Divine Anger and Divine Mercy
A Note on the Supposed Opposition between the God of the Old Testament and the God Revealed in the Person of Jesus

Doug McManaman
Reproduced with Permission

Many people suppose that there is a dichotomy between the God revealed in the Old Testament Scriptures and the God revealed in the New--even among Catholics. The God of the Old Testament is regarded as a God of anger, vengeance, and judgment, whereas the God of the New Testament is said to be a God of mercy, forgiveness, and love. I have wondered about the source of this supposed opposition, and I continue to do so. Whatever the source, it is certainly not the Scriptures. Let's take a quick glance through the pages of both the Old and New Testaments in order to test the veracity of this particular hermeneutics. What better place to begin than the very personal and religious experience of Israel.

The Old Testament

How did the Israelites experience their God, who entered into a covenant relationship with Abraham, and who renewed that covenant with Isaac, Jacob, Moses and David? Let us turn to Psalm 13, 5: "But I trusted in your steadfast love; my heart shall rejoice in your salvation. I will sing to the Lord, because he has dealt bountifully with me." Or, Psalm 103, 2-14:

Bless the Lord, O my soul, and do not forget all his benefits - who forgives all your iniquity, who heals all your diseases, who redeems your life from the Pit, who crowns you with steadfast love and mercy, who satisfies you with good as long as you live so that your youth is renewed like the eagle's.

The Lord works vindication and justice for all who are oppressed. He made known his ways to Moses, his acts to the people of Israel. The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always accuse, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as the heavens are high above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far he removes our transgressions from us. As a father has compassion for his children, so the Lord has compassion for those who fear him. For he knows how we were made; he remembers that we are dust.

Consider Psalm 117, 1-2: "Praise the Lord, all you nations! Extol him, all you peoples! For great is his steadfast love toward us, and the faithfulness of the Lord endures forever. Praise the Lord!" Or, Psalm 25, 10: "All the paths of the Lord are steadfast love and faithfulness."

We could continue quoting the Psalms, but these four should be enough to alert us to the very real possibility that the dichotomy we spoke of above is false. Let us glance briefly at some of the prophets of Israel. Consider Micah, 7, 18-19: "Who is a God like you, pardoning iniquity and passing over the transgression of the remnant of your possession? He does not retain his anger forever, because he delights in showing clemency. He will again have compassion upon us; he will tread our iniquities under foot. You will cast all our sins into the depths of the sea." Or, consider Joel, 2, 13: "Return to the Lord, your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love, and relents from punishing." Isaiah, 41, 10, a text we should remember and repeat to ourselves whenever we are overcome by fear: "Do not fear, for I am with you, do not be afraid, for I am your God; I will strengthen you, I will help you, I will uphold you with my victorious right hand." Or Jeremiah, 33, 3: "Call to me and I will answer you, and will tell you great and hidden things that you have not known." The prophet Hosea is a good place to look for historical evidence of God's fidelity and mercy towards his unfaithful bride: "Return, O Israel, to the Lord your God, for you have stumbled because of your iniquity...I will heal their disloyalty, I will love them freely, for my anger has turned from them. I will be like the dew of Israel...They shall again live beneath my shadow, they shall flourish as a garden; they shall blossom like the vine, their fragrance shall be like the wine of Lebanon" (14, 1-8).

Or, consider the entire book of Tobit as an illustration of God's totally unexpected intimacy and faithfulness; for he hears the prayers of Tobit and Sarah, offered from the very depths of their misery. Without their awareness, God sends an angel of the highest rank to guide and protect Tobias on his journey to Media and to bring healing and peace to the life of his father Tobit and Sarah, his bride to be. After doing so, the archangel Raphael exhorts them: "Bless God and acknowledge him in the presence of all the living for the good things he has done for you. Bless and sing praise to his name. With fitting honor declare to all people the deeds of God. Do not be slow to acknowledge him" (12, 6). And Tobit's joy at the intimacy and the inexhaustible mercy of God is so great that he cannot help but cry out: "Blessed be God who lives forever,...He will afflict you for your iniquities, but he will again show mercy on all of you...If you turn to him with all your heart and with all your soul, to do what is true before him, then he will turn to you and will no longer hide his face from you. So now see what he has done for you; acknowledge him at the top of your voice" (13, 1-6). And this was only a fraction of the thanksgiving Tobit offered in that chapter.

Such texts of the Old Testament can be multiplied almost indefinitely. But what becomes abundantly clear to anyone who chooses to read the Old Testament with just a modicum of care is that the people Israel have never experienced their God as fundamentally angry and vengeful. No doubt we find texts that speak of the divine anger: "...for great is the anger and wrath that the Lord has pronounced against this people" (Jer, 36, 7). Or, "Therefore, thus says the Lord, the God of hosts, the God of Israel: I am going to bring on Judah and on all the inhabitants of Jerusalem every disaster that I have pronounced against them; because I have spoken to them and they have not listened, I have called them and they have not answered" (Jer, 35, 17-19). And such texts as these can be multiplied as well. But the question at this point is twofold: Are these depictions of the divine anger incompatible with the revelation of the divine love? And, is the New Testament so devoid of such a tone that the supposed dichotomy is well founded?

The New Testament

Let us explore sections from the New Testament to see whether its pages contain any support for this opposition between the two testaments. But where do we begin? We have a sense of how the people of Israel experienced their God; how did the people of first century Palestine experience Jesus? Let's begin with Peter's declaration about Jesus: "Now when Jesus came into the district of Caesarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, "who do people say that the Son of Man is?" And they said, "some say John the Baptist, but others Elijah, and still others Jeremiah or one of the prophets" (Mt 16, 13-14).

In other words, Jesus sounded like the Old Testament prophets. He sounded so much like John the Baptist that some people thought he was John. Upon seeing the Pharisees and Sadducess coming for baptism, John cried out: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our ancestor'; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire" (Mt 3, 7-10). Compare this with the sevenfold indictment of the scribes and Pharisees in Matthew and it becomes obvious how some could confuse Jesus with John (Cf Mt, 23, 1-32). In addition, the more texts we bring forth from Jeremiah or any one of the prophets that highlight the divine anger, the more we refute the claim that the revelation of the New Testament is fundamentally at odds with the revelation of the Old Testament.

But is it possible that the people were confused about Jesus' identity? Certainly. And they will always be, which is why the Church that Christ established is not a democracy. The people got it wrong. Even the first bishops were silent. It was Peter who spoke up, and he got it right: "For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father in heaven" (Mt, 16, 17). So all we have to uncover at this point is how the early Church experienced God in the Person of Christ, and how this definitive revelation was interpreted and expressed. We have plenty of evidence that Christ was understood to have come to redeem what was his: "For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him might not perish but might have eternal life" (Jn 3, 16). There is no dispute about whether Christ revealed a God of love and mercy. The question is whether the New Testament revelation is silent on anger, vengeance and judgment (as the Old Testament is said to have been silent on love and mercy) to such an extent that this supposed dichotomy is justified. Let us turn to the Gospel of Matthew:

Then he began to reproach the cities in which most of his deeds of power had been done, because they did not repent. Woe to you, Chorazin! Woe to you, Bethsaida! For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Tyre and Sidon, they would have repented long ago in sackcloth and ashes. But I tell you, on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for Tyre and Sidon than for you. And you, Capernaum, will you be exalted to heaven? No, you will be brought down to Hades. For if the deeds of power done in you had been done in Sodom, it would have remained until this day. But I tell you that on the day of judgment it will be more tolerable for the land of Sodom than for you (11, 20-24).

Indeed, it is revealing to compare the number of times Jesus spoke of hell and judgment with the number of times any of us has heard those very words from the pulpit within the last twenty-five years. In Matthew alone, there are nineteen references to hell and judgment in only twenty-eight chapters, which amounts to more than one reference every two pages (Cf. Mt 5, 22; Mt 5, 30; Mt 7, 13; Mt 7, 19; Mt 7, 21-23; Mt 10, 39; Mt 11, 23-24; Mt 12, 37; Mt 13, 30; Mt 13, 40-43; Mt 13, 49-50; Mt 21, 40-41; Mt 22, 13-14; Mt 23, 15; Mt 23, 33; Mt 24, 50-51; Mt 25, 11-12; Mt 25, 30; Mt 25, 31-46). In light of the contention that the God of Jesus is non-judgmental and impassive, consider the parable of the Weeds: "The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Mt 13, 41-43). A few lines later we read: "So it will be at the end of the age. The angels will come out and separate the evil from the righteous and throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth" (Mt 13, 49-50). Or note the following: "Now when the owner of the vineyard comes, what will he do to those tenants? They said, to him, "He will put those wretches to a miserable death, and lease the vineyard to other tenants who will give him the produce at the harvest time" (Mt 21, 40-41). Or consider the parable of the Wedding Banquet: "'Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?' And he was speechless. Then the king said to the attendants, 'Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.' For many are called, but few are chosen" (Mt 22, 12-14). We could multiply texts such as these almost indefinitely as well, but consider Mother Teresa's favourite and most oft-quoted parable: "Then he will say to those at his left hand, 'You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, ...Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.' And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life" (Mt 25, 41-46).

A Note on Divine Anger

Are these texts which highlight the divine anger and judgment incompatible with the revelation of divine love? I contend that only those who fail to understand the emotion of anger and its relationship to love will see in these texts an eclipse of the divine love, rather than a revelation of the divine pathos, that is, the Son's intense love for the Father and all that belongs to Him. For anger originates in reason. It is aroused when a person beholds an injustice. The object of anger is a good, namely retribution, which is something very different from revenge. Justice (the enactment of retribution) is the virtue that perfects the will. The truly just person always wills that what is due to another person or community be completely rendered. Religion is the most perfect part of the virtue of justice, and so the truly just man (such as Tobit, Daniel, or Joseph) wills to render to God what is His due, and this debt has a certain priority over all other debts. The emotion of anger, when governed by reason, moves a person towards the restoration of the order of fairness, an order that was disturbed by an offender's willful violation of the rights of others. Such a restoration is the essential point of punishment.

Now love wills the good, and so anger is rooted in love. The parent who cannot find it in himself to be angry does not love his children enough. Only the one who loves justice becomes angry - for punishment is ordered towards rectifying the will of the offender, that is, towards improving his character. As Aquinas argues, the more excellent a person is, the more prone he is to anger (Cf. S. T. I-II, 47, 3). In fact, the more intense and ardent one's love for God, the greater the sense of sin and its inherent rottenness. Conversely, the cooler one's love, the more indifferent one is to sin--an indifference that is easily disguised as tolerance.

So does God literally become angry? No, for anger is an emotion, and God is not subject to motion. It is only man who needs to be "moved" by emotion towards rectifying injustice, because man is not entirely rational. The emotions help in the execution of reason's command, but God has no need of being moved towards rectifying injustice. He is the first cause of all movement, and He is moved by nothing, for there is nothing prior to God to move Him. But the way to understand this is not to imagine the human person minus the emotion of anger and project such a stoic likeness onto God; for we exist in His likeness, not vice versa. Anger exists in God not so much as a passion, but as pathos, that is, as the perfection of justice. We can legitimately refer to the divine anger precisely because we can really speak of a divine pathos. Scripture scholar Abraham Heschel writes:

Pathos means: God is never neutral, never beyond good and evil. He is always partial to justice. It is not a name for a human experience, but the name for an object of human experience. It is something the prophets meet with, something eventful, current, present in history as well as in nature. … the divine pathos is the unity of the eternal and the temporal, of meaning and mystery, of the metaphysical and the historical. It is the real basis of the relation between God and man, of the correlation of Creator and creation, of the dialogue between the Holy One of Israel and His people. The characteristic of the prophets is not foreknowledge of the future, but insight into the present pathos of God. (The Prophets, Vol. II, p.11)

Pathos is a mark of excellence. Even in the Old Testament, the intensity of the divine anger is rooted in - and can only be properly understood in light of - the intensity of the divine love for Israel. The God of Deism--as well as the impassive God of some Christians--is apathetic, and few of us regard apathy as a perfection. Such a God would not be greater than man, but less; for an emotionless man is not fully a man at all, but an apathetic one.

So does God punish sin? If God is not below reason, but above reason, the answer can only be an unqualified yes. Only a God of pure apatheia could allow sin and injustice to go unpunished - and it is precisely a perceived apatheia that constitutes the heart of the rationale for most atheism. But the punishment meted out for sin is nothing other than our own personal disintegration and the havoc that our sins wreak upon our lives and circumstances: "See how they conceive evil, and are pregnant with mischief, and bring forth lies. They make a pit, digging it out, and fall into the hole that they have made. Their mischief returns upon their own heads, and on their own heads their violence descends" (Ps. 7: 14-16). All things came to be through the Word. The eternal Person of the Son is our origin, and so it is only by returning to the Word that we become the persons we were originally intended to be. Sin reroutes that return. Sin and disobedience to God constitutes an indirect attack upon our own nature, that is, our own personal destruction is built into the very fabric of sin. If we sin, we will inevitably suffer. The prophetic faith, moreover, makes no sense otherwise.

The popular opposition between the Old and New Testaments is really nothing more than the resurrection of the ancient heresy of Marcionism. In his Address to the Pontifical Biblical Commission (April 11, 1997), John Paul II writes:

Since the second century A.D., the Church has been faced with the temptation to separate the New Testament completely from the Old, and to oppose one to the other, attributing to them two different origins. The Old Testament, according to Marcion, came from a god unworthy of the name because he was vindictive and bloodthirsty, while the New Testament revealed a God of reconciliation and generosity. The Church firmly rejected this error, reminding all that God's tenderness was already revealed in the Old Testament. Unfortunately, the Marcionite temptation is making its appearance again in our time. However what occurs most frequently is an ignorance of the deep ties linking the New Testament to the Old, an ignorance that Christians have nothing in common with Jews.

Everything that the Father can say about Himself has been said definitively in the Person of Christ: "Have I been with you for so long a time and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'?" (Jn 14, 9). Christ is "the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation...For in him all the fullness was pleased to dwell" (Col 1, 15-19). And so he reveals, in the flesh, the inexhaustible, unexpected and intimate love (pathos) of the Father for the world, a love that Israel really knew and celebrated. Jesus is that love in the flesh, a love that has come among us: Behold, the virgin shall be with child and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means "God is with us" (Mt 1, 23).