In Response To: Smiting Season

On Puppies, Geometry, and Tax Collectors 

In his response article “Smiting Season,” Henrique argues that we can’t assign human anger to God because 1) God’s will has never been thwarted, and 2) God is outside of time and therefore cannot shift in time from wrath to forgiveness. As a result, we shouldn’t consider the emotions we assign to God as the same as the ones we experience as humans.

But what if our job isn’t to assign human emotion to God? What if, instead, God has assigned divine emotions to us? Genesis asserts that mankind was created in God’s image: “Then God said, "Let us make man in Our image, according to Our likeness...”[1] Of course no one really knows what this means, and it makes little sense to ask. Does God have two eyes and a nose? Does he have hair, skin, fingernails? Yet, in a way we can’t understand, we’re all mini analogs of our Maker. Similarly, our emotions, even our wrath, must be somehow modeled after God’s, not the other way around.

One could still argue that wrath itself is rooted in time-- that it wells up when something unexpectedly contradicts our will. But Merriam-Webster defines wrath as “strong vengeful anger or indignation” or “retributory punishment for an offense or a crime: divine chastisement.” Under this definition, wrath may not always involve surprise. Consider my dog Spot-- an eight- year- old, seventeen- pound Shih Tzu. During thunderstorms, he trots around the living room barking anxiously. Sometimes at 3 a.m. If no one’s watching him, he pees on the rug. My parents find out the next morning, and of course they’re angry and they drag him to the offending spot and lecture him for doing wrong. Bad boy! They knew he was going to pee there--it happens pretty much every thunderstorm, no surprise involved. Yet they show him their wrath because they want him to not do it next time.

Surprise is a kind of deprivation-- when you lack information about what is ahead, and you don’t get what you want-- and can cause a lot of human anger. But you could take it further and say that God can’t experience any sort of emotion related to privation. Fear, shame, and bitterness also come when someone or something thwarts our expectations. But many of the relevant expectations come from sin, anyway: our own desire to hide dirty secrets, keep our pride intact, or live in a comfy bubble. So when we say God can’t experience these things, aren’t we just saying God can’t sin?

Henrique raises another worthwhile question in his paper: can God change states from wrath to forgiveness if he’s outside of time? In eighth grade, I saw the movie Flatland,[2] in which a square lives in a two-dimensional world and interacts with other triangles and squares on a single plane. In a forbidden area of their city, the shadow of a rotating cube projects onto the plane. It’s constantly moving, constantly changing shape. But no one in Flatland believes the cube actually exists. In the same way, maybe what we see and experience of God in this linear construct of time is just a projection of God’s constant and co-occurring justice and mercy. If God is really outside of time, there shouldn’t be a difference between the Old Testament and New Testament God. In the New Testament, God’s wrath is just poured onto Jesus at the cross instead of onto us, as it should have been.

So what does it mean to avoid God’s wrath, literal or not? Henrique argues that when we conform to God’s will we experience his love, whereas when we go against it we experience his wrath. I agree that God loves it when we try to obey him.[3] But is obedience enough? We can never imagine God in his entirety.[4] So how can we claim to be able to cure ourselves from something this unimaginable God has said he’ll punish with death?[5] How can we dare to think we even can conform to God’s will?

In Luke 18, Jesus tells the story of a Pharisee and a tax collector. The Pharisee has total confidence that he’s free from God’s wrath. He follows all the rules, avoids all the foods the Jews consider unclean, sprinkles blood on the altar at all the right times. “God,” he says--loudly, so everyone in the synagogue can hear him-- “I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.” The tax collector stands at a distance, doesn’t dare look up to heaven. He beats his breast and says, “God, have mercy on me, a sinner.” He knows he has cheated many people. He knows he has gone completely against God’s will, that he’s apart from God and deserves to be smited. But instead of trying to redeem himself with a bunch of acts of kindness-- grains of rice against an elephant in the eyes of a holy God-- he simply cries out, Please help me.

We can’t avoid God’s justice ourselves. But Jesus says of the tax collector, “I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.”[6] Jesus took all of the wrath of the “Old Testament God” onto himself on the cross, giving us the gift of heaven--if we’re humble enough to accept it.

[1] Genesis 1:26

[2] Based on Abbott’s satirical novella of the same name.

[3] 1 Samuel 15:22 “But Samuel replied: "Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams.”

[4] Isaiah 55:9

[5] Romans 6:23 “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

[6] Luke 18:14

Phoebe Low is a rising senior majoring in architecture and English. In her free time she enjoys walking by the river and occasionally catching Magikarp.