by Neil Richardson.
What has Brexit got to do with the wrath of God – if anything? Whatever the answer, the UK is in the throes of the greatest crisis of my lifetime. Of course, we should normally avoid the expression ‘wrath of God’; it is easily misunderstood. But what the Bible means by it, and the effects of that wrath are urgently relevant in this crisis.
Let’s start with its effects – darkness. That is the biblical symbol for the effects of the divine wrath. St Paul writes of ‘darkened hearts’ (Romans 1.21 – compare 11.10), ‘Isaiah’ of the Lord hiding his face (64.7), the very opposite of the Aaronic blessing: ‘may the Lord make his face shine on you…’, (Numbers 6.25). The Biblical sequence is clear: idolatry leads to our dehumanization, which, in turn, leads to dysfunctional relationships and disintegrating communities, (Romans 1.18-32, Psalm 115 etc).
Unlike the Bible – especially the Psalms – we prefer not to speak of false gods. Yet we create false gods when we give our hearts (thus Luther) to something or someone other than our Creator. (There is plenty of room for other affections and passions within the love of God). In the life of a nation, a false god can be identified as that which is above criticism and question (1). Half of America worships its gun laws, and the constitution which underwrites them. In Britain, money and property come close to divine status, as do ‘Efficiency’ and ‘Economy’ (2).
Psalm 82 has been described as the most important passage in the whole of Scripture. And this from a distinguished, if controversial New Testament scholar, (John Dominic Crossan)! The psalm doesn’t use the word ‘wrath’, but that’s what it’s talking about: both its meaning and its effects. False gods can be distinguished by their oppression of the weak and the needy (v.4); false gods ‘walk about in darkness’ ; ‘meanwhile earth’s foundations are all giving way’ (v.5).
Isn’t this a bit ‘over the top’ – theology in the service of melodrama? Well, consider the contemporary scene: the neglect of personal relationships, a national ‘epidemic of loneliness’ (thus a recent headline), a dysfunctional political system (national and local), and the erosion of the common welfare through savage cuts in public spending. (As usual, the poorest people bear the brunt).
To quote a famous hymn, ‘the darkness deepens’, even though, thank God, there are countless people in whom the light of compassion and love still burns. But this is the effect of ‘wrath’ – the consequence of marginalizing our Creator and setting our hearts on other things. In the gathering gloom, we can no longer see what matters most, or clearly distinguish truth from falsehood and illusion. (A society which has set its heart on false gods will happily settle for ‘fake news’).
In this growing crisis, the outline of a Christian programme for action becomes clearer:
- A silent waiting on God which alone can give us the poise, the discernment and the wisdom we need.
- A commitment to truth – the Truth which alone sets human beings free.
- A commitment to our Creator’s ‘kingdom’ of love, justice and peace.
And the meaning of the divine wrath? Love – that is its meaning. The hour of the crucifixion of the Son of God was the hour of judgement and of atonement. For the Creator of the Universe, the mysterious ‘I AM’, the Heart of our own hearts, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is love.
The meaning and the effects of the wrath of God are the ‘flip side’ of God’s non-coercive being – the very meaning of our own creation. When the divine DNA is stamped all over us (Genesis 1.27), how can we humans and our communities thrive when we turn our backs on love, justice and compassion?
As for Brexit, it’s time to stop the shouting, the posturing, the soundbites, and listen to each other – within the Church, within the UK , and in Brussels, too.
And listen to God, ‘Heart of our own heart’. Where is God in Christ leading us? ‘The world has not left Jesus behind; it is getting to the point where it can just see him, far ahead, blazing the trail’(3).
- Richardson, Who on Earth is God? Making Sense of God in the Bible (Bloomsbury 2014), pp.223-5).
- John Austin Baker, The Foolishness of God, (DLT 1970), p.348.
- Baker, cit. p.331.