Then the kings of the earth and the magnates and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?”
40 years later people still remember where they were when Mount St. Helens erupted. My grandma talks about watching the news from her Washington home, a few hours north of the blast. Later that year, in the summer of 1980, she and my grandfather would drive past the smoldering mountain on Interstate 5 and collect ash from the median to show the fourth-graders she’d be teaching in the fall. The bookseller on San Juan Island told my wide-eyed sons about being near the mountain when it happened, about the way daylight turned to dusk and then to night under the cover of the ash cloud spreading across the horizon. Later he would approach the mountain, working for the forest service, and see how some trees had been burnt to a crisp except for the bottom few feet which had been covered with snow. A friend on the east side of the Cascades told us about the ash drifting down like snow, covering the darkened streets with inches of the stuff.
Everyone who was near the blast has a story to tell.
There had been warnings in the weeks before the mountain erupted: hundreds of earthquakes, small bursts of ash, and, most ominously, a bulge on the volcano’s north slope that pushed outward like some festering wound, sometimes five feet in a single day. Maybe these signs allowed the onlookers to feel prepared. Restricted zones were mapped out and residents within them forced to leave their homes.
At 8:32 on May 18th, a Sunday morning, the heaving mountain triggered an enormous landslide. Mount St. Helens immediately lost 1,300 of its 9,600 feet. David Johnston, a young geologist observing the mountain from miles away, had about 45 seconds before the avalanche of boulders, trees, and tons of earth buried his ridge, just enough time to radio his colleagues in the nearby town of Vancouver, Washington: “Vancouver! Vancouver! This is it!”
A few minutes later, Mount St. Helens exploded. Not from the top, as was expected, but from its side. I’ve tried to picture this moment but I can’t; it’s beyond the capacity of my imagination. The blast swept down the opening crater at 300 miles per hour, leaving behind 230 miles of scorched earth. Towering forests were peeled back to bare rock. Combined with the landslide, the volcanic blast liquified the mountain’s stores of spring snow and ice to send churning mudflows down the valleys- overwhelming the streams, covering over rivers, and relocating familiar lakes hundreds of feet from their pre-eruption locations. Videos from that day show trees, houses, and bridges tossed aside, barely an afterthought to what appears to be the mountain’s singular purpose: total and complete devastation.
Jonathan Edwards began his famous sermon in 1741 by reflecting on Deuteronomy 32:35, “To me belongeth vengeance and recompence; their foot shall slide in due time: for the day of their calamity is at hand, and the things that shall come upon them make haste.” His focus is on that vivid description of demise – “their foot shall slide in due time”- and from there Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God goes on to describe the plight of the wicked before a holy God.
From these few words, the New England preacher derives four implications. The first is this: “That they were always exposed to Destruction, as one that stands or walks in slippery Places is always exposed to fall. This is implied in the Manner of their Destruction’s coming upon them, being represented by their Foot’s sliding.” God’s justified wrath against sin, says Edwards, is withheld by God’s love, but when it comes, as it surely must, it comes upon us so quickly that we are like those careening down a landslide, the sheer absurdity of our having long remained upright now undeniable as the mountain falls around us. On top of us.
This topic – the wrath of God – is an unfamiliar one to many of us. I suppose some find the idea of Edwards’ angry God repugnant, but my hunch is that most Americans, Christians included, simply don’t think about it at all. Ours are divinities of love, including the Christian God, who we imagine as benign and benevolent forces. We might occasionally get mad at God, but the American gods of our imaginations rarely get angry with us.
Our family of four recently spent two nights in the campground nearest to Mount St. Helens. We made the 200 mile drive south from the Puget Sound – our temporary home during our family vacation – because for the past two years our youngest son, now four years old, has been infatuated with volcanoes. His knowledge of the geological forces at work in these mountains far exceeds mine, and I was an environmental studies minor!
We couldn’t actually see the mountain from the campground – we had to drive a few minutes for our first glimpse – but we were able to make the short hike to where the mudflow had overwhelmed the nearby creek. We saw it as we approached through the dense forest, a growing patch of sunlight that eventually became a sort of dusty river plain. The ground turned an ashy grey and was littered with pumice, carried all these miles from the volcano. Even now, decades later, it was easy to see how the eruption had sculpted the valley. The following day the road to Mount St. Helens followed the mudflow for miles, our imaginations recalibrating the power of the mountain we were on our way to visit.
We were lucky to awake to sunshine and clear skies on the morning of our visit. Wildfires are once again ravaging the western United States and the skies in Washington had been hazy, reducing visibility to a mile or two at times. At the Johnston Observatory the ranger told us that two days earlier, the same mountain that rose so clearly across the valley from us was invisible from where we stood. The millions of acres now burning around the country are not natural. A warming climate and increasing development in dry areas provide the flammable potential for human error: ninety-five percent of these fires are started by us.
The four of us gazed intently at the crater, pointing out the still active lava dome inside it and the way the downed timber pointed the same direction, away from the blast. We imagined the destruction, thankful that a different kind of devastation, at least on that day, wasn’t obscuring our view.
The biblical wrath of God that Edwards described comes rapidly and unexpectedly. The prophet Ezekiel describes it as a hailstorm, a spreading pestilence, a fire, and most often, as being poured out onto its recipients. But as surprising as it must always seem to those peering the other way, Scripture reveals God to reserve his wrath for two predictable human activities: idolatry and injustice. So the jealous God will not tolerate the lesser deities so often propped up on hillsides and valleys by his people, idols like Baal and Molech who demand sacrifices of human flesh and sexual exploitation. But neither will God turn a blind eye to injustice.
Execute justice in the morning,
and deliver from the hand of the oppressor
anyone who has been robbed,
or else my wrath will go forth like fire,
and burn, with no one to quench it,
because of your evil doings. (Jeremiah 21:12)
It’s a daunting standard. Injustice, in God’s eyes, is not only committing unjust acts; it includes the absence of justice, of failing to confront the oppressor and thief.
There is nothing arbitrary about God’s wrath. It erupts with fury, an “almighty merciless Vengeance” in Edwards’ words, but there is always a righteous logic when it finally rains down. God’s wrath is always instigated by his people’s idolatry and injustice.
According to the US Geological Survey, the eruption of Mount St. Helens in 1980 released 24 megatons of thermal energy, about 1,600 times the size of the atomic bomb that was dropped on the city of Hiroshima during World War II. We heard this horrifying fact more than once during our two-day stay near the mountain. We also learned that, compared with other volcanoes throughout history, the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens was relatively very small.
But it’s the comparison itself with the atomic bomb that most interested me, a comparison between a natural disaster and one purposefully inflicted by people upon other people. The former, far greater in power, claimed the lives of 57 people; the latter killed tens of thousands.
The churches I’ve known have generally been hesitant to speak about God’s wrath. A caricature of Edwards’ angry God is so thoroughly instilled in our society’s imaginations that many of us have felt the need to round out the picture. Over time, we’ve simply stopped thinking about God’s anger. I think we’ve also stopped thinking – if we ever had – about our own anger. Yet the bomb dropped on the citizens of Hiroshima and the fires advancing throughout the American west have me wondering about our collective unacknowledged and unchecked anger.
Anger, or wrath, is probably not how we think about the infernos of our own making. We frame our disasters as inevitable consequences of our wars or the unfortunate costs of our freedoms. Some think of them as our selfishness enfleshed; others as catastrophes totally unrelated to our choices. The explanations for the ways we destroy one another and our planet are many, but I wonder if our anger – rage, maybe – plays an outsized role.
Human retaliation always exacts a higher, vengeful cost than is necessary. Our atomic bombs are the obvious example. We are capable now of inflicting total and final vengeance upon the entire planet. Similar observations could be made about how we incarcerate people and, despite so much room for error, execute them for certain crimes. Our judgements are not fair and they are not equally distributed. As a nation we respond to horrifying attacks by unleashing our own horror, trading our thousands of lives for thousands upon thousands of our enemies.
But I think the wildfires we ignite, along with other less obvious examples, are also expressions of our anger. We know why these fires burn hotter, longer, and more frequently. We know where we shouldn’t build our homes and suburbs. We know how we could slow the climate’s warming. Yet we don’t. For many reasons we don’t, but could one of those reasons be a simmering anger at being shown the limits of our humanity? Like Cain, we respond with fury at being told what we must do. The creation groans under our insatiable appetites and we, children of wrath as the apostle Paul says, will not listen.
A couple of weeks after our visit to Mount St. Helens, our family drove slowly past a smoldering mountainside in northern Montana. Wisps of smoke gathered into small clouds and roadside signs warned of fire crews entering and exiting the highway. From our car, we peered up into the hazy forest not quite able to grasp the size of this one fire. The next day we read in a local newspaper that it was still relatively small but expected to spread rapidly.
I began thinking about the eruption of Mount St. Helens as a picture of God’s wrath at one specific moment during our visit. Most of the exhibits and ranger talks highlighted, with good reason, the volcano’s devastation. Our time near the mountain was filled with descriptions, photos, and short films showing the landslide and ensuing eruption from every possible angle. We heard eyewitness accounts of the the apocalyptic-like hours and days that followed. None of this made me think about God’s wrath.
That moment came during our second day. At the observatory looking across to the crater, my wife and I sat with our two young sons listening to a ranger. Almost in passing he told us that three days after the explosion, on the same ground covered by what would come to be recognized as the word’s largest recorded landslide, a small herd of elk were seen crossing the ash-covered slope. Their hoof-marks and droppings left behind the first seeds after the blast. Within 72-hours the mountain had begun to heal itself. Those elk are what made me think about the wrath of God.
Jonathan Edwards preached his sermon with the purpose of saving people from hell but maybe his intent can be widened. Despite his vivid descriptions of divine anger and judgment, Edwards does not hesitate to desperately urge his congregation to run to this same God, the source of wrath. “And now you have an extraordinary Opportunity, a Day wherein Christ has flung the Door of Mercy wide open, and stands in the Door calling and crying with a loud Voice to poor Sinners; a Day wherein many are flocking to him, and pressing into the Kingdom of God.” The God of wrath, Edwards preaches, is the God of salvation. The God who cannot look away from idolatry and injustice will neither look away from those who flee to him.
The Psalmist believed the same:
Serve the Lord with fear,
with trembling kiss his feet,
or he will be angry, and you will perish in the way;
for his wrath is quickly kindled.
Happy are all who take refuge in him. (Psalm 2:11-12)
So did the prophet Nahum, in language that evokes an erupting, crumbling volcano.
The mountains quake before him,
and the hills melt;
the earth heaves before him,
the world and all who live in it.
Who can stand before his indignation?
Who can endure the heat of his anger?
His wrath is poured out like fire,
and by him the rocks are broken in pieces.
The Lord is good,
a stronghold in a day of trouble;
he protects those who take refuge in him. (Nahum 1:5-7)
I thought about God’s wrath when the ranger mentioned the elk because God’s wrath is so unlike ours. How else can we be urged, straight-faced, to take refuge in the mountain that has just exploded before our eyes? Why, given the experiential rubrics of our own collective expressions of anger, would we throw ourselves onto the mercies of a wrathful God? But the wrath of God is not like our atomic bombs, wildfires, or execution chambers. The wrath of God is not retaliatory, not vengeful in the way we express it.
God’s wrath is so different from ours because God is so different from us. Our collective anger is rooted in selfishness, ego, and pride. In simple contrast, using biblical language, the Lord is good. That is to say, God is always merciful, forgiving, and kind. And yes, righteous too. God’s wrath, then, is expressed not from the absence of goodness, but as an expression of it. And in its aftermath lies healing and restoration. Lakes and rivers are restored, meadows and forests take root again. What our own collective anger leaves behind couldn’t be more different: poisoned bodies and lands, disenfranchised communities, skies choked with haze.
Unrighteous people like us will, in our unacknowledged anger, turn to idolatry and run headlong into injustice. We will worship anything other than the one righteous God and our idol-worship will inevitably lead us to acts – individual but also corporate – of tremendous oppression. We articulate our sins against God by disdaining our neighbors and abusing the earth. We, an angry people, stand in want of God’s wrath.
In Romans 5:1-10 Paul tells us that Jesus Christ saves us from God’s wrath. His atoning death did so, in fact, even as our idolatry and injustice placed us deservingly under judgment. This good news is, I think, the extent to which most American Christians think about God’s wrath. If at all, divine anger is remembered in the past tense, something not especially relevant except, as Edwards exemplifies, as a means to urge others to flee to Christ’s salvation.
Yet those of us who claim Jesus as Savior must also accept him as Judge. When we diminish the wrath of God against idolatry and injustice to something that no longer concerns us, we are left vulnerable to an uglier kind of wrath- our own. And so we trade healing redemption for retaliatory vengeance. We seek refuge not in the mountain but in our weapons. We accept the warfare we’ve fomented, the prisons we’ve erected, and the infernos we’ve kindled as the reasonable price of vanquishing the wrathful God. In place of the divine Judge, our own unholy judgements inflict death, only and always.
We have become so accustomed to our own ruthless wrath that it can be hard for us to imagine another way. Paul helps us.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good. (Romans 12:14-21)
Here is a vision wherein a people have renounced their own wrath for God’s. A community that welcomes God’s vengeance is one that also renounces persecution, deception, and retaliation. They will be known for their orientation toward blessing, solidarity, harmony, humility, truthfulness, forgiveness, peace, and compassion. They will be a people of worship and justice. They will reject the death-dealers who levy ever more devastating judgements upon their enemies and their enemies’ children and their enemies’ lands.
This community will come to know that God’s wrath is better than theirs.
I wouldn’t have chosen to visit Mount St. Helens. There were other places I’d have preferred to visit during our stay in the Pacific Northwest. I think the same is true for my wife and older son. But we each love the four-year-old and so we joined him in his pilgrimage to the mountain he’d been talking about since he began forming sentences. The car was full of our typical chatter on the morning we drove up to the volcano. And then my wife pointed through the windshield. “Is that it?” We all got quiet, watching as the blunt peak, larger by far than anything around it, rose through the haze. The road followed a creek up the valley and we began noticing how it had been widened by the torrent of mud, water, and debris decades prior. Soon we could recognize how everything around us, the entire landscape, had been shaped by the blast.
The silence in our car – a rare occurrence – continued and something in me changed as we drew near to the mountain. I was glad we had come. I wanted to get closer.