I am generally a hesitant tweeter, but yesterday, in an idle moment, I tagged Derek Vreeland in a tweet suggesting that his republished Missio Alliance article asking “Did Jesus Really Usher in the Kingdom of God?” underplays the future aspect of the coming of the kingdom of God. He kindly tweeted back with a link to an article on the wrath of God and the Christian response to terrorism, which goes some way towards correcting that impression but raises questions about how we understand the “wrath of God”.
His argument runs roughly as follows.
How are Christians to respond to terrorism? We are exhorted not to take revenge but to live peaceably.
Is it permissible for Christians to use violence to protect the innocent? Seemingly not. We are to do good to our enemies and leave vengeance to the wrath of God.
What does that mean? Jesus says that we are to love our enemies, therefore God must love our enemies.
But what about the wrath or anger of God? That’s just a metaphor. What the “wrath of God” really means is the “judgment of God”.
And what does the judgment of God look like? Well, Jesus said that “God the Father isn’t judging, but he has given the authority to judge to Jesus” (cf. Jn. 5:22). And when Jesus talks about judgment, what he really means is love. “Judgment does not flow out of literal anger in the heart of God. Judgment flows from pure love.”
How do we know that? John’s Gospel tells us that God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world. He judges by sending the light of his love into the world to expose evil. So when—or if—we use the phrase “wrath of God”, what we mean by it is “what evil looks like in the light of the love of Christ”. And it will all turn out well in the end:
Jesus is judging now and he will come again to judge the living and the dead. Jesus comes to make all things new, which includes expelling evil from God’s good creation. In the age to come, Jesus will come to execute judgment by the light of his love, which will sort things out and make all things right.
In other words, the wrath and violence of God are reconfigured as love and a vague agnosticism regarding exactly how God will repay those who have done evil.
I recognise that the article is not intended as pure New Testament interpretation. It is a polemical contribution to a peculiarly American debate over gun control. But I still think we have to do a better job of connecting public debate and biblical interpretation. So I will highlight two problems with this apologetic from a narrative-historical perspective.
1. The missing context
Like much of our theology, sadly, Vreeland’s argument operates within an unexamined universalised eschatological narrative shaped more by the totalising assumptions of modernity than by the New Testament. The cast of characters consists of God, Jesus and humanity. No reference is made to the long vexed story of Israel and the nations, which is unfortunate because it is just this story that accounts for the language of the wrath of God, both in the Old Testament and in the New. Even the benign abstractions of John 3:16-21 have a historical context, as we shall see. We should think twice before offering them as evidence for an enlightened pacifist theology.
Let me broaden our view of this issue.
I do not think that we can explain the concept of the coming of the kingdom of God in the New Testament without bringing firmly into the foreground both the destruction of Jerusalem by Rome and the public confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations of the Greek-Roman world. History is important—not least because it’s the only thing that keeps us from recruiting the first century Jesus to front our modern campaigns, fight our modern battles, put our modern opponents to shame.
So if we are going to draw a line connecting Jesus and the modern Christian response to terrorism and gun proliferation by way of eschatology, I think we need a narrative that takes into account the following considerations:
1. The violent “punishment” of Israel was central to the New Testament story. More on this in a moment.
2. The New Testament ethic of non-violent resistance belongs to the transitional period of opposition and persecution that would culminate in the confession of Jesus as Lord by the nations.
3. The conversion of the nations as nations inevitably required a rethink of the transitional ethic: it was simply not possible to run an empire, even a Christian empire, without having recourse to violence to maintain justice and security. I cite Andrew Wilson’s begrudging but honest review of Peter Leithart’s Defending Constantine in support of this contentious contention.
4. The difficulties faced by Christians today, which Vreeland so effectively highlights (see also his “Guns in the Kingdom of God: An Eschatological Appeal to End Gun Proliferation”), stem from the fact that we are reverting from Christendom to a precarious, marginalised, prophetic existence in relation to the state, much like the situation of the early church.
5. Vreeland’s argument about “living in the present evil age as people of the age to come” is right in principle, but I think we need a more discriminating eschatological narrative if we are going to do justice not only to the New Testament but also to our own historical context. You might find my complex but colourful beads on a rod illustration a helpful way of thinking about this.
2. Jesus takes a Roman scourge to the traders in the temple
I argued a while back that the incident in the temple demonstrates that the “historical” Jesus was anything but gentle, meek and mild. This relied on the more obviously apocalyptic Synoptic Gospels. But John’s version of the story, when read carefully, also frustrates our well-meaning attempts to absolve God of the charge of getting angry and acting violently.
In the temple he found those who were selling oxen and sheep and pigeons, and the money-changers sitting there. And making a whip of cords, he drove them all out of the temple, with the sheep and oxen. And he poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. And he told those who sold the pigeons, “Take these things away; do not make my Father’s house a house of trade.” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” (Jn. 2:14-17)
There is no allusion to the “den of robbers” passage in Jeremiah that so clearly marks Jesus’ action as a prophecy of impending divine judgment on the temple in the Synoptic Gospels (Matt. 21:13; Mk. 11:17; Lk. 19:46; cf. Jer. 7:11). Instead, Jesus protests that they have made “my Father’s house a house of trade”.
Zechariah foresaw a day of the Lord, when YHWH would “strike all the peoples that wage war against Jerusalem”, and “everyone who survives of all the nations that have come against Jerusalem shall go up year after year to worship the King, the LORD of hosts” (Zech. 14:12, 16). The final detail of the renewal of the temple, according to the ESV, is that there would “no longer be a trader in the house of the LORD of hosts on that day” (Zech. 14:21). The Hebrew word translated “trader” is knaʿany, which means “Canaanite”. There is clearly some sort of connection in the prophets between “Canaanites” and trade (Hos. 12:8; Zeph. 1:11; Zech. 1:7, 11), so while the translation is perhaps misleading, it’s not out of the question that John’s Jesus had this passage in mind.
In that case, the difference would be that where the Synoptics emphasise the coming destruction of the temple, John highlights the political-religious realignment of the nations around the reformed temple, which would be the “temple of his body” (Jn. 2:19-20).
Still, the fact that Jesus makes a phragellion out of cords as a stage-prop and uses it to drive the “traders” from the temple certainly introduces the threat of violence into the implicit eschatological narrative. phragellion roughly transliterates the Latin flagellum—a vicious instrument made of thongs, with metal tips to heighten the pain inflicted, to be distinguished from a mere scutica or “lash” (Horace, Satires 1.3.119).
The related verb is used for the “scourging” of Jesus before his crucifixion (Matt. 27:26; Mk. 15:15). Indeed, scourging was “a punishment inflicted on slaves and provincials after a sentence of death had been pronounced on them” (BDAG). Doesn’t this suggest that Jesus has taken up a Roman scourge to punish the “traders” (or “robbers”) who had taken over the temple, as a sign of the slaughter and ruin that was to come upon them?
For the disciples his dramatic behaviour brought to mind Psalm 68:9: “For zeal for your house has consumed me….” That sounds innocent enough, but the psalm is a prayer for deliverance from violent enemies in Israel against whom the psalmist invokes the wrath of God:
Pour out your indignation upon them, and let your burning anger overtake them. May their camp be a desolation; let no one dwell in their tents. For they persecute him whom you have struck down, and they recount the pain of those you have wounded. Add to them punishment upon punishment; may they have no acquittal from you. Let them be blotted out of the book of the living; let them not be enrolled among the righteous. (Ps. 69:24–28)
So it’s hard to think that the zealous prophet-king Jesus wasn’t angry when he deliberately made a symbolic Roman whip and acted out a scourging of the corrupt temple hierarchy—the enemies who were out to kill him—as a sign that the judgment of God was coming on his people in the form of war and destruction. And if Jesus was angry, we have to assume that he thought God was angry too.