Hell 10: Patterns of wrath

Posted: April 1, 2014 by J in Bible, Theology

ART-DESTRUCTIONSODOM-MARTINIt seems when you pan right out, the big picture of the Bible’s story is easier to reconcile with annihilationism than with ‘everlasting hell’. What about the smaller stories that make up the big picture? Biblical theology looks at patterns in salvation-history, at types and anti-types of God’s dealings with us in Christ. What do the patterns suggest about judgement and hell?

Much of the imagery for wrath used in Scripture is drawn from a few early narratives of judgement, which become ‘archetypal’. The material from these events is ‘recycled’ over and over, developed, and interpreted. Thus these early stories exert a controlling influence on the bible’s theology of wrath, in both testaments. They are found in Genesis and Exodus.

The first key event is the Flood. There the narrator announces Yahweh’s intention to rid the world of mankind:

And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.  So the LORD said, “I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created.”  Genesis 6:6-7

Mankind is seen to function as a kind of moral disease or blemish on the face of creation:

Now the earth was corrupt in God’s sight, and the earth was filled with violence.  12 And God saw that the earth was corrupt; for all flesh had corrupted its ways upon the earth.   Genesis 6:11

The characteristic verb Yahweh uses repeatedly here, is the term to blot out or wipe off  (Heb. machah). This word is elsewhere used for cleaning with water. By using this language, Yahweh frames the judgement of the flood as the erasing of the blemish, the cleansing of the corruption which has infected the creation (i.e. mankind).

The process of judgement involves an undoing of the original act of creation.

And all flesh died that crawled on the earth, birds, livestock, wild animals, all swarming creatures that swarm on the earth, and all mankind; everything on dry land in whose nostrils was the breath of life died.   Genesis 7:21-22

These are of course key phrases from the Genesis 1 account of creation, phrases repeated there over and over to the point of being proverbial. The cause of this destruction, of course, is that the land is sinking down under the waters once again, as in the beginning. Everything done at the creation is undone here: an act of ‘uncreation’. We end this flood description with an image of the ark hovering ‘on the face of the waters‘ – like the Spirit of God at the creation. We have got back to original conditions, to the beginning of Genesis 1. The point could hardly be hammered any harder.

And the point is: reversal. Mankind has become an incorrigible force for evil, and must be removed if the creation is ever to prosper. God regrets his creative act, and undoes it. The death of the offending parties puts an end to the matter. Noah and his family emerge from the ark into a new creation, washed clean, ready to receive God’s purposed creation blessings once more. It is worth noting that there is little if any interest in the punishment aspect of the thing. The focus of God’s concerns is in restoring the wellbeing of the creation, i.e. a ‘putting things right’ kind of justice rather than a ‘making sure they get what they deserve’ sort.

The next significant judgement moment is the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, in the Jordan valley. Here fire replaces water as the medium of God’s wrath. This episode is notable for providing the ‘rising smoke’ imagery later employed in Revelation. Here the emphasis in judgement is on ‘sweeping away’, ‘overthrowing’, and ‘destroying’. Yahweh implies that this judgement will deliver the oppressed whose outcry has come up to heaven. No other motive is given.  The plain is cleansed of human life, presumably making it ready for re-settlement. As with the flood, there is no interest expressed here in the guilty being made to suffer – only in their overthrow. There is no description of their experience of this judgement. If the incident with Lot’s wife is anything to go by, the destruction seems to have occurred very quickly.

The next great visible judgment is at the Red Sea. In a creation-like act, God parts the waters, exposing dry ground for Israel to walk over. Pharaoh’s armies pursue them into the sea. Moses is instructed:

“Stretch out your hand over the sea, so that the water may come back upon the Egyptians, upon their chariots and chariot drivers.”  So Moses stretched out his hand over the sea, and at dawn the sea returned to its normal depth. As the Egyptians fled before it, the LORD tossed the Egyptians into the sea.  The waters returned and covered the chariots and the chariot drivers, the entire army of Pharaoh that had followed them into the sea; not one of them remained…Then Moses and the Israelites sang this song to the LORD..

 Exodus 14:26-15:1

This is a clear re-enactment of the uncreation of the great flood. Emphasised here is the completeness of the destruction: not one remained. Pharaoh’s army is gone in a moment. Only their floating bodies return, “and Israel saw the Egyptians dead on the seashore.”

The significance of the judgement, as interpreted in the song of Moses, is that God has shown his faithfulness and power by removing an evil that was threatening his people. Israel interprets this judgement as salvation. The world is now a safe place for Israelites to live in. And now God’s purposes of blessing for Israel can go forward unhindered: they can go to the promised land (Genesis 15).

Once again the event is not described from the point of view of the Egyptians, there is the same lack of interest in their experience or feelings. The feelings of the delivered ones, however, are described at length in the song of Moses.

These three great judgement events sank deep into the imagination of the Israelites, providing a stock of ideas and imagery which the nation can later use to reflect on the judgement of God in other situations.

A pattern has emerged in these scenes. God treats evil and sin as a primarily a threat to his purposes, as a scourge on his creation. His response is to remove it, to cleanse it with water or fire, to uncreate it. The point of view remains that of Yahweh and his people. God’s wrath is a positive force that rescues and restores the creation.  There is little interest in the experience of the condemned, or in their feelings under judgement: they are simply swept aside. It is enough that they are gone.



There is little evidence, in the foundational judgement scenes, of any interest in the issues which would later become characteristic of the doctrine of everlasting hell. The preoccupation with the wicked being made to suffer for their sins,  the idea that judgment can never be satisfied with respect to their sins, so that this torment must continue without end – these concepts are simply not found in the narratives of judgment in Genesis and Exodus. They don’t really seem to fit into the pattern.

However, the rival doctrine of annihilationism does seem to be a good fit with the pattern of judgement established here. It emphasises God’s concern to rid his creation of all evil elements, as part of the restoration of all things into a new creation.

  1. dan says:

    Hey Jono,

    Thanks for this stimulating reading. Would you say Jesus was ‘punished’ on the cross? Was wrath poured out on him there?

    • J says:

      You’re welcome, Dan, thanks for weighing in.

      This is a great question – I like the way your mind works! Jesus is the focal point for the whole story, right, so whatever position we hold to on God’s wrath had better be consistent with Jesus.

      I haven’t had a chance to reflect much on this question about punishment, recently.

      Off the top of my head, I think the answer is probably, yes, he was, and yes it was.

      HOWEVER, it seems to me that if you went looking for NT references to ‘God’s punishment of Jesus at the cross’, you wouldn’t find that many. Which, considering this is what we evangelicals always want to say about the cross, makes you wonder which song-sheet we’re singing from.
      What do you think the answer is, Dan?

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