Bill Muehlenberg's commentary on issues of the day...

The Wrath of God

Mar 6, 2011

Now that I have just upset the apple cart with a recent article on the justice of God, I might as well go the whole hog and tackle another topic which is increasingly becoming taboo – and I mean in Christian circles. That non-believers would not be too excited about such a topic is understandable.

But the real worry is the fact that so many Christians seem to want absolutely nothing to do with it. They tend to reject the doctrine outright. But I suspect they in fact do not really know what they are rejecting. They often have erected a straw man which rightly needs to be rejected.

If their idea of the wrath of God is that God is an emotional tyrant who explodes in petty anger at every little thing, then I reject that concept as well. Or if they believe that God forces people against their will to enter into a Christless eternity, that too I reject.

While the topic of hell cannot here be explored – I will need to write something about that some other time – I can here offer a brief look at what the Bible has to say about the wrath of God. Scripture in fact says so much about this topic that I can only offer a brief introduction here.

Perhaps the best way to proceed is simply to offer a number of biblical texts, along with some commentary on them. There are heaps of such passages to choose from. I will ignore the Old Testament for now, since many will want to argue that God is somehow quite different in the New.

But as I have argued elsewhere, he is just as loving and just as holy in both Testaments. But let’s just examine what the New Testament says about this. Here are a few key passages which bear on this subject. We can begin with the words of Jesus in the Gospel of John.

Christians readily – and rightly – leap upon John 3:16 to showcase God’s love. But the very same pericope speaks of the other side of the coin – his wrath. John 3:36 says this, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.”

People often mistakenly assume that love and wrath are opposites. They are not at all, as this passage demonstrates. If you really love someone you will hate that which harms that person. Leon Morris argues that wrath “stands for the settled and active opposition of God’s holy nature to everything that is evil.” Indeed, “If we abandon the idea of the wrath of God we are left with a God who is not ready to act against moral evil.”

Or as Bruce Milne comments, “God is not endlessly passive about the presence of evil in his world, or the despite it does to his great glory. If we are regularly able to express wrath in reaction to acts of extreme brutality or injustice, how much more is that felt by him whose love for the brutalized and oppressed is so much more than ours!”

Paul says much about God’s wrath. Consider Romans 1:18: “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who hold the truth in unrighteousness.” Some think this wrath just means the impersonal consequences to bad choices in a cause and effect universe, and it should not be attributed to God himself.

“But his wrath against sin is too comprehensive in Scripture to allow such a reinterpretation. It is part of his very nature – the holiness of God demands wrath against the sinner and mercy toward the repentant.” (Grant Osborne in his commentary on Romans).

Or as C.E.B. Cranfield remarks, “Indignation against wickedness is surely an essential element of human goodness in a world in which moral evil is always present. A man who knows, for example, about the far-reaching injustice and cruelty of apartheid and is not angry at such wickedness cannot be a thoroughly good man, for his lack of wrath means a failure to care for his fellow man, a failure to love.”

Consider also Ephesians 2:3: “All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.” But in the very next verse Paul speaks of God’s great love and rich mercy.

As Clinton Arnold states, “This wrath in no way contradicts his love; rather, it is a manifestation of his character as holy and blameless, which is what he requires of us (1:4). It is also his necessary and appropriate response to the rebellion of his creation against him, which he will ultimately subdue (1:10).”

Or as Peter O’Brien comments: “The wrath of God does not stand over against his love and mercy. Wrath and love are not mutually exclusive. . . . Only the person who understands something of the greatness of his wrath will be mastered by the greatness of his mercy. The converse is also true: only the person who has experienced the greatness of God’s mercy can understand something of how great his wrath must be.”

A final passage to consider is Revelation 6:15-17: “Then the kings of the earth, the princes, the generals, the rich, the mighty, and everyone else, both slave and free, hid in caves and among the rocks of the mountains. They called to the mountains and the rocks, ‘Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! For the great day of their wrath has come, and who can withstand it?’”

This text is remarkable for many reasons, but the point to emphasise is the one unleashing the wrath. Yes, the same meek and mild Jesus who we read about in the gospels is now dispensing judgment and punishment. Many forget that the Lamb of God is also the conquering King who will come to exercise divine judgment.

As Grant Osborne comments, “The paradox is striking: the sacrificial lamb has become the judge of all, and the Lamb is now filled with wrath. . . . This is another powerful image, as the meek Lamb becomes the wrathful Lamb.”

Or as G.K. Beale rightly states, “The earth-dwellers have not trusted in the Lamb who was slain for the sin of the world (cf. 1:5; 5:9). Therefore, they will have to suffer his destructive wrath and will not be able to withstand it. The gentle Lamb who was slain on the cross is now in an exalted position over the whole cosmos (1:5; 3:21; 5:5-6) to pour out his wrath. He is not only loving to his people but also a just judge to his enemies.”

In closing, D.A. Carson nicely ties together these two aspects of God: “Both God’s love and God’s wrath are ratcheted up in the move from the old covenant to the new, from the Old Testament to the New. These themes barrel along through redemptive history, unresolved, until they come to a resounding climax – at the cross. Do you wish to see God’s love? Look at the cross. Do you wish to see God’s wrath? Look at the cross.”

Quite so. The number one job of the Christian in his gospel presentation is to proclaim the cross. While we have often been good at highlighting the love of God as reflected in the cross, we must also highlight the wrath of God, for the one makes no sense without the other.

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15 Responses to The Wrath of God

  • Thanks Bill! I thank you for being a bold representative for our God for who He truly is in all of His love and all of His wrath. This is precisely the voice of truth that is sorely needed in our culture today among non-Christians and among Christians. Thank you for your witness!
    Louis Young

  • Great to see you writing on such topics as God’s judgment and wrath, Bill. I’d like to know how you think God expresses his wrath these days, prior to the time of final judgment. Can natural disasters be considered examples?
    Ben McFadden

  • Excellent, that’s what I’m talking about. They do talk a lot about God is love as if he’s a big mushy fellow which is just so uneven. The word pierced both joint and marrow, Jesus isn’t playing games. I know i haven’t described what I’m trying to say very eloquently.
    Thank you.
    Daniel Kempton

  • Great article Bill, it clearly demonstrates God’s love and wrath are intimately connected. The late Dr. Stanley Grenz once wrote “It is on the cross that his wrath and love meet, with love breaking through wrath to reveal that wrath is not an immanent attribute of God, but is called forth in reaction to humanity’s rebellion. God is love, but he displays wrath”.
    Panage Kontos

  • Thanks Panage

    While I have a number of volumes by Grenz, and enjoy his writings, it should be pointed out the theologians differ on this point as to whether wrath should be considered to be one of God’s attributes. I happen to think it should be, but we might categorise it under another attribute, such as his holiness or his righteousness.

    But as I say, Christians can and do disagree on this one. As but one example, if you compare the systematic theologies of Erickson and Grudem, you will find that Erickson does not list wrath under God’s attributes while Grudem does. Mind you, Erickson does nonetheless speak much about the wrath of God.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • How great is our God!!! Bill, it has always amazed me that so many of us do not understand “the fear of God”. So often we see Him only “in awe”, as if He is something beautiful to be looked at. Yes, He is magnificent but much more than that. It is not for nothing that the Bible uses the “fear of God” so very often. Keep on shaking us Bill!!
    Perhaps we may live our lives more carefully, and think more about His justice and wrath.
    Evangeline Rykes

  • Thanks Bill, Erickson and Grudem is a good example. Although I enjoy reading Grenz, perhaps I should of noted in my earlier comment that I am more inclined to favour God’s wrath as being one of His attributes. Whether Christians agree or disagree on this, I suppose we can all agree on that the day of the Lord is coming when His wrath will be justly poured out.
    Panage Kontos

  • DA Carson: “Do you wish to see God’s love? Look at the cross. Do you wish to see God’s wrath? Look at the cross.”

    But I would like to add that Paul did not preach only the Cross – he preached “the Cross and the Resurrection” to the point that his hearers thought “anastasia (resurrection)” was another god.

    If Jesus had finished on the Cross, andremained in the Tomb, nothing would have been accomplished. But Ephesians tells us that the power God exerted in raising Jesus from the cold slab of the tomb was equivalent to His power in the original Creation!

    THAT is the essential difference between the Christian faith and all the other ‘wannabees’ – all their leaders are dead: only Jesus is alive.

    That reminds me of the university graffiti:
    God is Dead – Nietzsche
    which was crossed out and someone had written underneath:
    Nietzsche is dead – God

    John Angelico

  • Thanks John

    Neither Carson nor I would disagree with you.

    Bill Muehlenberg, CultureWatch

  • Dear Bill, Thank you for pointing out the parts of Scripture which mentions the Wrath of God. God’s Wrath must be profound indeed at the coldness of the Australian people’s hearts towards Him. I would like to share with you and your readers my thoughts whilst on holiday in the Southwest of our state.The forests there are truly magnificent and when one wanders the Bibbulum track it is good to reflect on the fact that even the primitive Noongar people were humble enough to believe in a Supreme Being even though they had never heard of Jesus.Visiting one of the small forest towns we sought out the Catholic Church hoping to get Mass as it was Sunday.We found that both the Anglican and Catholic Churches were closed.Though I was not surprised at this I was deeply saddened that this beautiful place could be so alive with tourists and yet God’s house where people should be going to thank Him for all that beauty was empty and abandoned. I don’t blame the faithful Christians in these small towns because God knows how valiantly they have strived to keep these little places of worship open. I blame society in general because it has come about through general indifference and apathy Expressing one’s thanks and praise to the Creator of such beauty in an organised way has become unimportant and unnecessary to most Australians.Maybe the Christian message could have been ‘sold’ better by those whose job it was to do that but I don’t think its that. I think it is human hard heartedness towards God which is too mean to give God thanks and praise. I doubt whether the hundreds milling about that town that Sunday morning even gave it a thought that it was Sunday and the churches were closed.The Holy Spirit moved me to express my thoughts in the tourist bureau’s visitors book in the hope that it would touch some hearts. I thought of adding that we shouldn’t be surprised that we are having earthquakes, floods and fires but I decided that those who read it might draw their own conclusions about that.
    Patricia Halligan

  • Dear Bill,
    Your article on ‘the wrath of God’ showed our illiteracy in the attributes of our God. We are fed piece-meal, but not all the counsel of God. Australia lacks theologians.
    I pondered Isaiah 53, the crucifixion chapter of the Old Testament.
    ‘Stricken, smitten of God’ v4 because His anger was unleashed on our sin, which HE bore.
    ‘He was cut off from the land of the living; for the transgression of My people HE was stricken’. v8 Divine anger!
    ‘It pleased the Lord to bruise Him. HE has put Him to grief.’ v10 His attributes harmonised.

    Over 42 months, a chartered accountant, a physician and I a retired family practitioner taught theology. Please check themes on ‘
    Russian federation, formerly Communistic states registered 2,900 hours of MP3 studies in 2010.
    They endured 70 years of brutal savagery to forge such insatiable hunger.

    How many years of brutal domination must our beloved nation suffer to resensitise us to the imperishable truths of the Word. Bill, throw the gauntlet down!
    Harrold Steward

  • Thank you for a much needed and well written commentary.

    Though the wrath of God isn’t a pleasant subject, redemption and sanctification would be worthless if God was only LOVE. When we see that His love reaches out to save men from His wrath, the true essence of His love can be better understood and appreciated.

    Les Tepper

  • Probably one of the most helpful and comprehensive contributions, is the study book, available in a free PDF download, by Geoffrey Bingham, entitled, ‘The Wrath of God’s Love’.

    Trevor Faggotter

  • Our local church is still on the “God`s wrath is always redemptive” path, 12 months on. Scripture is grey to them. This is a Baptist church, please pray for us here.

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