Following my previous post on “The wrath of God and the death of Jesus” and some discussion that ensued, here is a reasonably concise 17 point summary of the narrative-historical perspective on the wrath of God—at least as I see it.
1. The phrases “wrath of God” or “day of God’s wrath” refer to the concrete, destructive outworking of God’s anger against either his own people or against the enemy of his people. There is an intrinsic, though not universal, link between the two: God may use a hostile nation to judge his people, but then that nation may also become liable to judgment.
2. The interpretive frame for wrath in scripture is historical and political, not metaphysical and personal. If wrath is directed against an individual, it is because the integrity of the people is threatened.
3. The wrath of God is not arbitrary or capricious. It is a function of the covenant. Israel is subject to wrath when it egregiously or persistently breaks the covenant. Daniel’s prayer of confession on behalf of Israel, reflecting on the desolation of Jerusalem, perfectly expresses the ethical rightness of God’s action: “All Israel has transgressed your law and turned aside, refusing to obey your voice. And the curse and oath that are written in the Law of Moses the servant of God have been poured out upon us, because we have sinned against him” (Dan. 9:11).
4. The argument about wrath is also an attempt to account inductively for Israel’s historical experience. It is how Israel reconciled its historic sense of vocation as a “chosen people” with the grim realities of conquest and exile.
5. Generally speaking, the hostile nation becomes subject to wrath either because it has acted violently against Israel or because by its idolatry it constitutes a geo-political affront to the God of Israel, who is God of the whole earth. This is the story of the kingdom of God.
6. In keeping with the Old Testament pattern, the shape of New Testament theology (C) is determined by the two focal points of wrath against Israel (A) and wrath against the Greek-Roman world or against Rome as the supreme manifestation of satanic opposition to God and his Christ (B).
7. Wrath against Israel (A) is conceived in military terms: “when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near” (Lk. 21:20). The judgment of Gehenna is not a post-mortem hell but the siege and destruction of Jerusalem.
8. Jesus’ death has to be understood, in the first place, in the context of this narrative about God’s wrath against Israel. Atonement theory should give us a limited theological account of how his “martyrdom”, as a historical event, made possible a new future for the people of God.
9. Wrath against the pagan world and against Rome (B) is conceived differently. It is effected not through military means but through the proclamation of the word of God and the faithful witness of the suffering churches to the lordship of Jesus Christ. The nations of the empire are not defeated or subjugated but converted: they are liberated from the satanic tyranny of blasphemous Rome by confessing Christ rather than Caesar as Lord and Saviour. This is the climax to the biblical story about the kingdom of God.
10. This finally brings to an end the covenant narrative about wrath. The life and witness of the family of Abraham under Christ as Lord is no longer subject to the Law of Moses. Because Jesus died, the church will not be condemned to destruction as a consequence of egregious or persistent sin; rather it is subject to a process of forgiveness and renewal through the power of the Spirit.
11. If neither the people of God nor the “nations” are liable to wrath, then the language of wrath is out of place in our evangelism. Salvation today means to become part of a people that was saved—past tense emphasised—from the wrath of God two thousand years ago by the death of Jesus.
12. Equally, we cannot speak of God’s wrath against the world (eg. in the form of earthquakes or tsunamis). The theological framework that once might have made sense of such statements was dismantled for good when pagan Rome was overthrown.
13. This does not mean that salvation is “cheap” or that repentance is unnecessary. The saved person must still leave behind an old creation and conform to the beliefs, attitudes and practices of a new mode of being in which we serve the living creator God as a priestly-prophetic people.
14. The narrative-historical perspective allows us to foreground the constructive purpose or mission of the people of God. Wrath and atonement were the historical means by which God’s new creation people was set free from the Jewish Law, which in the end could only condemn, to serve God “without fear, in holiness and righteousness” (Lk. 1:74-75) throughout the coming ages.
15. The narrative-historical perspective gives us some distance from an argument about wrath and punishment that as moderns we may find difficult to stomach, but it does not allow us to erase it from the narrative.
16. The final judgment that John describes in Revelation 20:11-15 (D) is not the wrath of God; and the “day of God’s wrath” is not the final judgment. This statement in the Eerdmans Dictionary of the Bible is, in my view, wrong—a very misleading compression of biblical eschatology:
The wrath of God is delayed until the last times. John the Baptist warned his hearers to escape the eschatological wrath of God (Matt. 3:7 = Luke 3:7). At the end of human history will come the “day of his wrath” (Lam. 1:12; Zeph. 1:18). This may be synonymous with the day of the Lord, which brings darkness and judgment on the rebellious (Joel 1:15).
17. But that is not to say that the creator will not finally hold humanity accountable for its rebellion and wickedness. The lake of fire, the second death, is a symbol for the final eradication of everything that is contrary to the goodness and beauty of God’s creation.