As a father of seven, a full-time minister, and a part-time farmer I have to work very hard at finding time to read. I hesitantly put down my copy of Ephraim Radner's Brutal Unity, in order to read Brian Zahnd’s Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God. I say hesitantly because I have stated before and continue to believe that Brutal Unity may be the most important book for the church in this generation. However, Radner may now have some competition, not from SITHOALG, which is powerful and much needed, but from the firestorm of conversation it has generated between different traditions within the church. I thought it would only take me a few days to read, since SITHOALG is a short book, but then came the review. That's right, in the furthest reaches of the blogosphere and twitterverse it has come to be known by those two words alone, The Review. I follow an extremely eclectic group of people on twitter and my feed was filled with love and hate for Derek Rishmawy’s review. Derek pointed out many things that I had thought myself while reading and I agreed with many of his criticisms. That being said he also made some fairly egregious mistakes, but none were as offensive as the length. My goodness, Athanasius completed his masterwork On the Incarnation in just a few more pages than it took Rishmawy to review a two hundred and seven page book. I had to download the PDF and print it from our church computer just to make it through. So, along with responding to Derek’s criticisms this article is a plea for a restoration of dialectic brevity.
If you’re anything like me when you read John 3:18, “whoever does not believe is condemned already,” your mind probably assumes that John is referring to atheists, agnostics, or adherents of other religions but that would be a mistake. Most atheists that I have spoken with do not believe BECAUSE what they heard was not the gospel. I agree with Derek’s final sentence that the gospel really is at stake. And he was right that many of Jesus’ parables and teachings do describe wrath and judgement. What he failed to point out, however, is that Jesus’ harshest rebukes and threats of judgement and wrath were reserved for religious leaders who had prayed and thought deeply about what God is like. Many of those leaders had heard the true gospel. The Holy Spirit had revealed to them the infinite depth of God’s love and mercy, but they rejected it. Yes, Jesus says that those who mistreat the poor will experience God’s wrath but the New Testament overwhelmingly points out that it is those who claim to be teachers and mislead people about God’s true nature that will experience the most severe punishment. After all, it is the son who has spent the most time with his father, in the parable of The Prodigal Son, who experiences the most pain at the party.
Take another parable Derek mentions, The Vineyard Owner and the Wicked Tenants, where the vineyard owner clearly represents God the Father and the wicked tenants represent the men and women God has entrusted to care for his kingdom. It is the wicked tenants who experience the wrath of the owner of the vineyard, not the owner’s son. The owner’s son experiences the wrath of the tenants not the wrath of his father. This is important because it highlights the fact that Rishmawy’s theology actually comes up short under the microscope he is using to criticize Zahnd. Penal Substitutionary Atonement is actually the view that does not take sin seriously enough. Yes, men and women will experience the natural consequences of their sin in this life, as Derek and Brian agree, but it is only in the Orthodox system, that Zahnd supports, where sinners experience the consequences of their sin in the next life. Reformed theologians would have you believe that Christ takes the personal punishment “for specific crimes by specific sinners against specific victims” on the cross, but they have a very difficult time explaining what that punishment is. We already agreed that it isn’t the natural consequences of our sin because we all continue to experience those even after coming to faith. And when pushed about whether they believe Christ took the punishments of sinners, as they believe the punishment will be (actual rejection by God and separation from his love) they deny that as well. In the Orthodox view we see that Christ has not taken the punishment of the Father but that we all must face the final judgement.
When someone in this life becomes aware of the truth of God and experiences the pure power of his presence their reaction is much like Isaiah during his encounter described in Isaiah chapter six, or the princess in George McDonald’s Lilith when the slow worm buries itself deep within her bosom. God’s glory reveals to us the reality of our own nature and the pain associated with that revelation would be unbearable if it weren’t for God’s presence. You see this is the reality of God’s wrath in the next life. When we cross over and experience the beatific vision (Orthodox not Catholic version, no time to distinguish or we would end up with a twenty one page review) it will be an almost unbearable agony for some and an almost unbearable ecstasy for others. It will be ecstasy for those like Lazarus, agony for those like the rich man, and possibly unbearable for those who claimed to be teachers and led men and women astray. Please let me explain. Someone who was born into sin, never hears the gospel, committs horrendous atrocities, then meets God face to face will weep and gnash their teeth as they realize the depth of their sin. But it will be like nothing compared to men and women who heard the gospel, who felt the pull of the Holy Spirit calling them to change their minds, and yet they refused. This is the blasphemy of the Holy Spirit, this is the greater strictness, and this is the wrath of the owner of the vineyard.
This is the meaning of wrath in the scriptures and in the Eastern tradition, but when you are overly dismissive of half of Christian history, tradition, and theology you miss it. You miss the depth of their thinking because you never fully engage with it and Rishmawy ultimately ends up as guilty of the sin he is accusing Zahnd of committing. This is also the reason why N.T. Wright has had to work so hard at convincing Western Christianity of the basics of Orthodox Eastern Christianity. You simply can’t understand Orthodox Christianity in its fullness through cursory readings and western criticisms. You have to do the difficult work of studying Eastern theologians throughout history. The truly sad part of this entire debate is the reality that when all the i’s are dotted and all the t’s are crossed there truly is only a hairs width between Derek and Brian’s theology, but the width of that hair makes all the difference in this life and the next.