Many of us feel a bit nervous about God’s wrath. But in recent years, I’ve been noticing that some Christians I know find the teaching of (which people usually equate with ‘hell’) positively comforting. They really like it. They talk about it often. They get fidgety and uncomfortable if it’s missing for a while.
These are not nasty, twisted people – the sort who tie firecrackers to kittens, and rub their hands in glee at the thought that most people are going to burn. No they’re friendly, decent sorts who you’d trust to babysit your kids. But somehow, they do like to hear about hell quite a bit.
These people are not as interested in the broader category of God’s justice or judgement – in spite of this being a vastly bigger theme in the NT. Judgement language occurs hundreds of times throughout the NT, while wrath/hell language occurs only tens of times – perhaps once per book.
No, it’s the wrath they want. If the preacher talks wrath, they are content. They feel at home, at peace.
Why is this?
I don’t think the NT equates ‘God’s wrath’ with ‘hell’, but the people I’m describing generally think they mean the same thing. So I’ll let that pass, I want to explore this positive emotional response to such a grim theme.
I would welcome people’s thoughts and suggestions. Perhaps you know people of the sort I am describing? Perhaps you are one? Maybe you understand this phenomenon better than I do.
Here’s a couple of thoughts of mine. I think this fascination with wrath has a kind of perverse logic to it. See, it’s the Christian doctrine which is least palatable to the world. It must be the most offensive doctrine in the book, for today’s postmodern relativists.
What’s more, this is not surprisingly a teaching which many churches and church leaders have backed away from in modern times. Some disown it completely, others, well they just quietly don’t mention it, it seems a bit tasteless somehow, a bit medieval, it doesn’t fit the kind of progressive, positive image they’re trying to build for their ministry. Many, many ministries have gone soft on wrath.
So then ‘wrath’ becomes a kind of litmus test, a marker of orthodoxy and faithful ministry. If we are willing to be explicit about this most objectionable teaching, then surely that proves we are not man-pleasers. We must be God-pleasers.
So when we hear the preacher talking wrath, we can relax. This is a faithful ministry, the preacher is going to teach us the Bible, this is a safe place for me and my family to be.
Make sense? It does to me.
For us preachers, we can use this to build a reputation for evangelical soundness. If we hit on this theme often, we can gain some serious credibility and trust – with a certain kind of constituency. So there’s a temptation to dwell on it far more heavily than the NT would warrant.
That’s the main dynamic I see at work. However, one can’t help wondering, whether people who feel comforted by this teaching have really taken to heart the reality being spoken of. The idea of eternal shame and condemnation for a human person, the effective and irrevocable destruction of the person, beyond hope of recovery – shouldn’t the very idea trouble and distress and shake us? Shouldn’t it make us feel that we would rather it weren’t true? Shouldn’t we speak of it with heavy hearts?
Oddly enough, I wonder if people who like to hear about God’s wrath, are really listening to what is being said. I question whether the doctrine is being taken seriously – or whether it is largely functioning as an identity marker for the group. “We are the guys who are not afraid to talk like this.” – that sort of thing. If once it actually sinks in, I doubt it could elicit the comfortable feelings it currently does.
(We might try to explore the theme of ‘hell’ in a few follow-up posts).