Natural Consequences (1): Jeremiah on Word, Fire, and Wrath

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It seems like I’m always starting series of posts that I never finish. Oh well.

Anyways, this series is going to be about the biblical data and theological implications of the idea of “natural consequences”. To say that something has natural consequences for you basically means “what goes around, comes around” or “you asked for it”. Natural consequences are the non-intentional results of actions we take. They are not inflicted by an exercise of will that is aimed at retributively punishing us for our guilt; they just sorta happen because of the way the world is.

Most people think that divine punishment is primarily or solely retributive. This means that God inflicts harm on a person based on their guilt. The debt that results from an infraction of God’s law requires that God punish a person. I hope to examine this view of punishment and assess the arguments for and against it in relation to divine judgment in history, and eternally in hell. The goal will be to argue that God’s judgment and wrath are primarily just handing people over to the consequences of their actions (though I don’t claim to rule out that some cases of wrath are retributive).

First up for examination is Jeremiah’s use of the language of wrath, fire, and word. Consider the following verses:

4:4

Circumcise yourselves to the Lord, remove the foreskin of your hearts, O people of Judah and inhabitants of Jerusalem, or else my wrath will go forth like fire, and burn with no one to quench it, because of the evil of your doings.

5:14

Therefore thus says the Lord, the God of hosts: Because they have spoken this word, I am now making my words in your mouth a fire, and this people wood, and the fire shall devour them.

6:10-11

To whom shall I speak and give warning, that they may hear? See, their eyes are closed, they cannot listen. The word of the Lord is to them an object of scorn; they take no pleasure in it. But I am full of the wrath of the Lord; I am weary of holding it in. Pour it out on the children in the street, and on the gatherings of young men as well; both husband and wife shall be taken the old folk and the very aged.

Consider the connection between these passages. In 4:4 the prophet says that God’s wrath will be like fire and consume those whose hearts are not circumcised, those who have done evil. In 5:14 God’s words in the prophet’s mouth are fire. Its not implausible to take this to mean that God’s words are wrath. In 6:10-11, we read that those whose ears are closed do not take pleasure in hearing the word of the Lord, and it results in their suffering. Notice also how there is an indiscriminate communication of the word of God. It is given to the good and evil alike, and depending on how they receive it (if their hearts are in the right state) they either experience it pleasantly or unpleasantly.

The idea, then is something like this: the wrath of God (at least here in these passages) is God’s grace (his word, a verbal manifestation of power) made unpleasant by our impurity. God sends his grace indiscriminately. We suffer the consequences, and experience it either a pleasant and purifying way, or an unpleasant and harmful way depending on how we personally receive it.

It is worth thinking about what the implications of this passage are for ones in, say, Isaiah, where God instructs the prophet to preach so as to “make the mind of this people dull” etc. (Isaiah 6:9-10). Maybe Isaiah is saying the same kind of thing. God’s word is his wrath, so preaching has negative effects on those who resist the message. We might take God to be saying “make the mind of this people dull by preaching to them, and putting them in a situation in which they will be able to choose whether or not to receive your message or not. In doing so, they will be made more vicious or more virtuous; and in fact, they will freely choose to not receive the message.” But if this is the right way to understand such passages in Isaiah (and I will try and give a more detailed analysis of those specific passages some other time) then this removes the heavily fatalistic or “God is the cause of evil” connotations.

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16 Responses to “Natural Consequences (1): Jeremiah on Word, Fire, and Wrath”

  1. David Says:

    My immediate reaction is to wonder why the natural consequences of sin would be referred to as an active disposition of God. That strikes me as a bit odd, especially considering the fact that we don’t seem to have a problem attributing any other active emotion described of God to Him, just not wrath. In this one case, the language is radically figurative (in fact, it’s almost downright untrue).

    The other thing I don’t get is how God purposefully giving grace to people who He knows will reject it (thereby rendering the grace as “wrath”) is any less retributive than it just being wrath to begin with.

  2. Mark Krause Says:

    Nilsen,
    The natural consequences are distinguishable God’s active wrath. Wrath can be both active and passive (giving over to natural consequences).

    The reason it’s not entirely accurate to call God’s wrath retributive is that the motivation is not to exact retribution. Ultimately, damnation and punishment are still damnation and punishment, but God’s motivation is what makes it retributive or not.

    Ultimately, wrath in the final sense of hell is a necessary consequence of the salvation of man via the incarnation. God joined Himself to humanity. The ultimate realization of the effects of this action won’t be realized until the eschaton, but the ultimate effects are made inevitable by this action. If God joined Himself to man, then God will be joined to man. Thus, the wicked are punished by being interpenetrated with the Divine Energies. This is grace. This is what saves the righteous. However, for those who have corrupted themselves by misuse of their free will and have thus become unable to love another and hate God, this will be fiery damnation.

  3. MG Says:

    David–

    You wrote:

    “My immediate reaction is to wonder why the natural consequences of sin would be referred to as an active disposition of God. That strikes me as a bit odd, especially considering the fact that we don’t seem to have a problem attributing any other active emotion described of God to Him, just not wrath. In this one case, the language is radically figurative (in fact, it’s almost downright untrue).”

    If God’s wrath is always an “active emotion”, then why does Paul seem to say that God’s wrath (one definition at least) is handing people over to their passions? (Romans 1:18, 24, 26, 28 )

    Do you think God is affected (ie. is caused to have affections) by his creation in the sense of harmed or irritated? If not, then you don’t think that God’s wrath is strictly literally the kind of wrath human beings have.

    If you think God’s wrath involves wanting for evil to be purged and for corrupted things to be restored to goodness, then I think we are in agreement. But that doesn’t necessarily imply some kind of perturbation of the divine nature. Righteous wrath among human beings includes wanting evil to be purged and corrupted things to be restored to goodness. In fact, that’s the most important aspect of righteous wrath in human beings–the desire for evil to be eliminated. But notice how similar that is to love: you’re desiring good for someone.

    Also, consider this. Saint John tells us “God is love” (1 John 4:16). But human love post-fall is often twisted and wicked, and often skewed by bad motives. So human love resembles but is not the exact same as divine love. God is the perfect image of love, and we see what love means through him especially in Christ. What if God’s wrath is the same way? What if we learn what wrath truly is by looking at God’s revelation in Christ–his hatred for sin, his sternness, etc. can point us to what wrath truly is. Did Christ exact retribution on people? Did Jesus of Nazareth go around promoting penal justice and collecting debts from sinners? Not last time I checked.

    You wrote:

    “The other thing I don’t get is how God purposefully giving grace to people who He knows will reject it (thereby rendering the grace as “wrath” 😉 is any less retributive than it just being wrath to begin with.”

    First of all your argument assumes that either Molinism or compatiblism is true. You assume that as He is deciding how to create the world, God knows how those people would respond if he sent them grace. If God doesn’t know how they would respond, then maybe he is just sending them grace solely because he really really wants them to change and isn’t sure if they would, but he’s gonna do all He can to try and make it happen.

    Second, God is constantly giving grace to everyone and everything. He bestows the energy necessary for the working of our active powers. In this sense he is utterly indiscriminate in his sending grace, and he has to keep sending it if He wants to conserve the world in its normal activities.

    However, it seems that something more is happening here, obviously. Preaching isn’t the same as conserving the world in existence.

    Third, perhaps it is just intrinsically good for everyone to have as much grace as they possibly can get, so long as it can be mediated through the proper routes, totally regardless of what people do with those gifts. Perhaps it is good to have the opportunity to repent even if God knows you won’t take it; maybe God thinks that to be truly and fully Justice, he must send his mercy to all, even if He knows they won’t use it.

    Fourth, the unpleasant experience of how people receive grace may deter them from becoming more evil. This is another aspect of natural consequences. God’s wrath is purgative (we will probably post more on this soon) and corrective. In handing people over to the consequences of their actions and allowing them to experience what they are doing to themselves, some people repent. This is probably a highly complicated and interesting process, but I don’t find anything implausible about this being how it works. Given other stuff in Jeremiah, this is plausible.

    Fifth, God could deter bystanders from responding badly by giving grace to people who will be unrepentant, and letting the bystanders see what happens.

    Sixth, God could protect good people from bad people by giving bad people grace that deters them from harming good people somehow. Perhaps this is going on here.

    And there’s probably more that could be said but that’s just what occurs to me off the top of my head. I don’t know which explanation is most plausible, and I’m sure that there are other possible ones. So at the end of the day, I don’t see any reason to think that this has to be retributive.

  4. David Says:

    Kudos to both of you for finally getting pictures…

    But what’s with the colorful drug-trip patterns? 🙂

  5. David Says:

    MG,

    “If you think God’s wrath involves wanting for evil to be purged and for corrupted things to be restored to goodness, then I think we are in agreement. But that doesn’t necessarily imply some kind of perturbation of the divine nature.”

    Yes, I think we are in agreement here. But why assume that a retributivist model must involve a perturbation? You’ve already established that God’s “wrath” is only analogous to ours, and that human desire to purge evil can be corrupted by sin. Further, you’ve established that it is possible for humans to have “righteous wrath.” I agree with all this. But I fail to see how any of it would lead us to the conclusion that divine wrath being retributivist would necessarily make it a (sinful?) response caused by a perturbation of God’s nature. How does this follow?

    Perhaps it is because retribution can’t be ultimately prompted by love? But why think that love for something or someone, and directed toward a certain end, could not involve or even necessitate retribution?

    “First of all your argument assumes that either Molinism or compatiblism is true.”

    Yep.

    “Second, God is constantly giving grace to everyone and everything. He bestows the energy necessary for the working of our active powers. In this sense he is utterly indiscriminate in his sending grace, and he has to keep sending it if He wants to conserve the world in its normal activities.”

    So it is just the grace is required to keep the universe in motion that is being called “wrath”?

    “However, it seems that something more is happening here, obviously. Preaching isn’t the same as conserving the world in existence.”

    Right, so this seems to make your previous point irrelevant to your argument.

    “Third, perhaps it is just intrinsically good for everyone to have as much grace as they possibly can get, so long as it can be mediated through the proper routes, totally regardless of what people do with those gifts. Perhaps it is good to have the opportunity to repent even if God knows you won’t take it; maybe God thinks that to be truly and fully Justice, he must send his mercy to all, even if He knows they won’t use it.”

    That’s a big “perhaps.” And by “big” I mean “unargued for” and I see no reason, at this point, to accept it.

    Your points 4, 5 and 6 seem perfectly compatible with a retributivist model, so I feel no need to dispute them.

  6. David Says:

    By the way, I can’t say that either of you actually addressed my original knee-jerk response.

    The point I was trying to make is that it’s quite odd, not to mention counterintuitive, that a passive consequence (something that would happen regardless of God’s attitude toward a person) would be described in terms of God’s emotive response and subsequent actions. That, and wrath is obviously not equal to love, even if love grounds or motivates it. God has both wrath and love (and in some passages, like Romans 5, they’re put side by side). This makes both a natural consequence view and any view that simply reduces wrath to love both immediately implausible.

    Now, you said: “If God’s wrath is always an “active emotion”, then why does Paul seem to say that God’s wrath (one definition at least) is handing people over to their passions? (Romans 1:18, 24, 26, 28 )”

    Handing people over is still an action. Besides, the retributivist view doesn’t commit you to denying that sin has built-in consequences. Promiscuous sexual activity leads naturally to STDs. But in one sense God has built that “natural consequence” into the makeup of the universe to begin with, making even that, in a more removed sense, an action on His part. The point to see here is that, even in this passage, God is actively doing something.

  7. MG Says:

    David–

    You wrote:

    “Yes, I think we are in agreement here. But why assume that a retributivist model must involve a perturbation? You’ve already established that God’s “wrath” is only analogous to ours, and that human desire to purge evil can be corrupted by sin. Further, you’ve established that it is possible for humans to have “righteous wrath.” I agree with all this. But I fail to see how any of it would lead us to the conclusion that divine wrath being retributivist would necessarily make it a (sinful?) response caused by a perturbation of God’s nature. How does this follow?”

    I don’t assume that a retributivist model must involve a perturbation. I was rather assuming thats what you meant when you said active emotional disposition. After all, if wrath is just wanting to eliminate the evil qualities of a thing, that doesn’t capture what we normally mean by an active emotional disposition. I believe that God is wrathful, I just am not sure this means what you think it does.

    You wrote:

    “Perhaps it is because retribution can’t be ultimately prompted by love? But why think that love for something or someone, and directed toward a certain end, could not involve or even necessitate retribution?”

    I definately wouldn’t rule out the possibility.

    You wrote:

    “Yep.”

    Cool, I’m glad you agree with my conclusions on this.

    You wrote:

    “That’s a big “perhaps.” And by “big” I mean “unargued for” and I see no reason, at this point, to accept it.”

    Okay. But so long as it remains a possibility, I don’t think your argument against this understanding goes through.

    You wrote:

    “Your points 4, 5 and 6 seem perfectly compatible with a retributivist model, so I feel no need to dispute them.”

    As I clarified while we were walkin’ by the library, these are not retributive things. Retributive punishment is punishment that justifies itself morally because it is intrinsically good. A retributivist says “punishment is good just because it inflicts harm on people who are guilty, and that’s just a good thing.”

    Reform, deterence, and safety are not the kinds of intrinsic goods purchased by retributive punishment. These are not “punishment because its good for the guilty to suffer to pay their debts”; it is harm for the sake of the well-being and life of the greatest number of people. It brings about a greater number and degree of moral goods, but the moral goods here are not “hey, punishing the guilty is a way of making them pay their debts”.

    You wrote:

    “By the way, I can’t say that either of you actually addressed my original knee-jerk response.”

    I hope to tackle it below.

    “The point I was trying to make is that it’s quite odd, not to mention counterintuitive, that a passive consequence (something that would happen regardless of God’s attitude toward a person) would be described in terms of God’s emotive response and subsequent actions.”

    True, this isn’t the most immediately obvious way to read it. But when we acknowledge that we use analogous language of God, and when we examine the usage of words like “wrath” “punishment” etc. instead of just the surface grammar, I don’t think our view remains as implausible as you make it sound. We will be giving more arguments about usage of wrath language in the near future. But for the time being, consider this. Punishment normally refers to retribution inflicted actively by a judge because of guilt to satisfy the demands of justice, right? But then what do we make of Jeremiah’s statement that “Your wickedness will punish you, and your apostasies will convict you. Know and see that it is evil and bitter for you to forsake the Lord your God; the fear of me is not in you, says the Lord God of hosts.” (2:19) Punishment doesn’t seem to be straight-up retribution actively inflicted by a judge because of guilt and needing to satisfy the demands of justice to remove someone’s debt here.

    You wrote:

    “That, and wrath is obviously not equal to love, even if love grounds or motivates it. God has both wrath and love (and in some passages, like Romans 5, they’re put side by side). This makes both a natural consequence view and any view that simply reduces wrath to love both immediately implausible.”

    See above about wrath language. Also, natural consequences aren’t necessarily passive. God actively sends the fire of his glory. He just doesn’t do it for retributive reasons only. I’m not saying that the stuff going on in these passages is purely passive; natural consequences anything that follows inevitably from prior bad choices that human beings make without some sort of retributive justification for why God sends them. Read Krause’s stuff above. He used “natural consequences” narrowly to describe something passive on God’s part, and used “necessary consequences” to refer to something more active.

    Also, I don’t think wrath is the exact same thing as love. I think they are distinct, but not opposed. 🙂 Consider that once we throw in analogical language, they become very similar. One seems to be primarily geared towards the building up of and acknowledgment of good, the other towards the recognition and minimization of evil. We might be largely in agreement on this point. You definitely are saying some stuff that doesn’t fit with absolute divine simplicity.

    You wrote:

    “Handing people over is still an action. Besides, the retributivist view doesn’t commit you to denying that sin has built-in consequences. Promiscuous sexual activity leads naturally to STDs. But in one sense God has built that “natural consequence” into the makeup of the universe to begin with, making even that, in a more removed sense, an action on His part. The point to see here is that, even in this passage, God is actively doing something.”

    Yeah, I agree, God is active. Yet the way you explained it, there doesn’t seem to be any reason to think He is actively causing people to become more evil in any sense other than just conserving them in existence, giving them active power, and perhaps grace, which they misuse. The involvement God has is indirect and negative, not direct and positive. The motivation also doesn’t have to be retributive; God could build in the consequences for some other reason (to encourage us to strive to virtue?). You seem to be conceding that this understanding or wrath is different (even in a few small details) from the usual way it is understood; but once we grant this in one location in Scripture, why not be at least open to grant it elsewhere?

  8. MG Says:

    David–

    You wrote:

    “Kudos to both of you for finally getting pictures…

    But what’s with the colorful drug-trip patterns? :)”

    what, you don’t like drug trips? You guys gotta get some incense.

    Actually, I don’t know what those patterns are of, and I don’t know who put them there *cough* Zakk *cough*

  9. David Says:

    MG,

    “As I clarified while we were walkin’ by the library, these are not retributive things.”

    I think I understand what you were saying. These things are not simply equal to the idea that retribution is intrinsically good, yes? But why can’t a model in which retribution is intrinsically good by itself not also accommodate these other forms of retribution? In other words, pointing to examples where God seems to be using retribution in, say, a corrective manner, doesn’t seem to rule out the idea retribution can also be intrinsically good on its own.

    “Punishment doesn’t seem to be straight-up retribution actively inflicted by a judge because of guilt and needing to satisfy the demands of justice to remove someone’s debt here.”

    Granting this point for the sake of argument, again I wonder how this would rule out the possibility that retribution is intrinsically good. Especially since (I think) you conceded earlier that there are clear examples in Scripture where wrath means just what retributivists think it means. And like I said before, a retributivist model can certainly accommodate the fact that sinful activities have certain in-built consequences. To use the same example I used before, it sounds like you’re just pointing to a verse that says “and because you had lots of promiscuous sex you are now being ‘judged’ by getting STDs”, rightly drawing the conclusion that “judgement” has connotations of natural consequence, and then using that as an argument against the intrinsic goodness of punishing sin. I’m sure there are gaps that you’ll be filling in subsequent posts, but right now I’m not seeing the connection.

    “Also, natural consequences aren’t necessarily passive. God actively sends the fire of his glory. He just doesn’t do it for retributive reasons only.”

    I think this is closer to the real meat of the argument. What specific reasons do you have for thinking that God’s motivation is not (completely) retributive, at least in some cases? Do you simply contend that every passage in the whole of Scripture that speaks of wrath and judgement always has something to do with correction or deterrent, or else is motivated by love rather than righteous anger?

    “You definitely are saying some stuff that doesn’t fit with absolute divine simplicity.”

    I’m cool with that, to a point.

    “but once we grant this in one location in Scripture, why not be at least open to grant it elsewhere?”

    I am. But I’m still not totally in agreement with the conclusions you’re drawing from this passage (and then, by extension, other passages). For example, do you see any hint in these verses that the purpose of God giving these people over to sin has anything to do with correcting their behavior or deterring others? I don’t. Although deterrent might be an inevitable side effect in some sense, the point remains that in the passage, when Paul says God gave them over “for this reason”, the only referent is their willful ignorance and disobedience. Now, you’re making much of the fact that God is doing something passively and indirectly, but I’m ok with that. As a Calvinist, when I make my argument about the vessels of wrath prepared for destruction from Romans 9, I’m not suggesting that God actively gives them some kind of “negative grace” that forces them to sin without any exercise of their wills. I’ll argue for something very similar to what we seem to be agreeing is going on in Romans 1. But again, how does this rule out the retributivist model? As far as I can tell, you could hold the position that every instance of wrath or judgement prior to death and eternal damnation is corrective or deterrent, and still hold that retribution can be good intrinsically.

  10. Krause Says:

    Nilsen, I don’t think our arguments are meant to “rule out” a retributive model, they are simply meant to argue for the plausibility of an alternative. We have other reasons for preferring our model routed in our atonement theory, view of the eschaton, and most importantly, our Tridialogical and Christological committments. (Not to mention the views of fathers such as St. Athanasius)

    So long as one admits that it is a plausible reading, then I think the arguments have accomplished all they were meant to.

  11. MG Says:

    David–

    I agree with Mark’s response to your concern about eliminating retribution.

    You wrote:

    “What specific reasons do you have for thinking that God’s motivation is not (completely) retributive, at least in some cases?”

    Here’s a few examples:

    1. Sometimes people who are probably innocent (such as young children) are consumed by God’s wrath.

    2. Sometimes the wrath seems disproportionate to what is demanded by retribution.

    3. Sometimes the wrath is explained in a way that seems to not fit well with it being based on a recognitivion of guilt.

    4. Sometimes the wrath is explained in terms of purgation or safety.

  12. David Says:

    MG,

    “1. Sometimes…

    2. Sometimes…

    3. Sometimes…

    4. Sometimes…”

    Sorry, my question was getting at what reasons you would have for thinking that God’s motivation for dispensing wrath is NEVER retribution.

    I understand Mark’s point. But it seems to me that all a retributivist would need to do is point to one instance of wrath being for the sole purpose of retribution and his case is made. This is why I followed the first question with, “Do you simply contend that every passage in the whole of Scripture that speaks of wrath and judgement always has something to do with correction or deterrent, or else is motivated by love rather than righteous anger?” This is the question I’m more interesting in having answered.

  13. MG Says:

    David–

    This is the question I was answering:

    “What specific reasons do you have for thinking that God’s motivation is not (completely) retributive, at least in some cases?”

  14. David Says:

    MG,

    Yes I know, but the last part is what was important, “…at least in SOME cases.”

    So, to say it another way, do you believe that there are any instances of divine judgement/wrath in Scripture that are solely retributive? The fact that “sometimes” divine judgement doesn’t seem to be solely retributive, even when combined with Krause’s point that there other theological concerns in EO that would rule out a retributivist model, is not enough to actually rule out said model. As I said, all a retributivist would need is one instance to make his case. So what I’m asking you, by way of clarification of your position, is whether or not you actually deny that there is any such instance of retribution in Scripture.

  15. MG Says:

    David–

    Have I not given any plausible arguments for the conclusion that “God’s wrath is not solely retributive in at least a few particular cases”? That seems to be the original question.

    And no, I won’t deny that there’s retribution in Scripture. Not yet. I’m open to the possibility that there isn’t, but the arguments in favor of there being some retribution are quite strong.

  16. David Says:

    MG,

    “And no, I won’t deny that there’s retribution in Scripture. Not yet. I’m open to the possibility that there isn’t, but the arguments in favor of there being some retribution are quite strong.”

    Great. That’s all I was wondering.

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