Two (Glorious) Truths about God’s Wrath
There is little question that in today’s society, the wrath of God is the most offensive doctrine imaginable. It seems harsh, judgmental, and backwards. And it’s not just an Old Testament thing, either. The famous skeptic Bertrand Russell explained that the primary reason he could never believe in Jesus was that Jesus “so clearly believed in the wrath of God.” He called it “the one profound defect in Jesus’ character.”
Christians, too, often find God’s wrath troubling. As C.S. Lewis said, “There is no doctrine which I would more willingly remove from Christianity than this, if it lay in my power.” There have been times in my life where I too have thought, Give me a divine eraser and 10 minutes, and I’ll take wrath out of the Bible.
But I can’t and, in fact, I really shouldn’t. Because as much as we hate to think about wrath, it’s actually a good doctrine—something that when we understand it, leads us to know, love, and worship God (for more on that, read here). A god without wrath would actually be a god without goodness.
Much more could be said about God’s wrath, but here I want to focus on two important–and glorious–truths:
1. God’s wrath often consists in letting us experience the consequences of the choices that we make.
Theologians call this the passive wrath of God. It consists in God allowing us to experience the painful consequences of sinful decisions. Now, to be clear, sinful consequences aren’t always the judgment of God. But God’s wrath doesn’t have to be aggressive and active to really be wrath. And even when we do see the active wrath of God in Scripture—the lightning bolt—it’s always consistent with the passive.
For instance, after Adam and Eve sinned, God punished them by casting them out of his presence. But they had already hidden from God’s presence, long before God banished them. God merely confirmed their decision. Or think of Pharaoh, who God judged by “hardening his heart.” This wasn’t a random decision, but was the result of Pharaoh hardening his own heart several times.
God’s wrath isn’t arbitrary. It’s the full fruition of telling God to get out of our lives, and allowing sin to grow unchecked in us. It’s us saying to God, “Leave me alone!” and him saying, “As you wish.” Because when your heart is not right, the absolute worst thing God can do is to give you what you want.
C.S. Lewis has helped me see this better than anyone:
“In the long run the answer to all those who object to the doctrine of hell is itself a question: ‘What are you asking God to do?’ To wipe out their past sins and, at all costs, to give them a fresh start, smoothing every difficulty and offering every miraculous help? But he has done so, on Calvary. To forgive them? But they will not be forgiven. To leave them alone? Alas, I am afraid that is precisely what he does… In the end, there are only two kinds of people– those who say to God, ‘Thy will be done’ and those to whom God says, ‘Thy will be done.’”
That means that tasting some of the painful consequences of sin now can actually be God’s mercy, because it can wake you up. We think that when a husband or wife is caught in an affair, it’s God’s judgment. I would argue that it’s God’s mercy. God’s judgment is when he or she gets away with it.
2. God chose to let his love overcome his wrath.
When God looks at us, he feels two legitimate emotions: wrath and compassion. He loves us because he made us. But his wrath is justified, too. He would have been fully justified to push us—all of us—out of his presence forever.
The wonder of the gospel is that God chose to let love overcome wrath. I love the Targum translation of Exodus 34:7. It says that God is “the one who makes anger distant and brings compassion near.” This was the free choice of God. And it is one of the greatest mysteries in the universe. The Apostle Peter says that the angels look at this decision, and they are baffled. Grace simply doesn’t add up.
One of the most remarkable passage of Scripture that shows this is Romans 5:6-10:
“When we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person … But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. … While we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son.”
This is about as harsh as you can get. God looked at us, and he didn’t see wayward children, or pitiful lost causes. He saw enemies. We may want to gloss over that, but if we do, we miss the majesty of God’s forgiveness. When he chose to push anger away and bring compassion near, it wasn’t like me forgiving my daughter after she lied to me. It’s more like me choosing to love and adopt into my family an ISIS member who beheaded my own daughter.
Yes, our sin was that bad. But against the dark backdrop of our sin, the glory of the gospel stands out in stunning contrast. This is why Donald Grey Barnhouse says that there is no greater wonder in the universe than the love of God for us. We see God choose love over wrath, and we can only say, “I stand amazed in the presence of Jesus the Nazarene, and wonder how he could love me–a sinner, condemned, unclean.”
We need not, we dare not, water down the wrath of God. For without knowing God’s wrath, we would never know the amazing depths of his love.
For more, be sure to listen to the entire message here.