Joshua Ryan Butler on God’s wrath

June 24, 2016

One of the hallmarks of my evangelical re-conversion several years ago was embracing unfashionable doctrines of the faith because they reflect what scripture teaches, whether recent theologians have any use for them or not. One of these doctrines is God’s wrath.

In his new book, The Pursuing God, author Joshua Ryan Butler helps us make sense of some of these doctrines. In a recent interview on the Mere Fidelity podcast, he describes an analogy for God’s wrath that he heard from a friend:

Here’s how [my friend thinks] of wrath. Let’s say you have this fish on a dock. You’re made to live in the water, swim in the water. But one day you get tired of the water, so you jump out of the water onto the dock. And you’re not made to live on the dock and dry land so start to wiggle around uncomfortably. And the longer you’re there, the more uncomfortable you get.

The question was: Is flopping around on the dock, is that punishment—or is that a natural consequence of one’s behavior?

And the point he was making, he was going, “That’s a natural consequence.” A punishment would be someone walking down the dock with a stick and beating the fish, going, “Get back in the water!”

And so his take was, “That’s the way I see sin.” You know? We experience these natural consequences when we reject God and live that way, and that’s bad. But we need to kind of get rid of wrath and punishment and anger language because it makes God look mean.

And my take back is, “I get what you’re saying… But, in the Hebrew worldview, it’s not an either/or; it’s a both/and—that in the Hebrew worldview, I think the fish flopping on the dock is a punishment.”

Because God as creator has ordered Creation such that the fish thrives in the water and flops around on the dock—that the fish, in leaving its intended environment and rejecting the way it was created to live, it is rebelling against the ordering of Creation by God. And in so doing, it’s receiving the due punishment ordered within Creation by God.

And not only ordered from the beginning of time, but executed by God as the Creator who sustains Creation, who is actively involved in the affairs of this world.

I think you can see throughout scripture language and imagery and passages where Israel is very comfortable saying, on the one hand, “We messed up, and this consequence happened,” and then flipping it around and saying, “God was punishing us. God was executing his judgment and wrath.”

I think we can get rid of the dude with the stick and see God’s wrath at work.

Butler concedes that this analogy falls short in many ways. For one thing—I would add—natural consequences often fail to adequately punish the world’s evil. “You reap what you sow” is built into Creation to some extent, but not completely by any stretch. So whether there’s a “dude with a stick” or not, in the interest of justice, God most impose consequences that don’t naturally follow.

Nevertheless, Butler believes that one virtue of the analogy is that it moves us beyond a deistic God who sets the world in motion and moves out of the way—that God is active through everything that happens in the world.

So this sense, even natural consequences aren’t “natural.”

I like this. For the last five years, one of my objectives in preaching has been to communicate this truth. Even to say that God “suffers alongside us,” a cliché among us Methodist preachers, risks turning the God of the Bible—a robustly sovereign God—into the God of deism.

4 Responses to “Joshua Ryan Butler on God’s wrath”

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    I think we have to be careful with “natural consequences.” It is certainly true that God created the universe in such a fashion that good behavior brings good things in its wake and vice versa. That is part of why God is a “good God.” Nevertheless, I think scripture also teaches “more,” as in direct punishments not “naturally” resulting, such as with Ananias and Sapphira, Achan, Herod, and many more. Hell itself, the greatest and most awful punishment, is, indeed, punishment, not just some “natural order of things.”

    • brentwhite Says:

      That’s true: as I say in the post, the fish out of water analogy only explains part of it.

  2. Grant Essex Says:

    I think the following commentary on the subject of God’s Wrath is excellent:

    Five Truths About the Wrath of God
    Article by Joseph Scheumann Topic: The Wrath of God

    The doctrine of the wrath of God has fallen on hard times. In today’s world, any concept of God’s wrath upsets our modern sentiments. It’s too disconcerting, too intolerant.

    We live in a day where we have set ourselves as the judge and God’s character is on trial. “How can hell be just?” “Why would God command the Israelites to destroy the Canaanites?” “Why does God always seem so angry?”

    The fact that so many people struggle with these questions, and many more like them, means that more than ever right thinking is needed about the doctrine of God’s wrath. It is needed for motivation for Christian living, fuel for proper worship, and as a toolbox to confront objections to Christianity.

    Here are five biblical truths about the wrath of God:

    1. God’s wrath is just.

    It has become common for many to argue that the God of the Old Testament is a moral monster that is by no means worthy of worship.

    However, biblical authors have no such problem. In fact, God’s wrath is said to be in perfect accord with God’s justice. Paul writes, “But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5). God’s wrath, then, is in proportion to human sinfulness.

    Similarly, Proverbs 24:12 says, “If you say, ‘Behold, we did not know this,’ does not he who weighs hearts perceive it? Does not he who keeps watch over your soul know it, and will he not repay man according to his work?”

    J.I. Packer summarizes: “God’s wrath in the Bible is never the capricious, self-indulgent, irritable, morally ignoble thing that human anger so often is. It is, instead, a right and necessary reaction to objective moral evil” (Knowing God, 151).

    2. God’s wrath is to be feared.

    God’s wrath is to be feared because all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Romans 3:23). God’s wrath is to be feared because we are justly condemned sinners apart from Christ (Romans 5:1). God’s wrath is to be feared because he is powerful enough to do what he promises (Jeremiah 32:17). God’s wrath is to be feared because God promises eternal punishment apart from Christ (Matthew 25:46).

    3. God’s wrath is consistent in the Old and New Testament.

    It is common to think of the Old Testament God as mean, harsh, and wrath-filled, and the God of the New Testament as kind, patient, and loving. Neither of these portraits are representative of Scripture’s teaching on the wrath of God.

    We find immensely fearful descriptions of the wrath of God in both the Old and the New Testament. Here are just a few examples:

    “Behold the storm of the LORD! Wrath has gone forth, a whirling tempest; it will burst upon the head of the wicked.” (Jeremiah 30:23)

    “The LORD is a jealous and avenging God; the LORD is avenging and wrathful; the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries and keeps wrath for his enemies.” (Nahum 1:2)

    “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth.” (Romans 1:18)

    “From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty.” (Revelation 19:15)
    4. God’s wrath is his love in action against sin.

    This is counter-intuitive, but hear me out.

    God is love, and God does all things for his glory (Romans 11:36). He loves his glory above all (and that is a good thing!). Therefore, God rules the world in such a way that brings himself maximum glory. This means that God must act justly and judge sin (i.e. respond with wrath), otherwise God would not be God. God’s love for his glory motivates his wrath against sin.

    Admittedly, God’s love for his own glory is a most sobering reality for many and not good news for sinners. It is after all, “a fearful thing to fall into the hands of a living God” (Hebrews 10:31).

    5. God’s wrath is satisfied in Christ.

    Here we have the ultimate good news: “Jesus Christ came into the world to save sinners” (1 Timothy 1:15). Because of Christ, God can rightly call sinners justified (Romans 3:26). God has done what we could not do, and he has done what we didn’t deserve. Charles Wesley rightly exulted in this good news:

    And can it be that I should gain
    An interest in the Saviour’s blood?
    Died he for me? who caused his pain!
    For me–who him to death pursued?
    Amazing love! How can it be
    That thou, my God, shouldst die for me?

    • Tom Harkins Says:

      Grant, I think most of what you say is right here. I am not sure about the “God loves his own glory” part. The view of love that I have in mind that “justifies” God’s wrath as to that aspect of it is that love is “conditional”–extended to all, but retracted if not accepted and reciprocated. He told his disciples to extend peace when they entered a town, but if they were not well received, to shake the dust off their feet as a testimony against them. Thus, it is the nature of love in and of itself that leads to God “rejecting” those who ultimately deny him, so that his love “offer” turns to “wrath” or “hatred.”

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