First Sunday in Advent: A Reflection

This is a reflection I was asked to write for our local church on this first Sunday of Advent.

WAITING IN THE DARKNESS

Did you know that historically, within Church tradition, Advent is not primarily about the birth of Jesus at Christmas? Rather, for centuries it has been practiced more as a time of waiting in darkness for Jesus’ second coming, the final ‘day of the Lord’. In other words, if Jesus comes first as a saviour, Advent looks forward to his return as judge.

Mmural by Adam Kossowski of the heavenly new Jerusalem descending to earth (Rev. 21

Now, you might be saying ‘Hang on, judgment doesn’t sound like something to look forward to. I thought Advent was a time of joy and anticipation.’ 

Well, Advent is a time of joy and anticipation. But it begins, to paraphrase Joseph Conrad, by gazing ‘into the heart of darkness’ – looking at our world as it truly is. This is why an authentically Christian Advent is a million miles away from the popular sentimentalism of modern Christmas with its soft-focus images of baby Jesus and his young mother, surrounded by cute animals.

Sentimentalism pretends all is right with the world. Advent tells the truth.

As we’re well aware, darkness is all around us. Destructive forces far bigger than us, do their worst. This year will be forever marked by the Coronavirus pandemic that has claimed millions of lives and cost millions more their livelihoods. Multiple wars continue to rage around the world, proponents often armed by Western nations like the USA, the UK, Germany and others. In Yemen over 24 million people are in dire need of aid, 3.6 million have fled their home and c. 200,000 killed. In Syria over 13 million people are in need of humanitarian aid, 6.7 million have been displaced and over 350,000 killed. These are just two conflicts of hundreds of smaller ones around the world. As 2020 comes to a close, globally there are 80 million people forcibly displaced people as a result of persecution, violence, human rights violations and war. Such people are extremely vulnerable to further injustices, Covid-19 and other diseases. Environmentally, wildlife globally has declined by over two-thirds since 1970. This catastrophic loss continues downward with implications for all life on earth. Global warming is already here – unprecedented fires in Australia, the Amazon and California show that the earth is literally burning.

And then there is the darkness in our own neighbourhoods and lives. Many of us will grieve the loss of family and friends this Christmas. Death is still an enemy. As we look back over 2020, we know that we have often chosen to go with darkness rather than light.

But Advent is not only about naming the darkness – that would indeed be hopeless. It looks forward to the good news of God’s judgment.

If you’re wondering how judgment can be good news, perhaps it’s because when we hear the word ‘judgment’ we tend to think of words like ‘condemnation’ and ‘judgmental’.

But there is no condemnation for those in Christ (Rom. 8:1). Jesus’ future arrival as judge is best understood as ‘putting all things right’. It will be when all the powers of sin, evil and injustice that so disfigure God’s beloved world will be vanquished once and for all. Light will drive out the darkness. Creation itself will be remade. Death will be undone. Resurrection life will burst forth. Love will rule. God will be ‘all in all’ (1 Cor. 15:28)

And so, this Advent, as we wait in the darkness, let’s pray in hope with the Apostle Paul: ‘Marana tha. Come O Lord!’ (1 Cor. 16:22).

God’s love vs God’s wrath? (1)

When’s the last time you heard a sermon really engaging with themes of divine wrath and judgment (rather than just a passing reference)?

How do you understand how the love and wrath of God relate to one another?

This is no abstract question. How you answer it will have profound implications for your view of God and of the ‘morality’ of Christianity for a start.

This post, and a couple more follow-ons, is prompted by reviewing for a journal two recent books on divine wrath and love. I’ll get to them later. I’m also engaging with Tony Lane’s (who taught me theology many years ago!) important book chapter ‘The Wrath of God as an Aspect of the Love of God’, in Kevin J. Vanhoozer (ed.), Nothing Greater Nothing Better: Theological Essays on the Love of God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), pp. 138–167.

For many, the idea of the wrath of God puts them off Christianity altogether – it’s primitive and repulsive.

Generally within the church, wrath is mentioned rarely if at all.

In many churches I’d wager you could go years without hearing teaching on the wrath of God. One writer wryly draws this parallel

Most preachers and most composers of prayers today treat the biblical doctrine of the wrath of God very much as the Victorians treated sex. It is there, but it must never be alluded to because it is in an undefined way shameful ..

R. P. C. Hanson, God: Creator, Saviour, Spirit (London: S.C.M., 1960), p. 37.

The Bible has a lot to say about the love of God. While there are major debates to be had about what it means that God is a God of love, few (if any?) Christians would question the idea that ‘God is love’ in principle. After all, John states ‘God is love’ categorically, twice.

And love is so deeply woven into the biblical narrative that to try to imagine Christianity (or Judaism) without love at the centre of ethics and worship is pretty well impossible. God’s love for his people and his world, human love for God in response, and human love for one another, form three great strands of the Bible story.

But Christians start to diverge widely when it comes to the wrath of God. A number of responses can be observed, and these are just sketches, not comprehensive descriptions.

i) Love and wrath opposed to one another

This is where God is disassociated from from the ‘lower’ attribute of wrath. Love is effectively opposed to wrath.  Wrath is not an admirable quality: it smacks too much of vengeance and is a destructive emotion, ‘unworthy’ of a God of infinite love.

To make a coherent serious case for this view would require significant reinterpretation and re-reading of a wealth of biblical texts that have no problem attributing both wrath and love to God. For example, portrayals of a God of wrath in Scripture are crude anthropomorphisms – human authors attributing all too human-emotions and actions to God. And we have now moved on from such limited perspectives.

Or you could go the full-on Marcion route and set up the wrathful God of the OT against the loving God of (parts of) the NT. The latter rescues us from the former.

As already mentioned, much more common, is an unspoken denial of the wrath of God. Quite simply it is never talked about and such a silence says a thousand words. Wrath has become a taboo subject.

But why is the church today so reticent about talking about wrath?

I think several factors are at play

– the belief that the attribute of wrath does not belong to a God whose defining attribute is love. Love and wrath do not mix.

– Christians being shaped and formed by a contemporary culture that prizes tolerance, inclusiveness, diversity and love, and which, as a result, has little place for the moral judgments associated with divine wrath

– An Enlightenment mentality (Tony Lane), in which humanity stands at the centre of reality, imagines a God (if he exists) who is like a cheerleader for human progress, not transcendent and holy God to whom everyone is accountable

– A sentimental view of God and love, emptied out of theological depth and detached from the biblical narrative, that has no capacity to integrate divine love and wrath. Instead, God is assumed to be a benevolent, kindly force, depersonalised to such an extent that ‘God is love’ becomes ‘love is God’.

ii) Love and wrath detached

A second response emphasizes wrath as an inevitable and impersonal consequence of human self-destructive behaviour. A cause-and-effect process that results in our human sin, selfishness, disobedience and injustice bringing judgment upon ourselves.

This view does not deny a connection between God and wrath. But it decouples wrath from God’s personal response to human rebellion. God is left somewhat ‘out of the picture’, allowing wrath to be experienced due to self-destructive human behaviour but not being personally wrathful. Indeed he has done everything imaginable (the cross) so that humans he has created and loves do not experience the inevitable consequences of their own actions.

The classic proponent of this view is C. H. Dodd (1959). God is detached from ‘the irrational passion of anger’.  The concern is to distance God from all-too-human destructive, angry and emotional reactions to displeasing behaviour.

There’s a lot to be said for this view.

– Great care is needed not to project human limitations on to God. God is not irrational, arbitrary or capricious, nor vindictive or petty, delighting in pouring out his wrath on his enemies. Especially in the past, there was no shortage of preaching and teaching which did portray God in exactly such terms – with horrible results.

– Dodd is right that much language of wrath in the NT does depersonalise it in terms of a process that culminates in inevitable judgment (a future day of wrath). In Paul, divine anger (thymos) appears alongside wrath (orgē) only once (Rom 2:8). Wrath is more like a condition everyone is under but can be redeemed from due to the loving initiative of the triune God revealed in incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Jesus the Christ.

– Most theologians (and I’d put myself in this category) also affirm that there is a fundamental asymmetry between divine love and divine wrath. Love is God’s essential attribute, but wrath is not. By ‘essential attribute’ I mean that which is intrinsic to whom God is in himself. Wrath is ‘secondary’ in that it only exists as his response to something ‘outside’ of God (human sin, forces of evil). ‘God is love’ does not find a parallel in ‘God is wrath’ (thank God!). God is ‘slow to anger’ – the story of the Bible is about God acting to redeem, restore, forgive, heal and warn so that those he loves will not face judgment.

But, while true in what it affirms, Dodd’s view does not do full justice to how the Bible talks about the wrath of God

– Tony Lane notes the irony that while, on the one hand, there is a major move in theology away from divine impassibility (God is beyond emotion, not controlled or influenced by forces outside himself) to affirming that God does indeed feel love, on the other hand there is a simultaneous move away from God personally feeling angry (Dodd).

– It is difficult, in other words, to argue that God’s love is personal and his wrath is not!

– There is also a moral question. What picture does it give of God if he does not feel anger at human injustice? Let’s personalise that question. Does not God feel anger when an adult man sexually abuses a powerless child?

– To be loving is not to be indifferent to evil and suffering – quite the opposite.

– The overwhelming picture of God in Scripture, taking into account anthropocentric language, is of a God who is passionate about justice and personally committed to overcoming all powers that destroy and corrupt his good creation. We see this in the OT but also in the language and teaching of Jesus in the NT. Yes, Paul uses impersonal language to talk of divine wrath, but God is far from a detached observer – he is active in giving people over to wrath (see point 3 – wrath as loving warning).

– Divine wrath is the ‘other side’ of divine love. For God not to feel anger at the corroding and awful impact of human sin would mean he is not a God of love.

– While Dodd did not hold this theology, his view is too close to the ‘watchmaker God’ of Deism who winds up the universe and then in a detached way, watches events unfold.

iii) Wrath as loving warning

A third perspective is divine wrath as loving warning. Here, God is responsible and actively involved in wrath. His anger is directed against specific behaviours that are destructive of his good purposes in the world.

41ca5vx0vcl._sx331_bo1204203200_I’ll talk more of this perspective in a later post. It is argued, for example, by Kevin Kinghorn in his recent book But What About God’s Wrath?: The Compelling Love Story of Divine Anger. Kevin Kinghorn with Stephen Travis. Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2019

Divine wrath takes the form of actively co-ordinating events that bring judgment, especially on God’s disobedient people, Israel. For example, despite multiple prophetic forewarnings, the destruction of Jerusalem and the Exile become the climatic events of divine judgement in the OT.

As we’ll discuss, this is primarily wrath as a self-chosen experience as a consequence of self-destructive human behaviour. But it differs from Dodd in that God is wrathful (angry) at sin. He is actively responsible for human experience of wrath. But his motive is always for the good of those he loves. His goal is to change behaviour and avert an ultimate self-destructive experience of wrath.

iv) Wrath as foreordained active retribution

A fourth perspective in Christian theology is shaped by a particular understanding of divine sovereignty characteristic of Augustine, Calvin and much subsequent Reformed dogmatics. If God is the ultimate sovereign over every single event, then responsibility for divine wrath is taken ‘all the way’ to its logical end.

This results in Calvin’s self-confessedly ‘dreadful decree’ of double predestination.

(And let me add here this was not a big theme in Calvin. His writing is frequently pastoral and theologically enriching. He is a profound theologian of the Spirit and of union with Christ. Double predestination was one ‘logical’ outworking of his theology of divine sovereignty, not the core of his theology. But, having said this, it is also one of the most unfortunate aspects of his theological legacy).

By predestination we mean the eternal decree of God, by which he determined with himself whatever he wished to happen with regard to every man. All are not created on equal terms, but some are preordained to eternal life, others to eternal damnation; and, accordingly, as each has been created for one or other of these ends, we say that he has been predestinated to life or to death.

https://www.ccel.org/ccel/calvin/institutes.v.xxii.html

Somehow, God’s good purposes are furthered by this scenario. Somehow, there is something good, something of value, in God foreordaining people to ‘eternal damnation’.

This is a long way beyond an experience of wrath as ‘self-chosen’ and even further from wrath as an impersonal ’cause and effect’ process. It also goes beyond wrath as God’s ‘warning shout’ to humanity. Rather, it is God actively fore-ordaining multitudes to an experience of divine wrath and judgment.

How this is reconciled with ‘God is love’ is hard to explain – to put it mildly.

Those following Calvin here have tried at great length of course, typically referring to themes of holiness, glory and mystery.

But, to my mind, it is attempting to defend the indefensible. Double predestination is incompatible with any coherent understanding of a loving heavenly Father. What loving father would create children for such a fate?

Comments, as ever welcome.

Judgment as both necessary and good

The latest edition of VOX is out. With the lockdown there are real challenges in distribution. Do consider taking up the offer below.

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My ‘Musings’ column was titled ‘Facebook, Judgment and Easter’ and is below. It came from reading this article in the Irish Times

‘This is what my job has taught me. People are largely awful and I’m there behind my desk doing my best to save the world.’

These are the words of an Irish ex-Facebook moderator who is taking legal action against the company for psychological trauma experienced as a result of his work.

Reading about his job makes you think alright. Every day moderators like him review a never-ending stream of images reported by users from all over the world. These range from the foolish (petty arguments) to indecent (nudity) to potential hate speech, to illegal trade in animals, all the way to child abuse and videos of groups of terrified people being executed somewhere in the Middle East (and this is only reported content remember).

Apparently Facebook provides detailed lists of rules to moderators for making judgments. These document are tens of thousands of words long and keep expanding in length and complexity. The moderator is faced with between 100 and 250 possible decisions on any given piece of content. Such is the volume there is limited time for evaluation and the moderators are expected to meet a target of 98% accuracy in their decision making. No wonder they are stressed; I don’t envy them their (unfortunately necessary) job.

There was a popular illustration used in evangelistic talks when I was younger. The speaker invited you to imagine a video of your life – all your secret thoughts and sins – being shown publicly to everyone you knew. The point was to bring home how none of us live up to our own standards let alone God’s. We would be ashamed if others really knew what we were like. The idea was to make listeners aware of their need for God’s grace and forgiveness.

I haven’t heard that illustration in a long time (and I’m not saying it’s necessarily a good one). But my impression is that Christians don’t talk too much about shame, sin and guilt these days. Maybe it’s because they seem to be outdated and repressive ideas, especially given recent Irish history. So we rightly emphasise the limitless nature of God’s love, but quietly downplay how much the Bible talks of his wrath and judgment. Today, to be ‘judgmental’ is socially unacceptable and smacks of intolerance – and who wants to be thought of as intolerant?

But the story of the Facebook moderator shows us that, when we think about it, judgment is actually both necessary and good.

Judgment as Necessary

It’s necessary because while the moderator isn’t a pastor or theologian, he looked into the ‘heart of darkness’ and concluded that ‘people are largely awful’. This echoes Paul in Ephesians saying that we are ‘by nature deserving of wrath’ (2:3). The moderator was doing his ‘best to save the world’ by trying to discern between good and evil. Out of compassion and a sense of justice he tried to put things right. But of course he couldn’t – none of us can. The depth of sin and the power of evil are too strong and the moderator, a mere man, was nearly destroyed in the process.

Judgment as Good

Judgment is good because the moderator’s experience shows the importance of naming and resisting evil.

This brings us to Easter and to another saviour and judge. The wonder of the cross is that ‘because of his great love for us’ (Eph 2:4) God freely chose to take his own judgment upon himself in Jesus Christ so that all in him share in Jesus’ resurrection victory over the power of death and sin.

While those destructive forces still stalk our world and God’s people are to battle against them, we can look forward to the goodness of God’s final judgment. We can thank God that there is no impunity for all the innumerable horrors humans perpetrate on each other and over our despoliation of God’s creation.

On that day justice will be done and this broken world will be put right for good. That’s why Christians today can say with the first believers

Maranatha. Come, O Lord!” (1 Cor 16:22).