All of this, of course, becomes fodder for skeptics to throw at Christianity. It becomes a stumbling block for Christians like me. It's not easy to see how to reconcile "God is love" (1 John 4:16) with these passages of Scripture.
But let's back up to the beginning. In Genesis 3:3, Eve explains to the serpent that "God said, 'You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the middle of the garden, nor shall you touch it, or you shall die.'" Of course, Adam and Eve did eat the fruit, and they were banished from the Garden of Eden. Some say that this was a spiritual death. Christian tradition has often taught that human beings were created immortal, and that through this first sin they lost immortality. But what does the text say?
Then the Lord God said, 'See, the man has become like one of us, knowing good and evil; and now he might reach out his hand and take also from the tree of life, and eat, and live forever'--therefore the Lord God sent him forth from the garden of Eden, to till the ground from which he was taken. (Genesis 3:22-23)The text does not at all indicate that humans were immortal. On the contrary, God wanted to prevent them from becoming immortal. So what happened to the threat, "Or you shall die"?
The very next story is far more telling. The second generation of human beings--Cain and Abel--manages to introduce murder to the world. So what does God do to Cain, who murders his brother? He doesn't kill him. On the contrary, God protects Cain: "Whoever kills Cain will suffer a sevenfold vengeance." (Genesis 4:15)
Ten generations go by, from Adam to Noah. Then God looks down and sees the wickedness of humankind. "And the Lord was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart." (Genesis 6:6) So he decides to wipe out all the creatures with a huge flood--except, of course, sparing Noah.
In other words, God waits ten generations (the number ten may have some significance...) before finally unleashing justice on humankind. Even then, he can't go all the way through with it (he spares Noah and his family). Then, in a telling passage, he says,
I will never again curse the ground because of humankind, for the inclination of the human heart is evil from youth; nor will I ever again destroy every living creature as I have done. (Genesis 8:21, emphasis added)Now, consider that not only does God promise never to wipe out humankind again, but he even takes away the one punishment he had given Cain, the first murderer. Why? Not because human beings are good, after all, but rather because they are evil! One can hear a tremendous sigh in this passage, like an incredible divine realization that humans are beyond hope.
It is interesting that God, after this covenant made with Noah, finally introduces the death penalty for murderers (Gensis 9:6). Then he blesses Noah and gives him the rainbow as a sign of his covenant never to flood the earth again. We think of a rainbow as pretty and colorful, but let's not forget what it is. It's a bow, that is to say a weapon, pointed toward the heavens. It is as if God is saying, "May the arrows of his bow strike me if I should ever think to flood the earth again."
And so Noah and his sons go out from the ark to repopulate the earth--a fresh beginning. So what happens? Noah gets drunk and is violated by his son, thus absolutely confirming what God says in Genesis 8:21.
Generations go by. Then human beings once again try to obtain immortality, not by eating from the Tree of Life but rather by constructing a tower to heaven. Just as in the Garden of Eden, God is wary of this outcome: "Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them." (Genesis 11:6) Much as he shut out Adam and Even from the Garden of Eden, so he now shuts down the Tower of Babel by confusing the people's speech. Such is God's terrifying act of wrath...
After this story, ten more generations are listed, starting with Shem and finishing with Abraham. Just as Noah became the father of all nations, so now Abraham's very name means "ancestor of a multitude of nations" (Genesis 17:4). Abraham is God's new hope for a renewed humanity, just like Noah was.
So is it time for another judgment? It is. God hears a cry against Sodom, and he tells Abraham that he is going to send judgment on it. In a famous passage (Genesis 18:23-33), Abraham negotiates with God to see how many righteous people there would have to be left in Sodom in order for God to stay his wrath. God patiently listens while Abraham whittles the number slowly down from 50 to 10, after which the conversation ends in a chilling sense of foreboding--there aren't even 10 righteous people left in Sodom, are there? God has waited the maximum allowable time, until there is simply nothing left to do.
But I have skipped over something. God promises to Abraham the land of Canaan. He says,
Know this for certain, that your offspring shall be aliens in a land that is not theirs, and shall be slaves there, and they shall be oppressed for four hundred years; but I will bring judgment on the nation they they serve, and afterward they shall come out with great possessions. As for yourself, you shall go to your ancestors in peace; you shall be buried in a good old age. And they shall come back here in the fourth generation; for the iniquity of the Amorites is not yet complete. (Gensis 15:12-16)What an odd plan! God very forthrightly admits that he is going to tolerate oppression and injustice for four hundred years until finally judging the oppressors. And as for the Amorites who occupy the land promised to Abraham, God freely admits they are already sinful, but he would rather wait before sending judgment on them. Four hundred years, no less!
All of this lays God open to the charge that in fact he is not quick enough to enact judgment. He is indeed "slow to anger" (Exodus 34:6) but when his anger finally arises, how terrible it is!
This theme of God's belated wrath is taken up once again in the New Testament, where Paul declares,
While God has overlooked the times of human ignorance, now he commands all people everywhere to repent, because he has fixed a day on which he will have the world judged in righteousness by a man whom he has appointed, and of this he has given assurance to all by raising him from the dead. (Acts 17:30-31)And yet, here we are, two thousand years later...
All of this should give us a bit of a framework in which to read the rest of the Bible. Since it does talk so much about God's wrath and how imminent it is, we find it easy to be taken aback. But there are at least two points to consider. For one, perhaps when God says his wrath is imminent, it is really not so imminent, after all. This is why Peter has to urge his readers, saying, "The Lord is not slow about his promise, as some think of slowness, but is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance." (2 Peter 3:9) The prophets, who probably have the longest extended passages describing God's wrath, probably should not be taken too literally, and they should always be read keeping in mind that the goal is to urge the people to repentance.
Another point to keep in mind is that if God is harsh with Israel, it is because he doesn't want to make the same mistake (!) that he made with earlier generations. "Know then in your heart that as a parent disciplines a child so the Lord your God disciplines you." (Deuteronomy 8:5) I have often struggled with that verse. Surely sending fiery snakes and plagues is a little more harsh than the discipline one gives a child. But then, perhaps the literal meaning of these stories is not so important as the spiritual meaning, by which we understand all these acts of judment to be a cleansing of God's people. Or maybe we ought to believe that God can use death itself as a tool of discipline, saving our eternal souls by putting utterly to death our present bodies of flesh.
In any case, if we keep in mind the whole story that the Bible tells, we cannot possibly see God as some cantankerous deity waiting to throw thunderbolts on a whim. On the contrary, the psalms often complain that he is too slow to do so! God's patience almost seems blameworthy--why did he wait so long before finally judging the earth which was so full of wickedness, or before giving his people justice and saving them from slavery? Yet it is precisely this patience which gives us the chance to repent and find salvation. This tension is difficult to resolve.
And so often it is with the Bible, that ultimately we never find resolution, but we live spurred on by that tension. "Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming." (Matthew 24:42) If we are led by faith in Jesus Christ, we must always live as if judgment is just around the corner, and yet we must continue to believe in God's infinite patience. That is just one of the many paradoxes, it seems to me, of the Christian faith.