The Wrath Of God
In an earlier section, “Autobiographical Material”, I described a couple of revelations I experienced in 1997. In the first, I came to know that some kind of spiritual being had kept me alive, despite my self-destructive behaviors, for a reason — there was a purpose for me. I rejected that purpose, because I didn’t want to continue living. In the second, which happened a day and a half later, I was given to know that if I didn’t accept the plan for me, and take some actions toward changing how I was living, I would be dead soon. There was no specific time given, but I had the feeling that three or four months was about what I had. I did start trying to get sober right away, but wasn’t able to achieve abstinence from drugs and alcohol for a couple of months.
I was willing and able, at that point, to believe in some kind of spiritual being or beings. I had always had a deep sense of wonder, and appreciation for the incredible beauty of nature, from butterflies to the Milky Way. I’d become disillusioned with Christianity, the religion of my childhood, because I had a child’s Christianity — I wanted God to shield me from the difficulties of life and when that didn’t happen, I became resentful. I had never attempted to learn more about Christianity than what I’d heard in Sunday school, never tried to grow in the faith.
For twenty years, I learned about the various faith traditions of the world, though I mostly stayed away from the Abrahamic religions — Judaism, Christianity and Islam. Animism, polytheism, pantheism and panentheism struck me as more interesting and “true” — that is, they rang true to me. When I read about Native North American myths or the stories of Indigenous Australians, I felt like I was reading something that I’d known to be true, though I had never thought to articulate it.
In 2017, I was called to become a minister in the Lutheran church. I discovered that I was able to understand and accept the premises of Christianity which I had previously been unable to believe. This was partly, I believe, due to the action of the Holy Spirit, but also partly because I was motivated to apply the kind of thinking to Christianity that I had learned from other faith traditions.
For example, some indigenous Australian groups refer to the time of creation as the “Dreamtime”. During the Dreamtime, the Creator made the world and the first ancestors shaped it and established the ways that people should live. The Dreamtime is understood as happening “in the beginning”, but it is an ongoing time, which parallels our own experience. This must be so, because creation is an ongoing process, as shown by every blooming flower or hatching egg. The Creator is still creating and the world is still being shaped. Having learned to understand the Dreamtime this way, I found it easy, when I was motivated to, to apply the same thinking to Genesis. God is, as any Christian will attest, eternal. That does not mean that God lives forever — that would be “everlasting” — it means that God is not bound by time in the same way we are. God is outside of time, but God can act within time whenever He so desires. In the same way, God is outside any category of space, but can act within space.
Genesis starts with “In the beginning…” because it has to establish a world for the rest of the story to happen in, but that should not be taken as a point in time. Creation, obviously, continues.
My childhood understanding of Christianity included various misunderstood stories of God’s wrath. The Flood springs to mind, as well as God’s destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. When I came back to Christianity, I was aware that I would have to learn to understand it better than I had, and that I would have to find a way of making peace with the parts of the Bible which troubled me. I had read and enjoyed the Bhagavad Gita, one of the most popular Hindu texts, which is actually part of the longest epic poem ever written, the Mahabharata, and I understood the message — part fo the message — of that work to be that Krishna, who is also Vishnu, who is a fragment of Brahma, does what he wants, whether we like it or not. Again, I was able to accept the truth of this concept when it came to me from a faith tradition that I was not raised in, where it had been very disturbing for me when it came from the Bible. The Bhagavad Gita made it possible for me to understand Job in a way that I never had before.
I’ve mentioned The Bible Project, a very good online resource for understanding the Bible. Listening to that podcast, I learned that when the Bible portrays God as unleashing His wrath on an individual or group, it almost always means that He gave them over to the consequences of their actions. Israel, for example, enjoys God’s protection for some centuries, but when the Israelites become as bad as the Egyptians were, and refuse to repent after multiple warnings, God stops protecting them with the result that they are conquered by Babylon. Basically, God says, “If you don’t want to do things your way, I’ll let you see how that works out.”
This is what I experienced in the emergency room of the local hospital in 1997, though I could not possibly have made the connection to the Bible at that time. God had earlier informed me that He had been protecting me from myself, and that He would not continue to do so if I did not change. God was not going to strike me down with a lightning bolt — that image comes from Zeus — but He was going to let me experience the consequences of my actions.
I weighed about a hundred pounds at that point. My liver was not functioning properly. I was consuming combinations of chemicals that my druggiest friends would reject — meth, pot, benzodiazepines, muscle relaxers, cough syrup, opioids and vodka were a normal evening, if I could get them. I was wildly reckless and constantly bloody from falls, self-cutting or from punching walls and windows. One night, a guy hit me in the temple in the parking lot of a bar and I thoroughly enjoyed the resulting concussion. I could not possibly have lived much longer without some kind of intervention.
God’s “wrath” would have been to let me have what I was trying to achieve — my own death. He gave me a clear warning, and I accepted it, to the best of my ability at the time. That was, apparently, enough.
The few times in the Bible when God is the active cause of destruction — the Flood, Sodom and Gomorrah &c. — occur in Genesis, which I read as a mythic time, the Dreamtime. I do not believe that there was a deluge that covered the entire surface of the earth — that’s a story that conveys a truth about God’s relationship to people, who are frequently horrible and violent. I admit that I don’t like people, in general, and I am inclined to wonder why God doesn’t just wipe us all out and spend His time with lions and ladybugs. The Flood story addresses that — God did decide to wipe us out, but then things happened and He changed His mind. The story isn’t about a natural disaster — it’s about God’s decision to keep us around, even though we’re awful.
Another thing that really bothered me about Christianity was the idea of hell. How, I wondered, could a loving God condemn people to eternal torment for temporal sins? The idea that most people have of hell — lake of eternal fire where sinners are punished — is mostly based on the imaginings of medieval writers who got the image from a parable in Luke — 16:19–31 — where Jesus talks about a rich man who goes to Hades. Jesus was not explaining the afterlife — He was telling a parable. He did not mean that rich people who ignore the suffering of the poor would be sent to a Greek afterlife, where the Jewish patriarch, Abraham, will tell them off. Actually, now that I think about it, I really wouldn’t mind if billionaires went to Hades, but that won’t happen. The Bible also tells us that the earth will be remade, that God’s people will enjoy His presence, and that those who don’t want to be with God will live somewhere else, outside of Zion. You get what you choose.
In any event, I choose to do things God’s way, to the best of my ability and understanding, and I trust that He will forgive my many failings. If I live in a nation which has become so wicked that God will allow it to be destroyed — I think I do — then I might experience some suffering as a result of that. I might also experience some suffering as a result of natural disasters — I live in a river valley where some flooding is a normal thing. Some suffering is just part of the package. It isn’t unfair if I fall down and skin my knee while enjoying the beauty of nature.
I used the word “panentheistic” above. It means the belief that God is everything and more, which is only paradoxical if you insist on thinking of it within the confines of time and space. Some Christians might disagree, but I am pantheistic in my Christianity. I believe that God is mysteriously present in everything that is, and that God is more than that. I try to embrace every paradox I encounter — it’s more fun that way.