10 Things You should Know about the Wrath of God
Many would prefer that we only speak of God’s love and grace. But apart from the reality of divine wrath neither love nor grace makes much sense. We’ll see this as we explore ten things that every Christian should know about the wrath of God.
(1) Some less-than-evangelical theologians have argued that the doctrine or concept of wrath is beneath the dignity of God. C. H. Dodd, for example, speaks for many when he says that the notion of divine wrath is archaic and that the biblical terminology refers to no more than “an inevitable process of cause and effect in a moral universe.” In other words, for such as Dodd, divine wrath is an impersonal force operative in a moral universe, not a personal attribute or disposition in the character of God. Wrath may well be ordained and controlled by God, but is clearly no part of him, as are love, mercy, kindness, etc.
(2) Opposition to the concept of divine wrath is often due to a misunderstanding of what it is. Wrath is not the loss of self-control or the irrational and capricious outburst of anger. Divine wrath is not to be thought of as a celestial bad temper or God lashing out at those who “rub him the wrong way.”
(3) Divine wrath is righteous antagonism toward all that is unholy. It is the revulsion of God's character to that which is a violation of God's will.
(4) There is a very real sense in which one may speak of divine wrath as a function of divine love. God's wrath is his love for holiness and truth and justice. It is because God passionately loves purity and peace and perfection that he reacts angrily toward anything and anyone who defiles them. J. I. Packer explains:
"Would a God who took as much pleasure in evil as He did in good be a good God? Would a God who did not react adversely to evil in His world be morally perfect? Surely not. But it is precisely this adverse reaction to evil, which is a necessary part of moral perfection, that the Bible has in view when it speaks of God's wrath" (Knowing God, 136-37).
Leon Morris agrees:
"Then, too, unless we give a real content to the wrath of God, unless we hold that men really deserve to have God visit upon them the painful consequences of their wrongdoing, we empty God's forgiveness of its meaning. For if there is no ill desert, God ought to overlook sin. We can think of forgiveness as something real only when we hold that sin has betrayed us into a situation where we deserve to have God inflict upon us the most serious consequences, and that is upon such a situation that God's grace supervenes. When the logic of the situation demands that He should take action against the sinner, and He yet takes action for him, then and then alone can we speak of grace. But there is no room for grace if there is no suggestion of dire consequences merited by sin" (The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, 185).
(5) One common biblical term for wrath is thumos, a word derived from thuo which originally meant “a violent movement of air, water, the ground, animals, or men” (TDNT, III:167). It came to signify the panting rage which wells up in a man's body and spirit. Thus thumos came to mean passionate anger, arising and subsiding quickly. It occurs twice in Luke, five times in Paul, once in Hebrews, and ten times in Revelation. Outside of Revelation it is used for God's wrath only once (Rom. 2:8). In Revelation it refers to God's wrath seven times, six of which have the qualifying phrase “of God” (14:10,19; 15:1,7; 16:1; 19:15).
(6) A word much more suited to a description of God's wrath in the NT is orge. It is derived from orgao, which speaks of “growing ripe” for something or “getting ready to bear.” It thus gave orge the meaning of a settled disposition or emotion arising out of God's nature. It is specifically said to be “of God” in John 3:36 (on the lips of Jesus); Rom. 1:18; Eph. 5:6; Col. 3:6; Rev. 19:15. We read of the “wrath of the Lamb” in Rev. 6:16. See also Rev. 6:17; 11:18; 14:10; 16:19.
Revelation 19:15 is especially instructive, as John speaks of “the wine press of the fierce wrath of God, the Almighty,” where “fierce” is a translation of thumos and “wrath” is a translation of orge.
(7) Wrath is even now, presently, being revealed and expressed by God.
We read in Romans 1:18 that God's wrath is being revealed (present tense). There are several ways of understanding this verse. This may be a futuristic present, hence referring to the final judgment. It is also possible that Paul has in mind the disease and disasters of earthly life. Given the parallel with v. 17 some have argued that just as the righteousness of God is revealed in the gospel so too is the wrath of God (i.e., the gospel is the proclamation of both grace and judgment, mercy and wrath). The most probable explanation is that God's wrath is revealed in the content of Romans 1:24-32. In other words, “the wrath of God is now visible in His abandonment of humanity to its chosen way of sin and all its consequences” (Moo, 96).
“The wrath which is being revealed,” writes Cranfield, “is no nightmare of an indiscriminate, uncontrolled, irrational fury, but the wrath of the holy and merciful God called forth by, and directed against” men's ungodliness (sin is an attack on God's majesty) and unrighteousness (sin is a violation of God's will) (111).
(8) Divine wrath will also be revealed in the future, as we see in Romans 5:9; Eph. 5:6; Col. 3:6; 2 Thess. 1:10; Rev. 14:9-12.
(9) When we envision God as filled with wrath against sin and evil we should understand this as an expression of his justice. When we speak about the justice of God, we have in mind the idea that God always acts in perfect conformity and harmony with his own character. Some suggest that justice is thus a synonym for righteousness. Whatever God is, says, or does, by virtue of the fact that it is God, makes it righteous. Right and wrong are simply, and respectively, what God either commands or forbids. In other words, God doesn't do or command something because it is right. It is right because it is done or commanded by God. Righteousness or rectitude or good do not exist independently of God as a law or rule or standard to which God adheres or conforms. Rather, righteousness or rectitude or good are simply God acting and speaking.
Justice, therefore, is God acting and speaking in conformity with who he is. To say that God is just is to say that he acts and speaks consistently with whatever his righteous nature requires. To be unjust is to act and speak inconsistently with whatever his righteous nature requires. That, of course, is a contradiction. That would be to assert that the righteous God acts unrighteously. By definition, that is impossible.
(10) When we speak of divine wrath as one facet of divine justice our primary concern is with what has been called the retributive justice of God, or that which God's nature requires him to require of his creatures. Retributive justice is that in virtue of which God gives to each of us that which is our due. It is that in virtue of which God treats us according to our deserts. Retributive justice is thus somewhat synonymous with punishment. This is a necessary expression of God's reaction to sin and evil. Retributive justice is not something which God may or may not exercise, as is the case with mercy, love, and grace. Retributive justice, i.e., punishment for sin, is a matter of debt. It is something from which God cannot refrain doing lest he violate the rectitude and righteousness of his nature and will. Sin must be punished. It is a serious misunderstanding of Christianity and the nature of forgiveness to say that believers are those whose guilt is rescinded and whose sins are not punished. Our guilt and sin were fully imputed to our substitute, Jesus, who suffered the retributive justice in our stead.
An excellent illustration of this principle is found in Psalm 103:10. Tetributive justice is that in God's nature which requires him to deal with us according to our sins and reward us according to our iniquities. But in Psalm 103:10 we are told that God “has NOT dealt with us according to our sins, NOR rewarded us according to our iniquities!” Indeed, according to v. 12, we are told that “as far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us.”
Does this mean, then, that God has simply ignored the righteous requirements of his nature, that he has dismissed or set aside the dictates of divine justice? Certainly not. See Romans 3:21-26. All sin is punished, either in the person of the sinner or in the person of his/her substitute. God's retributive justice was satisfied for us in the person of Christ, who endured the full measure of punishment which the justice and righteousness of God required. Thus the reason we can confidently declare that God has not dealt with us according to our sins is because he has dealt with Jesus according to our sins. He will not reward us according to our iniquities because he has rewarded Jesus for them, by punishing him, for them, in our place.