Center for Biblical Theology and Eschatology
Do Modern People Have Room for the Wrath of God?
by Vern Sheridan Poythress
Jan. 17, 2007
How do we think about disasters? On 9/11, disaster struck in the form of plane hijackings, loss of lives, the collapse of the World Trade Center Towers, and the damage to the Pentagon. A few years later, a tsunami struck in southern Asia. Hurricane Katrina struck New Orleans. Some Christians thought that one or more of these disasters were judgments from God. Let me call them the doom-sayers. Other Christians quickly rose and criticized the thought. Let me call them the comforters. This disagreement among Christians raises the question as to how we will interpret the next disaster that strikes.
I am writing as one who believes the Bible. The Bible does indicate that God comprehensively controls the events in the world, including disasters (Lam. 3:37-38; Eph. 1:11; Amos 3:6; Isa. 45:7). That is not the question I wish to discuss. Rather, I want to ask how we are supposed to interpret these disasters.
The comforters, that is the Christians who criticize the idea of judgment, have pointed to several passages. They have pointed out that in Job, Job's friends thought that the disasters that fell on Job must have come on account of his sins. Yet the ending of the Book of Job indicates that the friends were wrong (Job 42:7-9). Jesus' disciples wanted to know whether the man blind from birth had committed some sin that led to his being born blind. Or was it the sin of his parents? Jesus denied both suppositions (John 9:1-3). Some people told Jesus "about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with their sacrifices." Jesus' answer is recorded in Luke 13:1-5:Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. Or those eighteen on whom the tower in Siloam fell and killed them: do you think that they were worse offenders than all the others who lived in Jerusalem? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish.
In the context of modern disasters, the comforters have appealed to these passages in order to make the point that God's ways are inscrutible. In the Bible God provides certain cases where he directly tells us what his purposes were. For instance, 2 Chronicles 36:15-17 and 2 Kings 23:26-27 make it clear that the exile of Judah to Babylon took place because of the people's sins. But unless we have such a statement from God, we cannot see his purposes infallibly. We must not pretend that we can. If we presume to draw quick conclusions, we may find ourselves doing the same thing that Job's friends did.
I agree completely with the main theological point here, namely that God is God and that we are not. His actions in his providential rule are mysterious, and we need to realize that he may have many purposes of which we are unaware.
But there is something peculiar about the way in which the comforters have appealed to Luke 13:1-5. They have appealed to it in order to turn aside the idea that God's judgment was being manifested in the particular disaster at hand. Whether they intended it or not, the practical effect of their argument was largely to assure their audience that the disaster was not after all a judgment, and that we can all be comforted and spiritually put ourselves to rest, knowing that the whole thing is just unaccountable, but in any case has nothing to do with fears concerning God and his judgments and his wrath.
The peculiarity here is that Jesus' words in Luke 13:1-5 actually point in the diametrically opposite direction. Jesus unsettles rather than comforts his audience. According to customary thinking of the time, the Galileans must have been terrible offenders to experience the judgment that fell on them. So the audience think that they can comfort themselves that at least they are not going to experience such a disaster. Jesus overthrows customary thinking by saying that the Galileans were not worse. That is already unsettling. But then he adds an ominous warning, "Unless you repent, you will all likewise perish." And, to underline the point, he repeats it with a second illustration concerning the eighteen people killed by the tower of Siloam. Jesus uses both instances to heighten the threat of judgment for his hearers. He accuses them of being guilty and needing repentance, and counsels them that unless they turn to God they will perish.
By contrast, in our modern situation the comforters appeal to Luke 13:1-5 to dismiss judgment. Such use of Luke 13:1-5 is completely one-sided. If someone were to emphasize only the mystery of God's providence, to the point where nothing could be said about the present, then truly nothing could be said. But in fact these comforters are not silent. They are loquacious enough in quoting Job and John 9 and Luke 13:1-5, and they are confident enough that these passages do have a lesson for the present. What lesson? A lesson only of comfort, and never of judgment. But there is plenty of evidence in Scripture that, if we are going to speak to the present at all—which we must do in order to spread the gospel—we need to be ready to speak of judgment and wrath as well as mercy and comfort. We are to do both types of speaking in a biblically-grounded manner. In particular, every disaster is a forerunner of the Last Judgment. It should be used as an occasion to reflect on the transitory character of this life (1 Cor. 7:31), on the fact that God gives us blessings that we do not deserve (Matt. 5:45), and that if we are rebels against him we ourselves deserve the worst of what the victims experienced.
So to speak only a message of comfort and to avoid thoughts of judgment is not only one-sided, but hypocritical. It commits the same error that it imputes to its opponents, namely that it presents an over-simple and unbalanced view of how the Bible's principles apply to the present.
Why then do the comforters use Luke 13:1-5 only for comfort? If we reflect with honesty, some of the reasons are clear enough, but they are not comforting. Christians speak as they do partly to counteract the effects of the doom-sayers whom they criticize. In the context of modern American culture, the dooming-saying brothers give Christianity a bad name. Non-Christians and potential Christians can see their bad motives. They think they can see that the doom-sayers are angry and impatient at the people who do not agree with them, and so in their bitterness the doom-sayers claim that God is on their side. They want God to condemn their opponents or at least teach the opponents a lesson. Or the doom-sayers are trying to scare people with talk of judgment, wrath, and hell-fire, in the Elmer Gantry tradition, in order to manipulate them, get them under their control, and get their money.
Yes, such bad motives do occur, but they are not always there among those who speak about judgment. And God's wrath does not become unreal merely because some people's motives are bad (Rom. 1:18-32).
We must also turn our eyes critically on the broader American culture. The general culture has developed a strong tradition of dismissing all language of judgment, and imputing bad motives to anyone who dares to use such language. In other words, it has developed excuses and spiritual barriers to avoid thinking about the wrath of God. One of the primary barriers is in pop psychology, which says that everyone needs to have high self esteem, and that guilt feelings are to be avoided in order to increase self esteem. People want to avoid thinking about the wrath of God, because if they do they will feel guilty, and that is not only unpleasant in itself, but bad for self esteem and mental health. Accordingly, Christians are seen as a plague on society because they keep bringing up guilt and making people feel bad.
In addition, the politics of tolerance condemns as uncivil anyone who proclaims a message of guilt (because it depreciates the guilty), and who proclaims an absolutist message, such as the message of coming judgment must be (Acts 17:31).
So the comforters who use Luke 13:1-5 to dismiss thoughts of judgment are doing a service to mainstream culture. They are helping the mainstream avoid thoughts of judgment and wrath. And they are also doing a service to themselves, by assuring mainstream culture that they, the thoughtful and sensitive Christians, are tolerant and civil, not like those other mean-spirited Christians. Only by befriending the mainstream will they be able to make positive relationships grow, and at the far end of those relationships they hope to witness to their non-Christian friends concerning the attractiveness of Christ and of the Christian faith. Attractive, yes. But it will be attractive because it has conveniently dispensed with all that is offensive. The real Jesus, by contrast, would be a total "turn-off" to mainstream culture, not only because he speaks of hell-fire, but because he makes hard demands:Now great crowds accompanied him, and he turned and said to them, "If anyone comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple. Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple." (Luke 14:25-27)
In fact the gospel is two-sided, containing attractions, promises, and benefits on the one hand and offenses, warnings, and serious obligations on the other. We cannot choose just the part that we like.
I think we can draw several lessons from these reflections. First, we repeatedly confront the danger of compromising the Christian faith in an effort to match the cultural norms of tolerance and civility. Second, we are in danger of muting the note of judgment and wrath in the Christian message, because that note is not only unpopular but not tolerated. Third, biblical Christianity is deeply offensive to mainstream modern culture, and we might as well get over as quickly as possible the idea that we can make it palatable. "You will be hated by all for my name's sake" (Luke 21:17).
Vern Sheridan Poythress is professor of New Testament interpretation at Westminster Theological Seminary. He has six earned degrees, including a PhD from Harvard University and a ThD from the University of Stellenbosch. He is the author of numerous books on aspects of biblical interpretation and science.