Alan Torrance, God’s Wrath, Hell, and the Role of Science

Alan TorranceAlan Torrance earned his doctorate in theology at the University of Erlangen-Nurnberg in Germany. He is professor of systematic theology at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

The wrath of God and hell come about because of God’s love. Good science indicates God’s existence.

Edited transcript

J. Michael Feazell: Let’s talk about a subject that is sometimes mis­understood, perhaps, or frightening to people. What is the wrath of God?

Alan Torrance: The wrath, or “wroth,” as we say in this country… When we speak about the wrath of God, we are speaking about the love of God. We mustn’t forget that. There are two kind of anger, or wrath, that we know in the human context. There’s wrath which can emerge when someone’s will is frustrated. Someone’s football team doesn’t win the game, or the referee makes a decision that wasn’t the one that you wanted to see made, and people get angry. A lot of people think of God’s wrath as the wrath of a largely voyeuristic individual up there, when his will is frustrated. But that is an unbiblical definition of the wrath of God. The wrath of God is the wrath of the jealous God.

What is meant by the jealous God? It does not mean jealousy of the kind that would mean a breach of the commandment, thou shall not covet. But rather God’s wrath, God’s jealousy, is God’s love for his people. When God loves a people, he hates to see that people taken apart by sin or by disease or whatever. The wrath of God is God’s anger at the costliness of sin to a people that he loves, when he sees the destruction of a people. So the best kind of human analogy is when a father adores a daughter or a son, and they are used and abused in some relationship where someone takes advantage of the one they love. Then there will be a wrath and anger that is a righteous anger grounded in love for their well-being.

God’s wrath doesn’t mean that he just loves the victim and hates the victimizer. God loves the victimizer as well as the victim. But God is angry with those responsible for all that destroys and destructs the shalom, the peace and communion and koinonia of his people. You can’t have a proper understanding of the love of God without an equally robust doctrine of the wrath of God. It’s imperative that we don’t forget that to speak of the love and grace of God is to take seriously the biblical affirmations of the wrath of God.

God’s love isn’t any kind of mamby-pamby sentimental fuzzy love. It’s a real valuing of the dignity of people. When that dignity is destroyed or betrayed by sin, God is angry — as angry as he is loving. But the important thing is…when we talk about the wrath of God, we’re not talking about something that is arbitrary. The Christian life should never be based in fear. Christian life is lived from the love of God. When we see the wrath of God, we see beyond it the love of God. The wrath reposes in the love of God. So we should rejoice in the wrath of God because, if we’re going to do this right, it’s the wrath of God that values persons, but loves…and not just the exploited, but the exploiter, the sinner and the sinned against.

JMF: There’s a passage about how mercy triumphs over judgment. Is that applicable to the wrath of God or the love of God in this way?

AT: Absolutely. This talk of mercy is there because of the wrath of God. God forgives those with whom he’s angry. He forgives me although I give him endless cause to be more than angry. We’ve got to say this as Christians — we rejoice in the fact that he’s angry. I can rejoice in the fact that God is angry with me, because God is only angry with me because of the extent of his love for me and for those against whom I sin. So when we’re talking about the wrath of God, we are talking about the good news, odd though that may seem.

JMF: We tend to think of God’s anger being just like ours, and ours is usually irrational. Even if it’s somewhat justified, it still is not under control so well, and it’s irrational, and we usually form poor conclusions while we’re in that state of mind.

AT: Precisely. Not so with God. What we must not do is project those conceptions of human anger and wrath and frustration of will onto God, because if we do that, we don’t have the biblical understanding of wrath. The theological mistake we make more than any other…is when we take human concepts, interpret them in the human context, and then project them onto God.

There’s a great example of Jesus dealing with that problem. After Peter’s confession about the Christ, Jesus says that the Son of Man is going to suffer, and Peter becomes angry. He says, “No, there’s no way we’re going to allow this to happen,” because Peter had a concept of messiah — and in the light of that prior concept in his mind, he was going to make sure that Jesus fitted that concept.

How did Jesus respond? The hardest comment that Jesus ever made was to Peter when he was doing that. “Get thee behind me, Satan.” In other words, it is demonic to take a prior concept from human order and try to fit God into that prior human understanding. Why is it demonic? Because it’s reversing revelation. It’s turning revelation on its head. Revelation takes our human terms and fills them with new meaning — the meaning that is given them by the gospel and by God’s involvement with us in the person of Christ. We must do that with the word “love,” we must do that with “wrath.” If we do the opposite, then we are not just impeding revelation, we’re inverting it. To do that is demonic.

There’s another remarkable example …in some ways that feminist theology wanted to grasp but failed to think through. Jesus is concerned about our using terms and concepts that are not reconceived in the light of the gospel. For example, he doesn’t like us using status symbols, “I’m a professor.” Jesus would have been skeptical about my using the term professor. We’re not to call anybody Rabbi. There’s only one Rabbi “Call no man teacher,” there’s only one teacher, namely God.

Jesus saw the way human beings used the terminology of hierarchy to oppress or control and exert power over people. What does Jesus do? We’re not allowed to use the term teacher. I’m not allowing you to use any term that people are going to use to oppress others and to control. Then he goes on and says, “And call no man father,” because there’s only one father.

If we’re going to use the same term for God and humanity, then as Jesus saw, there’s a potential for abuse. For male fathers, a term that’s appro­priately used of God, and then, as it were, taking that divine authority to themselves in some sense. If we’re going to use a term “Father” of God, we’re to call no man father. That is a dominical injunction. How many Christians do you know stopped using the term father of their male parent? Christian churches ignored that for 2000 years.

Had we obeyed Jesus, there would never have been any feminist charges that it’s oppressive to call God Father. The feminists are right, but there is a risk. If we call God Father and males father, then we, by association, give male parents a kind of authority, a superiority in the world order. We open the door to sexism. Jesus anticipated that. We’re not to call anybody father, technically. I think what he means is this: We have got to be careful that every time we use terms of God they are radically commandeered and dis­entangled from any continuity with the human context, that is potentially oppressive.

So, back to the original question from wrath. If we use the term wrath of God, we must make sure that it is understood in the life and the totality of God’s orientation to the world and to his people.

JMF: His redemptive purpose.

AT: Exactly. Every term that is used of God and God’s purposes must be reconceived in the life of the gospel. The great theologian who was rigorous about this was John Calvin. Karl Barth, perhaps even more consistently than John Calvin. But Calvin set about doing that in his great work with the Institutio. Every term he sought to reconceive in light of biblical statements.

JMF: In that context, then let’s talk about hell for a moment. What is hell? How should a Christian view hell?

AT: Hell is a place of separation from God. It’s a place of godlessness.

JMF: Do you mean separation in the sense of alienation or in the sense of actual space?

AT: No, I think alienation. People standing against God, trying to live without God. There’s much that needs to be said here. First, when Jesus used the term kingdom, we often thought about the kingdom of God in terms of heaven. One day the kingdom will be fully realized. But the kingdom’s not at hand.

Just as the kingdom will be fully realized on one occasion, and yet is at hand at the moment, I think we have to say the same thing about hell. There’s a sense…to the extent that we seek to live without God, we stand against God, and hell is already realized in some sense. The Bible seems to suggest that one day it will be fully realized for people who seek to stand against God. But that raises the question as to what we can say about the population of hell and how populated hell is. We get into very controversial territory. Can I speak to that for one moment?

Several things have got to be said, but they can be said very quickly. First, to the extent that hell is populated, it’s populated by people who are loved by God. God is love. God loves all of his creation unconditionally, and that never ends. Second, to the extent that hell is populated, it’s populated by people for whom Christ died and whom Christ has forgiven.

People find that difficult to conceive. But just as we are to forgive 70 times 7, unconditionally, with no exception, so does Jesus. Jesus, as fellow human, wouldn’t tell us to do something he wouldn’t do himself. Jesus is God come as human. If God was telling us to do things that he wouldn’t do himself, then there’s no integrity in the gospel. Hell is populated by people who are loved and forgiven by God.

I think the most one can say is this: to the extent that hell is populated, it’s populated by people whom God has allowed to opt to live against his purpose or live in isolation from him. If that happens and to the extent that that does happen, God is utterly distraught for eternity.

Finally, it is not possible to be a Christian and want hell to be populated. It’s not possible. Why? Because we are to love our enemies. That means all our enemies. We’re to love Hitler, right?

JMF: That’s the first question that we hear. What about Adolf Hitler?

AT: We’re somehow to love Hitler. That may be humanly impossible, but I believe that God loves Hitler, and one day, when we have that mind which was in Christ Jesus fully in us, we will be set free to love even Hitler.

JMF: In that day we would also have seen and taken part in everything that Hitler had taken away having been restored through Christ, wouldn’t we?

AT: That’s right. It will be a lot easier. We don’t love what Hitler did. To love an evil person is not to love their evil. A final comment: I often have students come up to me and say that they had a grandparent that they loved who has just died, and they sadly weren’t Christians, and they fear for their salvation. They find it puzzling — how could it be the case that God doesn’t love the grandparent as much as they loved their grandparent? The only answer for that, is God loves the grandparent even though she or he wasn’t a Christian, and infinitely more than they possibly could.

JMF: Right.

AT: When it comes to questions of the future destination of people, often the people whom we’ve loved and who have died, we just say this —the only God we know is a God who is all loving, all just, and all forgiving, who would never do anything that is contrary to his love, justice, and forgiveness. Therefore we can joyfully commit those people to God and trust those people with God, given that God loves them more than we do.

I think there’s good news even despite the biblical warning about hell. In the dominical warnings, Jesus speaks about hell. Although it does raise a question sometimes whether Jesus in some sense speaks to that in and through the cross and resurrection, whether we need to go back to what Jesus said and interpret it in the light of what he has done, because he descended to hell for us.

JMF: Yes. That’s the reason he came, because of the reality of the consequences of separation and hell. Let’s switch gears for a moment and ask about science. Is science a hindrance or a help to Christian faith?

AT: Good science is a wonderful gift of God. It’s helping us understand God’s creation, simple as that. To the extent that scientists are being genuinely scientific, interpreting the contingent order, creation out of itself in its own light, and are doing so truthfully and faithfully, it’s a wonderful gift. Science can only function because of the intelligibility of the contingent order, and that intelligibility is given by God. It stems from the intelligence of the Creator. It’s an extremely strong argument from science for the existence of God, if you’re wanting to engage in arguments for the existence of God.

But there are problems in the scientific community, because there’s a philosophy that’s sometimes confused for science, called Naturalism. Naturalism is as old as the hills…well, not quite as the hills… but it’s as old as civilization. The view goes back to the creation. It is a view that the world is basically a closed causal system that operates in indifference to questions of value, fairness, and so on. Certain forms of science, sometimes in the biological sciences this is more common, science wants to presup­pose naturalism, the view that God does not exist.

We see that illustrated in Richard Dawkins’s thought, for example. He believes that to be scientific is to repudiate the existence of God, to be an atheist. I am of the view that that is not scientific. Scientists should not be in the business of making theological claims – that is to go beyond the boundaries of scientific investigation.

How compatible, therefore, is the affirming of the existence of God with science? It’s remarkable what’s taken place in the last 30 years. We’ve seen in the last 30 years the most significant developments in philosophy and Christian philosophy since Thomas Aquinas. In 1974 I started a four-year philosophy degree. In those days, there was a man called G.L. Mackey who was of the view that it was logically incoherent to be a Christian theist. You could count the number of Christian philosophers on the fingers of a mutilated hand, to be frank. The vast majority of analytic philosophers repudiated theism.

In the space of only 30 years, that situation has changed profoundly. Now, at least one in four analytic philosophers in North America, which is where analytic philosophy is at its finest, is a theist; the vast majority of those are Christian theists.

In 2001, one of the world’s leading atheist philosophers, Quentin Smith, wrote an article (and this is going back to the science issue) in the journal he edited, which was called Philo… a journal of the Humanist Philosopher’s Association, with every leading atheist philosopher on its board — all the brains behind Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett and so on. His article was a 10,000-word article called “The Meta-Philosophy of Naturalism” — a look at the philosophical underpinnings of naturalism — that’s the atheistic philosophy of Dawkins and his book.

In that article he establishes that the Christian philosophers, this new breed of Christian philosophers (led by Alvin Plantinga, the greatest living Christian philosopher, one of the greatest philosophers), have beaten the atheists, the naturalist philosophers. At every key point, their writings are more logically rigorous, more cognizant. His article was a clarion call to atheists to get their act together if they’re not going to be swamped by the quality of Christian philosophy.

One of the things that’s emerged out of the Christian philosophers was the number of arguments that stem from contemporary science for the existence of God. One of the factors that the Christian philosophers have been writing about recently is the fine-tuning of the universe. The chances of carbon emerging are infinitesimally small. Other factors, ranging to Planck time and so on.

I won’t go into the details right now, but the factors, the chances of this universe occurring in the way it is, such that there can be life on this planet, is just an unthinkably small number. We’re talking about factors such as 1 in 10 to the power of 60 in one of the fine tunings — in another fine tuning, 1 in 10 to the power of 43. But the difference between 1 in 10 to the power of 43 and 1 in 10 to the power of 42, we’re talking about massively small chances. And 10 to the 43 is 10 with 43 zeroes after it. Similar is the chances of there being a planet in which you and I can sit here being filmed engaging in intelligent conversation are unthinkably small. Science has no explanation for that. Science can’t explain the intelligibility of the con­tingent order. It can’t explain why there’s something rather than nothing.

One of the attempts to explain fine tuning on the part of atheists is called the “multi-verse theory,” which suggests that there’s a new infinite or infinite number of random universe occurings, one of which just happens to look like it’s been designed. But then there would need to be a mechanism to produce all these random potential universe occurings. Where would that come from? That still wouldn’t explain why there’s something rather than nothing.

There’s a vast number of fundamental questions which are beyond the bounds of science, that science will not be able to answer, which theism answers very straightforward. In other words, theism has spectacular and unparalleled explanatory power. That’s something to bear in mind when we get media from everywhere bombarding us with the atheism of people like the Dennetts and the Dawkinses of this world, and Sam Harris, and so on. The quality of the arguments and the final answer don’t even begin to touch the quality of the arguments that are being offered right now by the world’s leading Christian philosophers.

JMF: Do you have a suggestion for a lay person who might want to read a book that would help them along those lines? What would it be?

AT: John Polkinghorne has written some very useful books, and David Wilkinson of Durham has written some successful books. The person that I would encourage everyone to engage with is Alvin Plantinga. A great many of the articles he has written on God and science are on the internet, so you don’t need to fork out for a book to become familiar with the issues. Scotsmen will never fork out if we don’t have to.

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Last modified: Saturday, February 16, 2019, 11:06 PM