A Revisionist’s Take on the Wrath of God

god

Years ago I sat in a bar with a friend who had been raised in a conservative Evangelical home, who now questioned everything, attempting to transcend the cultural views of Christianity and religion that had become so stifiling and irrelevant to his life.

“I don’t believe in an angry God” he said. “God is love.” His statement made me uncomfortable. At the time I was a dyed-in-the-wool, conservative Evangelical, with quick answers and little patience for people that didn’t believe as I did. I had a rare moment of respect for his process, stirred my drink, and let him talk.

He was bucking up against the idea of a “vengeful God,” one who spends most of His time angry, meteing out retribution and punishment to the unfaithful hordes of our world. I agree – that’s a horrible view of God, but the idea of God never getting angry is what made me uncomfortable. God might not be angry all the time, but I have a hard time believing that He doesn’t lose His shit every now and again.

For example, a group of people, who aren’t like other people, decided long ago to march across a bridge in Selma, Alabama, in a peaceful attempt to assert their rights as humans, and got the holy hell beat out of them for it. That makes me angry. I think it would make God angry too.

Or let’s say, hypothetically of course, that there are some kids who are dying from hunger on the other side of our world – a lot of kids. Imagine there’s this huge country, full of people who claim to be “God’s people,” who could wipe out global poverty in one very quick swipe. But it never happens. Another funeral.

Refugees, child abuse, dirty politicians, racism. Injustice. I’m not saying our world’s all bad, but there’s plenty for us to get mad about. If we’re mad, imagine how mad God is – He sees a lot more than we do. He sees it all.  The idea of God being mad all the time makes sense to me.

But I also think that God gets mad at things that might not make us mad. If there truly is this thing living somewhere that’s beyond our ability to comprehend, who can make the cosmos, do whatever He wants, etc., He knows more about this place than we do. We’re like kids to Him, we don’t have the full picture. If God exists, and if He’s just, He will, by definition, get mad in ways that seem unjust to us.

Jesus, who seemed to think He was God, got so angry that He cleared out the temple with a whip. Some say He didn’t actually hit anyone, the idea of God getting that angry doesn’t settle well with us (unless it’s a story in the Old Testament, then it’s OK).  There’s no way to clear out that many people, some of whom were there to make money, without causing some pain. On another occasion He issued a threat. “If you make it difficult for people to come to me, it would be better for you that someone tie a huge millstone around your neck (a rock so big that only a donkey can move it), and be thrown into the sea”  (Oops.  Hope that doesn’t apply today).

Jesus’ anger is fascinating to me. He didn’t get angry like the God of the Old Testament got angry, but He also did’t seem to have any issues with the Old testament, or the stories of God therein. He was a Jewish man living in the first century, the scriptures were just as central to His life as they were to everyone else’s.  He didn’t get angry with all the people who were sinning their brains out. He had some things to say on a few occasions, but his followers were less-than-model-citizens at best. The people He did get angry with were the ilk who believed they were “in” with God – so righteous, so moral, so obedient, always looking down their noses at the “sinners.” Oops.

The God of the Old Testament revealed Himself to be someone who has rules that don’t always make sense to us, and, on occasion, punished people for breaking them. Then God pays us a visit in the New Testament, everyone expecting Him to be like the God of the Old Testament. But He’s not – peace and grace for the “sinners,” wrath for the “righteous.” So the righteous returned the favor, removed His clothing, beat the holy hell out of him, then put his dying body on public display saying, in a nutshell, “If you were God, you wouldn’t allow this.”  But He did. His followers and authors of the New Testament claim that His death is the reason why sinners now get an unprecedented break, and why “come to God” is now the most important thing to God. He get’s really mad at people who don’t understand this, especially the people who read their Bibles “religiously.”

Come to me all you who are weary, and I will give you rest ~ Jesus

Are you a “sinner?” Are you someone who has a lifestyle that the “righteous,” religious people frown upon? Go to God, He’s waiting. He’s not mad at you.  He knows more about what you want than you do.  He’s on your side.  Good. News. Are you a religious person who thinks morality is the most important thing, always telling people, first and foremost to get their shit together, doing things in God’s name that He would never do? Has morality become more important than God Himself?  Oops.

…You don’t love me anymore. Remember from where you have fallen, and repent and do the deeds you did when you loved me; or else I am coming to you and will punish you ~ Jesus

I surrendered my life to Him years ago – I made Him the boss. Sure, I’ve changed some things, embraced some aspects of morality that I wouldn’t have otherwise. It’s so ironic that I still sin my brains out.  I can be an outright jackass on occasion, ask anyone in my family.  And God, who should be heating up the lightening bolts, instead walks beside me, speaks to me. Heals me. I have yet to meet anyone who drank the Jesus Cool-Aide who regrets it.

I do however know tons of “righteous,” “It’s all about morality,” “Sin management” people who are truly and utterly miserable, who seem to love doing things that, according to their own Bible, make God really angry.

The Most Misunderstood Thing About Jesus

Jesus’ first miracle was one that would have made alot of religious folk angry.

He was at a party, a 1st century Jewish wedding to be exact, an event where people party – for many days.  The wine had run out and Jesus’ mother pressed him to “do his thing” and fix this most heinous faux pas.  There are a million ways He could have done it, but He chose to make about 180 gallons of wine in 6 large containers used for a sacred Jewish cleansing ritual.

A modern day version of this would be to walk into a Baptist church, fill the baptistry (a small swimming pool where folks are baptised) with wine and say, “Party on dudes.”

Jesus’ first miracle was to keep a party going.  Why is He almost always portrayed as such as buzz kill?

You don’t have to go far to find someone who’ll tell you that Jesus wants nothing more than for you to control yourself, avoid sinning, and get your sh!t together.  I’ve been a pastor for many moons now and can tell you that most American Evangelicals live under this very misguided piece of theology.

When I first got into this whole Jesus thing I had recently witnessed the shooting death of a good friend (long long story, I’ll post it here in the near future).  I was torn up with PTSD, etc and didn’t see a way forward.  My uber religious, very frisky girlfriend, who had just dumped me, had previously dragged me to church enough for me to think that maybe there was something behind the Jesus door.  I had tried everything else, what the hell.  I had a very powerful experience and began attending church on a regular basis.  It was weird growing up Catholic then finding myself in the midst of this Evangelical wonderland.  My early experiences were especially interesting.

A girl took me to church one time, a very large Dallas church.  As we passed by the bookstore I asked if Jesus would be by to turn over the tables?  She didn’t laugh.  After the crackers and the tiny plastic cups of grape-juice were passed out, the offering plate came my way.  “What’s this, the bill for lunch?”  “Get it?  The bill for lunch?”  I thought it was hilarious, but obviously had a few things to learn about the culture.

At this new place, and within this new culture, the message was clear – we are all charged with spending our lives trying to get our sh!t together.  The Bible studies, the sermons, the small groups, all were focused primarily on rule following. So, I spent the majority of my adult years believing that God wanted obedience first and foremost.  He’s only happy when we’re doing what we’re supposed to.  When we’re not, he’s shinin’ up the lightening bolts.

A few years later I was accepted to grad school where I would spend the next 4 years working on my Master’s degree (it was a 120+ hour program – not bragging, just didn’t want anyone thinking I’m a slacker.  There’s other evidence for that).  A big chunk of my curriculum was focused on ancient Greek and Hebrew so that I could study the scriptures more in-depth.  Our professors encouraged us, over and again, to not let our biases, our emotions, or our culture do the translating/interpreting.  We were to try our best to let the texts speak for themselves.  I was once instructed that if I didn’t agree with widely held beliefs that was ok.  If I didn’t defend them well however, I’d get an F.  Not bad for a conservative Christian Seminary that many would consider to be the mecca of all close-mindedness.

A couple of years after I graduated I read a passage in the New Testament that I had read a thousand times.  This time it hit me differently.  In our Greek manuscripts it reads:

ἐγὼ ἦλθον ἵνα ζωὴν ἔχωσιν καὶ περισσὸν ἔχωσιν
I came so that they might have life, and have (it) overflowing.

Note that He didn’t say

  • I came so that they would all get their sh!t together
  • I came so that they would think right things about me
  • I came so that they might learn to defend themselves from the evils of this world
  • I came so that they might find some people to harass, belittle, and marginalize
  • vote a certain way
  • hate the gays
  • avoid alcohol

By “life,” He wasn’t referring to the next life.  There are plenty of scriptures where Jesus clearly refers to Heaven.  This particular statement gives no evidence that he’s referring to anything other than life in the here and now.  This is something that He wants for you and I – today.  Right now.

For me, in this moment, I decided to let this passage govern my thinking about God, Jesus, the Bible, and my life till the day I die.  Whenever I run into confusion, fear, apathy, or general stupidity, this passage gets me back on track.

What’s even more interesting is the fact that everyone on the planet is desperately looking for life.  Some of us are killing ourselves (and sometimes others) because we want LIFE.  What Jesus claimed to be devoted to giving to us, we’re all trying like hell to get.  More intimacy, more significance, more fun, more laughter, more pleasure, more more more more more.  The entire world – dead, alive, and yet-to-be-born will always have at the core of it’s life the quest for life.

And here’s this not-so-attractive, unassuming, friend-to-whores-and-sinners, so-called Rabbi, claiming that the purpose for His very existence is the very thing we’re all clamoring for.  He’s not going to give us a jet, or a mansion, or a hot wife.  It’s not that these things are bad, they’re simply not what we’re looking for – they’re merely symptoms of deeper wants.

It’s a hell of alot easier to be a rule-follower than it is to trust that Jesus has my best interest at heart, that He actually wants what I want (not the corrupted, selfish version of what I want, the good stuff that hangs out underneath all that).  Sadly, for most religious folk, everything revolves around the rules, which drives so much “death.”  It’s a truly miserable way to view God, yourself, other people, and the world you live in.

I dare you, place at the center of your understanding of God the fact that He wants you to suck the marrow out of your life (His way, not your way by the way) and read one of the Gospels (the book of John is my favorite).  It’ll change your life.