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Is God Really Angry? Sermon for the XXX Sunday through the Year, 2023


“My wrath will flare up, and I will kill you with the sword; then your own wives will be widows, and your children orphans.”


Hearing these words, or ones like them from the Scriptures, can embarrass us. They are like the family skeleton in the closet, or at least that odd uncle you always feel ashamed of at family gatherings, the one who makes cringey jokes, and whom you’re afraid to see talking to your nephew’s new girlfriend. I hope she doesn’t judge our family based on him! (If you don’t have an uncle like that, don’t worry, I have a couple spares I can loan you for your upcoming Thanksgiving gatherings!)

Hearing about God’s wrath, or even hearing Him threaten violence in the Old Testament can provoke a similar reaction. If you knew someone wanting to know more about our faith and you saw her reading that part of the Book of Exodus, you might be tempted to swoop in and rescue her, just like you would for your nephew’s new girlfriend talking to the awkward, cringey uncle – “Don’t worry! We’re not really like that!” Except that we’re talking about the Word of God, not a cringey uncle. So what do we do with these difficult passages, with the God who speaks of wrath and threatens violence?

One possibility is to claim that this is an exaggerated way of speaking to make a point. The Bible speaks to people of a determined time and uses the kind of language with which they are familiar. In order to make it clear that God really cares about widows, orphans, and immigrants, the human author of the Book of Exodus puts these extreme words into God’s mouth, but we don’t need to take them literally in the year 2023. The problem with this “solution” is that it does not take seriously enough the divinely revealed nature of Scripture, treating it primarily as a human text rather than divine revelation. Taking seriously the human nature of Scriptural authorship is not wrong as such, but putting this kind of emphasis and weight on it can be risky.

More radical theories have also been considered. In the very first century of the Church’s life, Marcion of Senope mixed a heavy dose of Platonic Greek philosophy with the teachings of Christ to come up with a solution that proved popular for the next two thousand plus years. Marcion held that the God of the Old Testament and the God of Jesus Christ are just two different Gods, and that Christ’s Gospel of peace and love has vanquished the old, vengeful God of the Old Testament. It sounds ridiculous when you lay it out, but Marcionism is alive and well every time you hear, “Oh, that’s the vengeful, angry God of the Old Testament. We don’t believe in that anymore.” Not only is this error tinged with antisemitism, but it rejects the fundamental continuity between the Old and New Testaments and undermines the very preaching of Christ Himself, who emphasized that He came not to abolish but to fulfill everything that had come before Him.

More recent theologians have proposed something called “process theology,” in which God is seen as a part of the world and is, like all of us, in the process of getting better. God used to be a problematic being who made people suffer, but He’s really improved. Process theology sounds rather silly (and is basically a repackaged Marcionism at least on this point), but its proponents have some sophisticated arguments to back it up. Don’t worry – I won’t bore you with them today.

What is behind this resistance to hearing about God’s anger and punishment of the wicked? We tend to think of punishment as bad – not just that it is unpleasant to experience punishment, but that punishment is bad as such. We frequently want to limit the purposes of punishment to being restorative. We think that a punishment is good only if it furthers the rehabilitation, betterment, or growth in virtue of the person being punished. In fact, though, punishment is good because it restores not only the person being punished, but because it restores the order of justice itself. The purpose of punishment is to reestablish equality before the law – either the law of the state, the law of God, or even the law of parents or those rightly acting in their place. The person being punished has exercised his own will improperly against the community (either the public community of the State or a private community of the family, school, etc.). The result is that he now needs to suffer something against his own will – not only to make him “learn a lesson,” but to restore the order of justice in the community. The person being punished experiences that privation of his own will as evil, as painful, but it is good for the community for right order to be re-introduced through the application of the proper punishment by the proper authority.

Oftentimes, our resistance to punishment is a part of a larger resistance to law. With our libertarian mindset, we think of law as a necessary evil, something as only necessary because of our inability to act correctly. If people were just better, we would be able to live without law, and a world without law would be much better.

This is a long way from the Christian conception of law. The Jewish people recognized that God’s law was a gift not given to other nations, but taught only to them, and they saw this as an immense privilege. It is true that, in this life, law often exists in order to restrict, to keep us from doing evil. Where there is not yet sufficient virtue in a person to induce good conduct, the law steps in. But this is only a limited understanding of law. Even in Heaven, God’s law continues to exist, even though there is no longer, thanks be to God, the possibility of anyone doing anything wrong. This is because law is about order, and order is always good. God’s eternal law brings right order out of chaos. It orders all things sweetly and mightily toward their proper end. Holiness is all about a rightly ordered life.

The good life, really, is an ordered life. This can be hard to believe, because we can think of an ordered life as lacking spontaneity and joy. The ordered person comes across as dour and unpleasant. He is rarely the life of the party. This is emphatically not, though, the kind of ordered life we are talking about. The life that is properly ordered is not one that is lived according to an exact, minute-by-minute schedule. It is a life that orders all human activities towards their proper ends. Moral goodness is present when what you do is directed towards the end or purpose of your life – that is, towards holiness in this life and eternal beatitude in the next. The lives of the saints suffice to prove that this orderedness can be present in the military disciple of a St. Ignatius or the carefree spontaneity of a St. Francis, but in either case, their actions were ordered to the proper end of human life: holiness and beatitude.

Sin, then, is the disruption of this order. We object to the application of punishment because we do not appreciate the gravity of sin. Sin is literally “the worst.” The physical evils we experience (loss of life, loss of income, sickness and suffering) introduce a difficulty in achieving our life’s end, but sin makes it impossible. It is the only thing directly opposed to the proper ends of human life – holiness and beatitude – and therefore it is the most deserving of punishment, which acts to restore justice both to the sinner and the community harmed by sin.

One example of a sin condemned by the Lord in the same passage from Exodus could seem to be a counter example, though, to the claim that the image of God we see there is actually consistent with the merciful image of the Father presented by Christ. God condemns charging interest, and yet the Church now permits it. (We even showed you on our recent financial accountability report that our own parish’s income includes money made on interest!) Doesn’t this mean that moral teachings can change and adapt? Doesn’t that mean that the process theologians are right – that God is in the process of getting better? And wouldn’t that mean that all sorts of other moral condemnations could also change?

First, let’s observe that a God who now allows extortioners to take advantage of the poor is not a God who is “getting better,” and so likewise for His Church. More importantly, though, the condemnation of charging interest is based on a dramatically different economic system. In a pre-market economy, lending money does not cost the lender anything. There is no opportunity for investment – he is just sitting on the cash. To charge interest, then, is merely greed, because he is not losing out on anything by not having the money in hand.

Fast forward two thousand years, and you have a very different situation. Now, in the market economy, the lender loses the opportunity to make a profit with the money lent out, and so charging interest (within limits) becomes a legitimate recouping of the lost opportunity. This does not mean that the Church can change Her teachings founded on the unchanging nature of men and women. Economic structures change, and so do the proper responses to them. Human nature does not.

This does not mean, though, that usury is no longer a sin. Unreasonable rates of interest are frequently charged to the poor, and numerous businesses and industries have developed business models that prey upon the poor – and is gravely wrong and, yes, sinful. Many governments, under the guise of promoting public goods like health, also levy taxes that disproportionately burden the poor.

Here, then, we can see the importance of believing in the legitimacy of punishment. These practices that prey upon the poor and hold up cycles of poverty are largely ignored, in great part because we lack the moral fortitude to confront the sources of injustice in the world. Our resistance to punishment and the application of justice has led us to ambivalence about right and wrong.

I was approached once after Mass by a woman whose family was going through an immense challenge, fighting against lies that could rip their family apart. She had been comforted by the words of the entrance antiphon that day: “Look to your covenant, O Lord, and forget not the life of your poor ones forever. Arise, O God, and defend your cause, and forget not the cries of those who seek you.” This is one of the important reasons for which we sing primarily from the Book of Psalms in the official worship of the Church. “Let God arise, and let His enemies be scattered!” “Let them be put to shame and dishonor who seek after my life! Let them be turned back and confounded who devise evil against me!” These are prayers that belong on the lips of Christians who believe in God’s justice and the vindication of the righteous and yes, even the punishment of the wicked, according not to our desire for revenge, but out of passion for God’s justice.

The justice of God sets right the disorder present in this world. Punishing the wicked is not the sign of a bad God, but rather of a God who defends the cause of the innocent and restores justice when it is lost. If we bristle at the notion of God punishing, we should examine ourselves and ponder whether we have truly understand the gravity of the evil of sin. To do so, in the light of God’s justice, will not make us hateful and wicked people, but is absolutely essential for us to grasp the greatness, goodness, and love of the God who relents from punishment when we but repent.


The Rev. Royce V. Gregerson

Parish Church of St. John the Evangelist, Goshen

XXX Sunday through the Year, A.D. MMXXIII

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