Why does the Judeo-Christian God have such a bad temper?

This post by Valerie Tarico originally appeared at ValerieTarico.com.

(Credit; Michelangelo / Wikimedia Commons / Public Domain)

[Wicked men] are now the objects of that very same anger and wrath of God, that is expressed in the torments of hell. And the reason why they do not go down to hell at each moment, is not because God, in whose power they are, is not then very angry with them; as he is with many miserable creatures now tormented in hell, who there feel and bear the fierceness of his wrath. Yea, God is a great deal more angry with great numbers that are now on earth: yea, doubtless, with many that are now in this congregation, who it may be are at ease, than he is with many of those who are now in the flames of hell.
—Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God

In his famous 1741 sermon, Puritan minister Jonathan Edwards used the word anger three times, “angry” six times, ”fierce” seventeen times, and “wrath” fifty one times. He clearly wanted to make a point about God’s feelings. Today, few American ministers would dare to preach such a relentlessly threatening sermon. Fred, “God-hates-fags” Phelps, of Topeka, Kansas, has been able to garner national media attentions with his theology of rage, in part because he is an outlier. Popular sermons today are more likely to focus on promises than threats. The late Oral Roberts promised, among other things, that devotion to his kind of Christianity would be rewarded with material wealth, and he became one of the founders of a school of theology now known as “Prosperity Gospel.”

If you search the internet, you will find all kinds of Christians arguing that God is not angry or fierce or wrathful, just righteous and bound by the obligations of justice—and aggrieved. “This hurts me more than it is going to hurt you.” But if we are honest, Edwards’ was closer in his vision to many of the Bible writers than was Roberts or today’s celebrity preachers like Rick Warren or Joel Olsteen.


“I will tread them in mine anger, and will trample them in my fury, and their blood shall be sprinkled upon my garments, and I will stain all my raiment.” Isaiah 63:3

“Therefore will I also deal in fury: mine eye shall not spare, neither will I have pity; and though they cry in mine ears with a loud voice, yet I will not hear them. Ezekiel 8:18

“What if God, willing to show his wrath, and to make his power known, endured with much long-suffering the vessels of wrath fitted to destruction?” Romans 9:22

“And out of his mouth goeth a sharp sword, that with it he should smite the nations: and he shall rule them with a rod of iron: and he treadeth the winepress of the fierceness and wrath of Almighty God.” Revelations 19:15

Anger is an activating emotion. It is a response to pain and threat or simply being thwarted. When we are in danger or goal oriented activities are frustrated, anger can make us more focused, persistent, and determined. Socially, it serves to prepare our bodies for defensive action by making us stronger, more alert, more aggressive and, consequently, more intimidating. It can be almost instantaneous, preparing us to respond to threats faster than our conscious minds can even assess a situation. This is both the advantage and the disadvantage of anger.

You might think that if someone is powerful enough, say for example, omnipotent, then anger would be unnecessary. The force that created the universe has no need of it. For what? To make him more powerful? More able to focus? To break through inhibitions or fear? And yet it makes a lot of sense that we humans would expect God to get angry.

Consider the Bible writers. Their image of God as the most powerful person imaginable was modeled on an Iron Age Chief or King who wielded absolute power over his subjects and who was beyond accountability. One example is the situation of Job, who becomes the pawn in a contest between Yahweh and Satan. As a test of his loyalty to Yahweh, his children, along with his other assets—friendship, wealth and health—are taken from him. When Job complains, God says, “Will the faultfinder contend with the Almighty? Let him who reproves God answer it.” (Job 40:2) Absolute power allows caprice and cruelty. It always is maintained in part by fear, a level of fear that is virtually impossible to perpetuate without anger’s unpredictability.

Saddam Hussein might be thought of as a modern Iron Age ruler, holding together a nation made of tribal factions and kinship groups that were ever ready to dissolve into more primitive groupings. Hussein’s ruthless brutality gives us a sense of what it takes to maintain absolute authority in such an environment. If you read the descriptions of the Israelite kings, even many of God’s favorites, you will notice that their regimes are similar to Hussein’s. They practice genocide and scorched earth warfare. They have female sexual slaves taken by force. They engage in all manner of palace intrigue, they murder rivals, and they amass tremendous wealth, often claiming divine sanction for their worst atrocities (e.g. Number 31: 17-18). The consent of the governed is not even a consideration.

In a context like modern Iraq or the ancient Near East, where disputes are often settled without recourse to police or law, “formidability” is a social asset. A man may kill his adulterous wife in part because doing so increases his status among men. Engaging in visible violence puts him in a more powerful position when it comes time to settle a land dispute or negotiate a business transaction. Anger makes people more formidable in part because it seems so out of control. A king or god who is known for his caprice commands the full attention of his subjects.

We no longer settle many disputes by force or even force of will, and evolving theologies reflect our changing cultural conditions. The angry God of Jonathan Edwards has been replaced in part by a God who has a wonderful plan for your life or who seeks a personal relationship with you. All the same, recent research by cognitive scientists Aaron Sell, John Tooby, and Leah Cosmides suggests that there may be a biological basis for the intuitive expectation that God is anger prone.

We often think of anger being the domain of powerless, frustrated people, but the opposite may be true. One of the ways that anger functions is as a bargaining tactic. It increases formidability and, consequently, when I get angry, you pay more attention to my desires and less attention to your own. But that only works if you stick around. Most of us dislike being around anger, especially the sense that we are “walking on eggshells.” We generally try to avoid others who are chronically irritable, in particular, if their anger is unpredictable or dangerous.

But the equation changes if the angry person is powerful. Powerful people are those who can inflict costs on us if we don’t pay attention to their wishes or who can confer benefits when we do. They can reject us or injure or even kill us. Or they may be able to give us special privileges like wealth or sexual favors. With powerful people we want to avoid their anger while staying connected. So when we figure out what makes them angry we tend to become more compliant.

In a study by Sells, Tooby Comides (2009) stronger men and more beautiful women were more anger prone than their less beefy and more ordinary counterparts. The researchers theorize that these are kinds of people who, in our ancestral environment could have inflicted violence or offered premium reproductive benefits. Having more ability to threaten—or more to offer—creates a sense of entitlement, which, when violated produces anger. It is one way that high status people get the rest of us to do what they want, and because we value or fear them, they get away with it. Who is more powerful than God? Who is more able to inflict costs or confer benefits?

It may be that we are biologically predisposed to be anxious about God’s wrath, but the fact that we are disposed to expect something doesn’t make it real. Our minds are optimized to help us anticipate and adapt to the feelings, desires, and behaviors of other humans—including high status humans who have the power to make our lives easy or wretched. It is far too easy to take this same template and project it onto the universe and the supernatural. The Bible writers’ belief in an angry God may be, essentially, an artifact of human information processing.

That is interesting, but not entirely satisfying. When we talk about God, most of us are trying to glimpse a reality that is external to us, not trying to learn something about the architecture of our own minds. Are we sinners in the hands of an angry god or sinners in the hands of angry humans? Only by seeing ourselves do we have a shot at seeing beyond ourselves.

Dig Deeper:

M. Lewis (1993). “The development of anger and rage.” In R.A. Glick & S. P. Roose (Eds), Rage, power and aggression (pp. 18-168). New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” Enfield, Connecticut
July 8, 1741. In Christian Classics Ethereal Library, http://www.ccel.org/ccel/edwards/sermons.sinners.html.

Aaron Sell, John Tooby, and Leda Comides (2009), “Formidability and the Logic of Human Anger,” in PNAS, vol. 106, 35, 15073-15078. http://www.psych.ucsb.edu/research/cep/papers/angerselltoobycosmides09.pdf

“The Book of Job,” New American Standard Bible. 

Reprinted with permission from the author.

Valerie Tarico is a psychologist and writer in Seattle, Washington. She is the author of Trusting Doubt: A Former Evangelical Looks at Old Beliefs in a New Light and Deas and Other Imaginings, and the founder of www.WisdomCommons.org. Her articles about religion, reproductive health, and the role of women in society have been featured at sites including AlterNet, Salon, the Huffington Post, Grist, and Jezebel. Subscribe at ValerieTarico.com.

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