The idea of divine wrath has pretty much become taboo in modern preaching and evangelism. It is not considered polite to mention it in public. But here I would like to give it an airing, and consider it in relation to the teaching of the Bible, in relation to God’s character as revealed in Scripture, and in relation to his mercy.
1. Biblical teaching
The Bible throughout teaches that there can be no truce between God and sin. God reacts with profound aversion to lawlessness, godlessness and inhumanity. His very nature is to vindicate sin’s victims and destroy its perpetrators. If this were not so, he would not be a moral being at all and there would be no moral government of the universe.
To the OT writers, the wrath of God is both real and serious. According to Leon Morris, the OT uses 20 different words to describe divine wrath and the concept itself occurs over 580 times. God is not thought of as capriciously angry (like human anger, Heb 12:10, or that of the deities of the heathen), but because he is a moral being, his anger is steadfastly directed towards wrongdoing in any shape or form. But it is only fair to add that the OT consistently regards God as a God of mercy; he provides ways in which the consequences of sin may be averted. God’s wrath is (a) aroused only and inevitably by sin; (b) personal; (c) is reluctant, and is tempered by mercy, Psa 103:8; Lam 3:33; Eze 18:23,32; Hos 11:8-9; Jude 24.
It has sometimes been claimed (eg by Marcion, in the 2nd century AD) that the wrathful God of the OT is not the same as the loving Father of the Lord Jesus. But the NT also teaches the wrath of God. Therefore, Marcion had to restrict his NT canon to the letters of Paul and the Gospel of Luke. But even this neglects the fact that Paul taught the wrath of God.
Actually, the NT endorses the teaching of the OT, although if anything, the NT is even more awesome, emphasising eternal, rather than temporal, punishment (but cf Lk 21:20-24; Acts 5:1-5; 12:21-23; 13:11).
Christ himself not only endorsed the OT judgements upon Tyre, Sidon and Sodom, but predicted an even worse fate for unrepentant cities such as Capernaum, Mt 11:20-24. See also his words to the Pharisees, Mt 23:27ff: note in that chapter, that outbursts of wrath go hand in hand with expressions of love, v37. See also Mk 3:5;Jn 2:16. ‘All that Jesus did and said was revelation. His tears are God’s mercy, His wrath God’s anger’ (H.R. Mackintosh).
Against whom is God’s wrath directed? Not only against the lost in Hell, but within history, against nations and even whole civilisations, Gen 6:5ff; 19:24; Amos 1:2-2:3; Rom 1:18ff. This last reference shows that God’s wrath can be expressed not only in physical and economic calamity but also in moral collapse. ‘Paul is not teaching that one day God will punish Roman civilisation for its vice and decadence. On the contrary, the vice and decadence are themselves God’s punishment’ (Donald Macleod). It is reasonable to see the current widespread violence and iniquity as evidence that the divine wrath is already being poured out.
But the most awesome expression of God’s wrath is yet to come, Mt 3:7; 1 Thess 1:10. This will effect the destruction of all the ungodly, 2 Pet 3:7. God’s wrath will fall with special severity on those who have wasted unusual spiritual privileges, Lk 12:47; Mt 11:20ff. Divine wrath presupposes that all men know something of the will of God. ‘Some know more of it than others. But all know more than they perform’ (Macleod).
The NT references to the wrath give prominence to Christ, Mt 7:23; 2 Thess 1:7; Rev 6:16. It is unmitigated. In the present order of things, judgement is abbreviated, Gen 18:32; Mt 24:22, and divine wrath mixed with blessing, beckoning us to repentance, Rom 2:4. But the wrath to come will not be so limited. It will be what the sin deserves and what the holy jealousy of God requires. See Lk 16:24. This is seen in the experience of Christ himself, Jn 3:16; Rom 8:22. The only limit to wrath will be that defined by equity and justice. ‘Not one soul will be in Hell who does not deserve to be; and no one’s Hell will be darker or deeper than is right’ (Macleod).
2. The nature of God
Theologians such as Schleiermacher, Ritschl, Dodd and A.T. Hanson have denied that wrath is an essential part of God’s nature. For Dodd, the wrath of God is a primitive idea used as a first attempt to rationalise man’s awe in the face of the terrible potential for disaster inherent in life, but is unacceptable as a sophisticated description of God himself. Thus, for Dodd, the idea of wrath serves ‘not to describe the attitude of God to man, but to describe the inevitable process of retribution.’ According to Hanson, wrath ‘does not describe an attitude of God but a condition of men.’ But to depersonalise the wrath of God in this way is unacceptable: if even the fall of a sparrow is within his personal jurisdiction, then surely the punishment of sin is. In any case, the biblical writers do represent God as personally involved in acts of wrath
Despite Dodd’s contention that Paul speaks of ‘the wrath’ ‘in a ‘curiously impersonal way’, Rom 2:5; 9:22; Eph 2:3, the NT concept of divine wrath is clearly personal, Rom 1:18-22; 2:5-6; 3:5-6; 9:22. Cf this last ref with 1 Tim 2:4, showing that both wrath and love are personal. And note the following OT refs: Amos 3:6; Eze 7:8-9; Isa 63:6; Hos 5:14.
If wrath were impersonal, there could be no hope of divine mercy and forgiveness. Wrath would then be inexorable, and there would be no hope of escape from its consequences. But anger is an attribute of a living, personal God, who enters into personal relationships with us. It is this that makes propitiation, reconciliation and forgiveness possible, cf Isa 12:1.
But does not the Bible teach that ‘God is love’ (1 Jn 4:8)? Is not love, therefore, God’s supreme characteristic, to which all others (including his wrath) are subordinated? In other words, is not the doctrine of divine wrath sub-Christian? C.H. Dodd, for example, dismisses the book of Revelation as sub-Christian because its primitive doctrine of God generally and its emphasis on divine wrath in particular, eg 6:16. But we have no right thus to subject the teaching of the apostles to our own prejudices.
The Bible certainly teaches that God is love; but not that he is only love. We must consider both his kindness and his severity, Rom 11:22.
It is clearly wrong to define God’s wrath in terms of human anger. Our wrath always has more or less of malice, passion, and a lack of self-control about it. Yet even we recognise the need for love and wrath to be combined. Sometimes, a refusal to be indignant is a sin. We can end up tolerating evil and condoning sin, thereby becoming party to it. Sternness is essential to the stability and well-being of the world. Evil must be dealt with. We call undisciplined children ‘spoilt’ children. Love without sternness is sentimentality.
When we subtract wrath from God’s character, we not only cheapen notions of divine love, but rush headlong into heresy. Where love is the ultimate controlling attribute, universalism is not far away (so Nels Ferre). When God is seen as ‘pure love’, ideas of eternal punishment cannot be accommodated.
3. Wrath and mercy
‘God’s wrath is neither an impersonal process of cause and effect (as some scholars have tried to argue), nor a passionate, arbitrary or vindictive outburst of temper, but his holy and uncompromising antagonism to evil, with which he refuses to negotiate. One day his judgement will fall. It is from this terrible event that Jesus is our deliverer.’ (Stott, Authentic Christianity, 28)
And ‘God is more inclinable to mercy than wrath. Mercy is his darling attribute, which he most delights in, Mic 7:18…The bee naturally gives honey, it stings only when it is provoked; so God does not punish till he can bear no longer, Jer 44:22. Mercy is God’s right hand that he is most used to; inflicting punishment is called his strange work, Isa 28:21. He is not used to it. When the Lord would shave off the pride of a nation, he is said to hire a razor, as if he had none of his own, Isa 7:20. Psa 103:8; Psa 86:5.’ (Thomas Watson)
Christ’s death shows how God in his love provided a way for forgiveness which also satisfied his wrath against sin. This is the doctrine of propitiation, Rom 3:25; 1 Jn 2:2; 4:10.
Only with a clear understanding, then, of the wrath of God can we appreciate the urgent necessity of salvation, and the richness of God’s mercy in Christ. Where there is no fear, there is no rescue. Where there is no condemnation there is no acquittal. Where there is no hell there is no heaven.