Infinite Judge, Infinite Lover || Patrick Wilson

Posted on January 6th, by Patrick Wilson in Head, Unitive Sessions: Wrath. 3 comments

Infinite Judge, Infinite Lover || Patrick Wilson

When it comes to questions related to God’s wrath, there are few simple answers beyond the most basic “The Bible says it, I believe it, that settles it” variety.  Surely this is true, but the difficulties come when we try to wrap our heads around what that actually means.  The picture presented in the Scriptures is pretty complex.

In the history of Christian thought, two major trajectories for giving an account of God’s wrath have emerged.  While these are not, necessarily, mutually exclusive, they can help to clarify a bit of what is at stake in our conversation.

The first major trajectory is generally associated with the Western Christian traditions (Catholic and Protestant, broadly speaking) and will likely sound more familiar to many reading this.  In this view, God’s wrath is understood as a consequence of violating the law of God, active punishment for wicked disobedience.  It is strongly colored by what is often called “forensic” language—that is, language with legal overtones (like law, obedience, judgment).

The image of a courtroom is extremely important, here.  God has issued a command, but humanity has disobeyed.  Therefore, God sits as the infinite, supremely righteous Judge, and He finds humanity guilty-as-charged.  And for our crimes, there will be blood.  Hell is that judgment and punishment from God made permanent in a final decision against man’s sin.

However, there is another way of considering God’s wrath, one sometimes associated with the Orthodox thought of the Eastern churches.  These Christians have (again, broadly speaking) tended to cast these issues in a far more relational way.  While acknowledging the validity of more “legal” sounding language, there is some discomfort in giving the image of a Divine Judge the center stage.

Sin doesn’t provoke a change in God, causing Him to stand over-against us and expel us from His holy presence.  Rather, God simply remains who He has been and always will be: a holy, unchanging, Consuming Fire.  He is a God whose definitive characteristic is the infinite, gratuitous love eternally given and received mutually by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.  God does not change, God does not suffer.  He is a perfect, unassailable fountain of infinite love given without end, and nothing, not even the most heinous instance of human depravity, can cool His fire.

Now, for some of us, this is a real head-scratcher.  How could a God like that ever be meaningfully described as “wrathful,” like the Bible clearly indicates?

Let me offer an example related to my one-year old.  My family recently moved into a new house which has a total death-trap of a staircase leading to the basement.  The stairs are super narrow, super steep, and they transition halfway down from solid wood to unforgiving concrete.  Unfortunately, our young drooler has fixated on trying to crawl down them head first.  You can tell he’s headed that way because the sound of his hands slapping the floor as he crawls gets louder and faster as he motors toward the steps.  So, we deliver a clear warning: “No, no, little one.  You’ll get hurt if you go over there.”  Despite the gentle tone, it’s a serious warning related to serious danger.  The consequence of making good on his impulse will be serious injury or maybe even worse.  We wised up after a bit and put up a baby gate.

For much of the Greek tradition, the sin of humanity is a turning away from God into ourselves, a disengagement from the source of all our life and joy.  And, when we turn from our true Life, the natural consequence is our inevitable death, the desert of the self-against-God. 

The deepest consequences of sin are not so much an active judgment of a God who is now against us but the natural consequence of how God set up the world to work in the beginning.  Indeed, God still remains intimately present to even the most wretched sinner, an engulfing, infinite blaze of love.  But, having sealed ourselves off from that love, we will only experience Him as a fire that burns, scorches, torments.  Hell is being locked up in myself and surrounded on all sides by the infinite flame of an infinite Lover whose love I despise, reject, and want desperately to escape.

Each of these views has major strengths, as well as ways they can go sour.  Both take sin very seriously.  Both take God’s love and holiness seriously, as well.  The Western view is strong in that it tries to deal well with the Scripture’s legal-sounding language, as well as the active role in judgment that God seems to take both in the Old and New Testaments.  An over-emphasis on law, though, can easily reduce God to some angry, almighty Judge void of love for His good creation.  On the other hand, the Eastern view is strong in its consistent emphasis on maintaining the Scripture’s affirmation of God’s constancy and infinite love.  However, if this is taken without an equal affirmation of the gravity of sin, God can be reduced to someone who simply “winks” at the tremendous evil in the world.

At the end of the day, I think that each of these views communicates something very important about what God is like, and I think there is a significant amount of overlap between them.

The One who meets us in our sin is our infinite Lover, yet His presence pushes back on us and speaks a clear word against the corruption and death that marks our existence as sinners.  But even as we defy God and throw His love back in His face, we find, to our utter amazement, that He spoke His Word right into our very own flesh.  To reconnect our nature to the Source of all life.  To live and die in our place.  To conquer death itself.

Patrick Wilson Patrick Wilson is Asst. Director of Chapter Two, the young adult ministry at Imago Dei Community church. He earned his Th.M. at Multnomah Biblical Seminary with an emphasis in the theology of the early church and lives in Portland, OR with his wife and their three boys.
Read more posts by

3 Responses to “Infinite Judge, Infinite Lover || Patrick Wilson”

  1. Ben Tertin Ben Tertin says:

    Thank you, Patrick…seriously. I’ve read this twice through, and I will definitely use this in teaching and further personal contemplation. Far too often I work with either-or categories and fail to see the implications. You’re a true “unitive” voice. Thank you.

  2. Mark Engel says:

    Hey Patrick . . . thank you. I like the tension that your article creates. In perhaps an overly simplistic way the Infinite Judge is coupled with the Law whereas the Infinite Lover couples with grace—both true. I must confess, the meaning of your sentence, “To live and die in our place” eludes me.
    Thanks again for your thoughtful article.

Leave a Reply