In chapter 12 of The Lost Message of Paul, Steve Chalke deals with ‘the wrath of God’.
Chalke thinks that the idea that God is capable of wrath, or anger, is mistaken. Three reasons are discernable.
According to Chalke, much of the responsibility for the doctrine of the wrath of God must be laid at the feet of John Calvin, who is described as brilliant but legalistic.
Calvin, it is said, ‘effectively replaced Jesus’ image of God as a loving parent with that of God as a stern, courtroom judge.’
This is a lazy and misleading caricature of the great reformer, and I shall say no more about it at this time.
The Hebrew word chemah, Chalke informs us, does not necessarily mean ‘anger’. It can mean ’embarrassment’, or can be used for the pain of a broken heart. Then there is ̀ebrah which means an outburst of passion, qetseph, which means ‘to be displeased, to fret or to burst out’, aph (which literally means ‘nose) implies rapid breathing in passion, and ragaz, which means ‘to be emotionally agitated, excited or perturbed, to tremble or quiver.’
In the New Testament, the two main words which are usually translated as ‘anger’ or ‘wrath’ are thuma and orge. But thumos can indicate any emotional outburst – not just anger. Orge simply implies a longer-term expression of strong emotion.
Chalke regards regards Psalm 4:4 as an important guide to the meaning of anger (especially divine anger) in Scripture. Chalke points out the in the 1984 NIV the first clause was translated, ‘In your anger, do not sin’; whereas in the 2011 edition, advances in linguistic understand lead to the translation, ‘Tremble and do not sin’.
Writes Chalke: ‘Ragaz really does simply mean any emotion that causes you to tremble or quiver, to catch your breath, to be taken aback, to shudder, rather than necessarily referring to a response of anger.’
And this would have been the meaning imported by Paul in Eph 4:26 (where, it is widely agreed, Paul is alluding back to Psalm 4:4), which often translated, ‘Be angry (orge), and yet do not sin.’
It would seem that, for Chalke, the doctrine of the wrath of God cannot be true because it is (according to him) utterly incompatible with the doctrine of the love of God.
God is not to be seen as an angry judge, but rather as a loving parent who feels anguish when a child goes astray.
Wrath is destructive and excluding. But ‘nothing can separate us from God’s love’, (Romans 8:38f). ‘God is love’, and ‘there is no fear in love, but perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment.’ (1 John)
To be sure, the doctrine of the wrath of God needs to be articulated with great care and clarity, lest we represent divine anger as if it were capricious, as our own so often is. We can also agree that ‘anguish’, or something like it, well describes an aspect of God’s reaction to human rebellion.
However, on the meanings of the Hebrew and Greek words [caveat alert: I have no expertise here, but I am perfectly capable of reading the opinions of those who are], the most that Chalke can claim is that they do not always mean ‘anger’ or ‘wrath’. He has not shown that they never mean those things. With regard to ‘ragaz in Psa 4:4, competent scholars agree that the basis meaning is ‘to tremble’, either with anger of with fear (so the authoritative work of Brown, Driver and Briggs). So Chalke’s case is not helped at all, because he is equally antagonistic towards the idea of divine wrath and to human fear before before God. These considerations, together with the general uncertainty about the best way to translate and interpret this text, and the fact the Paul, in Ephesians 4:26, draws on the Greek LXX, rather than the original Hebrew, leave his argument with very merit.
Moreover, Chalke’s assertion that ‘anger’ and ‘love’ are mutually incompatible is both illogical and unscriptural. Put simply: the opposite of ‘love’ is not ‘anger’, but ‘hatred’.