In Response To: A Harlot's Homecoming

Riff Wrath: Divine Wrath and Social Harm 

The presence of evil in a world governed by a just and merciful God poses a difficulty for Christianity. Thomas Aquinas had an answer: evil and suffering are “part of the infinite goodness of God, that he should allow evil to exist, and out of it produce good.”

But the idea of a wrathful God, to me, presents a different problem. God is not only allowing evil to exist, but potentially creating it. In order to justify a wrathful God within Aquinas’s paradigm, we must conclude that all instances of God’s wrath in scripture serve a higher purpose that is uniformly for good.

But how can we determine such a subjective claim? The instances of wrath in the Bible are terrible to the people on the receiving end of the wrath, but a person could argue that these accounts hold metaphorical significance that is uniformly beneficial to followers of the Holy Word. Michael’s feature article argues that they do. My coffee-deprived, belligerent self disagrees.

I will argue that the precise nature of instances of wrath in the Bible does not matter. The potential for nasty punishment by a deity always incurs negative consequences for a society. God’s wrath in the Bible is a fundamental feature of scripture; this is not a matter of misinterpretation or superficial reading. The threatened wrath of a religious figure, in any form, detracts from the spiritual life of its followers.  

Let us conduct a short thought exercise in which we consider the social consequences of a wrathful god. This thought exercise should illuminate how the perception of divinity impacts individuals. Psychology informs us that people respond to certain conditions in predictable ways. If we are familiar with the conditions, then we can name some likely effects.

Effect number one: wrath instills fear. The threatened wrath of a divine figure would impress terror upon his subjects. Now, fear is not always a negative thing. We all need a healthy dose of caution to prevent us from doing dumb things. Fear is one of the greatest motivators out there.

But then we must ask ourselves, does fear motivate us in the right way? If we are behaving morally out of fear, does this achieve the same ends as behavior motivated by other means?

Lawrence Kohlberg theorizes a set of stages of moral development for humans throughout their lives. The first of these stages is a punishment and obedience oriented moral system, in which people conceive notions of right and wrong based on the anticipation of pleasure or pain. When we act out of fear of the consequences, we are adopting this sort of moral system. We all do this sometimes, but Kohlberg postulates that people at the pre-conventional stage of moral development only understand ethics in this way. Almost all of us leave this stage by adolescence.

Following Kohlberg’s model, if we are behaving according to a moral system only out of fear of punishment, we inherently have a diminished understanding of ethics. I have to agree with Kant here: an ethical system that relies upon external motivation is a poor representation of ethics.

Effect number two: wrath creates a hierarchy of authority. By that, I mean that when a person behaves wrathfully, the intent is to intimidate and subordinate others. The idea of a wrathful god recreates this same relationship between human beings and divinity. Some people will argue this is beneficial to society. The phrase “God-fearing” exists for a reason.

An easy parallel to this relationship dynamic involves the theory of four parenting styles created by Baumrind. The Christian framework often regards God as a parent, in that we look to Him for guidance in our lives. But the implementation of wrath as a discipline strategy is reminiscent of the authoritarian parenting style. Because God is an absolute authority, there is no room for negotiation or adjustment of response in any discipline scenario. In many instances of scripture, wrathful punishments are administered to large groups without explanation or opportunity for redemption.

Children with parents who fit the authoritarian type actually have more disciplinary problems than other groups, and exhibit more violent tendencies. The demand for obedience from a position of inequality often incurs harmful results. In the least blasphemous way possible, let me say: if wrathful God is our divine parent, then He ought to take a few parenting courses.

Effect number three: wrath implies blame. When a person behaves wrathfully towards others, there is an implication that the people in his or her wrath have done wrong and require punishment.

The problem is that people have no way of recognizing when a situation results from divine wrath. In many faiths, not just Christian, divine wrath offers an explanation for otherwise meaningless natural events. Your barn burned down? God must have been punishing you. Any explanation offers a sense of security that is better than the alternative of an indifferent world. This phenomenon relates to Terror Management Theory, which postulates that people select beliefs in order to simulate agency. It’s an intuitive thought process that nonetheless leads to many unhealthy conclusions about culpability.

When a tragic event occurs, one common response is self-blame. Another is blaming other people. The concept of a selectively wrathful god enables a human group to scapegoat members of religious out-groups. The massacre of Jews in Medieval Europe during the waves of the black plague is the classic example. Whenever a religious framework includes the seemingly senseless wrath of a god, it is too easy an extension to attribute this wrath to any situation that requires it, in whatever form is most convenient for its followers.

From these short examples, I conclude that the concept of a wrathful deity in itself results in negative consequences at the individual level. Wrath lies at the center of harmful human impulses. There are occasions when anger is a healthy emotional response, but the prospect of unpredictable anger in others produces a different effect entirely. The negative impact of God’s wrath is not only situational, but systemic.

Nicole Flibbert is a senior at Penn majoring in tea studies (but in public she's a Medievalist). Her hobbies include visiting old libraries and fighting demons that have escaped from ancient theological tomes.