Leave it to the Wrath of God: An Eschatological Response to Terrorism

How do we respond to acts of terrorism? When I say “we,” I mean Christians, followers of Jesus here in the US and around the world. How should we respond?

Jerry Falwell Jr. encouraged students at Liberty University to obtain legal permits to carry a gun with the added exhortation: “Let’s teach them (Islamic terrorists) a lesson if they ever show up here.”

John Piper (and others) disagree with the attitude and spirit behind Falwell’s exhortation. Bob Thune (and others) find Falwell’s exhortation both reasonable and Christian. So is the Christian response to the threat of terrorism to arm ourselves and “take out the enemy” before they “take out” innocent people? To say the answer to this question is a bit nuanced would be an understatement.

To begin with, I do not know if there is one single “Christian” response on this issue. As we all know, followers of Jesus do not agree and indeed we can become vehemently divided when it comes to guns. It is not my aim to offer commentary on the issue of Christian’s arming themselves. Rather, I want to look at our responses in the light of eschatology. If the Christian ethic is tied to Christian eschatology, and I am convinced it is, then understanding God’s future for God’s world is helpful in our present-day discussions surrounding terrorism.

We can rightly label acts of mass murder “terrorism,” because such acts do indeed create terror, a heightened sense of anxiety and fear among people. One unified Christian response to terrorism is prayer. When we pray we are being formed in patience, a less-than-popular product of the Holy Spirit. When I pray in response to the terrorist attacks in France or San Bernardino or elsewhere, I pray, along with the church, for peace and for people not to be afraid. If we give into fear, we give terrorists what they want. Our prayer-given strength as followers of Jesus is not rooted in a blind, naive optimism, but in a faith fully alive. We believe in him who is the resurrection and the life. Our strength as followers of Jesus is not rooted in naive optimism, but in a faith fully alive. Click To Tweet

Jesus has already defeated death. Christ has trampled down death by death. As we determine a Christ-like response to our perception of the growing threat of terrorism, we would be wise to allow the perfect love of Christ to drive out fear. I am confident that a fear-based decision will not look much like Jesus. So how should we respond? The Apostle Paul, in echoing Jesus, weighs in:

Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” (Romans 12:17-19 ESV)

We are not to return evil for evil. We are not to be in the revenge business. Click To Tweet

His exhortation seems simple enough. Live peaceably. Live at peace as much as it is up to us. We are not to return evil for evil. We are not to be in the revenge business. There is no argument at this point, but some would ask: What about using violence to protect the innocent? While Paul does not specifically address that question, he does give us insight into how we should treat those we deem to be opposed to us. He continues:

To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:20-21 ESV)

He does not mention “ending” your enemy. Rather, he mentions making your enemy a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and offering him a tall glass of milk to go along with it. We are encouraged to practice hospitality and not to be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. We overcome, as a peaceable people, not by executing judgment but by leaving it to “the wrath of God.” This doesn’t really clear up matters, but only invites more questions: What does it mean to leave things to the wrath of God? And what about “Vengeance is mine, says the Lord”? What does his vengeance look like? How will he repay? How does God treat our enemies? What does it mean to leave things to the wrath of God? Click To Tweet

Jesus says God is kind to both the ungrateful and the evil person. He commands us to: “Love your enemies, and do good, and lend, expecting nothing in return, and your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, for he is kind to the ungrateful and the evil” (Luke 6:35 ESV). When Jesus tells us to do something, it is not as if he is compiling a bunch of meaningless arbitrary rules. The commands of Christ are a reflection of the character and nature of God. The commands of Christ are a reflection of the character and nature of God. Click To Tweet

Don’t lie. Why? God isn’t a liar.
Don’t cut people down with your words. Why? God isn’t a backbiter.
Don’t cheat on your spouse. Why? God isn’t unfaithful to us.
Don’t be selfish. Why? God is always focused on the other.

Love God. Why? God is love.
Love your neighbor. Why? God loves all God has made.
Love one another. Why? God is a holy community of self-giving love.
Love your enemies. Why? God loves them.

Wait. What? God loves our enemies? Even real enemies? Even terrorists? Even ISIS? Yes, God loves the whole world not just you and your friends. We show kindness to our enemies, because this is how God treats our enemies. Is that fair? Does this mean he lets them off the hook? What about all that stuff about wrath and vengeance and repaying?

The “wrath of God” is a phrase that pops up from time to time in the Scripture. To be clear, Paul most often writes of “the wrath.”  In Romans 12:19, the phrase “of God” has been added to the text. In Greek it literally reads “leave room for the wrath.” “Wrath” is an archaic word for “anger.” The “of God” is an interpretive addition to make it clear: “the anger” is “the anger or wrath of God.” Is this literally anger? Is God literally about to boil over with anger any moment? In the end is he going to let loose in literal acts of of anger on the bad guys? Of course not. We are told God is love. We are never told God is anger. The wrath of God is not a literal attribute of God; it is a metaphor.

We are told the righteous right hand of God can help (Isaiah 41:10). We are told the eyes of the Lord move to and fro (2 Chronicles 16:9). We are told we can take shelter in God’s wings (Ruth 2:12). Does God have a hand? No. Does he have eyes or wings? No. These are metaphors that point us to some very true things about God, i.e. God’s strength, God’s seeking and searching, and God’s protection.

In the same way, wrath is a metaphor, pointing us to something true about God. No, God does not have anger issues requiring therapy. God doesn’t need to sign up for anger management classes. God doesn’t need to go to “Rageaholics Anonymous.” Hello. I am the eternal God. I am a rageaholic. Why would God be boiling with literal anger if Jesus tells us that anger is just as bad as murder?

Unresolved anger is a bad thing. Lashing out at people in anger is a reprehensible. Why would we assume it is ok for God to literally burn with anger, or worse yet, with rage and hate for people? Living in the light of Christ, we shouldn’t assume such things. We do so when we make the mistake of literalizing a metaphor. Whenever we take a metaphor describing something about God and make it literal, we create an idol and idolatry is the ultimate path to the dark side. The wrath of God is a metaphor pointing us to God’s judgment. Click To Tweet

The wrath of God is a metaphor pointing us to God’s judgment. When you see the phrase “wrath of God,” think “judgment of God.” So when we reject revenge and retaliation and leave people like ISIS to the wrath of God, we are trusting in God’s judgment. God will judge them.

So what does this judgment look like?

Jesus said God the Father isn’t judging, but he has given the authority to judge to Jesus (See John 5:22). Jesus talks about judgment in the context of the love of God. Judgment does not flow out of literal anger in the heart of God. Judgment flows from pure love. Jesus said:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God. (John 3:17-18 ESV)

God has not put a big yellow “CONDEMNED” sign on the world. He has come to save the world. God does not have to heap judgment upon those who do not believe in him, because they are living in judgment already. Jesus continues:

And this is the judgment: the light has come into the world, and people loved the darkness rather than the light because their works were evil. For everyone who does wicked things hates the light and does not come to the light, lest his works should be exposed. But whoever does what is true comes to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that his works have been carried out in God. (John 3:19-21 ESV)

Here is the judgement of God. It is not “turn or burn”…not “believe in me or I will torture you with fire forever”…not “here comes the payback!” The judgement of God is light. Wicked people who do wicked things hate the light that comes from Jesus because the light of his love exposes the evil they are doing. Does this look like literal hate to you? It doesn’t to me; it looks like love. His judgment comes to us and his judgment is love! What we call the “wrath of God” is what evil looks like in the light of the love of Christ.

Jesus is judging now and he will come again to judge the living and the dead. Jesus comes to make all things new, which includes expelling evil from God’s good creation. In the age to come, Jesus will come to execute judgment by the light of his love, which will sort things out and make all things right. Many of his parables included a sorting out process, sorting out wheat from weeds, wise from unwise, sheep from the goats. In this sorting out there will be those inside the kingdom and those outside the kingdom whom God has turned over to their own evil. And in his vengeance how will God repay those who have done evil? Only God knows. But don’t worry. Judgment is Jesus’ job, not ours. Should you be afraid of God’s judgment? Only if you have something to hide. Like the old folk song says:

You may throw your rock and hide your hand
Workin’ in the dark against your fellow man
But as sure as God made black and white
What’s done in the dark will be brought to the light

We are not afraid of God; God is pure love. God is like Jesus. The wrath of God is a metaphor pointing us to God’s judgment. Click To Tweet

We put our hope in God. If there is to be any fear in us it should be a fear of our own sin and pride and hate and greed and the like, because it is those things that cause us to store up the wrath of God. Don’t be afraid of God and don’t be afraid of terrorism. Trust God. We are the people of God who from ancient times have confessed, “Some trust in chariots and some in horses, but we trust in the name of the Lord our God” (Psalm 20:7 ESV).

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