Why do we hate the idea of God’s wrath?
Not surprisingly, the idea that God has wrath isn’t popular. Among humans we often see anger in its most distorted and destructive forms. It can go wrong in so many ways. Some people become reckless and violent, taking things out on anyone and anything in their path. Others become resentful, settle into ill-will towards others, and plot revenge.
It can be disturbing to think of a good and loving God being wrathful, especially if it reminds us of these things. But even if we believe his anger is just, it’s still terrifying that the wrath of an all-powerful God could be directed at us. Often, we’d rather this wrath just didn’t exist. But would that really be better?
What’s God’s anger, and how does it relate to love?
God is love (1 John 4:8). That love is holy and pure, and therefore moral, promoting what’s good and opposing evil. God’s anger arises when evil threatens or hurts what is good. It defends those good things and corrects the wrong. This means it’s impossible to separate God’s anger and wrath from his love, since they’re rooted in it. His anger isn’t vindictive, nor his love permissive, but both are expressions of his zeal to love and defend what’s good, including his creation and his own holiness.
Because of this, God’s wrath looks different from the destructive forms we see around us. He doesn’t lose control and destroy aimlessly when he’s angry but is “slow to anger,” being patient and deliberate in his response (Exod. 34:6–7). He’s a just judge, acting to punish the guilty and defend the innocent (Prov. 17:15; Ps. 34:15–17). He’s also quick to mercy even in his anger, ready to show kindness even to his enemies (Matt. 5:44–45). He doesn’t enjoy doing harm for the sake of it but would rather that people repent and return (Ezek. 33:11; 2 Pet. 3:9).
Fierce love, fierce wrath
None of this means that we can take God’s wrath lightly. If it sounds too severe to us, we’ve likely underestimated his love and holiness. Consider some human examples. Our most intense anger arises over the things we care about the most. We’d likely be angry if someone stole our wallet, but how much more if they kidnapped our child? Or compare a harsh word from an acquaintance with a betrayal from a spouse. In the same way, the severity of God’s wrath indicates how deeply he cares about what’s good and right.
This means we can better understand his wrath if we look at what makes him angry, which reveals what he loves the most. Because he loves justice and compassion, for example, he becomes angry at those who hurt the poor by letting their oppressors go free for a bribe (Isa. 5:20–23; 10:1–4).
Perhaps the most common reasons for God’s anger in the Bible revolve around his love for his people. His wrath can be protective, a comfort to those who find refuge in him. In the crossing of the Red Sea, God’s wrath comes against the Egyptians so he could lead his people to freedom, and the other nations were frozen in fear until God’s people had safely passed by (Exod. 15:15–16).
On the other hand, when these people betray him, we see some of the most sobering descriptions of God’s anger. The Old Testament tells how Israel repeatedly failed to trust him and turned to other gods, provoking him to anger with severe consequences (Exod. 32; Num. 11, 14, 25; Judges 2:11–23). He sent them prophets, who described his relationship with his people as like marriage and their idolatry as infidelity (Jer. 2:1–13; Ezek. 16; Hos. 1:2). Faced with their persistent betrayal, he gave them up to neighboring nations, who took them into exile (2 Kings 17; 2 Chron. 36:15–21). Yet even then his anger was not unbounded by mercy. The prophets told how, unable to give up his people, God would have compassion on them and restore them to himself (Jer. 31; Hos. 2:14–3:5, 11:8–9). From his great love came both burning anger and unexpected redemption.
Love and wrath at the cross
God’s promised compassion was fulfilled through the salvation accomplished by Jesus Christ. At the cross, this pattern of love and anger appears most clearly. All men were created to know God and to reflect his goodness and righteousness, but all have betrayed him and provoked his anger (Gen. 1:27; Rom. 1:18–2:11). But his patience and kindness lead us to repentance (Rom. 2:4).
If God cares so deeply about protecting what’s good, how could he pass over the evil of our sin? His love led him instead to drink the cup of wrath himself. Jesus, God the Son, became a man so he could endure death by crucifixion and offer mercy and forgiveness to any who believe in him. At his cross we see both the severity of God’s wrath against sin and the unspeakable love that opens the way for straying children to come home.
God’s wrath isn’t an easy topic, but it’s necessary and good. It gives us the confidence that he’ll not leave any injustice or evil unaddressed. He will make right everything that’s wrong, and tragically for some that will mean wrath. In the meantime, he waits and pleads with us as he did with Israel: “As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ezek. 33:11).
What Does the Bible Say?
- God’s character: Exodus 34:6–7; Leviticus 11:44; 1 John 4:7–8
- God’s just judgment and protection of sufferers: Psalm 10:12–18, 34:15–22; Proverbs 17:15; Isaiah 61:8
- God’s anger over the betrayal of his people: Exodus 32; Numbers 11, 14, 25; Deuteronomy 32:1–43; Judges 2:11–23; 2 Kings 17; 2 Chronicles 36:15–21; Isaiah 5:18–25, 9:8–10:4, 30:8–17; Jeremiah 2:1–13, 11:1–17; Ezekiel 16; Hosea 1–3, 11; Amos 3:2
- God’s compassion in spite of his people’s betrayal: Isaiah 12, 30:18–26, 55:1–9, 57:14–21; Jeremiah 30–33; Ezekiel 11:14–21; 37:15–28; Hosea 2:14-3:5, 14; Joel 2:12–32; Micah 7:18–20
- God’s mercy and redemption in Christ: Luke 15; Romans 3:21–26; Ephesians 2:1–10
- God’s disposition to compassion and desire for our repentance: Lamentations 3:31–33; Ezekiel 33:11; Matthew 23:37; Romans 2:4; 2 Peter 3:9.
- The Reason for God by Timothy Keller
- God Is: A Devotional Guide to the Attributes of God by Mark Jones