After years of pondering, I recently decided to install a shrine to coffee in my kitchen. I had thought that pumping my reserves of ground and whole beans would be enough to carry me through most days. One or two cups for regular homework, a shot of espresso for Camus, a special blend for that last stretch of Aristotle, maybe one extra macchiato to summarize Kierkegaard… But deep down I knew that the morning would come when I’d have to add Monster to the mix. Yes, friends, I have pumped my reserves of caffeine to steel myself for the arduous task of fighting Augustine and his gang of heavy-weights. Today I come before you, in spite of my best sense, to tackle the controversial interpretations of God’s wrath and claim that it probably doesn’t exist at all.
First and foremost, I’d like to congratulate Michael for the breadth of his approach to explaining the perfection of divine retribution. I think we can all agree that since God is by definition perfect, if He feels wrath it cannot be any less than perfectly virtuous. That He had – probably still has – reasons for being irate at humankind time and again, and that His wrath and His propensity to forgiveness should inspire our own actions, I think we can also accept without much contention. However, I have some trouble accepting any interpretation that assigns human emotions to God, and so I want to reconsider whether it makes sense to expect wrath or any such strong emotion from God.
Imagining God is in His entirety is a futile enterprise. God is by definition infinite, but any image we form of Him will not be. Therefore, we can only know some of his attributes, and instead of forming a clear image, we prefer to consider Him in metaphors – finite constructs – that don’t require as much of the mind but approximate some of His attributes. Of course, as most – if not all – of us know, that’s why interpreting the Bible is such an arduous task. Anthropopathy is especially tricky because it does not carry the same weight or serve the same purpose in all of the Bible. When we read the New Testament, it is fairly easy and safe to say that Jesus shares what we would regard as human experience, characteristics and physicality, but I propose that the same is not true for God the Father in the Old Testament. To offer a few cowardly but efficient arguments on this, I would like to consider whether anthropopathy and wrath are logically compatible with some of the main attributes we imagine God to have. Let’s define our archetypical god as omniscient, omnipotent, eternal, immutable, and not physical. Now, given that god is not physical, it is safe to say that he does not experience human physical needs, such as hunger, or any of the states proceeding from the fulfillment or frustration of those needs. From that alone, we can say that full anthropopathy is incompatible with god; that is, at least some emotions should not be counted as literal divine attributes. However, if we consider that not all emotions or mental states are caused by bodily motion, it is still reasonable to imagine God wrathful. The next step is to consider that given omniscience and omnipotence, we can affirm that all of human emotions caused by privation (not only the physical ones) are incompatible with divinity. For instance, we cannot imagine an omniscient and omnipotent god experiencing fear, for that would imply either lack of information or of power. If we consider that wrath is the consequence of an unexpected contradiction of one’s will, that is enough to say that such a god cannot be wrathful, for nothing could fall short of his expectations except for his allowing it. To be thorough, I’d like to proceed to deal with some of the more debatable definitions that could invalidate all emotions to god – namely, divinity’s connection to time.
Eternity is a weird concept. If we consider an eternal god to be atemporal, that is, removed from the flow of time as we experience it, and therefore acausal, it makes no sense to imagine that any action at a specific point in time would affect and move him to any emotional state. Furthermore, we should not be able to imagine in an atemporal being an orderly, temporal, shift from wrath to forgiveness. Of course, we could resolve this challenge by imagining eternal to mean “existing for the full duration of time itself,” and picture god as belonging within the flow of time in the same way as us. Finally, let me propose that for god to be immutable, he cannot experience a change from an emotional state to another, such as from wrath to forgiveness. To counter that, one might say that god must experience all emotions simultaneously so there would be no movement in his disposition; of course, such an amalgamation would make any divine emotion very different from its human counterpart. From the above, we can conclude that in the very least (1) at least some human emotions are not compatible with God and (2) the ones we can assign to him are not to be considered the same as the ones experienced by humans.
After this long exposition, I think it is safe to say that we should not take God’s wrath literally. My claim is that human wrath is among the emotions God does not experience and that His “wrath” is in fact a much different attribute. How are we to interpret it, then? Cyril of Alexandria proposes that God’s “wrath,” whatever it is, is inscrutable to human reason:
Whenever therefore the Divine Scripture wishes to express God’s emotion against impious designs of whatever kind, it derives its language as on other occasions from expressions in use among us, and in human phraseology speaks of anger and wrath; although the divine essence is subject to none of these passions in any way that bears comparison with our feelings, but is moved to indignation the extent of which is known only to Itself and utterly unspeakable.
Although I dislike arguments that excuse human intellect from attempting to overcome itself, but I agree that whatever emotions God has should be counted among those attributes we can’t hope to fully understand. On the other hand, St. Anthony the Great offers a helpful argument to how we should interpret what the Bible means by assigning human emotions to God:
It is not right to imagine that God feels pleasure or displeasure in a human way. He is good, and He only bestows blessings and never does harm, remaining always the same. We men, on the other hand, if we remain good through resembling God, are united to Him; but if we become evil through not resembling God, we are separated from Him. (…) And if through prayer and acts of compassion we gain release from our sins, this does not mean that we have won God over and made Him change, but that through our actions and our turning to God we have cured our wickedness and so once more have enjoyment of God’s goodness.
This approach offers what I consider a much simpler interpretation of all anthropopathy in the Bible. Divine will is geared towards good and acts upon all of creation unchanged. When we conform to it, we experience God’s love, and when we go against it we experience his wrath. Now “love” and “wrath” are not emotions, but our proximity or distance to God’s light – an impersonal, immutable, eternal natural mechanism. Since the matter at hand is using imagination to unveil aspects of divine essence, I hope you will not think ill of me for quoting poets instead of theologians. In Marlowe’s Doctor Faustus, the main character has the following exchange with Mephistopheles, his servant devil
Faust. Where are thou damn’d?
Meph. In hell.
Faust. How comes it then that thou art out of hell?
Meph. Why this is hell, nor am I out of it.
Think’st thou that I who saw the face of God,
And tasted the eternal joys of Heaven,
Am not tormented with ten thousand hells,
In being depriv’d of everlasting bliss?1
Which summarizes damnation and God’s ire better than I could ever attempt to. Hell is a state, not a place, and not the consequence of an action from God. It is in our own souls to be removed from God and to suffer for it. On the opposite side of the spectrum, the ending of the Divine Comedy portrays complete bliss as being perfectly integrated in the motion of God’s will.
I wished to see how the image to the circle
Conformed itself, and how it there finds place;
But my own wings were not enough for this,
Had it not been that then my mind there smote
A flash of lightning, wherein came its wish.
Here vigour failed the lofty fantasy:
But now was turning my desire and will,
Even as a wheel that equally is moved. 2
These interpretations seem to conform much better with the attributes we would intuit from God the Father, and require fewer assumptions. Personally, I find the argument for impersonality more attractive than idealizing a perfectly virtuous state of wrath. Nonetheless, there has been no consensus on this for the past millennia of theology, so all I could hope to achieve here was to show the other side of the argument. As a closing comment, I’d like to ask Locust Walk’s readers and writers to consider the shortcomings of each interpretation and how our lives can benefit from keeping both interpretations in mind as we go about trying to avoid divine retribution. If I’m not smitten by then, I’ll see you all next month.
1. Marlowe, Christopher. The Tragical History of the Life and Death of Doctor Faustus. Indianapolis: Hackett Pub. Co.
2. Dante Alighieri, and John Ciardi. 1970. The Divine Comedy. New York: W.W. Norton.
Henrique Laurino is a major in Coffee Studies, but to the public he's doing Statistics. His favorite authors are Goethe, Borges and Wittgenstein, and hopefully they haven't come up in his texts too much recently.