Jesus, Paul, and emergents’ anxieties about the wrath of God

Read time: 7 minutes

Mike Morrell asks a couple of very pertinent questions in response to my “presumptuous appeal to both emergents and Reformed”. Very pertinent. The first has to do with the relationship between Jesus and Paul, the second with the fact that any talk about the “wrath” of God makes emergent type Christians feel very uncomfortable.

Jesus and Paul

Mike highlights a common perception—that a narrative-historical reading, such as that advocated by NT Wright, works in the case of the Synoptic Gospels but not for Paul. Jesus engaged with the practical realities of first century Judaism; Paul dealt in a universal metaphysics of heaven and hell. (I commented on this tendency some weeks back with reference to a series that Daniel Kirk was doing on Mark 13.) Mike writes:

Even if Jesus is hyper-local, I can see some Reformed folk conceding, Paul takes those very specific themes and universalizes them for the Gentile audience - including us, today. Gehenna might have been a garbage dump outside Jerusalem, but Paul’s damnation and John’s Lake of Fire justify current evangelical cosmologies - or so the argument might go.

The argument might go that way, but it’s wrong. The difference between Paul and Jesus, I think, is not that Jesus is “hyper-local” and Paul universal, but that Paul takes Jesus’ argument about the destruction and salvation of Israel and shows how it is politically (and redemptively) relevant to the wider Greek-Roman world, to the oikoumenē, the empire. It is the difference between local and regional. Paul’s “gospel” is not simply “Jesus died for your sins and you can have eternal life through belief in his name”. It is that God has appointed Jesus as King (cf. Rom. 1:3-4) and that in time this will have profound social, religious and political implications both for Israel and for the pagan world. It is a proclamation about what God was doing on the stage of history.

The church subsequently over-interpreted this argument under the influence of Hellenism, translating it into abstract, absolute, universal, metaphysical categories. Current Reformed and mainstream evangelical theologies are still mostly an over-interpretation of Paul; and we now find it very difficult to reverse the process, to make our way back down the hermeneutical path to the point where theology and history originally diverged.

(My book The Future of the People of God is an attempt to show how Romans—and Paul’s ministry generally—fits exactly into the historical trajectory initiated by Jesus. In effect, it is my response to the argument (Reformed or otherwise) that Paul simply universalizes Jesus for a Gentile audience. I can’t recommend it highly enough!)

The wrath of God

Here’s Mike’s second concern:

Another difficulty we emergents might have is with God’s wrath. ‘Wrath,’ really? It seems so *beneath* God. Isn’t the New Covenant shift to more grace and peace - isn’t the justice of God restorative justice?

I understand how emergents have a problem with “wrath”; and I appreciate that many people today—not least those who are trying to dissociate themselves from hell-bent Reformed theologies—stumble over a reading of the New Testament that makes the wrath of God a major premise. Indeed, it has been suggested to me that my apparent preoccupation with wrath has its origins in some childhood trauma or family dysfunctionality.

But the fact is that the “wrath” of God is a major component of both Jesus’ and Paul’s teaching. For Jesus it would take the form of war and national disaster, the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple.

Alas for women who are pregnant and for those who are nursing infants in those days! For there will be great distress upon the earth and wrath against this people. They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led captive among all nations, and Jerusalem will be trampled underfoot by the Gentiles, until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. (Lk. 21:23-24)

He saw the disaster coming, he believed it to be a direct consequence of Jewish recalcitrance, and he interpreted it theologically within a covenantal framework as a decisive expression of God’s anger towards his people.

But in the Old Testament judgment on Israel by the agency of an invading power is followed, sooner or later—and usually later—by judgment on the idolatrous and unjust enemy. This is where Paul comes in. There would be wrath against the Jew first, but then also wrath against the pagan civilization that so aggressively sought to suppress worship of the one true God (Rom. 2:8-9). “Wrath” for Paul is not an existential category; it is a historical category. It signifies tumultuous historical events, from judgment on Jerusalem through to judgment on Rome, by which YHWH would transform the status of his people in the ancient world and establish his Son as “King of kings and Lord of lords”. It would take the churches a long time to walk the difficult and narrow path of suffering, but, as Jesus had said, this was the only way that the community would find life.

Quite how Paul imagined things would turn out we don’t know—prophetic vision relies heavily on symbolism to give shape to the unknown. But as with Jesus’ warning about the judgment of gehenna, to the extent that Paul speaks of punishment, it has to be understood as an intrinsic part of the historical narrative. Certainly, the New Covenant in Jesus’ blood is a “shift to more grace and peace”. But in the New Testament grace is a response to the painful historical reality of judgment. Israel could not justify itself; it was bent on a course leading to destruction. Only the grace of God and the response of a concrete, lived out, durable faithfulness (cf. Rom. 1:17) could ensure the survival of the people of God.

So my argument would be that “wrath” comes to an end, ceases to count as a theological concept, not at the cross but with the defeat of Rome—that is, at the end of the story entailed in the suffering and vindication of the Son of Man.

The church no longer stands condemned for its persistent sinfulness: we are no longer subject to the judgment of the Law. We have peace with God, and in our pursuit of righteousness and justice we receive and practice grace. We rightly trace that commitment back to the cross. But I think that in Paul’s mind the death and resurrection of Jesus were not theologically isolated events, effective entirely and exclusively in themselves. They were effective in reconciling the people of God to YHWH, in embracing Gentiles, in overcoming the enemies of the people of God, because they anticipated the suffering and vindication of the churches. This is why the various forms of the “in Christ” theme are so important. Paul’s argument in Romans is that the churches of the nations were called specifically to emulate Jesus’ story of faithful obedience in the face of suffering, in the hope of resurrection, for the sake of long-term viability of the family of Abraham. Why? Because the church had to live through a long and extremely difficult period of “wrath”.

So this was Paul’s theology. He was not writing for postmodern emergents struggling (understandably) to recover from the intellectual and cultural depredations of modern evangelicalism—any more than he was writing for a Reformed church struggling (understandably) to resist the corrosive forces of modernity. He was writing for churches called to embody a world-changing story about the vindication of Israel’s in the pagan world. That story included the destruction of Jerusalem and the temple and the eventual collapse of pagan imperialism—concrete outworkings of the wrath of God; and I suspect that if we could put the anachronistic question to him, he would have characterized these events as retributive rather than restorative justice:

Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Rom. 12:19)

That made sense then. It does not make the same sense now, I think for good biblical reasons. The overthrow of a demonically inspired paganism should not be translated into a doctrine of eternal conscious torment in some mythical hell. The final enemy is death; the final judgment on human “sin” is the absolute, existential reality of death. John’s lake of fire, which is the second death, simply reinforces that point. But the story behind all this is perhaps a more difficult one to get hold of than many emergents appreciate.

I'm not sure it's just that the "wrath of God makes emergent type Christians feel very uncomfortable"...

The "wrath" of God makes everyone feel uncomforable. Wrath is hardly comforting, in any of its manifestations. It might be comforting to know that some things stir up anger, but the excercise of that anger/wrath isn't comfortable.