Kevin Kinghorn is Professor of Philosophy and Religion at Asbury Theological Seminary. He has recently published But What About God’s Wrath? The compelling love story of divine anger with IVP in conjunction with Stephen Travis, and I asked him about the book and the subject.
Why is wrath a subject that needs further exploration? In what ways do you think Christians struggle with or misunderstand the notion of God’s wrath?
The title of the book comes from a repeated quote I have heard over the years from others when discussing God’s character. In various lectures or conversations I’d talk about the nature of benevolent love, which I think scripture reveals to lie at the heart of God’s character. Often times the reaction from Christians has been, “Well, that’s all fine as far as it goes. But what about God’s wrath?” The idea is that the biblical narrative offers a description of God’s love, but it also talks a good deal about God’s sternness or judgment or wrath. So, a ‘balanced’ view of God will need to take seriously both sides of God’s character.
Frankly, I don’t know any Christians who would want to deny that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). The problem is how to hold on to this affirmation and also take seriously the admittedly numerous passages in scripture that talk about God’s wrath. If we don’t want simply to ignore these darker passages, then I think what we usually end concluding is that there is unresolvable ‘tension’ between passages describing God’s love and passages describing God’s wrath. We may feel uneasy about this tension. We may do our best to put it out of mind when singing hymns on a Sunday morning like Love Divine All Loves Excelling. But the tension is still there somewhere in our hearts and minds. And because the tension is about the very character of God, this tension may be quite unhealthy for many people. The aim of the book is to show how this tension actually can be resolved.
In your book, you explore the qualities of God, and the difference between God’s ‘essential’ qualities and his ‘contingent’ qualities. Why is this important, and what does it tell us about God’s wrath?
The ‘essential’ qualities of God are of course the ones God has by nature and from all eternity. God would not be Godwithout these qualities (eternal, self-sustaining, triune, etc.) Contingent qualities are all those qualities or descriptions of God that are not essential. So, we describe God as having spoken to Moses on Mount Sinai. But this is a contingent matter: God would still be God if he had spoken to Moses on a different mountain or if he had spoken to Aaron instead of Moses.
Here’s why the reference to God’s essential qualities is so important. When God acts in wrath, he is obviously intending to accomplish some goal. The question is: what goal exactly? (His own glorification? The meting out of justice? The repentance of his people?) Whatever our final answer is to that question, it must be consistent with God’s essential qualities. That is, whatever God is seeking to achieve through acts of wrath, this goal must be consistent with what God is already seeking to achieve in virtue of his essential qualities.
So now a series of three questions can be asked: (1) What areGod’s essential qualities? (2) What do these qualities logically imply about how God will interact with us? (3) How do these findings connect to, and help shed further light on, the Biblical narratives about God’s wrath? Much of the outline of the book consists in answering these three questions.
I was interested that you give two chapters to exploring the nature of God’s love. In what ways have we misunderstood this, and what problems does this lead to?
Although the English word ‘love’ can notoriously mean different things to different people, I think the word ‘benevolence’ best captures the kind of love which God has for us and which exists within the members of the Trinity. Benevolence involves a commitment to the other’s well-being, a pursuit of the other’s flourishing. I find that most all Christians happily sign off on these points. Where the misunderstanding—or, at least, the controversy—arises is in how God’s benevolent love relates to other divine attributes. Specifically, how does God’s love relate to God’s justice or holiness? This is where the discussion gets potentially tricky. But it’s a discussion which is vital for Christians to think through.
Very often, the assumption is that God’s love and God’s justice are in tension with one another. I’ve heard countless sermons that included the following line about the seriousness with which God takes sin: “Could God really just forgive us without condition, overlooking our sin? God is a God of love, but he’s also a God of justice!” Or, sometimes the wording is: “Yes, God is a loving God, buthe’s also a holy God!” The assumption is that God’s commitment to justice or to holiness tends to come at the expense of his commitment to love. Yes, God is committed to the loving, benevolent end of our own well-being. ButGod is also committed to the cause of justice (or to the demands of holiness or perhaps to what brings him glory).
At this point we all face two options. And I think the necessity of choosing between these two options has been greatly underappreciated. There are huge implications that flow from one’s decision here; and there’s no way of opting out of making a decision between the two options. The first option is to say that God’s loving commitment to our well-being is incommensurable with his commitment to, e.g., justice. ‘Incommensurable’ simply means that there is no common scale on which to weigh the importance of love and the importance of justice, and then to say which of these goals God is more committed to pursuing. It’s analogous to the way we just can’t compare Usain Bolt to Bradley Wiggins or Lionel Messi and say who is the ‘greatest athlete’. We could measure explosive speed or endurance or dexterity. But these traits are incommensurable. The answer to the question of the greatest athlete is that there simply is no single answer. A variety of athletic traits exist, and there is no way to say which trait is ‘more athletic’ than another.
So that’s one option to take: that God’s love is incommensurable with God’s justice. God is committed to both of them, and there is no way to say which of these he is more committed to. But there are severe—and again often underappreciated—problems with taking this option. Harkening back to the sermon line that “God is a God of love, but also a God of justice,” the assumption is that love might recommend one course of action (perhaps unconditional forgiveness), with justice recommending an alternative course of action (perhaps punishing the guilty). Which course of action will God take? There is no way to say. If love and justice are truly incommensurable, then God might prioritize love on Monday and justice on Tuesday. This may seem a flippant way of making the point, but it presents quite serious problems to the stability of God’s character and commitments.
The second—and much preferable—option is to say that God’s love and God’s justice can be compared, with one commitment subsumed under the other. My argument, in brief, is that God’s justice is an expression of God’s love in certain contexts. (Likewise, God’s mercy and God’s discipline would be expressions of God’s love in certain contexts.) To describe God as ‘loving’ is to describe an essential attribute God has. To describe him as ‘just’ is to describe a contingent attribute. When God acts justly, his love is being expressed in a particular context that happens to arise in this world.
Back to your original question! The reason I spend two chapters on love is that I not only want to spell out the implications of God’s love. I also spend time comparing God’s attribute of love to his attributes of justice and holiness, and to his commitment to his own glory.
Perhaps you’re wondering what this long diversion has to do with God’s wrath? Well, God’s wrath is typically viewed as stemming from God’s commitment to justice or to holiness. But if God’s commitment to justice and holiness are derivative of his essential attribute of love, then God’s wrath must also (somehow!) be an expression of this essential attribute of love. So now the task is to explain how those acts which we associate with God’s wrath actually are expressions of the loving pursuit of our well-being. This is the task I set myself for the second half of the book.
You comment that Stephen Travis’ approach to the key biblical texts has been important in your thinking. What does Stephen bring to this discussion?
My original hope was that I might co-author the book with Stephen. Alas, the publisher had other ideas, wanting a single author to ensure consistency. So I sent Stephen an overview of the line of argument I was hoping to advance in the book, and then Stephen went through the entire Bible—book by book—and offered commentary on all the passages and themes relevant to my discussion. He ended up sending 150 pages of single-spaced notes: practically a book in itself! I then incorporated his notes and insights into a final version of the manuscript.
One happy surprise from Stephen’s notes was how devotionally uplifting they were. He has this amazing ability to unpack both the details and the broader context of passages that initially seem to paint a darker picture of God: Romans 9, the doomsday passages in Jeremiah, etc. And by the time you finish reading Stephen’s analysis of what’s actually going on, this incredibly attractive picture of God re-emerges.
Stephen helped me gain a much better grasp of the ‘shape’ of the biblical picture of God’s wrath: how it’s but one of many different responses of God to sin, how it’s always the last resort, how it’s never intended to be God’s final word. Above all, Stephen paints such a compelling picture of a God whose love is constant and intense, who will not sit idly by as we self-destruct, but who will instead take desperate measures, if needed, to prompt us to turn to him, our one source of true life.
In terms of the book, having Stephen on board with at least the broad conclusions of the book was really important to me. It is one thing for a philosopher to give an argument and then say, “Oh, and this conclusion is faithful to the biblical witness.” It’s an entirely other matter for a careful biblical scholar of Stephen’s caliber to make that statement!
You argue that God’s wrath is, in the end, compatible with understanding God as loving. How does that help in reading some of the difficult texts in Scripture—and what is the pastoral impact of your approach.
In terms of difficult texts, I think it’s helpful to see that God’s ultimate end, whenever he interacts with us, is always the loving pursuit of our long term well-being. An ultimate end is to be distinguished from an intermediate end. Each week I try to exercise, try to limit sugar intake, and try to drink my wife’s kale smoothies. I’d never do any of those things as ends in themselves! But they are intermediate goals I have, which hopefully will achieve the ultimate goal I have: namely, staying in good health to a ripe old age.
God’s acts of wrath are never ultimate goals. When a revenge-based movie ends with the sheriff gunning down the heinous outlaw, the ultimate goal has been achieved. Deserved punishment has been handed out; and movie viewers are invited to see this as a happy ending. But a God of love will never take joy in people being punished, as an ultimate end. His ultimate end for us is life, and “life to the full” (John 10:10). God may admittedly pursue any number of intermediate ends, as a way of seeking to bring about this ultimate end—including the intermediate end of acting in wrath. But within the biblical passages which describe God’s wrathful acts, there is always a loving ultimate goal lurking somewhere in the background. Once we embrace that framework, then we are prompted to connect these seemingly darker passages to larger plans we see God seeking to accomplish within the broader biblical narrative.
Pastorally, the picture of God that emerges is of one who loves us passionately and who pursues us relentlessly. Importantly, though, the kind of perfected relationship with God for which we were created cannot be based on anything other than the full truth about who God is and the truth about who we are (and how we have acted toward God and others). The process of God showing us the truth about ourselves can be painful, even as it is necessary for our sanctification. For those who continue to resist acknowledging painful truths about themselves, God’s continual prompting to do so will be experienced as wrath. In a nutshell, I understand God’s wrath in terms of God pressing upon us difficult truths about ourselves. To develop this core claim of the book takes several chapters! But pastorally, I would want to say that, while we can experience freedom from God’s wrath, we must never think we can be freed from having to come to grips with the truth about what we’ve done to God (and others) and what God has done for us.
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