The wrath of God. There are some circles within Christianity that seem to emphasize the wrath of God. And on the other extreme are those who are unable to fit it into their picture of God. Between those two extremes are those who are not quite sure what to make of a God of wrath. But what does the Bible itself have to say about this topic?
What Is Wrath?
There are a number of words in both the Old and New Testaments that are translated as wrath. These words are also frequently translated as anger. Most generally they refer to God’s response to human disobedience. But the words are also used in relation to a negative human response to other people. There is really no good way to soften “the wrath of God” to mean anything other than an angry response on God’s part to human disobedience.
The wrath of God is a common expression in the Old Testament. Deuteronomy 9:8 is an example of this usage, “At Horeb you aroused the Lord's wrath so that he was angry enough to destroy you.” This combination of God’s wrath, human disobedience, and punishment is a common theme in the Old Testament, especially in the prophets. The primary message of the prophets was one of judgment against a disobedient people, typically with a call for repentance.
There are also dozens of references to God’s wrath in the New Testament, including Romans 1:18, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness.” Even though Jesus and his disciples proclaimed the kingdom of God, and expressed God’s love for humanity, they did not dismiss the wrath of God. Wrath that would come to all who were disobedient to the gospel message.
What Is God's Wrath?
The concept of God’s wrath can be challenging for us to understand. And that, in large part, is probably due to confusing it with human wrath. Merriam-Webster defines wrath as “strong vengeful anger.” The idea is that someone has wronged me, and I am making every effort to hurt them as much as I can. Human wrath is generally not considered as a commendable attribute.
But is that what God’s wrath is? Getting revenge on humans who have offended him? I do not believe that it is. In Romans 2:1-17, Paul talks about the wrath and judgment of God that will come to those who have rejected the truth and followed evil.
Romans 2:5 offers a good perspective on just what God’s wrath is, “But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God's wrath when his righteous judgment will be revealed.” His wrath appears to be synonymous with his righteous judgment.
God’s wrath is not an angry retribution against those who have offended God. Rather it is his righteous judgment against those who do evil. God is righteous. And he will judge us according to his righteous standard. God’s wrath against sinners is nothing more than giving them what they deserve.
Is it at Odds with His Love?
Is a wrathful God at odds with a loving God? If you understand wrathful as vengeful, then it might be hard to reconcile these two attributes of God. But if the wrath of God is simply his righteous judgment against sinful humanity, then there is really no conflict between the two.
All of humanity is deserving of punishment. And a righteous God would correctly give us what we have earned. But God is also love. And he has provided a way of redemption; faith in the atoning blood of his Son. For those who respond to God’s offer of salvation, his righteous judgment is satisfied by Jesus’ sacrifice. But those who reject that offer of salvation will receive the judgment they rightly deserve. God’s desire is that all be saved (1 Timothy 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9). But those who refuse will suffer the consequences of that refusal.
Who Will Experience His Wrath?
Throughout the Scriptures, God’s wrath is reserved for those who are in rebellion against him. But wrath is never the experience of those who are responsive to his call. Believers may, and do, experience discipline from the hand of God. But that discipline is intended to help us to grow and mature in the faith, and in relationship to God. Wrath though is the final judgment against all those who are accounted as God’s enemies, those who have turned their faces away from God.
Throughout the Scripture, you find this division between God’s wrath directed towards sinners and his protecting love toward his own. His wrath is poured out on the people of Noah’s day by the waters of the flood, but righteous Noah and his family are rescued. Judgment is levied against Sodom and Gomorrah and Lot is rescued. Egypt is destroyed by the plagues while the descendants of Abraham are delivered. Over and over we see this repeated in the Old Testament. And that same story is also vividly portrayed in the visions of John recorded in Revelation.
How Should Christians React to God’s Wrath?
Some want to ignore any mention of God’s wrath. Others seem to delight in proclaiming God’s wrath against sinful humanity. But how should we respond to those passages that express the wrath of God?
I believe it is appropriate for us to place the same emphasis on God’s wrath as did Jesus and his apostles. They clearly proclaimed that God’s wrath was reserved for those in rebellion against God. Never did they seem to minimize or gloss over it.
But God’s wrath was not the emphasis of their proclamation. That was reserved for the gospel of the Kingdom. That God loves us and has invited us to escape from his wrath and to experience his love and membership in his kingdom. So, I believe it is proper for us today to focus primarily on the gospel of Jesus Christ. But we should not ignore the consequences of rejecting the gospel, the wrath of God.
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Ed Jarrett is a long-time follower of Jesus and a member of Sylvan Way Baptist Church. He has been a Bible teacher for over 40 years and regularly blogs at A Clay Jar. You can also follow him on Twitter or Facebook. Ed is married, the father of two, and grandfather of three. He is retired and currently enjoys his gardens and backpacking.