When affluent white Americans think of heaven, we tend to think of celestial serenity, natural beauty, and family reunions. Black Americans and other disadvantaged groups would be much more likely to think of God’s promise that there will be ultimate justice. For anyone who has suffered great wrong, it is important to know, as the book of Revelation promises so wondrously, that all wrongs will be righted (Rev. 21:3–4).
To be sure, most people, of whatever color, tend to be intensely interested in justice when it is for themselves. It is the notion of justice for all that is missing from much of our public discourse. People turn out for justice when the issue is something that affects them directly, but it is difficult to generate public enthusiasm to support justice for somebody else, or some group other than one’s own. The civil rights movement was an authentic miracle of God’s justice because it managed to mobilize significant numbers of people from various constituencies. Unfortunately, this is rare. Apathy and lack of caring for others have something to do with this; determination not to lose one’s privileges may be a larger motivator. There is a theological dimension here. Justice for everyone is an alarming thought because it raises the possibility that it might come upon oneself after all. As the author of Ephesians puts it, “by nature” we are all “children of wrath, like the rest of mankind” (Eph. 2:3, ESV).
It makes many people queasy nowadays to talk about the wrath of God, but there can be no turning away from this prominent biblical theme. Oppressed peoples from around the world have been empowered by the scriptural picture of a God who is angered by injustice and unrighteousness. If we are resistant to the idea of the wrath of God, we might pause to reflect the next time we are outraged about something—about our property values being threatened, or our children’s educational opportunities being limited, or our tax breaks being eliminated. All of us are capable of anger about something. God’s anger, however, is pure. It does not have the maintenance of privilege as its object but goes out on behalf of those who have no privileges. The wrath of God is not an emotion that flares up from time to time, as though God has temper tantrums. It is a way of describing his absolute enmity against all wrong and his coming to set matters right.
On September 2, 1990, a murder occurred in New York City that horrified the nation. The Watkins family from Provo, Utah, a father and mother with their two barely grown sons, had come joyfully to the city for a long-anticipated trip to attend the US Open tennis matches. While waiting on the subway platform for the train to Flushing Meadows, the family was assaulted by a band of four youths. The older of the two sons went to his mother’s rescue as she was being kicked in the face, and he was killed in the attempt. The judge, Edwin Torres, sentenced all four attackers to life without parole, the toughest sentence possible in New York at that time, and in doing so issued a striking statement expressing grave alarm for a society in which “a band of marauders can surround, pounce upon, and kill a boy in front of his parents [and then] stride up the block to Roseland and dance until 4 a.m. as if they had stepped on an insect. For a mother to hold a dying child in her arms, murdered before her very eyes, is a visitation that the devil himself would hesitate to conjure up. That cannot go unpunished.”
If we think of Christian theology and ethics purely in terms of forgiveness, we will have neglected a central aspect of God’s own character and will be in no position to understand the Cross in its fullest dimension. God’s new creation must be a just one, or the promises of God will seem like mockery to those whose defenselessness has been exploited by the powerful. Furthermore, if we fail to take into account God’s justice, we will miss the extraordinary way in which it is recast in the New Testament.
John the Baptist stormed out of the desert with a fiery message, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath of God?” In our own day, in our haste to flee from the wrath of God, we might ask whether we have thought through the consequences of belief in a god who is not set against evil in all its forms. Miroslav Volf writes, “A non-indignant God would be an accomplice in injustice, deception, and violence.” Perhaps the reason we have trouble with this is that we are ourselves accomplices. Yet most people will say at some point that their “blood boils”; the question then becomes, what is the boiling temperature? If our blood does not boil at injustice, how can we be serving the God who said the following through his prophet Isaiah?
Woe to those who make unjust laws,
to those who issue oppressive decrees,
to deprive the poor of their rights
and withhold justice from the oppressed of my people. (Isa. 10:1–2)
Where is the outrage? It is God’s own; it is the wrath of God against all that stands against his redemptive purpose. It is not an emotion; it is God’s righteous activity in setting right what is wrong. It is God’s intervention on behalf of those who cannot help themselves.
No one could have imagined, however, that he would ultimately intervene by interposing himself. By becoming one of the poor who was deprived of his rights, by dying as one of those robbed of justice, God’s Son submitted to the utmost extremity of his humiliation, entering into total solidarity with those who are without help. He, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, voluntarily underwent the mockery of the multitudes, and, in the time of greatest extremity, he could do nothing to help himself (Mark 15:31).
Even more astonishingly, however, he underwent helplessness and humiliation not only for the victimized but also for the perpetrators. Who would have thought that the same God who passed judgment, calling down woe upon the religious establishment (Matt. 23; Luke 11), would come under his own judgment and woe? This is a shockingly immoral and unreligious idea; the crucifixion reveals God placing himself under his own sentence. The wrath of God has lodged in God’s own self. Perfect justice is wrought in the self-offering of the Son, who alone of all human beings was perfectly righteous. Therefore no one, neither victim nor victimizer, can claim any exemption from judgment on one’s own merits, but only on the merits of the Son.
Adapted excerpt from The Crucifixion (2015), published with permission of William D. Eerdmans Publishing Co.
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