The Wrath of God
Now that I have just upset the apple cart with a recent article on the justice of God, I might as well go the whole hog and tackle another topic which is increasingly becoming taboo – and I mean in Christian circles. That non-believers would not be too excited about such a topic is understandable.
But the real worry is the fact that so many Christians seem to want absolutely nothing to do with it. They tend to reject the doctrine outright. But I suspect they in fact do not really know what they are rejecting. They often have erected a straw man which rightly needs to be rejected.
If their idea of the wrath of God is that God is an emotional tyrant who explodes in petty anger at every little thing, then I reject that concept as well. Or if they believe that God forces people against their will to enter into a Christless eternity, that too I reject.
While the topic of hell cannot here be explored – I will need to write something about that some other time – I can here offer a brief look at what the Bible has to say about the wrath of God. Scripture in fact says so much about this topic that I can only offer a brief introduction here.
Perhaps the best way to proceed is simply to offer a number of biblical texts, along with some commentary on them. There are heaps of such passages to choose from. I will ignore the Old Testament for now, since many will want to argue that God is somehow quite different in the New.
But as I have argued elsewhere, he is just as loving and just as holy in both Testaments. But let’s just examine what the New Testament says about this. Here are a few key passages which bear on this subject. We can begin with the words of Jesus in the Gospel of John.
Christians readily – and rightly – leap upon John 3:16 to showcase God’s love. But the very same pericope speaks of the other side of the coin – his wrath. John 3:36 says this, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.”
People often mistakenly assume that love and wrath are opposites. They are not at all, as this passage demonstrates. If you really love someone you will hate that which harms that person. Leon Morris argues that wrath “stands for the settled and active opposition of God’s holy nature to everything that is evil.” Indeed, “If we abandon the idea of the wrath of God we are left with a God who is not ready to act against moral evil.”
Or as Bruce Milne comments, “God is not endlessly passive about the presence of evil in his world, or the despite it does to his great glory. If we are regularly able to express wrath in reaction to acts of extreme brutality or injustice, how much more is that felt by him whose love for the brutalized and oppressed is so much more than ours!”
Paul says much about God’s wrath. Consider Romans 1:18: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness.” Some think this wrath just means the impersonal consequences to bad choices in a cause and effect universe, and it should not be attributed to God himself.
“But his wrath against sin is too comprehensive in Scripture to allow such a reinterpretation. It is part of his very nature – the holiness of God demands wrath against the sinner and mercy toward the repentant” (Grant Osborne in his commentary on Romans).
Or as C.E.B. Cranfield remarks, “Indignation against wickedness is surely an essential element of human goodness in a world in which moral evil is always present. A man who knows, for example, about the far-reaching injustice and cruelty of apartheid and is not angry at such wickedness cannot be a thoroughly good man, for his lack of wrath means a failure to care for his fellow man, a failure to love.”
Consider also Ephesians 2:3: “All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.” But in the very next verse Paul speaks of God’s great love and rich mercy.
As Clinton Arnold states, “This wrath in no way contradicts his love; rather, it is a manifestation of his character as holy and blameless, which is what he requires of us (1:4). It is also his necessary and appropriate response to the rebellion of his creation against him, which he will ultimately subdue (1:10).”
Or as Peter O’Brien comments: “The wrath of God does not stand over against his love and mercy. Wrath and love are not mutually exclusive. . . . Only the person who understands something of the greatness of his wrath will be mastered by the greatness of his mercy. The converse is also true: only the person who has experienced the greatness of God’s mercy can understand something of how great his wrath must be.”
A final passage to consider is Revelation 6:15-17: “Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?’”
This text is remarkable for many reasons, but the point to emphasise is the one unleashing the wrath. Yes, the same meek and mild Jesus who we read about in the gospels is now dispensing judgment and punishment. Many forget that the Lamb of God is also the conquering King who will come to exercise divine judgment.
As Grant Osborne comments, “The paradox is striking: the sacrificial lamb has become the judge of all, and the Lamb is now filled with wrath. . . . This is another powerful image, as the meek Lamb becomes the wrathful Lamb.”
Or as G.K. Beale rightly states, “The earth-dwellers have not trusted in the Lamb who was slain for the sin of the world (cf. 1:5; 5:9). Therefore, they will have to suffer his destructive wrath and will not be able to withstand it. The gentle Lamb who was slain on the cross is now in an exalted position over the whole cosmos (1:5; 3:21; 5:5-6) to pour out his wrath. He is not only loving to his people but also a just judge to his enemies.”
In closing, D.A. Carson nicely ties together these two aspects of God: “Both God’s love and God’s wrath are ratcheted up in the move from the old covenant to the new, from the Old Testament to the New. These themes barrel along through redemptive history, unresolved, until they come to a resounding climax – at the cross. Do you wish to see God’s love? Look at the cross. Do you wish to see God’s wrath? Look at the cross.”
Quite so. The number one job of the Christian in his gospel presentation is to proclaim the cross. While we have often been good at highlighting the love of God as reflected in the cross, we must also highlight the wrath of God, for the one makes no sense without the other.
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