God's Wrath, The Beatific Vision, Contraception

Anthony Zimmerman
Published in Fidelity Magazine
May, 1991
Reproduced with Permission

The reason for God's wrath against unredeemed sin will be evident in the light of the beatific vision, in the city where "nothing that is under God's curse will be found" (Apoc 22:3). And: "Wisdom will never be at home with anyone who is deceitful or a slave of sin" (Wis 1:4). In that translucent revelation we will see Truth, Justice, and Love at peace with ourselves; with us whose past sins are repaired by Christ's wounds and transformed into a new creation through repentance.

The necessary reaction of God's holiness against sin is described in the Bible as the wrath of God. Sin cannot share the company of His holiness, much as the evil spirits felt threatened by the presence of Christ and fled from Him. The term "wrath" is analogical, however, describing from human experience that rejection of sin which exists in Holiness and Truth.

We recognize human wrath as a forceful and tumultuous, ofttimes out of control and highly passionate reaction against what displeases us, against what we reject physically, psychologically, and/or spiritually, whether rightly or wrongly. The example of Cain comes to mind; how he nurtured the displeasure of his heart against Abel; against the Abel whose sacrifice pleased God, whereas his own was being rejected by God. At this point God reasoned with him: "Because you have done evil sin is crouching at your door. It wants to rule you, but you must overcome it" (Gen 4:7). Instead of following the Lord's guidance, Cain only hardened his heart all the more. Craftily he put on a mask of kindness whereas in his heart he fed his passion for murder; he spoke to Abel: "Let's go out in the fields" (4:8). There he turned, as he had planned, upon his brother Abel and slew him. The shrieks and spurting blood of Abel were a wicked satisfaction for the thirsty passion, and spurred it to ultimate cruelty.

Others who have followed the macabre profession of Cain feed their passion on the squirms and shrieks of their victims, the thrill of murder swelling with the cruelty of the act. The sight and sound of the victim's struggle and death supplies wicked satisfaction. The more the squirms and shrieks, the greater grows the taste and thrill of murder, and the richer is the satisfaction of the passion of anger. The victim's suffering maddens the anger and feeds its fury, swelling the towering rage while it deals blows and stabs to the victim.

When Cain's bitter work was done, and the earth soaked up his brother's blood, it was God's turn to show wrath against Cain. "You are placed under a curse . . . . You will be a homeless wanderer on the earth" (4:11; 12). Leaving the Lord's presence he went off to live in a land called "Wandering" (4:16). We see here an adumbration of hell: Cain wandering forever with a scowl frozen on his face, his heart burning still with unresolved jealousy and hatred for Abel. His wickedness feeds for satisfaction upon the blood on his hands, and he lives-or rather perpetually dies-with a heart forever ignited with the rage of murder. He must separate himself from God's sight; from the proximity of Goodness which only accentuates his shame and fury. (This depiction of the evil deed of Cain is not intended as a judgment on his final state.)

Can we believe that God has wrath which even remotely resembles human wrath as described above? The Holy Spirit invites us to think about this through His revelation in the Book of Job. Job, we may believe, is a type of Christ; of the Christ who was a victim of God's wrath. Job in vivid flights of poetic imagery tells us how it feels to be treated by a wrathful God; experiencing intense pain and rejection, he describes a God who is vengeful, furious, unreasonable, arbitrary; Job's God even gleefully tortures Job to satisfy a towering and uncontrolled anger:

In anger God tears me limb from limb; he glares at me with hate. People sneer at me; they crowd around me and slap my face. God has handed me over to evil men. I was living in peace, but God took me by the throat and battered me and crushed me. God uses me for target practice and shoots arrows at me from every side-arrows that pierce and wound me, and even then he shows no pity. He wounds me again and again, he attacks me like a soldier gone mad with hate (Job 16: 9-14).

Job's manner of speaking has been aptly described as "a wild, stream-of- consciousness spray of confusing contradictory images, as if it depicted a man trying to think in the throes of pain" (Edwin M. Good in Harper's Commentary, p. 412). Job accused God as wildly and randomly as his pains were intense, shouting to God to give an accounting of Himself for this torture. Shooting from the hip, he aired various impressions and theories, hoping thereby to relieve confusion and anxieties, and to provoke God to give an explanation. Deep down Job remained aware that God cannot be unjust and still remain God. Incredibly for Job, his sufferings appear to infuriate God all the more and to further vent His cosmic passion:

Can't you see it is God who has done this? He has set a trap to catch me. I protest his violence, but no one is listening; no one hears my cry for justice. God has blocked the way, and I can't get through; he has hidden my path in darkness. He has taken away all my wealth and destroyed my reputation. He batters me from every side. He uproots my hope and leaves me to wither and die. God is angry and rages against me; he treats me like his worst enemy. He sends his army to attack me; they dig trenches and lay siege to my tent (19:6-12).

Christ, whom Job pre-figured, knew the reality of the answer: God was really angry against the sins of mankind. He struck with fury against the Lamb who vicariously took on Himself the sum total of the wickedness of the world. Christ stank from the sins of the world, and could know what Job meant by the words: "My wife can't stand the smell of my breath, and my own brothers won't come near me.... My closest friends look at me with disgust; those I loved most have turned against me" (Job 19:17;19). Christ's disciple Judas betrayed Him; the other disciples fled; Peter denied Him. (The Immaculate Mother alone remained with Him to affirm His work of atonement, and with her was John and some holy women.) Christ tasted the fury of God against sin until all His redeeming work was consummated. Until then, God used Christ like Job: "For target practice."

Christ, Son of God, Son of man, accepted fully God's rejection of sin combined with His love for the sinner; also in His humanity He was angry with God against sin. He desired nothing more than to "drink the cup" of God's wrath to the dregs, and so still the divine wrath against the sins of the world. In the Garden He stumbles forward to finally face the reality of what it means to be the Lamb of God who is appointed to be sacrificed to quiet the fury of God against sin. The sight of the ghastly passion awaiting Him overpowers His human faculties; God sends an angel to strengthen Him; not to lessen the sufferings, but to strengthen Him to go on with His task of saving the world.

On the cross, Christ gives a recital of the litany of pains which block out all human joy and torture Him furiously, multitudinously, and endlessly. All vision of the goodness of God seems to be blocked out as He is abandoned by God and by His friends, being surrounded instead by scoffing enemies. It must be so. Sin is hateful to God, and if the world is to be redeemed, cosmic rebellion must be uprooted and recreated by means of cosmic obedience; by the obedience of God's Son. In Psalms 22 and 69, for example, we have the Spirit's testimony about Christ's thoughts and pains during His crucifixion.

But while mulling over His pains and humiliation, Christ obeys; He says Yesto the God who allows Him to be persecuted unto death. It is through this Yesunder extreme conditions that Christ fulfills Himself as our Primate, the One who can open the gates to the beatific vision for the sinful people of the world:

The Lord says, It was my will that he should suffer; his death was a sacrifice to bring forgiveness. And so he will see his descendants; he will live a long life, and through him my purpose will succeed. After a life of suffering he will again have joy; he will know that he did not suffer in vain. My devoted servant with whom I am pleased, will bear the punishment of many and for his sake I will forgive them (Is 53:10-11).

The stilling of God's wrath by the consummated obedience of Christ is thus woven into the God's plan for our salvation.

Adam and Eve had tried to hide from God after their sin (Gen 3), as though hiding themselves might prevent their sin from taking effect. In this situation God took the initiative to search for them, and to help them face reality. He heard their confessions, gave penance, reconciled Himself with them, and once more gave them the task of founding our race (cf. Gen 3). David tried to cover over his affair with Bathsheba by having Uriah murdered, but Nathan brought him up short, face to face with what he had done wickedly. David showed his greatness by acknowledging that God was right. "He arose from the floor, took a bath, combed his hair, and changed his clothes. Then he went and worshiped in the house of the Lord" (2 Sam 12:20).He was a better man now. Peter had made a fool of himself before the servant girls, and was in no mood to face Christ, but Christ turned His face to Peter anyway, and then the cock crowed. To right Peter's wrong, Christ asked Peter three times, and before witnesses: "Do you love me?" (Jn 21:15). Repentant Peter said yes; it is a new Peter.

Martin Luther mistakenly decided in his mind that humans are simply depraved by original sin and cannot ever become internally goodagain. To flesh out this mistaken, home-made construct of theology, Martin said that, since we cannot become good again, Christ whitewashes us on the outside with His merits, and so covers over what is evil in us; God pities us then, because when He looks at us He is looking through the merits of Christ; our evil is not imputed to our responsibility.

Not so are the thoughts of Christ. He is our Primate by profession, not one who whitewashes sins. Being familiar with conditions in heaven, He knew that whitewashed sinners would never be comfortable in the beatific vision. Sinners can be at ease with God only after they have rejected sin, agree with God entirely, and accept the re-creation of themselves into children who think like God through the redemptive merits of Christ. Christ knew that He would have to make humans departfrom their evil ways, repentof their sins, and walk again in the ways of God,else there will be no beatific vision for them. He earned the grace for Adam and Eve to confess and repent, for David to rise up and adore God after his bastard child had died, for Peter to say "You know that I love you" after he had sworn that he did not even know that Galilean. No matter what wrong people did, Christ would have to enable all of them to return to righteousness:

Your immortal spirit is in every one of them, and so you gently correct those who sin against you. You remind them of what they are doing, and warn them about it, so that they may abandon their evil ways and put their trust in you, Lord (Wisdom of Solomon, 12:1- 2).

Paul W. Meyer (in Harper's Commentary)comments about God's reaction to sin as expressed in Paul's epistle to the Romans:

Paul's ... intent is not to trivialize the distance between the human and the divine but to sharpen the sense for God's transcendent presence in the face of, and in spite of, human suppression of his truth. The revelation of God's wrath is here (Romans 1:18-32)the reverse side of the manifestation of his righteousness; it is God's divinity asserting itself where it is not recognized by human beings .... The revelation of God's righteousness in the gospel does not take place against the backdrop of the absence of God from a world that has repudiated him; its other side is God's reacting presence in a world over which he remains in charge even when it defies him (p. 1136).

The beatific vision in heaven is no place for us to be ashamed of remaining sin. We are naked there before God and each other, as unashamedly naked as Adam and Eve were before their sin (cf. Gen 2:25). Sinful people would be ashamed of nakedness. In the translucent light of the beatific vision, we must be beautiful inside and out; if not, we would flee the vision, to find more comfort in hell, as Cain fled from the Lord, as Adam and Eve fled into the woods, as Peter dreaded to be looked at by Christ. Truth is not only beautiful, it is also brutal; it must devour and reshape all that is untrue to maintain its absolute state of Truth uncontaminated. Humans must come to terms with truth before they are exposed to the brilliance of the beatific vision, where God, Absolute Truth, annihilates all that is untrue. Because that is the condition of heaven, therefore God must also oppose untruth on earth in people preparing to reach heaven. And so Paul wrote to the Romans:

God's anger is revealed from heaven against all the sin and evil of the people whose evil ways prevent the truth from being known. God punishes them, because what can be known about God is plain to them, for God himself made it plain (Rom 1: 1819).

"The truth which sets us free is a gift of Jesus Christ (cf. Jn 8:32)" are the opening words of the Vatican "Instruction of the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian" (May 27, 1990). The Instruction points to the inner dynamism of truth which opens our way to God:

The truth possesses in itself a unifying force. It frees men from isolation and the opposition in which they have been trapped by ignorance of the truth. And as it opens the way to God, it, at the same time, unites them to each other. Christ destroyed the wall of separation which had kept them strangers to God's promise and to the fellowship of the covenant (cf. Eph 2:12-14).

The Vatican "Instruction on the Ecclesial Vocation of the Theologian" highlights again the duty to assent to the Church's proclamation of God's law against contraception. Though the number of contraceptors is now vast, truth is not reversed by a game of numbers. Holiness and contraception remain incompatible forever. As Pope John Paul stated: "These moral norms are simply the demand -- from which no historical circumstance can dispense -- of the Holiness of God which is shared in the concrete, no longer in the abstract, with the individual human person" ("To Moral Theologians," 12 November 1988).

As the spiritually debilitating virus of contraception spreads and then metastasises in the Catholic body, seminaries and convents empty, Sunday Mass attendance and collections decrease, and confessionals gather dust. Priests remain silent, perhaps doubtful themselves, or perhaps not wishing to extinguish smoking flax (cf Mt 12:20). To play the Good Samaritan is difficult when more people are sick than are healthy. Even the Synod of Bishops preferred not to confront the Church with the problem in 1983: this elemental and far-reaching problem of confessors and penitents is not even touched upon in the document "Reconciliation and Penance" (see The Pope Speaks,Vol. 30, No. 1, 1985). We see much of the Catholic Church to be in a decadent state now, especially in America and Europe, inviting pity as Jeremiah lamented over decaying Jerusalem:

Her uncleanness was easily seen, but she showed no concern for her fate. Her downfall was terrible, no one can comfort her. Her enemies have won .... (Lam 1:9).

That multitudes of Catholic contraceptors arc not clearly guilty, if in a state of socially induced ignorance, probably salvages much good will which may come to life again. But the very fact that this massive ignorance has become a kind of folklore is a challenge to those in the Church whose profession is teaching doctrine. Dissenters have deceived many, who in turn were only too willing to be deceived. By definition, dissenters are disqualified as ecclesial teachers. In the meantime millions of Catholics apparently sank into a stupor of conscience which has become stultified, and from which they do not easily awaken. Apropos to the numbers game is this statement of the aforesaid Vatican declaration:

This (plurality) cannot mean that it is possible to accept conclusions contrary to that mystery and it certainly does not put into question the truth of those assertions by which the Magisterium has declared itself. (29) As to the "parallel magisterium", it can cause great spiritual harm by opposing itself to the Magisterium of the Pastors. Indeed, when dissent succeeds in extending its influence to the point of shaping a common opinion, it tends to become the rule of conduct. This cannot but seriously trouble the People of God and lead to contempt for true authority. (30)

Dissent sometimes also appeals to a kind of sociological argumentation which holds that the opinion of a large number of Christians would be a direct and adequate expression of the "supernatural sense of the faith."

The document then shows that this cannot be a true sense of the faith, one enlivened by the Holy Spirit, because it is not true, and the Spirit does not teach untruth to the faithful.

How does God regard ignorance of His ways? We know that He is disgusted with people who "don't know His ways":

Forty years I endured that generation. I said, "They are a people whose hearts go astray; and they do not know my ways." So I swore in my anger, "They shall not enter into my rest" (Ps 95).

The sin of contraception -- not knowing God's ways -- still continues to spread among the people of God, rather than being contained. We fervently hope that the Vatican Instruction, which declares unequivocally that dissent is not permissible, may mark the low point of the outgoing tide.

To follow the Lord's ways means that we must obey Him by bridling our sexual Instinct for the purpose of family life, as God arranged it. We must keep a tight rein on the instinct outside of marriage and refrain from its misuse during marriage. That spells a lifestyle of vigilance and self-control, real effort to toe the straight and narrow, to practice solid virtue also when it is hard, and to confess and rise again after each lapse. We agree to cooperate with the Lord to carry on that battle for virtue which the Lord expects us to wage and to win. Earnest battles are not won by playboys, and holding a tight rein on the sex instinct is usually not a picnic.

We might say that controlling sexual tensions is the kind of spiritual calisthenics designed for our age of many comforts. Without that battle we might become spiritually flabby and impotent. Past generations had to deal with hardships such as hunger, numerous sicknesses, severe cold and heat, hard labor -- much of which is now a memory for us. We ride to work in air-conditioned cars or trams, fill our freezers from the supermarket shelves, relieve pains with pain relievers. But we cannot get away from the pull of sexual tensions which are in our very bodies, and remain our primary challenge to fight for virtue and for our eternal reward with God.

That parents who contracept today are loath to teach their children chastity tends to precipitate the speed of our catastrophic decadence. We know that there are parents who feel pity for their children, who don't teach chastity because they don't want their children to go through those tensions and battles which they experienced when young. They have given up on the idea of "Beatus vir, qui suffert tentationem: quoniam cum probatus fuerit, recipiet coronam vitae."Happy the man who endures temptations: when he has proven his worth, he will receive the crown of life. Decadence feeds upon its own corruption.

Fortified by the Vatican declaration against dissent, shall we denounce contraception from the pulpit? Shall we advise from the Communion stand that couples who use the Pill should not come forward? There might be special occasions when this is good pastoral practice, for example at well worked out missions. On the whole, however, we have to make up for past omissions by gradual education in the Lord's ways. Those who teach in the name of Christ must remember that He gave ample room for goodness to reassert itself among an erring people: "He will not break off a bent reed, nor put out a flickering lamp" (Mt 12:20). There are ways to teach which invite good people gently to come back into the fold.

The Vatican Instruction zeroes in against dissent, but does not even mention the word contraception. We may do well to follow that cue in our pastoral work. Henceforth the war against dissent can and must be waged, from the pulpit, from the teacher's podium, with the printed word, on the air waves, in the confessional. The People of God should hear over and over again that they have a right to be told the truth, the truth which makes us free. What truth? Bring the news gently: for example, make the study of Natural Family Planning mandatory for those who marry in the Church. Announce this often from the pulpit. This teaches the contraceptors and the sterilized among our parishioners indirectly without ramming it down their throats.

We priests must be the last to shield our people from knowing that sin invites God's wrath; a wrath which closes off heaven to all sinners. We don't want our parishioners to spit at us in eternity, scowling like Cain; or frozen in an eternal objection against God's ways, like Job who moaned that he was being used by God for target practice.