The Gospel of Anti-wrath

You have probably never heard of the Gospel of Anti-wrath. Its first disciples emerged immediately after the death of Augustine in the early 5th century. The war against Paganism was won. The Roman Empire had been converted to a single religion with significant assistance from the doctrine of Original Sin, Augustine’s weapon of mass conversion.  Christian Bishops were left with a serious theological and pastoral problem; the doctrine of Original Sin was now turned against the children of their own parishioners. Every child who died before receiving the Holy Sacrament of baptism was doomed. Augustine had made the rules perfectly clear: Heaven for the baptized, Hell for the unbaptized, Outside the Church No Salvation.



The first disciples of Anti-wrath did not have the nerve or the authority to question whether the entire doctrine of Original Sin was an error. They were not overly concerned about the multitudes of non-Christians outside the Empire, but they were deeply concerned about the damnation of their own children. Church authorities sought a compromise solution and invented Limbo, a halfway house between Hell and Heaven. Limbo was not, like Purgatory, a temporary punishment; it was permanent. Lacking all Biblical justification, Limbo was a manmade solution to a manmade problem created by the doctrine of Original Sin.


During the 1,000 years between Augustine and the Reformation, Christian theology moved away from Augustine (infant damnation, monergism, predestination) and closer to Pelagius (personal responsibility for holiness, synergism, collaboration with the Holy Spirit).  The greatest criticism hurled by Luther against the Catholic Church was that it had become too Pelagian and needed to revert to its Augustinian roots.   The history of religion would have been drastically different had Luther followed Jesus as his guide in reforming the Church rather than Augustine.   


A second wave of disciples of Anti-wrath emerged in reaction to the Reformation.   John Wesley was as much an inspiration for disciples of Anti-wrath as he has been for modern disciples of Wrath. There are two distinct aspects to Wesley’s theology: original sin and freewill.


Wesley wrote an entire book on Original Sin showing the wickedness of ancient civilizations. Then he turned to the idolatry of contemporary cultures in India, Arabia, and China, followed by the Russians, Swedes, Spaniards, Italians, Greeks, French, and finally his own mercantile, immoral British nation. Wesley’s book on Original Sin begins with a 40 page description of human depravity. Note that most of the nations Wesley condemned, including his own, were already Christian. Centuries of Christianity had done nothing to break the power of sin. It is not hard to understand why Wesley’s sermons against the depravity of Anglicans, Presbyterians, Baptists and Catholics made him unpopular in his day.  


Wesley becomes a disciple of Anti-wrath in his defence of freewill and his opposition to  predestination, most clearly outlined in his tract entitled Predestination Calmly Considered.  Wesley began by quoting the most prominent confessions of faith regarding salvation for the elect and reprobation for the wicked. After laying out the traditional justification for the doctrine of predestination, Wesley struck at its weakest point. Many Christians of his era believed that God, in His love, grace, and mercy, had elected the chosen for salvation, sanctification and glorification. However, they did not believe that God had predestined the damned, who had earned eternal punishment with their own wicked deeds. 


Wesley calmly considered that if God elects who will be saved (single predestination) he also selects those who will remain depraved (double predestination).  Wesley respectfully argued that it is irrational to pretend that God is responsible for one decision but not the other. Many Calvinists were suffering from what we would call in contemporary language ‘cognitive dissonance,’ which occurs when an individual holds two or more contradictory beliefs at the same time. Wesley argued that ‘in holding one belief, you must hold both.’  Therefore, God must be responsible for saving and damning all or human freewill plays a part in both salvation and damnation for all. This is Augustine versus Pelagius in a new era.


Wesley reviewed every verse traditionally used to defend predestination, showing how the Bible supports freewill and personal responsibility. In this tract, Wesley denied that Original Sin is the ultimate cause for damnation. For Wesley, as an Evangelist, the damning offense was the personal sin of unbelief.  Only those who reject the gospel message merit damnation. Wesley concluded with a criticism of the spiritual apathy among Christians who said: If I am elect, my salvation is assured, and if am not, my damnation is unavoidable. The doctrine of predestination had created a deadening sense of fatalism which had prevented Christians from progressing in their sanctification. For Wesley, this was the principal reason that so called ‘Christian’ nations remained as sinful as the worst Pagans.   

However, God had provided a remedy. Wesley argued that the will is sufficiently free to respond to the gospel message.  In this he was a true disciple of Anti-wrath. Wesley also argued that believers can be filled with the Holy Spirit and their sanctification will be visible. In this Wesley was the godfather of the Holiness movement and Pentecostalism.


In Predestination Calmly Considered, Wesley nullified his entire book on Original Sin with a single passage:  ‘That any will be damned for Original Sin alone, I will not allow, till you show me where it is written. Bring me plain proof from scripture, and I submit; but till then I utterly deny it.’  It is a pity that Wesley limited his critique of the Gospel of Wrath to predestination and did not address the other problems created by Augustine, Luther and Calvin. For example, if freewill is the necessary ingredient in salvation, how are infants saved? What about people who have lived and continue to live in non-Christian nations?  Wesley offered no answer other than that everyone who hears the Gospel message is free to respond.


A modern John Wesley is Billy Graham, who consistently preached the universality of sin and the need to accept Jesus as a personal Saviour.  Like Wesley, Graham believed that every human being is free to hear the good news of salvation and accept the free gift of grace. Like Wesley, Graham convinced multitudes of sinners to repent and be saved. However, nagging questions linger. What about people who never heard the gospel? Are they condemned without hope? 


In 1997, Billy Graham was asked this question on Robert Schuller’s TV program The Hour of Power. Graham replied he believed that ‘all who sincerely seek God, even if they never heard of Jesus or read the Bible, will be saved.’  Billy Graham was speaking as a true disciple of anti-wrath, which surprised (and horrified) a lot of people. These views were deeply heretical according to Augustinian/Calvinist traditions.   Disciples of Wrath accused Billy Graham of going over to the dark side for suggesting that God is merciful, in a Universalist sense, rather than wrathful against the Unsaved. 


Billy Graham was not a theologian. He made no attempt to justify his assertion from scripture. He simply believed ‘in his heart’ that God is merciful rather than wrathful. Billy Graham, in his personal understanding of God, appeared to be a Pelagian and a disciple of Anti-wrath. In his public role as an Evangelist he continued to insist that all who reject the offer of salvation will be condemned. This Wrath/Anti-Wrath compromise is as logically and theological incoherent as believing that God can intentionally save some without making an equally deliberate choice to leave the unsaved in their sins.   


Many disciples of Anti-wrath have fully rejected the doctrine of Original Sin.  They have eliminated this cognitive dissonance and have no problem saying that ‘God is merciful rather than wrathful.’ They believe that ‘all who sincerely seek God, even if they never heard of Jesus or read the Bible, will be savedalthough they have no official theology to explain how this would occur or why.


Most disciples of Anti-wrath consider their unorthodox beliefs a private affair. They do not feel called to dispute theological traditions with long-dead theologians. Church-going disciples of Anti-Wrath may keep their unorthodox ideas and doubts to themselves; partly because they want to avoid conflict with other believers, and partly because they are not equipped to formally refute the great theologians who have erected a mighty fortress upon the doctrine of Original Sin. 


Who are the spiritual leaders of the Gospel of Anti-wrath?   Not a single major Christian denomination has officially renounced the doctrine of Original Sin.  It is still prominent in their statements of faith and confessions of faith. Disciples of Anti-wrath admit that the Bible is filled with wrath but it is also filled with love, which they believe is stronger.  Anti-wrath is based on common sense. 


Disciples of Anti-wrath agree with evangelists such as John Wesley and Billy Graham that sin is universal, but we do not need to inherit depravity from Adam to explain our sinful nature. We are quite capable of making our own bad choices of our own freewill. We are also capable of making good choices.  This is the nature of freewill. We are free to do and free to think.  The God of freewill is patient.  


The Gospel of Anti-wrath has gained strength in parallel with the development of science and technology.  Rational thinking and skepticism have caused many believers to switch from the camp of Wrath to the camp of Anti-wrath, with both predictable and unintended consequences.


Charles Darwin’s theory of evolution has come to represent the ‘cultural war’ between science and religion. When Darwin first published The Origin of Species few Christians had a problem with the idea that God had used natural laws to bring about creation.  Evolution was no more disturbing for believers than learning that the planets are held in orbit by force of gravity rather than the left hand of the Almighty. There was no Biblical reason why God could not have created the universe using an evolutionary process.


Darwin’s hypothesis, that human beings had existed long before the traditional Biblical dates for Eden, paralleled the discoveries of Copernicus and Galileo, who had observed that the planets revolve around the sun rather than planet earth sitting at the centre of the universe. Church authorities had declared the Copernican theory a heresy until finally forced to admit they had misinterpreted the Bible.  Their ‘literal’ reading of the Bible had been wrong, and science had been right. The error reminded believers that there are two forms of revelation: the book of scripture and the book of nature. It is dangerous to be blindly dogmatic when they disagree.


It was only with the rise of Christian Fundamentalism (early 20th century) as a reaction to scientific skepticism that disciples of Wrath (mostly conservative evangelicals) and disciples of Anti-wrath (mostly Liberals and non-literalists) began to polarize.   As disciples of Wrath rallied around Young Earth Creationism to defend the doctrine of Original Sin, disciples of Anti-wrath embraced evolution and old dates for creation. As disciples of Wrath became strict Bible literalists, disciples of Anti-wrath began to regard the Bible as a flawed revelation of the will of God. As disciples of Wrath condemned non-Christians to damnation, disciples of Anti-wrath proclaimed that God is merciful.  As disciples of Wrath mounted campaigns against abortion and homosexuality, disciples of Anti-wrath responded with tolerance and love. 


Disciples of Wrath hurled accusation of heresy and atheism at disciples of Anti-wrath who replied that we are imperfect creatures fumbling toward perfection, as we conceive it with our limited intelligence and unlimited imperfections. Jesus distilled the entire Bible into two principles. 1) Love God. 2) Love your neighbour as yourself. Disciples of Anti-wrath interpreted this to mean: open your heart and mind to the source of all righteousness, share your gifts with the underprivileged and strive for social justice, especially for the most damaged members of our society.  This is simply the Golden Rule, which is not exclusive to any belief system.


The Gospel of Anti-wrath is a compassionate reaction to the ugliest aspects of the Gospel of Wrath, but in the absence of a clearly defined theology, the Gospel of Anti-wrath can appear to be a non-religion based on works without faith, a social gospel without the Gospel. Disciples of Anti-wrath often answer difficult questions with more compassion than clarity.


Question: If human rebellion in Eden was not the cause of sin, suffering, evil and death, is God to be accused of such an abomination?  Anti-wrath Answer: Evil in the world too complex to resolve by blaming a single scapegoat.


Q: Is there one true religion or many? AA: If God is omnipotent and omnibenevolent then Christianity has no monopoly on revelation. Every tribe and people and nation would have received equivalent revelations.


Q: Is it necessary to be a Christian rather than a Jew or a Muslim or a Hindu? A-W:  It is necessary to be a good and righteous person. Christians have no monopoly on morality.  


Q: Is there only one true Saviour?  A-W: The actions and spiritual teachings of Jesus serve as a model for us as individuals.  He is the personal Saviour of his disciples.  How he acts as Saviour for those who do not know him is a mystery.


Q: Are heaven and hell literal places? A-W: Hell is not a place of flames and torment and infinite cruelty. If heaven exists we will likely be surprised by who is admitted there.


Q: Is God, at least, literally true? A-W: God is not an old man with a long, white beard. God transcends time, space, and comprehension.  It is impossible for mortal minds to conceive the true nature of God. 


The Gospel of Anti-wrath is reasoned, tolerant and compassionate.  Churches of Anti-Wrath are welcoming environments for doubters and sinners of every kind. You might expect that this reasonable, enlightened form of Christianity would flourish in the modern world, yet the liberal, mainline churches appear to be dying.  Converts are rare. Youth turn away in droves. A few old faithful perpetuate the traditions until they are so few that the congregation is no longer economically viable. 


The Gospel of Anti-wrath does not attract Conservatives because it questions the inspiration and relevance of the Bible, the factual existence of Jesus (Virgin birth? Literal son of God? Resurrected from the dead?) and has major questions about the literal reality of hell, heaven and even the nature of God. The Gospel of Anti-wrath does not attract skeptics because the social gospel it practices does not require a religious framework; the same work can be performed by non-Christians, atheists and agnostics.   The story-line of the Gospel of Anti-wrath is nebulous, and the transformative power of the divine has been lost in action, however well-intentioned and commendable it may be. 


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6.  Rational Atheism


7.  Militant Atheism


8.  The Believer's Dilemma: Which belief system?  Why


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