Recently I’ve been reading some of the critiques unbelievers have about Christianity, and have been struck by a commonality that I have found in many of them. People began to read the Bible, found that the God of the Bible did not square with their beliefs in a loving and good God, and so they figured that there was no support for the Christianity they had believed, and thus they rejected it.
To be a little surprising, I agree with their assessment of the modern Christianity they were taught.
Like many of them, when I first became a Christian after the confused atheism of my high school years, I was taught a version of the Gospel that accented the love of God and the close friendship of God to the total exclusion of the wrath of God. The cross of Christ was seen as a sign of love in some kind of abstract way (I’m not sure how it can be a sign of love without a real wrath that we face, but there it is).
The problem is that such is only a half-measure of the Gospel. It is true, but is not the whole story as the Bible has it. Thus, if someone who believes like that actually reads the entire Bible, there is an awful lot about God that they have no method of dealing with. They have no category for a wrathful and angry God, and so they assume that such a God in the Bible cannot be true. They will thus either reject God, or reject the Bible (or both).
This rejection is, of course, where I part company with them. I know myself to be a sinner, and honestly, I actually believe that I deserve to go to hell. Not because I’m worse than other people, but because if God really fills the role in the universe that the Bible says he does, my sin is honestly disgusting (not just a mistake, not just a minor infraction, but disgusting and evil). I honestly wonder how God can stand the people he has called, including me. The ways I have thought about those around me, and about God, even in the 2 hours I have been awake today, if you could see into my mind should make you sick. In my best times it makes me sick. My repentance is not just because I am afraid of the wrath of God, it is because my sin is sickening.
God’s wrath against me is just. Outside of Christ, he does see my mind, he does know how evil my desires can be, and how much I belittle Him. He sees it every time I do it, and without the fact that I stand in Jesus Christ, he would be wholly right to punish me for it, and I have no reason to believe that anyone is righteous enough in themselves to avoid this.
“Wretched man that I am! Who is to deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Christ Jesus our Lord!” (Romans 7:24-25a)
The danger of preaching less than this is simple. Without the wrath of God against our sin, we are simply not being honest about God, or ourselves. We thus end up teaching a Gospel that places us at its centre rather than Jesus Christ. That Gospel is not true.
People who see that anemic Gospel are right to reject it. But in so doing, they are not necessarily rejecting the Gospel of Jesus Christ, though it can lead to that.