Mercy: If God is merciful, why does the Bible contain threats?

The Bible draws a portrait of a God who is Love and who wants human beings to have life in fullness. Although this conviction comes to us through Jesus Christ, it is already found throughout the Scriptures of Israel. The Bible begins with the story of creation, placing at center-stage a God who, far from keeping back what he has for himself, desires to share everything with other beings that he will call into existence. After this we find the heart of the faith of Israel, the epic of the God who liberates a group of slaves and makes them into his own people, called to be, by the quality of their life together, a sign of his presence and compassion in the midst of creation.

What is more, God never abandons his loving designs. When his people turn away from him, God keeps looking for ways to set them back on the right road. Always ready to forgive, and in this way different from human beings (see Isaiah 55:6-9), God shows himself to be “the God of mercy and compassion, slow to anger, overflowing with loving-kindness and faithfulness” (Psalm 86:15).

But if God is described as “slow to anger,” does that mean he can sometimes get angry? During Israel’s journey through the wilderness, we read that, on several occasions, “God’s anger flared up against his people” who were disobedient (Numbers 11:33; cf. 11:1; 12,9). Moreover, in the books of the prophets, we sometimes see these men of God rise up against the wrongdoings of the nation with vigor and even indignation. Today, in any case, it is hard for people to see how threats and anger can go hand in hand with a God of mercy and forgiveness.

We should not, however, see God’s “anger” as diametrically opposed to his forgiveness, but rather as two sides of one and the same coin. The notion of “anger” or “wrath” is used to emphasize the fact that God’s love cannot tolerate anything that hinders life or destroys it, in short what we call evil. If God truly loves, he cannot remain indifferent at seeing that love flouted, rejected, because in so doing he would have to resign himself to the fact that his intention to give us the fullness of life is not going to succeed.
When the Bible presents us with words that are apparently harsh, they should be interpreted as a cry from God’s – or his spokesperson’s – heart to emphasize the consequences of rejecting a love which is nonetheless always offered. Far from contradicting love, what is called “God’s anger” is paradoxically an expression of that love, insofar as it is temporarily foiled by human freedom. But then the question arises: if God is Love, must not that love in the end overcome all the resistances to it? The true problem, then, is not to know whether there is anger in God, but how that anger can achieve its end, eliminating evil without doing violence to the freedom of the other.

Does the Gospel enable us to solve the dilemma of a love that is refused?

The biblical vision of God seems to set us before a dilemma: on the one hand all God can do is love, and on the other he cannot tolerate evil. To express it in the language of the Bible, divine love seems fated to split into two parts, mercy and anger, without one of them ever completely covering the other.

The experience of the prophets shows a way out of this dilemma. First of all Hosea, obliged to marry an unfaithful woman. Wounded by the infidelity of his wife, the prophets threatens her, but he quickly realizes that because of his love for her, in hurting her he would hurt himself just as much, or even more. He thus comes to realize that what human beings experience as divine anger is in fact only the outer face of God’s own suffering at seeing his love rejected.

The prophet Jeremiah continues along these lines. Confronted with the refusal of the nation to listen to the warnings he is called to proclaim in God’s name, Jeremiah is torn apart in his own flesh by the opposition between the two: “Let my eyes run with tears night and day, without ceasing, for the virgin daughter, my people, is wounded with a great wound” (14:17). He becomes, by the pain and sadness in his heart, the link between his compatriots and his God.

One more step, and we come to the mysterious figure of the Lord’s Servant (Isaiah 53). Just like Jeremiah, this innocent individual, sent by God, takes upon himself the suffering that the guilty are unable to admit; but even more, by assuming that unacknowledged suffering he brings them healing. It is as if forgiveness can only reach its goal if it does not descend from on high but rather comes from below, if it is expressed by a solidarity lived out with the wrongdoers, that goes to the very end.

This evolution gives us the key to understanding the fate of Jesus: “Christ suffered for you (…) though he committed no evil. When abused, he did not abuse in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but entrusted himself to the One who judges justly. He himself bore our faults in his body on the cross so that, dead to our faults, we might live for righteousness. By his wounds you have been healed” (1 Peter 2:21-24).

In Christ’s gift of his life we thus glimpse what Saint John, in a magnificent shorthand expression, calls “the wrath of the Lamb” (Revelation 6:16). If “divine anger” is another name for the passion of a rejected love, then that love can achieve its aim only if it fully assumes the consequences of such a rejection. Anger must thus turn into solidarity in suffering, becoming indistinguishable from the utmost of mercy. Offering no resistance to evil, Christ swallows it up in an abyss of goodness. Death loses its sting (see 1 Corinthians 15:54-57) in order to become a road to Life.

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