Modern Man and the Wrath of God
By Selwyn Duke
Whether or not you believe in the wrath of God, there is no question that the wrath of the ungodly left is often on full display. As for the latter, evangelist Pat Robertson got quite a liberal dose of it most recently. The founder of the 700 Club was placed in the crosshairs for suggesting that Ariel Sharon’s stroke may be the result of his division of Israel, an imprudent act incurring the wrath of God (Taking a gander at Sharon, it seems more like the wrath of Twinkies).
No lone comment inspired me to finally treat this issue. Really, this is merely the latest in a series of culture war clashes involving traditional Christian judgements about God’s judgement and the “non-judgemental” liberals’ judgements about those judgements. You may remember the hue and cry that ensued after 9/11 when Jerry Falwell implied that America was being punished for having abandoned godly principles. More recently there were those – such as Alabama State Senator Hank Irwin – who opined that Hurricane Katrina was a whirlwind reaped by a gulf coast rife with vice and sin, prompting derision from even the likes of Rich Lowry.
As for this man of faith, I don’t know that any or all of these tribulations were visited upon us by the Divine Hand. Likewise, however, I also cannot say that all of them were not. What I do know is that this issue isn’t really about Falwell or Robertson or “fundamentalists,” terrorism or storms or strokes, but something far, far deeper. It is in fact about the spirit of the age and dogma, both the religious and secular variety, that is.
Historically speaking, the preponderance of the notion that God would never punish man is a relatively recent phenomenon in the Western World. For most of the history of Christendom – and the history of humanity, reaching back to the pagan civilizations and primitive tribes of antiquity, for that matter – the wrath of the supernatural was a given. When pagans sacrificed humans on bloody altars, oft times the end was to appease wrathful gods and gain their favor. If the rain didn’t fall upon thirsty crops and starvation loomed on the horizon, a people’s thinking was often that they had committed a mortal transgression against divine will and remedial expiation was in order. And, while Abe Foxman of the Anti-defamation League said that Robertson’s comments were “. . . a perversion of religion,” the Hebrew Scriptures are replete with stories of God visiting quite a variety of torments upon the enemies of Foxman’s ancestors.
Thus, this “dark ages” idea was not some Christian shibboleth born of puritanical morality but was simply the quite natural and instinctive perpetuation of what had always impressed man as self-evident: that collectively we are quite sinful and sometimes deserving of correction. What Christianity did reveal was that God was a loving God who occasionally got angry, not an angry god who occasionally was loving; he was not a god who was like them, He was the God they were supposed to be like. Moreover, we are called to atone for misdeeds through personal sacrifice, not the sacrifice of persons.
Regardless, Christian tradition always held that, in typical Sodom and Gomorrah fashion, God may punish peoples who descend into turpitude. This is why post-First Crusade failure to roll back Moslem gains inspired medieval Christians to institute lay piety movements all across Europe: they viewed the frustrated military campaigns as a sign of God’s disfavor and endeavored to make themselves worthy of victory over the menacing hordes.
In our time, though, the enlightened set scoffs at such “antiquated” notions; they fancy themselves to be far too sophisticated to believe that sin is real and punishment justified. One of them, one Paul Levinson of the Fordham Media Studies Department, weighed in on the O’Reilly Factor on January 6. He dismissed Robertson as a man who is not very “modern” in his thinking (“Modernistic” would more aptly describe what Levinson seems to espouse), as if that’s a grand trespass. Transitioning from the hubristic to the completely idiotic, he went on to liken the evangelist to Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a man with a long terrorist past and possibly a brief and terrible future. Levinson justified the equivalency by saying that the two were both “fundamentalists” (Lexicon note: a secularist who disagrees with a liberal is a Nazi; a Christian who disagrees with a liberal is a fundamentalist).
Now, lest I be misunderstood, I part company with Robertson on the etiological factors in Sharon’s stroke. However, I would have a question for Levinson: is being a fundamentalist inherently bad? If so, what if you're a liberal fundamentalist? And I say this not merely as a rhetorical device. After all, Levinson and his fellow travelers seem to exhibit a formulaic devotion to their leftist creed, deviation from which is often treated as heresy. And this, I will add, hearkens back to a pearl of wisdom from the great philosopher G.K. Chesterton.
“In truth, there are only two kinds of people; those who accept dogma and know it, and those who accept dogma and don't know it.”
Thus, having dogma isn’t inherently bad. It is the nature of the dogma that determines its goodness or badness.
Today’s prevailing dogma states that God would never visit death and destruction upon us for any reason, let alone in the exercise of a tool as clumsy as punishment. Why, God is a loving God, you puerile fundies and Ultra-montanes. Moreover, when devastation is wreaked and the carnage reveals both the wicked and the good, the wizened and the budding babes, are we to call it justice? Would a loving God so indiscriminately take life?
Without a doubt, in an age in which Jesus is being portrayed as a milquetoasty hippie type (The Book of Daniel), gussied up in the spiritual fashions of the day and completely bereft of the depth and passion evident in the Bible, such a New Age position may seem beyond question . . . much like dogma. And in the theological universe of modernism it does fit like a conforming piece in a jigsaw puzzle. The problem is that this belief’s adherents have the wrong puzzle, ensuring that a traditionalist piece like God’s wrath will be grossly incompatible.
Literally put, the critics scoff when this element of orthodoxy cannot be explained within the context of heterodoxy. They divorce themselves from any semblance of traditional Christianity, embrace their modernistic mutation of it, then wonder why anyone would think that the man’s limb would fit on the mutant’s body.
So now I will offer not answers, but explanations. But I will preface my response by saying that if you don’t believe in God, this will seem like much ado about fairytales to you. I hasten to add, however, that the prevailing criticism here is not to the effect of, “God doesn’t exist, therefore talk of God’s wrath is silly.” No, the bulk of the criticism originates with people who acknowledge God’s existence, at least tacitly. They just find this brand of divine intervention unfathomable.
It is correct to say that God would never kill. This is because He never does. He gives us the gift of life, and when He takes us from this world we pass into the next and inherit eternal life. There is no death. Moreover, if upon liberating us from the shackles of the material, God takes us into Heaven, a place where pain is unknown and peace and joy immeasurable, has He not done us a good turn?
Another impediment to spiritual understanding is a misunderstanding involving scientific understanding. The ancients had no trouble believing that a storm, earthquake or some other natural phenomenon could be an instrument of God’s will any more than they had trouble viewing a sunrise or a baby’s birth as a miracle. We, though, are quite different. We learn about barometric pressure, tectonic plates and seismic waves, planetary rotation, conception and chromosomes, and then the scope of our understanding of God’s creation changes our understanding of God’s scope. Our burgeoning knowledge robs miracles of their mystery, and then we think it’s a mystery that anyone would claim that they’re miracles.
It really is a fascinating phenomenon. It’s much like marveling at an intellect that can ascertain a faraway star’s distance from the Earth, but then concluding it’s nothing special upon hearing an explanation of triangulation. We are left unimpressed because God hasn’t worked His wonders with the magical, but we always forget that the magical fails to make us wonder once we understand it. God had to create the world in some fashion, but had He done so in a different manner, would we be more awed and faithful? Not if we could glean insight into His methods, for it would always be the same old story. As Mark Twain said, “Familiarity breeds contempt.”
It’s ironic, if we were too dumb to penetrate the outer layer of God’s handiwork, faith would not be so elusive. Perhaps, though, our brilliance in the scientific realm is equaled by our ignorance in the spiritual one.
We are children of God, like Him in that we possess intellect and free will. Is it surprising then that those made in the image of He who created the world would have an ability to understand that creation? Would it make sense to grant these creatures dominion over the Earth and enjoin them to subdue it without providing them with a capacity to grasp its workings commensurate to that task? The irony is that God gives us the ability to understand His world, and then we can’t understand how the world could be His.
Thus, I wouldn’t scoff at those who claim that God didn’t direct a particular storm at a hapless city or visit a certain ailment upon a given man, but neither would I laugh at the claim that, were we to incur His wrath, He might use the nature He created to effect His will. Nor would I score those who don’t attribute a certain terrorist act to divine retribution, but I always accept that His “permitting will” may allow worldly agents to be the instruments of His justice. Naysayers may mock such as fringe thinking. But if they expand their frame of reference and tally the votes of all those who have existed from time immemorial to the present, it will become obvious how they can identify those on the periphery of consensus belief. They have only to look in the mirror.
Then there is the fact that punishment has become a dirty word. In another wholesale departure from prescriptions based on the millennia of human experience known as tradition, many among us eschew punishment, regarding it an ineffectual tool of the unsophisticated. This is why we see the embrace of the euphemistic “time-out” (which should be reserved for athletic contests), the enactment of anti-spanking laws, parents who are unable to control five-year-olds, and a judge who just sentenced a man convicted of continually raping a young girl for four years to a mere sixty days in jail. Then, laboring under the illusion that our errancy is enlightenment, we take a leaf out of the ancient pagans’ book. Just as their gods were imbued with their own fallen nature, we ascribe our characteristic failings – in this case pusillanimity, the tolerance of evil, and gratuitous leniency – to God. We then fancy Him to be more the divine therapist than the just judge.
Most telling about the current state of Western civilization, however, is the fact that those who claim God’s wrath are so roundly subjected to man’s wrath. And a lack of piety alone doesn’t explain it, for a self-assured atheist would simply laugh such assertions off as the superstitious musings of anachronistic minds. No, there’s something else at work here: pride.
Christendom had long embraced the humbling truth that we are sinners, most deserving of damnation. It had simultaneously been buoyed by the uplifting truth that, despite this, we’re not going to get what we deserve because Jesus already paid the price. Now, in post-Christian America, we have done a 180 degree about face. With our “I’m okay, you’re okay” attitude, self-esteem (a euphemism for pride) conditioning in schools, and the New Age belief in the primacy of the self, some of us prance about as if we had been immaculately conceived. Thus, the suggestion that we may be deserving of a great chastisement and, by inference, that we are proportionately corrupt, evokes howls from corpulent egos.
And perhaps this is what should truly raise the alarm. We can spend our time crucifying the admonishers, or we can discover whether they are pretenders or prophets by casting the probing eye inwards and seeing if the emperor really has no clothes. And make no mistake, we would be best served by doing the latter. After all, cultivating a collective pride that blinds us to our faults is a sure path to oblivion.
Thus, the real problem is not that we won’t believe we have been subject to punishment. Nay, with a society that is quickly making the seven deadly sins a pastime as it slays virtue, the real problem is that we don’t think we deserve it.