The Wrath of God is Useful?

Thank God this controversy came up on reading week, so I have the time to blog out all of this turmoil.  If you haven’t been in the blogosphere for the past week or so, Rob Bell’s new book (which, I think, has yet to be released) has people claiming that he’s a universalist who denies the existence of Hell – and with that, perhaps the authority of scripture and even the existence of God, at least according to some people.  While this has been soundly debunked here by someone who’s actually read the book, it still has a lot of people talking.  I was directed to an article that compiled several of the more conservative responses to Bell, and found this quote to be somewhat positive and interesting:

This conversation should lead Christians to redouble their prayers and evangelistic efforts, Harris stressed. Also joining the discussion, Pastor Kevin DeYoung East Lansing, Michigan, reminded the public of why God’s wrath is necessary. “We need God’s wrath to keep us honest about evangelism,” he said. “We need God’s wrath in order to: forgive our enemies; risk our lives for Jesus’ sake; live holy lives; understand what mercy means; grasp how wonderful heaven will be; be motivated to care for our impoverished brothers and sisters; and be ready for the Lord’s return. “Believing in God’s judgment actually helps us look more like Jesus. In short, we need the doctrine of the wrath of God.”

My first thought on reading this response is that it is very mature in the midst of flung accusations and condemnations, seeing the potential of discussions like this to spur us on to greater response to God.  Amen, and amen!  But something about Kevin DeYoung’s comment rubbed me the wrong way.  Does anything about his comment jump out at you as somehow wrong?  Let’s look at it again:

“We need God’s wrath to keep us honest about evangelism,” he said. “We need God’s wrath in order to: forgive our enemies; risk our lives for Jesus’ sake; live holy lives; understand what mercy means; grasp how wonderful heaven will be; be motivated to care for our impoverished brothers and sisters; and be ready for the Lord’s return. “Believing in God’s judgment actually helps us look more like Jesus. In short, we need the doctrine of the wrath of God.”

What he’s saying is that the wrath of God is useful.  I’ve never thought of wrath as useful before, but I suppose he’s right.  What bothers me is that he seems to be implying that fearing the wrath of God is why we do everything that we do as Christians.  We are Christians because we’re afraid that God will get mad and send us to Hell to be forever tortured.  By this logic, God’s primary tool to show us His love and bring us into relationship with Him, and help the world, is negative reinforcement.  Even the prison-happy folk behind the American (and increasingly, the Canadian) justice system don’t use negative reinforcement to enforce positive behaviour.  It’s one thing to say that we’ll send to you prison (or Hell) for doing something terrible; it’s quite another to send someone to prison (or Hell) for not doing something nice.

But hang on: that’s exactly what Jesus did. (Thanks Ryan for pointing this out):

Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me. (Matthew 25:41-43)

But did Jesus say this as a primary motivating factor?  Deterrence works some of the time, but it really is the lowest, most basic way to correct behaviour.  This speech comes to us at the end of Jesus’ ministry, shortly before he was arrested and killed by people who refused to believe anything he said.  When you contrast this speech with one from the beginning of the gospel (Matthew 5-7, the Sermon on the Mount), you don’t find it to be a repetitive threat – “follow me, or else” – but rather a long series of ethical teachings based on nothing but His authority from God and the plain truth of it.  We do good not because we’re afraid of being punished, but because it is good.  Though we are inclined to evil selfishness, our evil is more like a knee-jerk, default reaction; I don’t struggle with my sinful nature because I am afraid of what will happen if I don’t manage to get it under control (I can’t, and me and God both know it), but because I know that what is good is better than what is evil; because I love and serve a God who is good, and I try to emulate Him.

Am I off base here?  Can we really say that we need a wrathful God watching over our shoulder in order to perform the most basic Christian tasks?  DeYoung emphasizes the stick in this article, but perhaps he emphasizes the carrot elsewhere.  But in my experience, when you motivate someone with the stick, the relationship between you and that person is damaged.  There’s a reason we look down on, or pity, someone who is “whipped”.  God rescues His people from oppression, and it seems that using oppression (the constant fear of eternal conscious torment) to do so is illogical and counter-productive.

Any thoughts?


8 thoughts on “The Wrath of God is Useful?

  1. my first reaction is this:

    We need God. (fallen/sinful nature, we need to be redeemed -> Jesus redeems us -> Jesus is God -> we need God). The Book that tells us about our fallen/sinful nature and about our saviour and about his provision of salvation is the same book that tells us our God is wrathful.

    We need God. He is wrathful. Yes, he is many other things, including forgiving, loving, etc. But wrathful also belongs on the list of attributes which describe him.

    “Can we really say that we need a wrathful God…” Yes. And if he desires to watch over our shoulders, then so be it. I’d call that his prerogative.

    A master tells his servant “Fill my banquet hall with guests.” The servant fills it because either A) he knows that it is good for his master to bless other people and to celebrate together or B) because his master told him to. Either way, he is obedient and the good from the banquet still occurs. In scenario A, the servant makes a decision to be positive based on a positive understanding of the outcome; in scenario B, the servant makes a decision to be positive based on a negative understanding of the outcome–surely any disobedient servant would not be a servant for very long and I’d imagine that fact would be an everyday reality to the servant. (Luke 14 is the parable of the Great Banquet–I would, however, be reading *into* the text to say it proves my point. The parable does discuss the negative repercussions of failing to act, and offers the imagery of a master-slave relationship and the consequence of wrath.)

    Even the imagery of a shepherd invokes the principle of the rod: do you think it’s some sort of 10-foot pole (“Not with a 10-foot pole!”) so that the shepherd can herd without touching them? It is to seriously motivate the sheep to obey for fear of pain. The Lord is my shepherd, whose staff and rod guide me. (Psalm 23)

    For you and I, perhaps we are not motivated “by the stick”. We are mature in our faith and see beyond the Christianity-is-a-bunch-of-rules type nominal christendom. We are not the 1 for whom the shepherd leaves the flock to find. We are not the ones requiring correction by rod. But in our flock there are those who need it.

    Thanks for the brain exercise again! And please forgive me for coming across preachy, but I’m a pastor.. what can I say? My reference to scripture are more to help offer a balanced account for what I believe, rather than to suggest that my answers are biblically based and yours aren’t. (Do we even disagree about anything?)

    Lastly, sorry for how long this is :S

    • Heh, don’t apologize.

      I don’t think we actually disagree on anything here. I certainly affirm that we need God; my emphasis was on the second half of that sentence, which you didn’t copy – “…watching over our shoulder to perform the most basic tasks?” I believe that God commands us to, and He empowers us to, but the motivating factor is in our relationship with Him. We are most certainly God’s servants, but Jesus called his disciples his friends, too, and showed that it was that friendship that defined our relationship to Him, as well as our service of one another.

      As for the servant/banquet analogy, I don’t know if a servant obeys the master because of fear of being fired, but rather because that is the nature of his role. Servants who obey their bosses only out of fear of getting fired… “Well Bob, that’ll only make you work just hard enough not to get fired.” I think we’ll agree that this is not a model for a relationship with God that we’d like to be a part of.

    • Perhaps I’m being nitpicky here, but is the rod really about motivating the sheep “to obey for fear of pain”? Or is the rod a tool used to give the sheep direction and guidance? My understanding has always been the shepherd’s staff was used not as a form of punishment, but used to direct the sheep where they need to go.

      Even your translation of that portion of Psalm 23, which is unfamiliar to me, suggests as much. The most used modern translations all say “they comfort me”, which suggests something other than fear of pain.

      • you ever seen shepherds moving their flocks over open fields? they whack ’em pretty hard with that rod. there’s even a “crack”ing kind of sound (probably the smack between the rod and the skin, not like the cracking of bones).

        maybe then the knowledge that the rod is near if I am wandering is a comforting knowledge? “I can’t stray too far, my shepherd will correct me”, and that is comforting; even if the method is through the pain of the rod.

        (in my haste i wrote “guide” when i should have written as you say “comfort”; i think i just mashed a couple of the verses together. I think it still stands, since the point is that the rod is used for correction, and it’s used at times pretty roughly)

  2. I would agree with Deyoung’s statement as fully true. He never stated the wrath of God is the only and/or primary motivator for evangelism, repentence etc…, only that it is an indispensable part. I think one would have to go to his church to know whether or not he overemphasizes that aspect.

    As weak as this analogy is, it’s kind’ve like if you have a recipe for a cake and remind people that some ingredients are non-negotiable, even if they are a smaller part (i.e. a levener).

    Whatever comes out of this debate, I would hope positives come out and that “team hell” realizes that Jesus used reward as a primary motivator for evangelism and discipleship than he did fear. On the other side, I would hope some movements who are flirting with cheap grace would realize there are more than a few warnings for believers and non-believers alike who disregard God’s capacity for punishment in any respect.

    • Good points.

      I think a key that I didn’t get to, or realize until now, is in how we see Jesus’ messages about Hell. Is it a warning, or a threat? Or both, somehow? This changes the tone of our reading, depending on how we see that. Those who constantly fear the wrath of God see it as a threat; I’m more inclined to see it as a warning, with the threat being the implicit understanding that God isn’t going to bail us out anymore.

  3. I haven’t read the other comments here yet, so perhaps they will change my mind. However, I had the same reaction to DeYoung’s words as you did. Can we really base our theology of God’s wrath on how much it motivates us? “We won’t be good or forgive or evangelize or unless God is wrathful and will act on that wrath” seems to be a weak theological basis for God’s wrath.

    We need God’s wrath otherwise we won’t be good. What, in the end, does that have to do with God? Is God wrathful in order for us to be good?

    What would De Young say about 1 John 4:19, for instance: “We love because he first loved us”?

    Keep in mind, too, the context of De Young’s comments. They are in response to allegations of Rob Bell being a (Christian) universalist. But the issue with universalism isn’t God’s wrath, per se. You can be a universalist and still believe in God’s wrath–it’s just a question of to what degree God’s wrath was satisfied in the death of Christ.

  4. Pingback: Why I keep returning to the question of universal salvation in Christ | The Eagle & Child

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