The Wrath of God and Wishful Thinking (or, Julian of Norwich and Biblical Images of God)

Recently a reader of this blog wrote the following to me:

I am just starting out on this journey and feel drawn to the mystical/contemplative side of Christianity.   To this end, I am using your book “Answering the Contemplative Call” and also “Growing into God” by John Mabry as my guides.   I do not have a spiritual director as yet but am trying to find one near where I live in the UK.    In the meantime, I am using the 2 books mentioned above and finding them very useful.    By the way, I love Julian of Norwich but find St. John of the Cross beyond me!
My difficulty is that I am confused between the God of the mystical tradition and some aspects of the God of the Bible (particularly the Old Testament). The God who “doesn’t hold anything against us and never has” seems at odds with the God who does show anger against evil and injustice in the bible. As maybe He should, given that so much suffering is caused by cruelty, greed, injustice etc.   So where does this idea that there is no wrath in God and that He doesn’t hold anything against us come from?   Is it just wishful thinking?

This is such a great question. Thanks for asking it! I am actually currently at work on a new book about reading the Bible in the light of the wisdom of the mystics (God willing, it will be published in 2024), so your question is very apropos!

For readers who may not be knowledgeable about Julian of Norwich, she was a medieval visionary who experienced sixteen revelations or “showings” during a serious illness she experienced as a young woman, in May 1373. These visions were theologically rich and filled with insight, particularly in terms of God’s love. Indeed, Julian’s book of theological, contemplative reflections on her showings is often published under the title Revelations of Divine Love.

Among other things, Julian remarks that her visions gave her a new perspective on an idea about God — an idea that probably was quite common in her 14th century experience of Christianity: the notion of “the wrath of God.” Julian writes,

I saw no kind of wrath in God, neither for a short time nor for long. (For truly, as I see it, if God were to be angry even a hint, we would never have life nor place nor being.) As truly as we have our being from the endless Power of God and from the endless Wisdom, and from the endless Goodness, just as truly we have our protection in the endless Power of God, in the endless Wisdom, and in the endless Goodness.

Elsewhere in her writing Julian notes, “I saw no wrath except on man’s part, and that He forgives in us. For wrath is nothing else but a rebellion from and an opposition to peace and to love, and either it comes from the failure of power or from the failure of wisdom, or from the failure of goodness (which failure is not in God but it is on our part).” These quotations are from The Complete Julian of Norwich.

Wow. It’s a compelling argument. There’s no such thing as wrath in God! And furthermore, when human beings have thought we saw wrath in God, Julian is basically saying that we are projecting our own human anger on to God, for God is perfect power, wisdom, and goodness, and anger stems from a “failure” of power, wisdom or goodness in human hearts.

The problem, as my reader points out, is that the Bible offers images of God that seem quite wrathful indeed:

  • For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. (Romans 1:18)
  • Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:19)
  • Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly… on account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient. (Colossians 3:5-6)
  • They will also drink the wine of God’s wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and they will be tormented with fire and sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb. (Revelation 14:10)

There are many others, I just chose a few. And I made a point of choosing examples from the New Testament, to avoid the subtly anti-semitic notion that God is only depicted as wrathful in the Old Testament, before Jesus came along to clear things up. Alas, images of God-as-wrathful are found throughout the Bible — just as images of God as merciful and forgiving can be found in the Jewish scriptures as well as in the New Testament.

So what are we to make of Julian’s assertion? Was she simply wrong? Or, if we agree with her, does that mean we are rejecting the authority of the Bible? This is a tough nut to crack!

Julian of Norwich: Mystic, Visionary… and Interpreter of Scripture

The Bottomless Well of Meaning

This question is ultimately a question about how we read the Bible — and interpret it for our time. For many Christians, the Bible is seen almost like a technical manual, or a legal code: it contains very precise language, with clear-cut meaning that must be understood and applied in the one acceptable way.

But not everyone sees the Bible that way. To begin to illustrate this idea, let me recount a story I just heard the other day. Last week I participated in an interview with Brian D. McLaren, and at one point he told us about a conversation he had with a rabbi a few years back. The rabbi asked Brian why Christians are so focused on finding the one correct meaning of each and every verse in the Bible. She saw that as foreign to the way many Jews read the Bible.

“The Bible is a  bottomless well of meaning,” remarked the rabbi. “Why would you want to stop its meaning with one interpretation?”

This reminded me of a conversation I had with my wife, just a few days earlier. “I think many people see the Bible as speaking with one voice,” I pointed out. “But actually, there are many voices in the Bible, offering different — and at times conflicting — ideas about God, about humanity, about theology and spirituality and ethics. The Bible is more like a lively conversation than a monologue.”

If we take the rabbi who spoke to Brian McLaren seriously, it invites us into what, for Christians, represents a radically new way to think about the Bible. It is a record of centuries of religious imagination, reflection and discernment rather than a single, definitive statement about God that cannot be questioned in any way.

Many Christians have been taught to view the Bible as the inerrant word of God. It’s a hermeneutical principle which insists that there is no error in scripture. (Hermeneutics refers to the principles by which a text is interpreted). But not all expressions of Christianity include a requirement to believe the Bible is inerrant. While pretty much all mainstream forms of Christianity see the Bible as authoritative and as an expression of the word of God, it is possible to hold those beliefs while also accepting the Bible as written by human beings (even if inspired by God) and therefore subject to human limitations and blind spots.

The problem I see with the belief that every single verse in the Bible must be inerrant is that it does not address the many problems and disparities that even a casual reading of the Bible can reveal. Even within scripture itself, there are clearly statements that most people would acknowledge are contradictory to other statements within the Biblical text.  Let’s look at a few of the more obvious inconsistencies:

  • In Genesis 32, Jacob proclaims “I saw God face to face, and yet my life was spared.” But by the time of Moses, God is saying “You cannot see my face, for no one may see me and live” (Exodus 33:20). Jesus, however, seems to opt for Jacob’s perspective, since he taught “Blessed are the pure of heart, for they shall see God” (Matthew 5:8)
  • Jesus promises us that “With God all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26), but the author Judges apparently never got the memo, for he comments that God could not even defeat chariots made of iron: “The Lord was with Judah, and he took possession of the hill country, but could not drive out the inhabitants of the plain, because they had chariots of iron.” (Judges 1:19)
  • Regarding God’s wrath, consider this harsh statement found in Exodus 20:5, “I the Lord your God am a jealous God, punishing children for the iniquity of parents, to the third and the fourth generation of those who reject me.” By the time of the prophet Ezekiel, a more balanced perspective emerges: “A child shall not suffer for the iniquity of a parent, nor a parent suffer for the iniquity of a child; the righteousness of the righteous shall be his own, and the wickedness of the wicked shall be his own.” (Ezekiel 18:20)
  • Likewise, there are other examples of how later Biblical texts will, in essence, override an earlier principle, such as Jesus’s famous reversal of the Old Testament “eye for an eye”:
      • “If any harm follows, then you shall give life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” (Exodus 21:23-25)
      • You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer. But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.” (Matthew 5:38-39)

There are many other examples of this kind of Biblical discontinuity (a tip of the hat to the American Atheists website for their List of Biblical Contradictions page!)

So can you see the face of God and live? Or not? Will God punish children for the sins of their parents — or not? I don’t see how anyone can honestly consider tensions like these without accepting that at least some of them represent errors, or at least obsolete ideas.

Christians sometimes try to resolve some of the Bible’s apparent inconsistencies by arguing that the New Testament represents a “new and improved” revision of Old Testament theology. Jesus, especially, trumps anything in the Old Testament, so his comments about turning the other cheek are seen basically as an acceptable revision of an old, but no longer valid, way of thinking about God. But even this has its problems: what do you do when you run into tensions  in the New Testament; for example, Jesus and Paul have clearly different understandings of the function of the Jewish law — see Matthew 5:17-18 and Romans 6:14?

All of these apparent contradictions, disparities, tensions, differing or opposing viewpoints are only a problem if we insist in reading the Bible as a unified document declaring only one correct way of understanding God. But if we join the rabbi quoted above, and are willing to view the Bible as an “endless well of meaning,” we can begin to consider the idea that many verses can be interpreted in multiple ways, and even the most glaring contradictions might actually be invitations for us to reflect on how our understanding of God, and truth, and spirituality grew and evolved over the centuries in which the Bible was written — and continue to evolve to this day.

So rather than getting caught up on what is absolutely the “one correct way” of reading the Bible, we can approach the Bible as a “work in progress” — as the word of God that is still being spoken. Like any good story, we can expect character development — only in the Bible, it’s not so much that God is “developing” but rather that the human understanding of God is growing and evolving. So some images of God in the Bible are, obviously enough, going to be more helpful than others — some might be more obsolete, more culturally conditioned, more shaped by outdated ideas where God is seen as terrifying, angry, patriarchal, wrathful — compared to other images (found within the Bible) that stress God as loving, merciful, kind and radically forgiving.

Enter Julian of Norwich

“I call them like I see them.”

One of the most loved of American sports is baseball, a game which is moderated by an impartial umpire, who makes on-the-fly decisions whether a runner is safe or out, whether a missed pitch is a strike or a ball, and so forth (if you don’t know baseball jargon, it just means the umpire is the one who makes final decisions about how the game is progressing, decisions that can be controversial and that affect who wins the game). A legendary story holds that an umpire, challenged by the accuracy of his decision, simply states “I call them like I see them.”

I think about that when I think about Julian of Norwich and the wrath of God. When it comes to her vision of God, I believe she called it like she saw it.

She very simply states “I saw no wrath in God” and also “I saw no wrath except on man’s part.” I think we need to hold both of these statements together to understand what Julian is saying. And I believe this: Julian is interpreting the Bible, based on her own visionary experience of God. She is challenging us to re-think what the very concept of “the wrath of God” as found in the Bible means.

There’s plenty of language in the Bible about God’s wrath. But there’s also plenty of language in the Bible stressing God’s love, mercy, compassion and forgiveness. Are we to assume that God is moody — angry some of the time, but understanding and forgiving the rest of the time? That sure sounds like projecting a human quality (the changeable nature of our emotions) unto God!

Julian offers a different interpretation. She boldly suggests that “the wrath of God” is essentially a mirror of human wrath, projected onto God. We human beings — including Biblical writers — are prone to assuming that God is basically a mirror image of ourselves. Since human beings get angry and wrathful, therefore God must too. And Biblical writers inserted this into their way of speaking about God. But Julian, based on the authority of her own experience of God, isn’t having it. She calls us to a new way of seeing God.

Julian reasonably argues “if God were to be angry even a hint, we would never have life nor place nor being.” In other words, the wrath of God would simply annihilate all existence. We are held in existence by God’s creativity, God’s love and God’s sustenance (see Julian’s “hazelnut vision” for more on this). Her point: if God really got angry, we would be completely and utterly annihilated by the terrible force of that wrath.

Therefore, God may judge us, God may hold us accountable for our sins, and God may expect us to take responsibility for our actions. But all of this emerges out of God’s love and justice, not God’s wrath.

I understand that not everyone will be comfortable with this kind of radical re-visioning of how we as Christians can read the Bible. But I am convinced that the Jewish idea of the Bible as a well of endless meaning simply makes more sense than a more brittle idea that the Bible can only have one correct meaning. No wonder there is so much division in Christianity: we’re all arguing over the correct way to read the Bible, and it’s a zero sum game if we believe there’s only one correct reading. Only one interpretation can be correct, all the others must be wrong: erroneous  if not heretical.

But if we are willing to entertain the idea that the Bible is meant to guide us in our relationship with God, but not to suppress us into submission to just “one correct” way of reading it, then we are free to let the Bible be in conversation with itself, and to allow other inspiring and learned commentators (like Julian of Norwich and many of the other mystics) offer us insight into how to read the Bible as well. Of course, Julian — like anyone else — may have made mistakes, gotten some things wrong. We are not required to slavishly obey everything she (or anyone else) says about the text.

Our job may seem daunting: we need to bring critical thinking and adult discernment to bear when we read the Bible (or for that matter, when we read Biblical scholars, commentators and interpreters). We can be assured that we will not always agree with the experts, or each other (and we have to be humble enough to admit that we ourselves don’t always get it right either).

Back to my image that the Bible is more like a conversation than a monologue: we who read the Bible here in the third millennium are invited to join in an ongoing conversation, that has already been continuing for centuries and will carry on long after we are gone. We need to do so humbly, acknowledging that we don’t have all the answers. But when a writer says something that rings true, it’s worth taking it on, at least as a hypothesis.

For me, Julian’s declaration that there’s no wrath in God absolutely rings true. When I hear Christians talk about the wrath of God, I assume that they are telling me more about themselves and their beliefs and image of God, then offering me anything new about the God who is vast, limitless love and compassion.

“Wishful Thinking” — or Mystical Insight?

So does Julian of Norwich represent just “wishful thinking” when it comes to her commentary on the wrath of God — or is she offering us a kind of mystical insight into a new way of approaching God (and the Bible)?

Everyone who reads this blog post will have to answer that question for yourself. What rings most true for you? The idea that God must be wrathful because some ancient Biblical passages speak of God’s anger, or the idea that Julian’s insight into scripture can offer us a deeper appreciation of God’s love, even though it may mean interpreting the Bible in a different way than we are used to?

For what it’s worth, here’s my perspective; I don’t think Julian’s words represent just “wishful thinking” at all, but rather an important and profound theological statement. Julian is calling us to a more consistent and hopeful understanding  of God as infinitely loving, infinitely compassionate, infinitely merciful. To do this, we have to learn new ways of interpreting the Bible (maybe more like our Jewish friends, and less like fundamentalist Christians). But the good news is, we can continue to read the Bible as an inspiring text, while also taking into consideration the wisdom of all the ages in learning how to interpret it most consistently (and most lovingly).

One final point: my reader speculates that it may be necessary to believe that God is wrathful because God naturally is opposed to evil and injustice. That’s a good point, but then I am reminded of Jesus’s teaching to “love your enemies” (Matthew 5:44). Certainly Jesus would not command us to do something that is not already present in the heart of God! We are to love our “enemies” because God loves everyone, even those who are responsible for evil and injustice and suffering.

God’s love does not mitigate God’s justice. A God of infinite and unalloyed love will still demand that we mortals take responsibility for repairing all the ways that we have caused suffering (for others, or even for ourselves). God remains the God of justice, of siding with the vulnerable and the oppressed, with opting for the poor and the downtrodden. But God does all of this out of love. Even how God deals with those cause harm, who oppress or who are unjust — it will all emerge out of infinite love. I, for one, think it’s a far more humbling thought to have to hold up my sins and imperfections to love, than to anger!

But as humbling as that thought may be, I’m also comforted by knowing that there is no limit to God’s mercy, and that God is with me every step of the way: from my admission that by myself I am ultimately incapable of righting my wrongs, to my feeble efforts to make amends when and where I can, to my ultimate giving of myself entirely to God’s clemency and mercy.

See? No wrath necessary. God is love. Love will handle everything.

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