God’s wrath. Whoa … what a topic!
It’s the kind of stuff that makes you cringe.
Why does the Judeo-Christian God always seem so angry and eager to pour out His wrath in punitive judgment on unrepentant people? Who in their right mind would want to embrace a cosmic bully who watches over the world, just waiting to lash out in anger at those who vex His sense of justice? It explains why so many are skeptical about the religion of the Bible and have so little faith in God.
Many argue that the angry God of the Bible is an irrational and cruel tyrant who is not worthy of our admiration. You may feel some apathy toward this wrathful God, thinking He’s receiving His just deserts from people. Perhaps you have lingering fears about how we will be judged for failing tests of faith, for questioning the existence of suffering and divine damnation against the reality of God’s love, for harboring a sharp dislike for the wrathful potentate in the sky? If we delve a little bit deeper, however, we find that God’s wrath is misunderstood.
The depiction of an unpredictable God striking out in wrath is smothered by many examples of God’s enduring love, goodness, patience, and compassion. Those who misunderstand and find the idea of God’s wrath disconcerting, however, tend to interpret such unpleasant expressions as the mere mechanics of fate. Some religious circles downplay or even reject the ideas of divine wrath and judgment. I believe we are right to doubt shallow theories about God’s wrath and to vigorously question caricatures of biblical teaching. I reject the wrathful god that the atheist rightly rejects, but as perplexing as they may seem, I cannot simply throw away the parts of the Old Testament that make me uncomfortable. I suspect that there is something very real and meaningful about the concept of God’s wrath.
Surely, we must define the wrathful passages in Scripture in light of God’s love and compassion for the world, but I don’t think God just blows sweet little kisses to release everyone from their fear and shame. What matters to God are the things that should matter to all of us—injustice and pain caused by people and principalities in pursuit of power over others. Human misery is so often caused by cruel and abusive actions, and someone should be mad about it. God is pained and deeply distressed when evil is done, and His anger is directed toward that which exploits and abuses His creation. The source of God’s displeasure is not a frustrated will but His loving concern. Prominent Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel rightly states that “the secret of anger is God’s care.” Heschel continues to argue that “Divine anger is not the antithesis of love, but its counterpart, a help to justice as demanded by true love” (The Prophets (New York: Harper & Row, 1966) 374 & 381). We can be confident that the justice of God’s love is capable of rightly dealing with the sin of a broken world.
We should acknowledge that God has a right to pass judgment on people’s cruel treatment of others and to oppose evil precisely because His anger is aligned with His love. One should be fiercely unhappy about that which exploits, defaces, and damages God’s good creation, and God’s anger is indeed fierce, waxing as hot as His tears, intense as His love. The suffering of every victim is the suffering of God, and the sin of every oppressor is judged by Him. We are right to affirm God’s justice and not to underestimate the reality of divine judgment against that which opposes His love. Without robust displeasure at the injustices of our world, we end up with a mistaken lack of attention or carelessness—a cruel absence of love itself. Abraham Heschel states:
There is an evil which most of us condone and are even guilty of: indifference to evil. We remain neutral, impartial, and not easily moved by the wrongs done unto other people. All prophecy is one great exclamation; God is not indifferent to evil! He is always concerned, He is personally affected by what man does to man … This is one of the meanings of the anger of God: the end of indifference!
Man’s sense of injustice is a poor analogy to God’s sense of injustice. The exploitation of the poor is to us a misdemeanor, to God it is a disaster. Our reaction is disapproval; God’s reaction is something no language can convey. Is it a sign of cruelty that God’s anger is aroused when the rights of the poor are violated, when widows and orphans are oppressed?The Prophets (New York: Harper & Row, 1966) 283–413
If we neglect the Bible passages that speak of judgment and human accountability, we will underestimate the potential of mankind to do good. For those who have been victimized or oppressed by evil, sensing God’s displeasure against such abuse often lies at the heart of their discovery of His love. We can be certain that God’s wrath is not like the wrath of an angry bully or raging narcissist. God has presented Himself to us as the victim of human evil, who is neither idle nor passive in response to the evils in our world. While we see God standing for all the virtues that should be reflected in human beings, we also see Him speaking and acting in ways that are often difficult to understand. We should thus exercise caution, sensing a depth of meaning and significance that lies below the surface.
We must carefully untangle our notions about divine wrath and justice when we speak about God’s actions. We must make sure that our depictions of God’s wrath and judgment have as their source the true character of God. One who knew Jesus very well tells us that God has a private name that no one knows but Him (Revelation 19:12). We can’t simply project our human concepts and understandings onto God. We make a terrible mistake when we see God as petty and resentful like us. Our assumptions and thoughts about God’s anger and wrath are often incomplete and inadequate.
The sources that speak of God’s jealousy, anger, and wrath describe them to us in terms of human emotion. God speaks to us in human terms, and since everything human is imperfect, God must fill our spoken expressions with new meaning. Like Isaiah, we must have the unworthy and faltering shapes of truth removed from our speech, so our expressions and words about God are pure and in harmony with His character. Sometimes we fail to notice the difference. Jesus cautions that it’s a serious fault—and can even be Satanic—to project our human points of view onto God’s character and work (Matthew 16:23). We must be careful, lest we cloak the language and words of Scripture with our own human attributes that pertain more to the demonic (Luke 9:54-55). The character revealed at the cross defines the very essence of God’s being. The key to interpretation rests in the suffering God of the cross, who gave Himself to judge and defeat evil in the ultimate demonstration of His love.
I find it comforting to know that Abraham was uncertain of his theories about divine judgment when debating God’s justice toward Sodom and Gomorrah. At first consideration it seems that destroying the cities of the plain would be inconsistent with what Abraham knows about God, but what he discovers instead is an infinitely benevolent God. Abraham found confidence that God would do the right thing (Genesis 18). Perhaps our answers about God’s wrath and divine judgment will remain less than satisfactory, but we can be certain of the God revealed in Jesus. Once you know the character of God revealed on the cross, you have the essence of all you need to know.
Craig Ashton Jr.