As part of an ongoing interest in reading into and around God’s identity and goodness, and also the theology and depths of the atonement, one of the interesting side-roads is to consider accounts of God’s Wrath. This has become quite an unfashionable thing to talk about – yet it is an undoubtedly biblical image that occurs in a range of passages and contexts. Enter stage right Kevin Kinghorn and Stephen Travis’s new book, But What About God’s Wrath: The Compelling Love Story of Divine Anger. Kinghorn is a professor of philosophy and religion, whilst Stephen Travis is a well known New Testament scholar. They are well placed to engage this question.
For such a big topic, this is a relatively short and accessible book. There are two big ideas in it. Firstly, as the subtitle suggests, wrath is less important (or, in technical philosophical language, essential) to God’s being than love is. Interestingly, this is the same for justice. Kinghorn and Travis provocatively note that “God’s essential nature is not just“, using something (God’s attribute of justice) that people usually like to demonstrate the complexity of an attribute that contemporary people are less comfortable (wrath). The fundamental attribute of God is his love: “God would not from eternity be displaying wrath“, and this is echoed in the contrast between God’s usage of wrath and his constant love. I agree with the authors (though not throughout!) that “wrath is best viewed as one strategy God has to restore people to a relationship of love with himself“. To put it another way, wrath is a tool that God uses – drawn from his holiness, justice and creativity, to be sure – to accomplish his purposes.
The second big idea regards what the authors thing God’s wrath ‘is’. I was not totally convinced – though I do agree that it is a part of what God’s love ‘is’. They write that “Our experience of God’s wrath toward us is God pressing on us the truth about ourselves“. Now this is fascinating – and it is worth noting that Kinghorn and Travis are not advocating universalism. For those of us perhaps spluttering into our flat whites, it is worth noting that this interesting argument is rooted in the Bible; “divine wrath in the Old Testament is primarily directed toward Israel“, and that “Whether directed toward Israel or toward other nations, God’s wrath in the Bible is always a response to some spiritual sin, some moral failing, some truth about people that they themselves will not admit to“. Kinghorn and Travis frame God’s purposes in the occsionaly flexible phrase ‘human flourishing’, though are clear what they mean by this. Thus, whilst I’m not totally convinced by their argument for what God’s wrath ‘is’, it is certainly a helpful aspect for thinking through the question.
This book is peppered with superb sentences, one liners and theological observations. For example, on the theme of human flourishing, the authors write (in my view rightly!) that “Humans are created in the image of a relational God, and our ultimate flourishing is achieved when we engage in relationships mirroring the loving interdependence of the Trinity“. Echoing this emphasis on the creation and telos of humanity is the insightful and incisive observation that “There actually is no sharper weapon that God could wield against us humans than the truth about ourselves“. I think this is absolutely true – and is something I will be pondering this year. Human sin is the great unspoken reality of our world – and yet it explains so much, and recognizing it creates space for repentance and transformation.
I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book. I’m glad to have read something about the wrath of God that left me reeling in response to his goodness, and also a book that I disagreed with firmly in places that I would warmly recommend to people reading around God’s love and God’s wrath. This is a vital contribution to the conversation – not least as it integrates theology, philosophy, biblical studies and the reality of human experience in a practical way.