We’ve been faithfully questioning our assumptions about the anger and wrath of God. Last time, I made the point that they should not be considered attributes because God does not eternally express these emotions within the Godhead. (If you have not read part one, please read that before continuing on here.)
Of course, this leaves us with the big question. How, then, are we to look at all those verses that seem to talk about God’s anger and wrath? I will attempt to give you what might be an alternate way of looking at them than what you’ve been taught. Again, keep the trapdoor of your heart and mind open and trust the Holy Spirit to reveal whatever is true.
First, when we say that “God is love,” technically speaking, we are not saying that He’s expressing the ever-changing human emotion of love. We are saying that God’s unwavering essence is always full-on, other-centered benevolence and goodness, expressed as mutual delight between the Father, Son and Spirit in the Trinity. God is the progenitor and sustainer of perfect love within Himself, apart from His creation.
In other words, love is a Person—who God is at the core of His being, regardless of our response to Him. We (mankind) can experience a measure of that perfect benevolence with our somewhat fickle human emotions of affection, peace, and joy whenever we turn our hearts toward Love. Any conditions or variance rests fully on our side of the relationship, not on God’s side.
I should note here that Jesus did express varying human emotions because He possesses a fully human nature, as well as a fully divine nature. (See hypostatic union.)
Second, we must understand that Scripture explicitly states that God never changes. There is “no variation or shadow of turning” with Him (James 1:17; Heb.13:8). Malachi 3:6 says, “I am the Lord and I change not.” So, to make the claim that we can change God from a loving or happy state to an unloving or angry state is humanistic and even theologically heretical. We DON’T CHANGE GOD! He changes us, depending on our interactions with Him.
Therefore, when Bible authors were writing about God’s anger, they were writing phenomenologically, using anthropopathisms (see below). In other words, when man’s foolish choices interacted with God’s unchanging perfection (holiness), the results were disastrous. The language of God’s “anger” is figurative speech to explain these collisions from man’s point of view.
The literary devices of anthropomorphism and anthropopathism are when we give human attributes or human emotions to things not human. God is not human, nor does He express emotions like a human (He doesn’t have wings, arms, nostrils, or feathers either!) This is why it’s commonly acknowledged that the Bible often employs this type of figurative language to explain our interactions with God.
Anthropopathism (Wikipedia) – This is a technique prevalent in religious writings, where, for instance, human emotion is attributed to God, where he would not normally experience emotion in this sense.”
You might think this is a novel way to understand these Scripture passages, but we actually use this type of descriptive language all the time. Let me give you an example.
One might say, “The raging river swallowed him up and took his life.” We know that the river doesn’t have raging emotions or a literal mouth that swallows people, nor was the river out to kill the man! The man drowned because he jumped into a fast-flowing river that he could not safely swim in.
I should also mention that you can normally take a Scripture passage in its plain literal sense unless it creates a contradiction or an absurdity elsewhere in Scripture. But it still make us wonder why the Bible is so cryptic with this figurative language about God’s interactions with us. There are several reasons. I will list a couple here:
First, in reality, the invisible, immutable, infinite, and all-encompassing God is unknowable to human beings in His truest essence. He not only is an invisible Spirit, He exists outside of all dimensions of His creation and is beyond all human possibility of comprehension.
Second, the Bible must be written in a language that can be understood in all eras by the lowest common denominator of human understanding. It uses parabolic and analogous language to accomplish this so that we have a simple human grid in which to understand an otherwise unknowable God.
Furthermore, the Old Testament used the language of fear and retribution in order to get people to do what was right. They didn’t have the indwelling Holy Spirit to give them understanding of the higher form of restorative justice and obedience through love. In fact, the revelation that “God is love” was not prevalent in the Old Testament. It did not advance until “the fullness of time” had come when Jesus revealed Him this way to us. I talked about this progressive understanding of God’s nature here.
Jesus Himself tells us that no one actually knows God except through Him (emphasis added):
All things have been delivered to Me by My Father, and no one knows the Son except the Father. Nor does anyone know the Father except the Son, and the one to whom the Son wills to reveal Him. (Matt.11:27)
The only way we know what God is really like is by how Jesus describes Him to us, and through His indwelling Spirit (John 16:12-15). I’ve used C.S. Lewis’s analogy that our language problem is akin to Hamlet trying to describe what Shakespeare is like! This is why God had to “write Himself into the play,” if you will, through the incarnation of His Son.
This doesn’t mean that the Old Testament is false or uninspired. It means that it’s using language to describe fallen man’s experience with a holy God through the paradigm of fear, not as He actually is in reality. (Although, there were glimpses into this divine reality from time to time.)
This is why Jesus threw so many of His own people into a theological tailspin. They were waiting for a militant warrior-like retributive God of vengeance (particularly against the Roman Empire). But He came as an enemy-loving servant, healing the broken, defending the judged against their judges, conquering principalities and powers, not as an overpowering Lion but with the ferocious love of a vulnerable Lamb, ultimately demonstrating love by willingly laying down His life so we all could be healed and restored to God. They had no mental grid for restorative justice. (Sadly, many believers still don’t today.)
How we view God says more about us than about who God really is. An angry person will likely project an angry God. We have a tendency to make God in our own image.
I hope this helps you understand these somewhat confusing aspects of God’s interactions with mankind as described to us in Scripture. Keep in mind, if we insist on taking all these passages about anger and wrath with wooden literalism, we may save the appearance of them but we end up with untenable contradictions about God’s nature and essence clearly given elsewhere in Scripture. It’s this Biblicist view that atheists use for cannon fodder to blast away at the Bible’s divine authority. (I just used figurative speech, by the way!)
For more on this understanding of wrath, I wrote an earlier post here.
The bottom line is this: an attribute of God must be something God is apart from His relationship to His creation. Since He is not angry or wrathful within the eternal Trinitarian relationship between the Father, Son and Spirit, that’s not His nature either. His divine essence is always full-on perfect love, not wrath or anger.