criminals condemned.
Most people acknowledge that divine wrath must finally fall upon such criminals. But to include our Uncle Walt in such a category and to send him to hell as if he were as bad as Hitler just because Uncle Walt never said the sinner’s prayer seems profoundly unjust. It is the lumping together of Uncle Walt with Adolf Hitler that provokes secular derision, makes the popular doctrine of a wrathful God seem profoundly immoral, and deprives Christianity of much of its credibility.
So, what about our Uncle Walt? That is, what about moral people who are doing the best they can according to the limited light they have received who never got around to saying the sinner’s prayer or becoming practicing members of a church? What of those people whose only exposure to Christianity consisted of hypocritical and abusive clergy and of grinning and greedy televangelists? Are they to be condemned because they could not recognize the love of God and His saving Gospel in such a distorted Christianity? St. Augustine would answer (no doubt quite sadly and reluctantly) “Yes”, since they were born condemned and burdened with the guilt of original sin. Their condemnation by God was nothing personal; it was not God’s fault if they were born guilty, but Adam’s fault. (Of course this answer does nothing to add credibility to the apologist’s case for Christianity, for most people would not unnaturally retort, “Why should I be condemned for someone’s else’s mistake?”) But St. Augustine’s answer is not the only one on the market.
I would suggest that a closer reading of the New Testament yields a rather different answer. In this alternative reading, a man is not condemned for Adam’s fault, but only for deliberately turning away from the light which he has received. To be condemned by God, one must deliberately and stubbornly bang the door in God’s face, refusing to accept the light that had been given. That is the teaching of Christ: “To whom much is given, much is required” (Luke 12:48). If a man has been given spiritual light, then he is responsible to live according to it. But if a man has little or no spiritual light, and therefore thinks that Christianity consists of believing The Gospel According to Televangelist Greedy, that man is not responsible for living according to the light he had never received.
Israel in the time of Jesus did not believe that every Gentile was doomed to Gehenna, nor that every Jew would be saved. Most believed that God would judge all men according to the lives they lived and according to the repentance they offered and the striving to please God they attempted. Jesus said as much when the rich young ruler asked Him, “What good deed shall I do to have eternal life?” Christ answered him, “If you would enter into life, keep the commandments” (Matthew 19:16-17). The rich young man responded that he had done so, and still felt a void in his heart. Christ further said that if he wanted even more, if he wanted to become perfect, teleios, he should sell all that he had and come follow Him. The rich young man was not up to the challenge of becoming teleios as Jesus’ disciple and entering the Kingdom even now in this life. But his failure did not mean that Christ’s answer to his first question was unreliable, or that the young man had spoken falsely when he said that he had kept the commandments. Indeed, in Mark’s version of that exchange Christ, upon hearing the man’s confession of righteousness, “loved him” (Mark 10:21).
What God demands of people is a life of striving to keep His commandments, of loving Him and striving to love one’s neighbour. If one does this, Christ assured another inquirer, “you will live” (Luke 10:25-28).
This is not simply the teaching of Christ, but of His apostle as well. In Romans 2:1-16, St. Paul considers the case of a righteous Gentile, one who had never heard of God’s Torah. If such a Gentile lived wickedly, refusing love for God and neighbour, sinning apart from the Torah, such a man would perish without the Torah. But if he did “by nature” [Greek physei] what the Torah required, he was a kind of Torah to himself, even though he did not have the Torah, for he showed that what the Torah required had been written on his heart. God shows no partiality: He will render to every man according to his works. To those like the righteous Gentile who by perseverance in doing good sought for glory and honour and immortality, God would give eternal life (v. 7), and to those who were factious and disobeyed the truth they had received, but obeyed wickedness, God would give wrath and fury (v. 8). There would be tribulation and distress for every human being who did evil, but glory and honour and peace for everyone who did good (v.9-10).
One might ask: then why preach the Gospel? Because the Gospel is more than simply fire insurance for the afterlife. It is how a man becomes teleios, and a son of God, and an heir of the Kingdom, and how one finds liberation from the demonic powers of this world. It is the only way to find healing in this age, and joy and peace, and transformation by the Spirit of God. Such salvation is only found in Jesus Christ and His Church. Apart from Him we remain mired in sin and under the tyranny of the devil. Those in such a mire might finally be spared if they persevered in doing good and kept God’s commandments. But who would not want liberation and joy in this age, and a tremendous reward in the age to come?
I suggest that this reading of the New Testament yields a different view of God than the one which necessarily consigns all non-Christians to hell. God is still of a God of wrath and severity to those whose unrepentant hearts push away the light He gave them and slam the door of salvation in His face. But He is a God of kindness to all who embrace the light they have received. Such a deity may indeed be justly described as loving and lovable. More than that, He is good and philanthropos, the lover of mankind.