Longing for the Divine

What about God’s Wrath? Eight Truths You Need to Know—Part 3

The wrath of God is a nuanced and difficult concept to understand, but as the Apostle Paul states, “All things become visible when they are exposed by the light” (Ephesians 5:13, NASB). Anyone exploring the matter will find that God’s wrath is neither spiteful nor vengeful. Rather, God’s wrath arises from His love for the world. It reflects His disdain for the things that harm us and His vexed sorrow for the pain and grief we suffer. 

Sometimes, God’s love gets concealed within disagreeable consequences like correction and the harsh effects of sinful behaviors. The same God who says, “I am full of love and forgiveness” says, “I will by no means excuse the guilty” (Exodus 34:7; Numbers 14:18). Jesus does not cancel or remove that moral balance but affirms the administration of divine judgment. Yet, how does God bring it about? How should we interpret God’s wrath, and how might His judgment be understood? 

Here are eight truths you need to know about God’s wrath: 

Truth 1: God’s wrath is different from human wrath. There are two kinds of wrath, and it is important to understand the difference between them to comprehend God’s character (Ephesians 4:26–27). Man’s wrath is often associated with a frustrated ego that turns irrational and destructive and “does not work the righteousness of God” (James 1:20). God’s wrath, however, is never vindictive or arbitrary but rather a grieved displeasure towards sin and suffering—“the anger of someone who loves deeply”(1). We need to understand divine wrath in terms of God’s redemptive purposes; we must not project our ideas onto His character (Psalm 50:21; Isaiah 55:8–9). 

Some imagine God’s wrath as an issue of sin and judgment—that God is so angry with us for our sins that His wrath bursts out against us in judgment—but this goes against God’s desire to protect and discipline us and His delight in showing us compassion and mercy (Proverbs 3:12; Hebrews 12:6). The wounded anger of a father deserted by a wayward son or the grief of a lover at being spurned by his beloved is quite different from a wrathful judge meting out a strict sentence. Many of us mistakenly see the former kinds of wrath in the God of the Scriptures.

Truth 2: God’s wrath is an integral part of His love. Traditional portrayals of God tend to separate His wrath from His mercy, but when we speak of God’s wrath, we’re actually speaking about His love. The Bible states that “God is love.” God’s attributes of wrath and mercy are not separate but held together, hand in hand, unified in one person. They are two sides of the same coin—God’s love. We might say that divine wrath is the “tough love” side of God’s mercy. Thus, Old Testament Prophet Habakkuk prays at a time of calamity: “in wrath remember mercy” (3:2). The message of God’s passionate love is not separate from His expression of wrath. God hurts over our sin, over the tragedy of wasted life. He expresses both pain and anger when He sees evil tearing His world apart and people being victimized and oppressed by human greed and violence. While divine wrath is not central to God’s character in the same way that His unrelenting love is, His wrath against oppression is nonetheless loving.

Truth 3: God’s wrath is only for a moment. God’s wrath is not an enduring or permanent attribute. To lose oneself in anger is to lose self-control; it is a weakness to hold on to anger forever. Instead, we see God’s wrath manifest only “for a moment” in comparison to His “everlasting love” (Psalm 30:5; Isaiah 54:8–10). God is “slow to anger” because He “abounds in steadfast love” (Exodus 34:6; Psalm 103:8, ESV). “He does not retain His anger forever because He delights in steadfast love” (Micah 7:18, KJV). Paul affirms that love is always patient and kind and “not easily angered” (1 Corinthians 13:4–5, NIV). God loves sinners and will do all He can to avoid the outcome of judgment. His wrath only lasts for a moment and is always weighted in the direction of His love and mercy. 

Truth 4: God’s wrath is love concealed. Since God is most fundamentally loving, “it may be necessary to characterize the anger of the Lord as suspended love, as mercy withheld, as mercy in concealment”(2). Here, God’s anger is described as love in tension rather than vindictive wrath. God’s wrath at sin, which is prompted by love, is an interlude—an expression of estranged love waiting to resume. In Hosea, you can almost feel the anguish and pain in God’s heart as He confronts sin and social tragedy. You sense God’s deep emotional struggle to accept what is personally abhorrent to Him: “How can I let you go? How can I destroy you…? My heart is torn within me, and my compassion overflows” (11:8–9, NLT).

Theologian Albert Knudson calls God’s wrath “a restrained manifestation of love”(3). It is a restrained mode of God’s love, in which He is not the continual protector but must allow some chastening as a corrective measure for the helpless situations that occur when God is one step removed. God’s wrath does not fully consume those He wants to save, but in more severe cases God’s wrath is portrayed as loosening all of His restraints against the vices of evil (2 Thessalonians 2:6; Revelation 7:1-3; 9:13-14). Such concealment and withdrawal might explain what divine wrath means to an infinite loving God as He struggles to let people go, but it does not explain what wrath means to man.

Truth 5: God’s wrath is sin revealed. According to Romans, the “wrath of God” is something that reveals the wickedness of man (1:18, 24, 26, 28). God does not personally retaliate in response to our wrongdoings but rather lets our own choices produce restitution. You could say that God has an interesting way of revealing His wrath; He allows wrath by giving us what we want—allowing us to experience the tragedy of ourselves. In other words, our punishment is our lies, greed, envy, lust, and strife falling back on our own heads.

Author A.T. Hanson speaks of God’s wrath as the process of sin working itself out in human history—something that men bring upon themselves, not the direct action of God (4). The biblical language for this is God “handing us over” to the consequences of sin (Deuteronomy 31:17–18; Psalm 81:12; Isaiah 59:2; 64:5–7; Hosea 4:17; Ezekiel 20:25). God’s wrath does not directly inflict ruin upon the sinner; the sinner brings ruin upon himself (Psalm 34:21). God is purposeful in allowing the self-punishing consequences of sin to be part of His judgment. This indirect, hands-off wrath follows the natural order of things (Psalm 7:11–16) and is much like the law of sowing and reaping (Galatians 6:7). If you planted it, then you will reap the harvest later.

Allowing sin to work itself out is generally how wrath is understood, but I think this description by itself remains an insufficient explanation of the inspired material. When we depersonalize God’s connection to negative consequences, we give karmic consequences a divine quality of perfect justice that does not meet human needs. Our descriptions should convey God as the creator and sustainer of the universe whose judgments also reflect negative consequences. So, when sin turns on sinners, catching the wicked in their own traps, it’s not merely a sin-correcting consequence but “the LORD making Himself known by the judgment He executes; the wicked is snared in the work of His own hands” (Psalm 9:15–16, KJV). It’s not just natural consequences doing the work; God is also judging (Psalm 75:7). 

Once we recognize this principle, we can begin to appreciate the nonarbitrary nature of all God’s historical judgments. They are not capricious outbursts of an angry God inflicting sentences against sinners but God’s just manifestations of the reality sinners have already chosen—God’s active choice to give sinners over to the consequences that sin deserves. However, a problem remains. The consequential constructs of God’s wrath leaves injustice, as much evil stands unanswered. The wicked sometimes prosper, and some even get away with murder with no just consequences, leaving us frustrated and crying out to God for answers like the martyrs under the altar (Revelation 6:9–10). 

Truth 6: God’s wrath is removed by the salvation of His love. Jesus does not save us from a judgmental deity but from the sin that leads to God-ordained consequences. We read that “God did not appoint us to suffer wrath” (1 Thessalonians 5:9). Paul says that wrath is revealed not against humans or Jesus but against all unrighteousness (Romans 1:18). Jesus became sin for us and bore the wrath of God for a sinful world (2 Corinthians 5:21). Jesus uses wrath language of “handing over” to relate to His death (Mark 14:41; Luke 24:7). In this sense Paul writes that Jesus was “delivered over” for our sin (Romans 4:25; 8:32). The agony Jesus endured on the cross does not deny the wrath that awaits the transgressor but broadens and deepens our notions of the extent of sinfulness and the consequences that will befall those who persist in leading a life truly apart from God.

Jesus died in our place and experienced the judgment we deserved. Jesus saved us, freeing us not from the attitude of an angry God but from our sin and the coming wrath (Romans 5:9, KJV). There is also now, in present reality, “no condemnation” inhibiting our relationships with Him (Romans 8:1). God’s wrath is an expression not of His distain or hatred for sinners but of His love as He spares sinners, setting them free to lovingly relate to God and to others. God’s love led Him to die for us and to experience what is within us—the hostility, wrath and hatred we bring to Him in our alliance with evil. When Jesus entered into our experience, He suffered the ill effects of our sin as well as God’s eternal “no!” against that which leads to ruin and destruction. God’s wrath is about the abhorrent consequences of sin and His righteous judgment against it.

Truth 7: God’s wrath is His empathy unrealized. The language of God’s wrath is the Old Testament answer to our question about God’s intervention in our world. We need God to act against injustice and do the right thing. In some ways, the demonstration of the consequences of sin helps us with that need. God expresses wrath precisely because He cares about the world. God is not indifferent to evil. He is not unaffected by the pain and misery of the human condition. He is deeply affected and moved. He is personally grieved and beside Himself with sorrow and anguish at the sight of His broken world. He is a pained God who takes the full measure of that distress and affliction onto Himself (Isaiah 69:3).  

Human language is inadequate to convey God’s disapproval and wounded love. As Old Testament scholar Terence Fretheim notes, God not only empathizes with our pain on account of injustice, but that God has taken the personal suffering of the world upon Himself (5). If we think of God’s wrath in terms of His jealous love for the world, it can be understood as “the empathy of God unrealized”(6). The portrait of divine wrath revealed on the cross becomes the greatest definition of God’s love in relation to our sin—where the depths of God’s suffering are infinitely beyond our ability to understand. The more intense one’s love, the greater one’s capacity to suffer. Since God is love, His suffering is as intense as His love for the world.

John helps us reconceive our picture of divine wrath by placing it beside the most non-vindictive image of the Old Testament—a slain lamb (Revelation 5:6–13; 6:16). God is not a wrathful deity who lays waste to His adversaries but the same as the suffering Lamb. The qualities of the slaughtered Lamb become the controlling image that alone can make sense out of this world. When we see the Lamb of God—in the person of Jesus—slain from the foundation of the world, we begin to see the character of the cross illuminating every page of Holy Writ (Revelation 13:8). The cross becomes a revelation to our dull senses of the suffering and anguish God has endured from the very dawn of creation. When we understand God’s wrath as His costly love response to the sin and evil of our world, our conflicted images of God’s love and wrath start to merge. 

What comes to light, then, is not a judgmental deity who pours out vindictive wrath but a God who opposes sin to express not only His hatred of the things that compromise His love for the world but also what He suffers with us by accepting us and being for us. Through the figure of the Lamb slain before the foundation of the world, the purpose of God’s judgment is revealed to us, not cancelled or changed. The work of the Lamb is to sacrifice for others, revealing the way God rules the world, though this will seem bad—even wrathful—to those who surrender themselves to selfish pursuits and to the extinction of fading love. God will always pursue sinners to the very refusal of that love but the consequence of that ultimate rejection will be as awful as the anguish Jesus experienced on the cross. In the end, there must be a final reckoning—a revelation of God’s final wrath, a climax that includes the settling of accounts and the eradication of all that is evil. It is wrath as a matter of finality, accountability and closure—God’s wrath becoming the confirmation of ones choice for absence.

Truth 8: God’s wrath is eschatological. This brings us to retribution and punishment. The often-forgotten book of Job shows us that the doctrine of retribution does not best serve the purposes of theodicy (7). As Job questions his friends’ notions of reward and punishment in light of real-world facts, we see the idea of retribution being reclaimed on a individual level as an attempt to understand and justify evil and the afterlife. How can God be just if He allows perpetrators of evil to continue with impunity?

When Jesus enters this debate with His disciples, He formulates the question in a surprising way that transcends their mistaken views of sin and punishment. Sometimes, the principle of retribution creeps into our understanding of God’s justice. The questions we ask about God and the causes of suffering, however, should not center in categories of retribution but in ways that reveal the greater purposes of God’s wisdom (John 9:1–3).

We can be certain that judgment is inevitable, but everything that happens within that framed version happens due to the revelation of truth (John 5:22; 12:47–48). I think Anglican priest and academic Oliver O’Donovan conveys this when he suggests that the justice we all seek in an act of retribution is a matter of “telling the truth about an offense”(8). A loving God will not allow unnecessary or cruel suffering, but He must allow an experience, without malice, as a matter of truth-telling. In their book, Kevin Kinghorn and Stephen Travis state, “This pressing of the truth brings with it the particular pains of being… under God’s wrath”(9). More can be said, but if there’s any comeuppance to be addressed in the afterlife, we can leave that to God. “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath: for it is written, Vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord” (Romans 12:19; Deuteronomy 32:35, KJV).

God will have an answer for every wrong. Yet, don’t be surprised, as Jonah was, to discover that God’s vengeance does not operate in the way traditionally presented—as tormenting the wicked for all eternity. The book of Jonah leaves us with probing questions about the measures of God’s judgment. Apocalyptic verses about wrath may be limited descriptions of notions too intricate for us to understand apart from a careful study of God’s Word. God remains free to transcend the retributive precedent so often prone to misunderstanding and abuse. Ultimately, we must all recognize God’s wisdom to “direct traffic” according to His desire to make all things right in the final analysis. Indeed, someone greater at revealing God than Jonah and all the prophets is seen in Jesus (Matthew 12:38–41). We cannot portray God as anything other than the way Jesus truly reveals Himself to be. No explanation of the wrath of God is greater than Jesus, who is the very center of these death-dealing passages of judgment in the Old Testament (1 Corinthians 10:1-11).

The final book of the Bible presents the most sobering and frightening portrait of God’s undiluted wrath pouring out along with the fiery rhetoric of torment (Revelation 14:9–11). At the end of this dire warning is a call for special attention and perseverance. It’s a heaven-born call to keep God’s commandments in agreement with the faith of Jesus—a call that explains the Word of God by the faithfulness of Jesus (Revelation 14:12). If we remain true to that revelation, we will find that God is constant throughout the Bible; without trivializing sin, we will understand that God is love!

Craig Ashton Jr

  1. Gorden J. Wenham, Genesis 1-15, WBC (Dallas: Word, 1987), p.146
  2. Abraham J. Heschel, The Prophets (New York: Harper and Row, 1966), p. 295
  3. The Doctrine of God (New York: The Abington Press, 1930), p. 347
  4. The Wrath of the Lamb (Eugene, OR: Wipf and Stock, 1957), pp. 160–175
  5. The Suffering of God (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1984), p. 112
  6. Jung Young Lee, God Suffers for Us (The Hague: Martinus Nijhoff, 1974), p. 16
  7. John Walton, Job: The NIV Application Commentary (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2012), pp. 41–45
  8. The Ways of Judgment (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2005), p. 110
  9. But What About God’s Wrath? (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2019) pp. 152–153

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