For the past week I’ve been marinating in Kevin Miller’s Huffington Post article, “Why We Need the Language of Hell.” That bit of commentary, penned by the director of the, Hellbound? Documentary, may be the most poignant summary of humanity’s perennial need for wrath lingo since Rene Girard’s Things Hidden… (1978).
It’s certainly timely, given the recent epidemic of domestic massacres (a jaw-dropping oxymoron!) and ongoing malignant violence in which we’re entangled overseas. Miller’s commentary makes a striking point in tracing the pervasive use of ‘hell-speak’ to diagnose the bloodshed and prescribe a just response. Some primitive intuition—from the depths of our death anxiety—evokes liberal analysts and shiny churchgoers alike to move quickly from revulsion at suffering to the ancient imagery of fiery wrath.
A pastor-friend of mine from the Midwest reported this week that one of his pristine elderly congregants was lamenting news of the latest ambush on American troops in Afghanistan. This precious Christian lady says, “Our boys are over there getting killed by the people they are trying to help. Maybe we need another Hiroshima.”
Why do we go there? My best answer: study Miller’s keeper of a blogpost and pass it around. And for my part, I offer this secondary response.
The language of hell is just the most extreme element in our felt-need for wrath in general to straighten out the ‘bent-ness’ of injustice in our world. Even those who don’t profess faith find themselves looking over their shoulder when tragedy strikes. “What did I do to deserve this?” We find ourselves looking up and asking, “Why am I being punished?” Why is that?
Three points on the language of wrath
1. The wrath of God as metaphor: French philosopher, Simone Weil, once said that God never interferes with secondary causes. That is, God doesn’t micromanage consequences. Thus, when the Bible speaks of the ‘wrath of God,’ this is simply a metaphor for the fact that God consents to our willful defiance and the destructive trajectories of our selfish choices. In Bible language, “God gives us over” to having it our own way (Job. 8:4; Ps. 81:12; Isa. 64:5-7; Ezek. 20:25; Rom. 1:24, 26, 28). So God doesn’t smite us – we smite ourselves by wandering away into the violent darkness.
Yet, she says, God’s love does interact in the world wherever a willing partner consents to be a vessel and mediator of God’s self-giving love. When Jesus prays, ‘Not my will, but yours be done,’ he becomes the prototype of this theology of consent, as described in my blog, “Wrath and Love as Divine Consent”
Weil’s take has been my stock answer to the language of wrath. ‘Wrath’ is simply a for the cause-effect relationship of sin-destruction. ‘Wrath’ describes the laws of the universe that Hinduism refers to as karma or Jesus describes as the law of sowing and reaping. For example, that ‘bad guy’ is dead. Why is he dead? He used drugs, developed an addiction, overdosed and now he's dead. Observers—even biblical observers—might metaphorically call that 'wrath', but only in the indirect sense of God allowing consequences. But there's a problem...
2. When wrath is massively underplayed: Whether we understand wrath as God’s direct intervention against sin or a metaphor for natural / supernatural consequences, then we must testify: wrath is not very good at what it’s supposed to do. It is not timely (in the case of Hitler or Anders Breivik) and not sufficiently severe to satisfy the victim. Worse, the wicked often prosper deliciously with no just consequence in this world—direct or not—and the wrath we would want for them does not seem forthcoming. They get away with it, sometimes to the end.
In our example, ‘bad guy’ doesn’t do drugs. He sells drugs and the only consequence seems to be that he’s getting fabulously wealthy and powerful, while his victims are the ones perishing. Here, the victims begin to question whether wrath as intervention or consequence is just at all, because frankly, the golden scales don't balance. The psalmists (Ps. 73) and prophets (Jer. 12) see this, and in the genre of lament ask, 'Why do the wicked prosper?
We quote the Bible to suggest two answers to this aching desire for justice (or rather, for revenge). One is the retribution Miller wrote about: We preach, ‘Don’t worry, their day of judgment is coming. They can run, but they can’t hide. Hell will catch them in due time. Vengeance and retribution belong to God.’ (Nahum, Habakkuk, Rom. 12:19). The other response is a warning: ‘Don’t fret over evildoers; it only leads to evil.’ The bullied and oppressed become bullies and oppressors (Ps. 37:8). Yes. Seen it—been it. But vigilante justice, or fantasies thereof, is tempting when wrath against the tyrant is obviously underplayed.
3. When wrath is massively overblown: Conversely, wrath as judgment or consequences for may seem reasonable at first. For example, when the Jewish prophets announce the destruction of Jerusalem and exile into bondage as punishment for national rebellion. “We’re suffering! What did we do wrong? Oh that … okay. That makes sense.” But then after a while, when the exile lengthens to generations and the suffering intensifies into slavery, torture and massacre, we start wondering. The suffering experienced was supposed to be just punishment or natural consequences. But eventually the afflictions become such an obvious, brutal case of overkill that they cannot possibly be just. Not by God's standards of justice nor any norms of causality.
In our example, the ‘bad guy’ high on drugs has driven while stoned, he’s fleeing the cops, and t-bones a young family in their mini-van on the way home from Chick-fil-A, killing them all. Or the tornadoes and famine that have plagued the US this year seem to be devastating the Bible Belt faithful along with the evil Other. The book of Lamentations or the martyrs under the altar (Rev. 6) know this isn't quite fair. When fair wrath crumbles under the imprecision or overkill of its random judgments, I am frustrated because if not wrath, 'Why?'
In the end, our constructs of wrath as divine judgment or karmic consequence are failed attempts at theodicy. We try to resolve the problem of evil and suffering by creating a just solution involving an equalizing wrath. We look initially at suffering simply as a result of sin which will then come into balance as the wicked have to pay for what they did. BUT that theology also corners us into blaming the victim (or victim’s parents – John 9) ... are they paying for something they did?
Once we discover the painful truth—when we see how the just balance of wrath virtually never happens in this life—we resort to an afterlife judgment for the wicked. ‘Bad guy’ won’t ultimately get away with violence and debauchery. And for the victim, we either need a backstory to explain why they're being punished now (reincarnation, generational curses, original sin)… OR a future life where rewards far outweigh the suffering (Rom. 8:18).
All of this shoves my own theology of consent a difficult step forward. That is, I have said that biblical wrath is a metaphor to describe natural and supernatural consequences for our sins. And Romans 1 appears to make that case. But when it comes to how life and death actually work, so conceiving wrath might also happen to be wrong. In reality, Job notes that disasters happen to the righteous and the wicked alike. Jesus says that grace rains and shines on both the righteous and wicked. In the end, a theodicy founded on theories of wrath to cope with suffering or demand punishment are just not how life or justice or God work in practice. And in fact, according to Derek Flood, that might be what Paul is arguing in Romans 1. Perhaps Paul isn't mistaken in saying that God gives the wicked over to the just consequences of sin; rather, in context Paul may be refuting this as our mistaken longing for wrath, in view of God's mercy.
Overall, I am tracking with Kevin Miller in seeing both the language of hell and wrath as rooted in a human desire for God’s care and justice, expressed in lament. But ultimately, God’s response to that cry will be something more true to life and satisfying to the soul, something with God’s mercy in view.