There’s a haunting text in the Book of Revelation where poetic image, for all its beauty, can be dangerously misleading. The author there writes: “So the angel swung his sickle over the earth and cut the earth’s vintage. He threw it into the great winepress of God’s fury.” A fierce angel cleansing the world! God in a boiling anger! What’s to be understood by that?
Like so many other things in Scripture, this is to be taken seriously, but not literally. Clearly the text, as other texts in Scripture that speak of God’s jealousy, anger and vengeance, has something important to teach, but, like those other texts which have God jealous and angry, it can be dangerously misunderstood. What it doesn’t teach is that God gets angry, that God is sometimes furious with us, and that God wreaks havoc on the planet because of sin. What it does teach is that the chickens always come home to roost, that our actions have consequences, that sin wreaks havoc on the planet and on our own souls, driving us to anger, self-hatred and lack of self-forgiveness, and that this feels as if God is angry and punishing us.
God doesn’t get angry, pure and simple. God is not a creature, another existent among others, a being like us. God’s ways are not our ways. This has been affirmed from Isaiah through 2,000 years of Christian tradition. We cannot project our way of being, thinking, and loving unto God. And nowhere is this truer than when we imagine God as getting angry. Mercy, love, and forgiveness are not attributes of God, as they are for us. They constitute God’s nature. God doesn’t get angry like we do.
Scripture and Christian tradition do, of course, speak of God as getting angry, but that, as Christian theology clearly teaches, is anthropomorphism, that is, it is a projection of human thought and feeling unto God. In saying things such as God is angry with us or God is punishing us for our sins, we are not, in essence, saying how God feels about us, but rather how we, at that moment, feel about God and how we feel about ourselves and our own actions.
For example, when St. Paul tells us that when we sin, we feel “the wrath of God,” he is not telling us that God gets angry with us when we sin. Rather, we get angry with ourselves when we sin. The concept of God’s wrath is a metaphor, illustrated, for example, by a hangover: if someone is immoderate in his or her use of alcohol, God doesn’t get displeased and give that person a headache. The wrath issues from the act itself: excessive alcohol dehydrates the brain, causing a headache. The pain is not from God, though it feels like divine punishment, like God’s fury at our irresponsibility. But this is a projection on our part, anthropomorphism.
We flatter ourselves, and do God no favours, when we say that we offend God and that God gets angry with us. God is not just the ground of our being, our Creator, the Unmoved Mover. God is too a person who loves us individually and passionately, and so it is natural to imagine that God sometimes gets angry, natural to project our own limits unto God. But God’s love and mercy infinitely dwarf our own thoughts and feelings and limited capacities to actualize love in our lives. Imagine, for example, a loving grandparent picking up his or her newborn grandchild: Is there anything the newborn can do to offend that grandparent? God’s maturity, understanding, and love infinitely dwarf that of any grandparent. How is God to be offended?
Yet, still, isn’t the language of God’s anger a vital part of our tradition, our scriptures, our prayers, our psalms, and our liturgy? They all speak of us as offending God and as God getting angry. Are these simply to be written off? No. They teach an important truth, even as they must be called for what they are, anthropomorphisms. They are meant to challenge the soul the way indigestion challenges the body. God doesn’t punish us for eating the wrong things or for overeating. Our own biology does and, in doing so, it sends us a nasty signal that we’ve been doing something wrong. Metaphorically speaking, indigestion comes at you like a vengeful angel and throws you into the great winepress of biological fury.
God doesn’t hate us when we do something wrong, but we hate ourselves; God doesn’t wreak a vengeance on us when we sin, but we beat ourselves up whenever we do; and God never withholds forgiveness from us, no matter what we’ve done, but we find it very difficult to forgive ourselves for our own transgressions.
There is indeed an angelic razor and a winepress of God’s fury, but those are names for the experience of discontent and self-hatred inside of us whenever we are unfaithful. They have nothing to do with God’s nature.
Rolheiser, theologian, teacher and award-winning author, is president of the Oblate School of Theology in San Antonio, Texas.