After the reading of the epistle and before the reading of the Gospel in the traditional liturgy for the Requiem Mass – the funeral service of the Roman Catholic and many High Anglican churches – comes a long hymn entitled Dies Irae, which means “The Day of Wrath”. The words to the hymn go back at least as far as the thirteenth century and it has been set to music by countless composers. The final two lines of the hymn are often sung independently of the rest. (1) For fans of Monty Python this is what the monks in Quest for the Holy Grail who kept hitting their foreheads with their books were chanting. The hymn in its entirety speaks of the Second Coming of Christ and the Final Judgement, pleading for Christ’s propiatory mercy apart from which no one shall stand on that day.
Nothing illustrates the difference between modern and pre-modern thinking like this hymn. To the modern way of thinking a funeral is not the time or place to be talking, let alone singing, about God’s wrath and judgement. Even fundamentalist churches do not typically include preaching on hell at funerals. Other forms of modern theology do away with the subject of the wrath of God altogether. Theological liberalism, which is always glorying in how much more advanced its views of God are over the “primitive” views of Christians of previous centuries, thus demonstrating that its faith is in a deity of its own construction, i.e., an idol, rather than the eternal and unchanging God Who revealed Himself in Jesus Christ, regards the wrath of God as just such a “primitive” concept and consequently, has a similar attitude towards the propiatory, atoning, sacrifice of Christ upon the Christ. Others may not go as far as this but have problems with the idea of the wrath of God because they see it as being inconsistent with Christ’s teachings about God being a loving and forgiving Father. Some display their ignorance of the actual content of the New Testament by suggesting that the wrath of God is an Old Testament concept, imported into Christianity against the teachings of Jesus, by the ex-Pharisee St. Paul. No better answer to these can be found than the following words by that archnemesis of chronological snobbery, C. S. Lewis:
A most astonishing misconception has long dominated the modern mind on the subject of St Paul. It is to this effect: that Jesus preached a kindly and simple religion (found in the Gospels) and that St Paul afterwards corrupted it into a cruel and complicated religion (found in the Epistles).
This is really quite untenable. All the most terrifying texts come from the mouth of Our Lord: all the texts on which we can base such warrant as we have for hoping that all men will be saved come from St Paul. If it could be proved that St Paul altered the teaching of his Master in any way, he altered it in exactly the opposite way to that which is popularly supposed.
But there is no real evidence for a pre-Pauline doctrine different from St Paul’s. The Epistles are, for the most part, the earliest Christian documents we possess. The Gospels came later. They are not ‘the gospel’, the statement of the Christian belief. They were written for those who had already been converted, who had already accepted ‘the gospel’. They leave out many of the ‘complications’ (that is, the theology) because they are intended for readers who have already been instructed in it. In that sense the Epistles are more primitive and more central than the Gospels-though not, of course, than the great events which the Gospels recount. God’s act (the Incarnation, the Crucifixion, and the Resurrection) comes first: the earliest theological analysis of it comes in the Epistles: then, when the generation who had known the Lord was dying out, the Gospels were composed to provide for believers a record of the great Act and of some of the Lord’s sayings. The ordinary popular conception has put everything upside down. (2)
Modern thinkers are not, however, the first to think that the concept of the wrath of God is out of sync with the God of love preached by Christianity. In the early centuries of the church many concluded that there was an inconsistency between the wrath displayed by YHWH in the Old Testament and the love of God proclaimed by Christ in the New Testament. This led them into Gnosticism, which maintained that the God of the Old Testament was not the Father God proclaimed by Christ but an inferior deity, the Demiurge. This was one of the earliest heresies to develop. St. Irenaeus of Lyons, whose primary surviving work is his late second century treatise against the versions of Gnosticism known to him, especially Valentinianism, (3) traced it back to Simon Magus, whom St. Peter encountered in Acts 8. The “antichrists” denounced by St. John in his first and second epistles seem to have been proponents of this heresy. Marcion of Sinope took this doctrine so far as to reject most of the New Testament as well as the Old. His “Bible” consisted of an abridged version of the Gospel according to St. Luke and ten of St. Paul’s epistles.
Gnosticism was nonsense, of course. In answering Gnosticism, with the Creedal affirmation that God the Father of Jesus Christ is the “maker of heaven and earth, and of all things visible and invisible”, i.e., the God of the Old Testament Who created the material as well as the spiritual world, the orthodox, Apostolic, Christian Church simply reiterated what Jesus Christ Himself had taught regarding the authoritative Scriptures of the Old Testament and the God revealed therein. Furthermore, as noted by Lewis in the above quotation, there was plenty of wrath and judgement in Jesus’ own teachings. Indeed, as we shall see, far from it being the case that the wrath and judgement of God contradict the Christian doctrine of the love, mercy, and grace of God, it is rather the truth that the Gospel in which the latter are revealed is incomprehensible apart from the Law’s revelation of the wrath of God.
Before considering the wrath of God, however, let us take not of an important point about how we are to understand the Scriptures’ attribution to God of qualities that are possessed by humans and other created beings. These can be understood either univocally, equivocally, or analogically. If we understand them univocally, this means that we understand the same word to be identical in meaning when applied to God as applied to man. If we understand them equivocally, however, this means that we consider the qualities predicated of God to be entirely different except in name from those in man. Orthodox theologians have long rejected the univocal and equivocal views in favour of the analogical, which means that when the Scriptures ascribe to God a quality that is present in man, the quality so described is not identical to the one found in man, differing from it in both manner and degree, but with enough similarity between the two, that the term denoting the human quality provides an adequate picture of the corresponding quality in God, so that something meaningful and comprehensible can thereby be communicated about God. (4)
The reason this is important is because the word wrath means intense anger, particularly as expressed in retributive punishment against the object of wrath. In human beings anger is an emotion, a response in us prompted by something that has displeased us which, if we allow it to influence our actions without being itself governed and moderated by our reason, results in bad and inappropriate behaviour. To attribute wrath to God univocally, would be to say that His response to our sin is an emotional outburst. This is clearly not acceptable to orthodoxy because the suggestion that God is susceptible to emotional outbursts and that our actions can produce a change within Him, contradicts His immutability. An equivocal understanding of the wrath of God, however, would be meaningless and incomprehensible.
Therefore, when St. Paul writes that “the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness” (Rom. 1:18) this has to be understood analogically. God’s wrath resembles human anger in some ways but must not be thought of as an emotion. Like human anger, God’s wrath demands the punishment of its objects but, unlike human anger, is not an emotional response but the expression of an aspect of God’s immutable character. If you are tempted to find in this truth some sort of comfort for impenitent sinners seeking security in their carnality then you need to think over it more thoroughly. In human beings, punishment out of anger can be unjustly severe because anger clouds human judgement causing us to exact more than justice requires – which is why human civilizations build their justice systems upon the foundation of principles that place limits on the penalties that can be exacted from offenders. (5) Paradoxically, however, human anger, being a changeable emotion, is quickly exhausted. Wrath that is an expression of something that is immutable in God is not – hence the Scriptural imagery describing that wrath in terms of “their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched”, “the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels” and “the smoke of their torment ascendeth up for ever and ever: and they have no rest day nor night.”
The immutable quality of the character of God that when directed towards sinners is expressed as what the Scriptures call the wrath of God is His justice. God’s justice is one aspect of His perfect goodness. God is perfectly good and righteous, and the Sovereign Lord over all He created. We, His creation, were created good and righteous, and we owe it to our Sovereign Lord to remain that way. God’s justice is the facet of His goodness that requires that we pay this debt. We, however, failed to meet our obligation, corrupted ourselves, and fell into sin, rebellion, and disobedience. The same justice that rightly requires righteousness of us now rightly demands a penalty from us for our sin. That penalty, the Scriptures speak of as death – the spiritual death that describes our condition of being spiritually alienated from God, the physical death that ends our earthly lives, and the second death which is eternal. The wrath of God is His exactment from us of the penalty that His justice demands for our sin.
The wrath of God is not an outdated doctrine to be done away with but is absolutely essential to sound theology. Without the wrath that expresses His justice towards sin, His justice and therefore His goodness, would be less than perfect and complete. If His goodness is less than perfect in this aspect, then the perfection of other aspects of His goodness, such as His love, are also compromised. Indeed, the fact that God’s love is so widely considered to be incompatible with His wrath, shows just how much the doctrine of His love has been compromised. What many, probably most, people think of today when they hear the expression “the love of God” is love in the watered-down modern sense of some sappy, sentimental, feeling. By contrast, the love of God spoken of in the Scriptures, is His benevolent good-will towards His creation, which is not simply an empty sentiment, but which translates into positive action.
If we reject the idea of the wrath of God, compromising the justice that lies behind that wrath, and so compromising the love of God by reducing it to an empty sentiment, than we strip the Gospel of its meaning and rob the forgiveness offered in the Gospel of its value. For many today, forgiveness means something along the lines of “letting it slide.” The person who forgives in this sense says to the person who has wronged him “forget about it” or “its no big deal”. In other words, he makes light of the offense and trivializes it. This is not the forgiveness spoken of in the Scriptures – either the forgiveness offered to us in the Gospel, or the forgiveness required of us towards others. The Scriptures make it quite clear that God “will by no means clear the guilty.” (Ex. 34:7, Num. 14:18) This means that He will not just dismiss our sin, pretend that it is not serious or of no consequence. God’s justice demands that sin be paid for and God never offers us any sort of forgiveness that just sets His justice aside. This is why forgiveness is only extended to us on the grounds that Someone else paid our debt for us.
In John 3:16, which is rightly the most familiar and loved verse in all the Bible, aptly dubbed “the Gospel in a nutshell”, we are told that “God so loved the world that He gave His Only-Begotten Son that whosoever believeth in Him should not perish but have everlasting life.” The word translated “so” in this verse does not mean so in the sense of extent, as in “so much”, “so many”, “so large”, although undoubtedly the verse as a whole conveys a sense of that, but rather means “so” in the sense of manner, as in “thus”, “so” or “in this way.” (6) The verse is telling us that the way in which God loved the world was by giving us His Son that all who believe in Him will have everlasting life. St. Paul makes it clear to us how God’s giving us His Son accomplishes this end:
Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; To declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus. (Rom. 3:24-26)
To forgive someone in the truest sense of the word, not the watered down sense of trivializing the offence and “letting it slide”, means that the forgiver takes the burden of paying the damages caused by the injury he is forgiving upon himself. The words “redemption” and “propitiation” in this passage both have connotations of a price being paid for our being justified, i.e., accepted as righteous by God which includes the idea of our sins being forgiven. Redemption suggests the idea of payment for release from bondage. Propitiation, however, means the payment that satisfies the offended justice – the wrath – of God. (7) This, St. Paul explicitly declares, is the only way God could be just Himself while acquitting and justifying the sinner who believes in Jesus Christ – by voluntarily bearing the guilt of all of our sins upon Himself as He hung upon the Cross and allowing His Own wrath to be exhausted upon Himself, paying the debt that we owed, thus satisfying the demands of His justice against us once and for all.
Without an appreciation of the reality of the wrath of God against sin as the expression of His offended and infinite justice we cannot have even the most basic understanding of the significance of what Jesus Christ did for us at the Cross. Without the humble and contrite acknowledgement that the wrath of God is exactly what we deserve as sinners – not just a “sure nobody’s perfect” which really only means “I have my problems but I’m good enough” – that is produced in us by the Law, the Gospel, through which the Holy Spirit persuades us of the truth of Who Jesus is, what He did for us, and the grace – freely given favour – in which we stand because of Jesus, will bounce right off of us without forming in us the faith which is the only means by which we can receive that grace.
Perhaps the medieval Church got it right after all, in placing several stanzas of wrath and judgement just before the reading of the Gospel, in services for departed loved ones, whose deaths remind us of our own mortality, and of the coming Judgement.
Quærens me, sedisti lassus:
Redemisti Crucem passus:
Tantus labor non sit cassus.
Juste Judex ultionis,
Donum fac remissionis,
Ante diem rationis.
Ingemisco, tamquam reus:
Culpa rubet vultus meus:
Supplicanti parce, Deus. (8)
(1) "Pie Iesu Domine, Dona eis requiem." Which means "Holy Lord Jesus, grant them rest."
(2) C. S. Lewis, “Modern Translations of the Bible”, originally published as the introduction to J. B. Phillips’ Letters to Young Christians: A Translation of the New Testament Epistles (1947), later included as the tenth essay in Part II of God in The Dock: Essays on Theology and Ethics, a posthumous collection of Lewis’ apologetics essays compiled and edited by Walter Hooper and published by William B. Eerdmans of Grand Rapids in 1970.
(3) St. Irenaeus, Adversus Haereses, (180).
(4) St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I.13.5. Note that in the Sed Contra, i.e., the part of the article where St. Thomas asserts his own view against the opposing view presented in the Utrum and supported by the Oportets, he seems to affirm the equivocal position. At this point in the article, however, he is using “equivocal” in a general sense that includes the analogous. Later, in the Respondeo Dicens where he fleshes out his argument he distinguishes between a “purely equivocal sense” and an “analogous” sense, affirming the latter rather than the former. Ever an Aristotolean, he describes the analogous sense as a “mean between pure equivocation and simple univocation.” See also John Theodore Mueller in Christian Dogmatics: A Handbook of Doctrinal Theology for Pastors, Teachers, and Laymen, (St. Louis: Concordia Publishing House, 1934), pp.161-162.
(5) The much maligned Lex Talionis, understood properly, is just such a limitation.
(6) The word is οὕτως. For those who know Latin it was rendered “sic” in the Vulgate, not “tantus.”
(7) The Greek word ἱλαστήριον that St. Paul used here was also the word that denoted the Mercy Seat, i.e., the lid of the Ark of the Covenant upon which the high priest would sprinkle sacrificial blood on the Day of Atonement.
(8) “Seeking me, You sat tired, Having suffered the Cross, You have redeemed, Let so much labour not be in vain. Just Judge of vengeance, Make a gift of forgiveness, before the Day of Reckoning. I lament as a guilty one, with shame my face grows red, spare Your supplicant, O God.” – from the Dies Irae.
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