The wrath of God

God’s wrath seems to be in the news a lot. Fred Phelps is making himself notorious for claiming that the Iraq war (and its casualties) are God’s wrath upon America for not hating gays enough. Any number of pastors and evangelists have claimed that Hurricane Katrina was God’s wrath on New Orleans for widespread sex, jazz, and other sinful activities. Right-wing evangelist/campaigners warn us about the future wrath God will deal down on us if we don’t vote for Republicans. And so on.

It occurred to me to ask, Where do we get the idea that God has wrath? Is it from observation, speculation, or superstition? Or something else?

We can rule out observation pretty easily. God does not show up in the real world, so there’s no opportunity for us to observe God becoming angry. We never see a scowl on His face since He never shows His face. We don’t see Him stomp around in a huff, or shake His fist, or slam doors. We don’t hear Him raise His voice and begin to shout angrily at anyone or anything, nor do we hear the icy tones of cold rage in the words He says, because He does not speak. He does not literally show up at all, so we cannot observe Him becoming angry.

Some people may claim to have observed God a long time ago, but again, their stories just aren’t consistent with what we see in real life. They wouldn’t have been able to observe God if He were not observable, and if He were observable, then we ought to be able to observe Him too. And we don’t. Believing in stories that people tell, just because people tell them, when the stories are not consistent with what we find in the real world, is gullibility, not faith. So we can rule out observation as being the reason why people think God has wrath. (We’ll get to natural disasters in a moment.)

What about speculation? Is there some logical or philosophical reason why we would expect God to experience anger like we do? Let’s think first about what anger is, and then about what God is supposed to be, to see if the two fit well together.

Closely related to the emotion of fear, anger is a state we get into when we are faced with a perceived threat of some kind. It might be a threat to our physical well-being, or to our self-esteem, or to some important goal or object of our affection. Our physical bodies respond to the threat by releasing adrenalin from a pair of glands sitting on top of our kidneys, triggering a number of physiological changes that prepare us for fight or flight–though in the case of anger, it’s usually fight.

Right away, it seems a bit odd that God would need to experience chemical-based physiological changes in order to prepare for conflict. He’s supposed to be a spirit, right? Why would such physiological changes even be possible, let alone necessary? Animals experience similar physiological changes when they’re faced with imminent conflict, which makes sense because they’re physical organisms just like us. But God isn’t. So why would He need to become angry?

The problem only becomes more obvious when you look at the potential triggers for God’s alleged anger. He’s immortal, omniscient, and omnipotent. How the heck are we supposed to present any kind of a threat to someone like that? Are we going to hurt Him against His will? Are we going to frustrate His plans? Steal something He doesn’t want to lose? Do Him any kind of tangible, emotional, or spiritual harm at all?

God is supposed to become angry when people sin, but again, why? What harm does it do to God? Gravity does not become angry when people trip and fall down. Why should God care if we “fall down” with respect to His laws? Does mere mortal man have the power to actually hurt God by sinning? Is God weak enough that His emotional well-being lies within our power to either harm or sooth? Does God have an exploitable weakness we can manipulate to our advantage, by threatening to make Him suffer emotionally?

Speculation seems to raise more questions about God’s wrath than it answers, so it’s not likely to be the source of people’s belief in God’s wrath. The only other possibility I can think of is superstition. Feel free to suggest other ideas in the comments if you like, but I think we’ll find superstition, and animistic superstition in particular, will prove to be the most consistent explanation for why people believe in God’s wrath.

One of the oldest and most intuitive approaches to understanding nature is to anthropomorphize it–to explain things in terms of some invisible, intelligent being or beings whose mind and emotions are like our own, and who manifest their attitude towards us by the things they magically cause to happen in the natural world. If the rain god is pleased with the farmer, he sends rain for the farmer’s crops; if not, no rain. And so on. People become angry with one another, sometimes to the point of hurting or even killing one another, and so they just assume that when natural disasters also harm people or kill them, a corresponding anger must be behind it.

Notice that this is pre-Christian animism. The earliest and most primitive forms of religious faith and practice involve various offerings and rituals intended to create a positive social relationship between the worshiper and the god or spirit being worshiped. Our social instincts give us an easy, intuitive, and satisfying approach to dealing with complicated and predictable-yet-unpredictable people, and it’s only natural for us to try the same approach as a way of dealing with complicated and predictable-yet-unpredictable Nature. It’s superstitious, it’s anthropomorphic, but on a naive, instinctive level it’s “close enough” to be satisfying.

Most Christians would agree that superstition is silly, and that it has no place in shaping our modern worldview. They would be shocked and offended if we suggested that they might be superstitious themselves. Yet the anthropomorphic and superstitious doctrine of God’s wrath is not only a popular method for rabble-rousing the rank-and-file evangelical, it’s an essential core component of the Christian doctrine itself.

The whole reason we’re supposed to need a Savior is because God allegedly is so angry at us that He wants us to suffer eternal agony in Hell. Christian preachers superstitiously attribute modern-day disasters to God’s wrath because they’re trying to reinforce the idea that God has even worse suffering in store for those who do not escape from His anger by agreeing that the preachers are absolutely right in what they tell us about God.

And about tithing, of course. God’s wrath is why we pay money to the church–even the collection is still popularly known by its original name of “the offering.” We pay now, sacrificially, so that we won’t pay later, in Hell. (Of course, we are supposed to do it out of love, not out of compulsion–but the catch is that if you don’t do it, then you must not really love, and must therefore still be a hell-bound unbeliever. Gotcha.)

So even though the idea of God’s wrath is just a way of superstitiously projecting our own emotions and motivations onto natural disasters, it’s a superstition that Christianity can’t do without. It’s central to the Christian gospel, it’s central to Christian exhortation and rebuke, and it even plays a key role in the fund-raising that keeps the Christian church financially viable. You can’t have Christianity without superstition.

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