For those interested in what I am going to be studying for the next year, here is my now approved Thesis proposal
A Theological Exploration of Forgiveness, Judgement and the Wrath of God
We live in a world that likes the idea of peace and love, but is unwilling to seriously look at the issues that cause people to be alienated from each other. Perhaps one of the greatest causes of alienation in our society today is a lack of forgiveness. This lack of forgiveness is just as evident within the church as it is in the broader society. Forgiveness is a necessary action if any community or society is to live together. For people both in and out of the church, there is a growing assumption that to forgive someone is to let them go, free of consequences, and to forget the wrong that was done. These ideas are what drive the popular saying, “Forgive and forget.” However, is this really what forgiveness is? How can we “forgive and forget” when something truly terrible has happened to us? And is this what God has actually done with our wrongdoings? If so, how can God be a God of justice?
On the opposite side of this spectrum is the idea that, before I can forgive, you must pay for your wrongdoing. Popular culture shows us this picture in sitcoms where the wife will not talk to her husband until proper penance has been paid. In this case, forgiveness has a retributive cost. The husband is forced to discover the right action or word that will release him from the hold of his wife. While on television, this is played up for laughs, but when this actually happens in marriages the results are anything but funny. Rather than forgiveness and reconciliation between the married couple, bitterness and resentment grow. Sadly, this sort of thinking about forgiveness has seeped its way into our theology of the cross. In a current popular sermon, a preacher has God saying to sinners,
"Do you know what your forgiveness cost me? Don’t you know God the Father beat me to pieces? He obliterated me beyond recognition, He took the cup of wrath that had your name on it and splashed it onto my perfectly sinless and bleeding face and what it is worse is that God did this to me with a smile. It pleased Him to crush me for you, that is what your forgiveness cost me."
Does God’s forgiveness really mean that God’s wrath must violently be poured out on Christ this way? If God is all-powerful, why does God not choose to simply forgive? How do we understand God’s wrath in relation to God’s forgiveness?
Growing up as a child in the church, I was often confronted with a dual vision of God. The first was of Jesus dressed in white holding a lamb. The other was of the terrifying God of the Old Testament who brought wrath and judgment on sinners. However, the trouble with these images is that it pits two gods against each other, rather than being sufficiently Trinitarian. The Biblical story of God’s forgiveness is not one of simply letting sinners off the hook for their wrongdoing. The Biblical story of forgiveness is a powerful one because our forgiveness was not cheap. The trouble is that, for many in Christian circles, the cost of forgiveness has become associated with retribution or punitive justice. This understanding of punitive justice is one that stands in contradiction to the worldview in which the Bible was written. The Biblical authors wrote of God’s forgiveness, justice, and wrath from a Hebraic judicial model.
Recently, in one of my seminary classes, there was another student who would often make comments about how we need to take God’s wrath, or anger, or judgment seriously. I often wondered what he meant by this. Later in the semester, I began to read Miroslav Volf and his understanding of forgiveness. I have also read bits and pieces of L. Gregory Jones and Chris Marshall. All of these men have been influencing my thinking about forgiveness and justice. I am interested in bringing these men into conversation with what the Scriptures teach us about forgiveness, wrath and justice of God.
It is my thesis that embracing a relational Hebraic sense of justice and a biblical understanding of forgiveness will challenge common punitive notions of wrath and justice with the resulting discovery that God’s wrath is restorative and not punitive.
Methodology The majority of my research will be library research. I will read widely on issues of forgiveness, atonement, and wrath. I will also be taking a class on the Theological Understandings of Jesus.
Expected Conclusions I expect to find our previous notions of God’s wrath to be challenged by a theological understanding of forgiveness. We will find that forgiveness does not soften the challenge of God’s wrath, but will help us see that God’s restorative initiative is to bring forgiveness to the world. I also expect to find that, as we think about God’s forgiveness and wrath, we may find that the restorative justice movement in our society today can help us better understand God’s forgiveness and justice.