Part VI of “The End of the World as We Know It: The Book of Revelation”
When you join the United Methodist Church, you are asked a series of questions in the baptismal liturgy like, “Do you renounce the spiritual forces of wickedness, reject the evil powers of this world, and repent of your sin?” and “Do you accept the freedom and power God gives you to resist evil, injustice, and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves?” These are good questions, thoughtful questions, but they are also fairly easy questions to answer in the affirmative (I’ve never had anyone say, “No, I actually embrace evil” when I’ve asked them the questions!). After all, we can cognitively understand that rejecting evil and resisting it is a good thing—it’s something even our government wants to do, though more with weapons than with worship.
But if you were to join one of the early Methodist societies started by the Wesley brothers, the first question you would be asked was quite different—one that is less about our ability to resist evil than about God’s ability to deal with it. As John Wesley put it at the beginning of the General Rules of the United Societies:
“There is only one condition previously required of those who desire admission into these societies, ‘a desire to flee from the wrath to come, and to be saved from their sins.’ But wherever this is really fixed in the soul, it will be shown by its fruits. It is therefore expected of all who continue therein that they shall continue to evidence their desire of salvation.”
“Do you have a desire to flee from the wrath to come?” Members of those early Methodist class meetings would have been asked that question thousands of times over the course of their lifetimes. Right at the outset of the General Rules, Wesley acknowledges what much of the Bible teaches—that God’s wrath, God’s judgment, is coming on the world. The Methodists took the warning of John the Baptizer from our Gospel lesson seriously—that the only response to God’s wrath was to “bear fruit worthy of repentance.” Those early societies were designed to be places in which people could be transformed by God’s grace, saved from their sins, and kept out of the way of God’s coming judgment on the world.
But Methodists don’t talk much about God’s wrath anymore. In fact, a lot of Christianity in the 21st century seems to have forgotten God’s wrath altogether or at least prefers to see it as primarily an Old Testament view that the New Testament message of God’s grace superseded. In fact, that’s one of the questions I get a lot: Is the God of the Old Testament different than the God of the New? Did God somehow change his mind? Many mainline Christians think of God’s judgment as something that only whacky fundamentalists preach. Images of fire and brimstone belong to preachers of a different time. We’re much more enlightened now. We’ve come a long way from Jonathan Edward’s vision of Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God and now we prefer our God to be a little more like Oprah, dispensing some popular wisdom while being all sweetness and light.
As I’ve said before, however, much of 21st century American Christianity suffers from biblical illiteracy that leads to a shallow and vague notion of God’s character and that, in turn, leads to a theology that is best described as moralistic therapeutic deism. The gospel of moralistic therapeutic deism goes something like this: I am a spiritual person who believes in God, however I choose to define that word. My chief end is to be happy and fulfilled, knowing that I can call on God when I need something. I am a good person, and good people go to heaven when they die.” That’s an echo of Richard Niebuhr’s definition of the theology of much of modern Christianity: “A God without wrath brought people without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of Christ without a cross.”
A few years back I attended a lecture by New Testament scholar Marcus Borg, whose work is very popular among progressive Christians. He was part of the infamous Jesus Seminar, which attempted to chop out most of the Gospels by denying Jesus’ divinity and his bodily resurrection from the dead. I went to the lecture because it’s sometimes good to understand the argument of those with whom you (and most of classical, biblical Christianity) disagree. In the Q&A, I asked Professor Borg if he believed in God’s judgment and he said, flatly, “No. I believe that, in the end, all of us are simply absorbed into God, like a drop of water in the ocean.” Borg died a couple of weeks ago, and when I heard that news it reminded me of what one of my professors at Asbury, Joseph Wang, said when Rudolf Bultmann died back in the 1970s—Bultmann being a forerunner of much of the progressive skepticism about Jesus that Borg promoted. Dr. Wang, a fierce disciple of Jesus, came into class one day and said, in his Taiwanese-accented English. “Bultmann dead—now he know!”
In terms of God’s judgment, you can know now or you can know later. John Wesley knew that now is better! He wanted the people called Methodist to know, just like John the Baptizer and Jesus wanted their people to know: God’s judgment is coming on the world. God will not put up with evil forever. God will not let the people he created in his image simply be absorbed into a nebulous future. God is doing and will do something decisive with his creation. We ignore that fact at our peril.
We see this played out here in Revelation 16. A voice from heaven tells seven angels, to “Go and pour out on the earth the seven bowls of the wrath of God.” These bowls contain plagues, reminiscent of the plagues of Egypt in the book of Exodus. But just like those plagues were designed to get Pharaoh and the Egyptians to repent, to worship God, and let God’s people go, the seven bowls of wrath are designed to get those perpetrating evil in the world to turn and acknowledge God as Lord.
This image of God’s judgment at the end of the Bible is just a snapshot of what the text has been saying all along since Genesis. God’s wrath is a theme in both and the Old and New Testaments—the same God offering both grace and judgment. We can’t ignore that fact.
Recently, Adam Hamilton, who pastors the largest church in American Methodism, published a book in which he proposed dividing the Bible into three categories or “buckets” based on how one might choose to deal with a particular passage. The first bucket contains Scriptures that express God’s heart and character, and his timeless will for human beings. The second bucket contains Scriptures that expressed God’s will in a particular time, but are no longer binding, while the third bucket contains Scriptures that never fully expressed the heart and character of God. It’s no secret that this is how a lot of people read the Bible today, with many of the passages about God’s wrath being consigned to that third bucket.
As much as I respect Adam and what he’s done for the United Methodist Church, I don’t agree with him here. If we read the Bible this way, make it subject to our own personal views and interpretations instead of letting the Bible interpret our lives. Yes, we must read the Bible contextually as I have often argued, but we cannot pick and choose what we want the Bible to say without doing great violence to the received Word of God. And that Word contains a lot about God’s judgment—a fact that God himself warns us not to take lightly.
The Old Testament certainly displays incidences where God’s wrath is poured out—Sodom and Gomorrah, for example, where God smokes a wicked city with fire from heaven. As I mentioned earlier, however, many Christians have a hard time reconciling those graphic Old Testament images with the God they see revealed in Jesus Christ, thus they want to consign those stories to Hamilton’s third bucket. But don’t miss the fact that the New Testament doesn’t let up on the judgment of God. Jesus himself spoke about it—the kingdom of God is like a net that gathers up good fish and bad and the bad are thrown into the fire; I was hungry, did you feed me? I was thirsty, did you give me a drink? If not, you will be cast out. Jesus speaks about hell, using the image of the garbage dump outside Jerusalem as a metaphor. He speaks about condemnation, of weeping and gnashing of teeth, of a final judgment. Paul picks up the theme of judgment in Romans 1, where the “wrath of God” is already being poured out on people who sin without remorse. Marcus Borg didn’t believe in God’s judgment and others want to largely put it in a bucket to be tossed, but the Scriptures won’t have it. John Wesley’s question, “Do you have a desire to flee from the wrath to come?” isn’t just his question. It’s a biblical one—and a key one at that.
If there’s still any lingering doubt about that, we should remember that the first public word out of the mouths of John the Baptizer and Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel is the word, “Repent.” Here’s another word, like “wrath” that’s largely been taken out of the vocabulary of the 21st century church. To repent means literally to change, to change one’s mind and to change one’s way of living. It means to turn from one way and toward another. Moralistic Therapeutic Deism believes that God will adapt to our changing circumstances, beliefs, and preferences. That word “repent” kicks that bucket of rubbish over. Repentance and belief are conjoined in the Gospels—it is not merely a matter of what one cognitively accepts but whether that belief leads to change and conformity to the way of Christ that matters. Repentance is the first step in fleeing from the wrath to come.
In Revelation 16:9 we see the consequences of failure to repent. The fourth angel pours out his bowl on the sun, which scorches the wicked with fierce heat. But even though they are feeling the flames, there still those, in the end, who will obstinately refuse to repent and give God glory. What’s clear from the Scriptures is that God honors their choices.
One of the major objections I hear from people about God is that they can’t believe in a God who would send people to hell, which some Christians have morphed into a belief that there is no such thing as hell. But it’s clear from the Scriptures that there is such a state of being apart from God—a state that we can choose if we so desire. God doesn’t send us there so much as we choose it. I had a professor in seminary, Jerry Walls, who wrote a book entitled Hell: The Logic of Damnation. In that book, Jerry posited that if you could show people a video tape of what life apart from God, life in hell, was like, there are some who would still choose that fate over giving their obedience and worship to God. They will exercise their free will until the end.
As Revelation 16-20 tell us, God will fight the final battle with evil and, ultimately, cast it out of his good creation. The reference to “Harmageddon” at the end of chapter 16 is a symbol of that battle—symbolically set on the plain of Jezreel near Megiddo, where battles have been fought for more than 5,000 years. The message of Revelation, echoing the message of Jesus, is that you have to choose sides. John called the Pharisees and Sadducees a “brood of vipers,” children of the serpent, for even though they were outwardly religious their fruit was rotten. The ax is now lying at the base of the tree, said John, and if you’re not bearing fruit, the fruit of repentance that enables you to flee from the wrath to come, you’re destined for the fire. As Bob Dylan once sang, when he was a Christian for about 20 minutes in the 80s, “You’re gonna have to serve somebody.”
That’s the choice we have to make. But it’s not just a desire to flee from something, it’s also a desire to flee toward something—and when we repent and believe, what we are turning toward is God’s grace. Wesley understood, as did the biblical writers and the early church fathers, that God’s grace and God’s judgment were both necessary aspects of God’s character. We cannot save ourselves, we must repent and believe that God can do it for us. And when we repent and believe, God’s grace begins to shape our character into the people God created us to be—people made in his image. This is the heart of the gospel—that God is putting the world right (judgment), so God puts people right (grace), so that they might be his right-putting people (vocation). We flee from wrath into the arms of grace; grace that overcomes our brokenness, that changes our will so that we desire nothing but God and to do his will. When we take seriously God’s wrath, we then seek more earnestly to grow in God’s grace. Without God’s grace offered to us in Jesus, we remain at odds with God and subject to his wrath. That makes his grace all the more vital for us.
That’s not to say, however, that we should spend our time running about threatening people with God’s wrath, judgment and the fires of hell; but we need to do better in talking about God’s wrath in conjunction with God’s grace. It doesn’t seem like talking about God’s wrath is a good idea at all. If you were to put that proposal in front of a church marketing firm they’d tell you that the poll numbers wouldn’t be good. People, we’ve been led to believe, will never respond to hearing news like that.
The truth is, however, that speaking the truth about God’s wrath alongside God’s grace is a strategy that has been very effective historically. When Jonathan Edwards preached Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God it caused people in the crowd to constantly interrupt him shouting, “What shall I do to be saved?” It was the catalyst for the Great Awakening in early 18th century America. People flocked to the Methodist movement in England, even though the first question they were asked upon joining was, “Do you have a desire to flee from the wrath to come?”
That doesn’t mean that we spit fire and brimstone in our preaching and teaching, or our sharing Christ with our neighbors. What it does mean, however, is that our testimony begins with recognizing the sin and brokenness out of which we have been redeemed from God’s wrath—which isn’t just a future reality. Remember, often God punishes us by allowing us to have what we want. If we want to go the path of greed, of addiction, of sexual promiscuity, of idolatry, of any other sin, God allows us to do that and to experience the consequences in this life as well as in the next. When we are able to articulate what we have escaped from and what we found when we fled into the arms of Jesus, then we have an audience that’s ready to hear.
In the book Unchristian, which is a survey of religious attitudes of younger generations in America, one of the key things that turns people off to the church in the 21st century is our failure to be authentic, to admit that we are sinners who are saved only by God’s grace. We’ve made our churches bigger, our worship slicker, our coffee more Starbuck-sy, and our fellowship more smarmy, which communicates that God is only interested in those who have it all together and we have to keep pretending in order to keep up the facade. The culture brands us as hypocrites and we argue, “Who, us?”
But, friends, I think that’s where knowing what we’ve been saved from is critical. Truth is, we don’t have it together, and we need to start there. Truth is that we couldn’t get ourselves out of that situation, that childhood, that addiction, that family crisis, that bad mistake, that horrific lifestyle on our own. We’ve all lived our preview of hell on earth, and we have to be willing to spill that story. We need to be honest—we were subject to the wrath of God poured out on a broken world. And if it weren’t for Jesus—well, let me tell you that story…
This is about getting back to basics. How might the church become more focused if the first membership question was again, “Do you desire to flee from the wrath to come?” That’s the question that would change the church. It’s the question that changed 18th century England because the Methodist movement began working from the inside out in the lives of its people. The class meetings became something like AA for sinners—a place where struggling people got real and helped one another to grow in grace. It’s time for the church to recapture that humility and spirit. Only then will we make an impact on a broken, hurting world—the world that God is putting right.
Do you have a desire to flee from the wrath to come? If so, you are welcome here with the rest of us—sinners saved by grace. Amen.
Burton-Edwards, Taylor. “Can We Still Talk About…? Part 1: The Wrath to Come.” EmergingUMC Web Site. May 17, 2011.
Lawler, Paul. “Wesley, Wrath, and the Revival That Changed a Nation.” Seedbed.com. June 16, 2014.