How Are We to Understand the Wrath of God?

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Wrath of God. A metaphor for God’s displeasure with human beings and actions.

At a glance, the biblical teaching on the wrath of God seems inconsistent with the doctrine of God’s love. Unfortunately, ignorance of the OT and a misunderstanding of the NT have resulted in a heretical view of the biblical canon (Marcionism), in which the OT reveals the God of wrath and the NT reveals the God of love. Contrary to popular misconception the NT, like the OT, also teaches the wrath of God in connection with his love. The biblical teaching on God’s love cannot be appreciated unless it is seen in contrast with the biblical teaching on his wrath. The word “wrath” is a concept represented by many different words and idioms in the original languages of the Bible. The references to God’s wrath are the most frequent—nearly three times as many as any other subject.

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In the Old Testament. God in the OT may be angry with nations, sinners, and even with his covenant people and children. God’s anger comes first to expression within the covenant community of Israel. The story of Israel’s wilderness wanderings illustrates how the Lord showed his wrath to Israel after they had been redeemed from Egypt, had received the Decalogue and the covenant and had seen his glory (Nm 11:10; 12:9; 22:22; 32:10, 13, 14). The major reason for the Lord’s anger in the OT was that his own people broke the covenant. They provoked him by their idolatry (Dt 2:15; 4:25; 9:7, 8, 19; Jgs 2:14; 1 Kgs 11:9; 14:9, 15; 2 Kgs 17:18), by their mixing paganism with the worship of the Lord (Is 1:10–17; Jer 6:20; Hos 6:6; Am 5:21–27); by their wanton rebellion (1 Kgs 8:46), their unbelief (Nm 11:33; 14:11, 33; Ps 95:10, 11), and their disregard for his concern for love, justice, righteousness, and holiness (Ex 22:23; Is 1:15–17; Am 5:7, 10–12; Mi 3:1).

The wrath of God also extends to all mankind (Na 1:2). The concept of the Day of the Lord was developed by the prophets to warn Israel and the nations that no one can escape the righteous expression of God’s wrath (Am 5:18, 20). The Day of the Lord is the day of his wrath (Zep 1:15).

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The effects of his wrath are set forth in metaphorical language, associated with the semantic fields of water and drink: flood or river, Is 8:7, 8; Na 1:8), a cup filled with wine (Is 51:17, 22); of fire (Is 66:15, 16; Jer 4:4; 21:12, 14; Na 1:6), a fiery furnace (Ps 21:9); of warfare (Is 42:25; 63:3–6): rod (Is 10:5), physical hardship (Lam 3:5); and of natural phenomena: earthquake (Mi 1:3, 4; Na 1:5, 6), storm (Is 30:30; 66:15, 16; Jer 30:23).

The OT holds the doctrine of the wrath of God in balance with three other doctrines: his forbearance, his love, and his readiness to forgive. First, God is patient. The Hebrew word for patient is related to the word for wrath, and means “length of wrath,” that is, God does not quickly become angry. He is longsuffering (Ex 34:6). Second, God is full of compassion and fidelity (Ex 34:6). Even when his children sin against him, he is like a father who is full of compassion and love. He is always faithful to his children. Third, he is ready to forgive those who sin against him when they atone for and are cleansed from their sins (Ex 34:6). The pleasure of his love is so much greater than his wrath (Ps 30:5). Micah prayed that the Lord may soon forgive and restore his people on the ground that he cannot be angry forever (7:18; cf. Ps 89:46; Jer 3:5). In Psalm 103:8–13 the psalmist likens God’s love and forgiveness to that of a father who does not harbor his anger continually, nor does he vex his children with discipline, so great is his love for those who fear him.

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The purpose of God’s wrath is not to destroy mankind (Hos 11:9). His wrath is neither a vindictive, emotional overreaction nor is it unpredictable. In his wrath, he sovereignly imposes limits on nations (Babylon, Assyria), and disciplines his own people with the desired end that they return to him (Jl 2:13, 14). The eschatological expectation of the OT concept of the Day of the Lord includes the restoration of the earth when the whole earth will be filled with the knowledge (Is 11:9; Hb 2:14) and glory (Nm 14:21; Ps 72:19) of the Lord and wickedness will be no more (Is 65:25).

THE NEW TESTAMENT DOCUMENTS

In the New Testament. The NT also teaches the wrath of God side by side with the doctrine of his grace, love, and forbearance (Mt 3:7; Lk 21:23; Jn 3:36; Rom 1:18; Eph 5:6; Rv 14:10). Faith in Jesus as the Messiah marks the difference in mankind, whether Jew or Greek. Those who do not profess faith in the risen Christ remain in their sins and fall under the wrath of God, whereas those who believe in him are delivered from God’s wrath (Eph 2:3; 1 Thes 1:10). However, the faithful are reminded by the example of Israel that it is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of an angry God (Heb 10:31) because the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is “a consuming fire” (12:29). The good news of the NT is that Jesus has come to deliver us from the wrath of God (Rom 5:9). Those who have been delivered are reconciled with God (Rom 5:10) because they no longer are under condemnation (Rom 8:1). The challenge of faith is to persevere in the Christian life so as not to give cause for God’s wrath (Mt 18:34, 35; 22:13, 14).

by Walter A. Elwell and Barry J. Beitzel

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