I heard a lot about God’s wrath and judgment as a kid growing up in the church. God hated sin and I was a sinner deserving God’s wrath and judgment. That’s why Jesus came — to take the punishment I deserved. The implicit theology I learned was that Jesus, who was loving and merciful, saved me from God, who was mean and angry.
This was something to be thankful for. Because of Jesus, I’d get to go to heaven instead of hell when I died.
But there was also the end of the world to be concerned about. In the church and all the TV preacher programs that provided a soundtrack for my formative years at home as a kid, I repeatedly heard that Jesus was coming back someday to unleash the fury on everyone who was not taken up in the Rapture. Woe to you if you were left behind!
I was terrified as a kid that I’d be left behind. If I heard a siren or a train whistle in the middle of the night, my heart would start pounding and I’d break into a cold sweat. I’d pull the covers over my head, waiting and praying. I was convinced that Jesus was coming back, the end of the world was about to happen, and I might be left.
On some versions of the Rapture timeline, Christians would suffer through at least half of the seven-year tribulation. Or, on the post-millennial view, we’d suffer through all of it.
I didn’t think it seemed fair that Christians would get a free pass on suffering and torment. So I figured we’d be here at least for a little while. That’s why passages like this one terrified me when I was a kid:
The Great TribulationMatthew 24:15-22 NKJV
15 “Therefore when you see the ‘abomination of desolation,’ spoken of by Daniel the prophet, standing in the holy place” (whoever reads, let him understand), 16 “then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains. 17 Let him who is on the housetop not go down to take anything out of his house. 18 And let him who is in the field not go back to get his clothes. 19 But woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing babies in those days! 20 And pray that your flight may not be in winter or on the Sabbath. 21 For then there will be great tribulation, such as has not been since the beginning of the world until this time, no, nor ever shall be. 22 And unless those days were shortened, no flesh would be saved; but for the elect’s sake those days will be shortened.
In my childhood imagination, I envisioned a future time that would be like those apocalyptic end-of-the-world “preppers” we see on TV today. I imagined us stocking up on food and guns. We’d need to bar our windows and doors to keep the bad people out. It occurs to me now that my childhood imagination envisioned our future daily existence during the Great Tribulation as something like The Walking Dead, except without the zombies.
Was there a way to make our basement deeper in case of nuclear war, I wondered? Should we have a 4-wheel drive vehicle so we could travel through fields and woods to avoid detection by the one-world-government authorities and all the bad people? Should we have walkie talkies or a CB radio so that we could communicate? Could we work out some kind of community watch with our neighbors where we all banded together for protection and sharing of goods?
This is the kind of stuff that sometimes occupied my obsessive childhood mind.
I find it amusing today, at best. At worst, I suppose it was somewhat traumatizing. And though I’ve long ago rejected the dispensational Rapture theology and worldview that formed my Christian faith and identity as a kid, it’s interesting how formative experiences from childhood stay with us even after we’ve long-since intellectually abandoned certain ideas.
It’s probably also at least partly why today I still recoil a bit whenever I read Bible passages about God’s judgment, wrath, or vengeance. It takes me back to the angry God of my childhood who was just waiting to unleash the fury on us miserable sinners and destroy the world with fire.
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All of this came rushing back to me early this past Sunday morning when I read the Scripture readings for the Third Sunday of Advent before we went to church. It was mostly Isaiah 35:1-10, and especially the end of verse 4, that bugged me.
The passage begins quite beautifully. An arid, desert landscape is transformed into a fertile and lush playground of singing and rejoicing. Abundant flowers are blooming and the glory and majesty of God manifest.
Into this transformed landscape the prophet speaks a message of hope: “Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are fearful of heart, ‘Be strong and do not fear!’ Here is your God.'”
So far so good. The world is being transformed. God is coming. Things are going to be put right. People will find healing and wholeness. In fact, skipping down to verses 5-6, we read that when God shows up, “the eyes of the blind will be opened, and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.”
Amen! Hallelujah! I’m pumped about this. What a message of hope and healing during these dark days of Advent. This is why I love the readings from the Old Testament prophets during this season of the Christian year.
Jesus echoes these words from Isaiah in the Gospel reading from Sunday’s Scripture readings. When John the Baptist’s disciples ask Jesus if he is the one they were to expect, or if they should wait for another, Jesus answers, “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them” (see Matthew 11:2-6).
When God shows up, amazing things happen. I love this message. I need to hear this message. I want to shout it from the rooftops.
But before we get to all the healing and restoration in Isaiah’s passage, there’s the pesky end of verse 4. God is coming all right. But notice what the prophet says: “Here is your God. He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you” (Isaiah 35:4).
God is coming with vengeance? With “terrible recompense”?
And this is good news?
Sunday’s Epistle reading from James 5:7-10 has continuity with these verses. For James, the Lord is coming. And he’s coming to judge. Indeed, the Judge is standing at the doors! So be patient and be ready!
James intends this both as an exhortation and also a message of hope for the Christians he’s writing to. He encourages the church, “Strengthen your hearts, for the coming of the Lord is near” (v. 8).
Somehow for both Isaiah and James the coming of the Lord as a judge with vengeance and recompense is a comforting message of hope. But this doesn’t comfort me. It doesn’t even compute with me. At least it didn’t when I first read these lectionary texts on Sunday morning.
For me, the beautiful message of hope and healing in the Old Testament and Gospel readings was tainted by God’s coming in fire and fury — “with vengeance, with terrible recompense”, as the prophet Isaiah says.
This doesn’t strike me as good news. And it totally messes with how I’ve come to think of God as loving, merciful, and compassionate as exemplified and embodied in the person and work of Christ.
I was reduced to that little child hiding under the covers, afraid of being left behind.
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The thing about having it pounded into your head that God is angry, wrathful, and vengeful during your formative upbringing is that you tend to go one of two ways later in adult life once you’ve got some experience and maybe some theological education (formal or informal) under your belt.
You either embrace the angry, wrathful, vengeful concepts of God you received and inherited, and that continues to shape your worldview and inform your Christian faith. It probably also makes you a bit of an angry person because we inevitably become and reflect that which we worship.
Or you reject it. In some cases, you may reject Christianity entirely. In other cases, like mine, you go through an ongoing series of iterations of your faith, painstakingly deconstructing and reconstructing it. This process probably never ends. At least it hasn’t yet for me.
Even as a kid I remember feeling unsettled about a lot of things I heard and experienced in church or heard the TV preachers preaching. Oftentimes some things seemed off. Not quite right. I intuited that. But I didn’t have a frame of reference for anything different or the necessary tools that only come with time, experience, and education to know there were other ways of thinking about these things.
And then even when you do realize there are other ways of thinking about these things that make more sense to you and just intuitively feel more accurate and consistent with God as revealed in Christ, there’s a fear of letting go of what you’d always been taught to believe.
What if you’re wrong? What if you’re straying from the way, the truth, and the life? What if this is all a trick of the devil to get you on the broad path to destruction?
At this point, you have another important choice. You can shelve the questions and searching, try to forget all the new things you’ve learned and come to believe, and retreat back to the relative comfort and safety of the certainty of your youth.
Or you can keep pressing on, persevering through the discomfort and disorientation. Trusting God and in the Holy Spirit’s leading and guidance. Trusting your instincts. And trusting Godly people who’ve walked a similar path before you.
All this to help bring you through to a new version of your faith. One that, hopefully, is more mature and informed. One that is more biblical and theologically sound. One that gets you out from under the covers.
There’s a grieving that comes with choosing the latter. It’s not easy to reject things your parents and childhood Sunday school teachers and pastors taught you about God and Christian faith. You feel like you’re possibly betraying them. Or God. You fear you might be misguided, deceived, or wrong. Perhaps you’re merely creating God in your own image and intellectual concepts, rather than believing what the Bible “plainly” teaches.
But if you embrace the journey, liberation awaits. You’ll continue to wrestle and struggle with questions about the Bible and this or that doctrine and what it all means for your life. That’s a given.
But you’ll have discovered new freedom to do so, unshackled from the tyranny of pat, simplistic answers to complex questions. You’ll eventually decide that arriving at the exact “correct” answer is not really the point. Sure, you’ll have your convictions. But those may change with time, experience, and more information.
Rather, it’s all about the spiritually formative journey you’re on and the kind of person you’re becoming in the process. That’s what’s most important.
Over time you’ll be less bothered by the disapproval, and at times, judgmental and moralistic concerns, of well-intentioned people who accuse you becoming “liberal” and abandoning the faith once for all entrusted to the saints.
You’ll discover that there are other people out there like you. Lots of them. And whether you know them personally, or only through their books and articles and social media presence, you’ll find a sense of community and belonging with them. It turns out, you’re not so crazy after all.
This is the journey I’ve been on for the past 25 years. It’s partly why I reacted so strongly against God’s coming “with vengeance, with terrible recompense” when I read Isaiah’s passage on Sunday morning.
But it’s also why I didn’t freak out and reject it. Instead, I acknowledged my initial, visceral reaction. Then I decided I needed to press into this a bit more. Isaiah and James see — and intend for us to see — God’s coming in judgment with a vengeance and terrible recompense as good news. What am I missing?
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Isaiah 35 is a message of hope for the exiles living in Babylonian captivity. It goes along with Isaiah 34, which is about God’s judgment on the nations, especially Edom, for their part in siding with Israel’s captors rather than coming to their defense and aid. There, the prophet says God “has a day of vengeance, a year of vindication by Zion’s cause” (Isaiah 34:8).
The prophet envisions Edom’s land and resources becoming a perpetual wasteland when God’s judgment comes. Its “streams shall be turned to pitch, and her soil to sulfur; her land shall become burning pitch. Night and day it shall not be quenched; its smoke shall go up forever. From generation to generation it shall lie waste; no one shall pass through it forever and ever” (Isaiah 34:8-10).
The wasteland of Isaiah 34 is transformed in Isaiah 35 to a blossoming garden with waters bursting forth through the wilderness and streams through the desert. There’s rejoicing and singing at the glory and majesty of God. A highway appears, providing a way for the exiles to return to their homeland. Finally, salvation is coming. A new Exodus is envisioned.
“And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away,” says the prophet (Isaiah 35:10).
This is why God’s coming with a vengeance and terrible recompense is good news for the people. The prophet envisions Israel’s enemies being repaid and punished for the brutality they inflicted. It’s about justice and things being put right. It’s about liberation from tyranny. It’s about restoration and healing. It’s about their return home from exile. God is finally going to decisively act to vanquish Israel’s enemies and save his people.
If you’re part of the people who’ve suffered oppression and injustice, this is tremendously good news.
Fast-forward several centuries within the biblical storyline to the New Testament era. Many Jews did return home to their Promised Land. Yet world superpowers continued to dominate them. After the Babylonians, it was the Medo-Persian Empire. Then the Greeks. Then the Romans.
By Jesus’s time, there was a profound sense that the Jews were still living in exile because the restored national future envisioned by the prophets had not really come to fruition. They were still waiting for God to act; to come with a vengeance to defeat their enemies and put everything right.
There were different ideas about how and when this might happen. But one pervasive stream of thought was that when God’s anointed — the Messiah — showed up, that would be the time when Israel’s enemies were vanquished and the beautiful national vision of peace and prosperity the prophets proclaimed would finally fully be realized.
Jesus’s own disciples seem to have some version of this in mind when they ask Jesus, “Lord, is the time when you will restore the kingdom back to Israel?” (Acts 1:6)
But defeating Israel’s enemies and resurrecting a political kingdom was not Jesus’s mission or agenda. His was a spiritual kingdom. One of love, peace, harmony, mercy, and compassion; even towards one’s enemies.
Jesus was about reconciling relationships between people and God. And one of his primary concerns was caring for the poor, oppressed, and marginalized, and welcoming all people to participate in his kingdom vision.
He especially reached out to and welcomed those that the religious leaders tended to despise and discard. He regularly turned conventional wisdom on its head and challenged people to expand their beliefs about what God was up to in the world. And he was adamant that all the law and the prophets were fulfilled in loving God and loving others.
Through his own suffering and death, Jesus bore the weight and horror of all past, present, and future sin and evil. As the second person of the Holy Trinity, Jesus absorbed all the vengeance and recompense of God’s judgment. God wasn’t inflicting wrath on people. Rather, God, through Christ, took the wrath himself. As Scripture says, “But he was wounded for our transgressions, crushed for iniquities; upon him was the punishment that made us whole, and by his bruises we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).
But the story didn’t end there. Jesus rose from the grave. And by his resurrection, Jesus decisively defeated the power of sin and death. “He has rescued us from the power of darkness” and “He disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them” (see Colossians 1:13 and Colossians 2:13-15).
In a profound sense, Jesus did fulfill parts of Isaiah 35. Just not the way people expected.
And in a similar way that Jesus failed to meet prevailing expectations and assumptions about what the Messiah would do in his first Advent, I suspect that when he comes again to judge the living and the dead, he will fail to meet many of ours.
Perhaps the fire and fury of judgment will refine even the hardest hearts and absorb and consume even the worst evils so that all people and all things are ultimately healed, rescued, redeemed, and restored through Christ.
That’s good news too. And that’s why James encourages us to wait patiently for the coming of the Lord, our Judge. Because when Jesus the Judge comes, everything will be put right. Every tear will be wiped away. Death and mourning and pain will be no more. All things will be made new.
The Christian story is that God is reconciling the world to himself and redeeming all things through Christ. And when Jesus returns in power and glory, the kingdoms of the world will become the kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ. And he will reign forever and ever.
Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!