For those of us who left a hell, fire, and brimstone Christianity, one of the critiques that gets levied at is us that we either ignore or downplay the wrath of God.
To be honest, I think there’s some truth in that critique, and that it’s important for those of us here (wherever here is) to develop a vision of God’s wrath that is faithful to the narrative of Scripture, but one that also avoids the pitfalls of the version of God we grew up with.
To develop a healthy understanding of the side of God that appears as wrath, I think it’s important to begin with the essence of who and what God is: love.
In the book of 1 John we’re told that God is love. Period. Everything about God is purely loving, and everything that is good and beautiful. In fact, as argued by Dr. Thomas J. Oord in his most recent book, God is actually constrained by love and is unable to do anything that would be less than perfectly loving.
So, if God is totally and completely love, where does the wrath part come in?
Well, I think that’s best seen by considering God’s loving activity in the world.
Early in the biblical narrative we see a story that starts off perfect, but quickly becomes broken—sending the story in an unintended diction of death and destruction. Almost immediately after that entrance of brokenness, God promises that he will begin working to eradicate all those forces of destruction from his creation, until everything returns to the way it was in the beginning. (See Eden Restored at the end of Revelation.)
The climactic moment of God’s involvement to right the brokenness of the world was when God came in the flesh, in the person of Jesus. In fact, the author of the book of 1 John summarizes the entire purpose of the life of Jesus by saying he came to “defeat the works of the Devil.”
The works of God have always been works of love. They will always be works of love.
The original work of God was to create a world where all relationships existed in perfect harmony—his relationship to humanity, our relationship to the environment, and our relationships with each other.
Since the moment brokenness entered this narrative, the mission of God has been to restore all those broken relationships.
God wants to restore humanity to a right relationship with him.
God wants to restore humanity to a right relationship with the environment.
God wants to restore humanity to right relationships with each other.
The works of God are works of love and restoration. They always have been, and always will be.
And our purpose in the world? Our purpose is to partner with God, to align our wills with his, and to get busy restoring all these broken relationships.
And here’s the problem: not everyone is on board with that mission. There are powers, principalities– even people who resist– and who stand in opposition to the works of love and restoration.
Those who are opposed to God’s love and restoration in the world will experience an aspect of God’s love that feels like wrath, because the forces that oppose love will one day be either transformed or eliminated from creation.
There simply is no room in God’s story for these opposing forces to exist forever—it’s a story of purging all that is not loving, until everything is restored and only love remains.
Love does this, no? Love cannot sit passively by and let the opposite of love win. (Subtle shout-out to Rob Bell there.)
Love purges war, famine, disease, oppression, hatred, violence, and everything else that fights against love. It’s what love does.
Love heals. Love feeds. Love clothes. Love frees. Love embraces. Love reconciles.
Those who refuse to partner with love, and insist on continuing to fight in opposition to all that love does, will experience a side of love that does not feel like love. To them, it might even feel like wrath.
Thus, when we affirm the “wrath of God” it’s not so much an affirmation of wrath at all—but an affirmation of love.
We’re not saying that God = love + wrath. It’s not an affirmation that God is love but also happens to have a short fuse we need to avoid.
Instead, it’s simply an affirmation that God is on a mission to love and reconcile the world. Everything that once was broken, is in the process of being fixed and restored– because that’s what love does.
However, it is also a recognition that all those who fight against love and reconciliation will ultimately be on the wrong side of love.
To those who refuse to heal, refuse to feed, refuse to clothe, refuse to free, refuse to embrace, and refuse to reconcile– to those who refuse to love– God’s love won’t feel like love at all.
And this experience of resisting and fighting against a love that wins in the end, is what we talk about when we talk about the “wrath of God.”
I have read your article carefully and I agree with you very much. This has provided a great help for my thesis writing, and I will seriously improve it. However, I don’t know much about a certain place. Can you help me?
As with most discussions people draw their conclusion and opinion from a preconceived belief and assumption. In your case you are first assuming that things were perfect and then went astray and God has been trying to restore everything. Yet the bible never states that the world was perfect and simple critical thinking can prove this to be true.
For starters, the word “perfect” is a relative term based on subjectivity. What your “perfect” life may be, may not be another person’s perfect life. To determine the ultimate perfection of life one has to go outside of human subjectivity and reach an omnipotent being’s objective definition of perfection. Here are some critical thinking methods to prove that the world wasn’t perfect in the beginning:
1. If the world was perfect why did God plant a garden and put Adam inside of it? If the whole world was perfection than there’s no need for a dedicated place of supposed paradise. The whole world would be paradise.
2. The word for paradise which has been used throughout millennia to describe Eden is a middle eastern term that denotes a walled enclosure. The purpose of building something with walls is for structural support or for protection, if not both. We know that Eden had an entrance implying it had some form of enclosure. Why would God create a garden enclosure unless he’s trying to keep something from entering or something from leaving? If the world is perfect than there’s no need to keep anything in or out as there are no threats.
3. If the world was perfect than why was there a deceiving serpent? Most people would classify deception and lies as opposite of their perfect world.
4. Why were Adam and Eve told to eat food from the abundance of the garden? If the world was perfect than a choice of not eating would not have created starvation, sickness, or death, ergo there’s no need to eat food.
5. Also, Adam was told not to eat from the tree of knowledge of good and evil or he would die. So death existed before Adam even ate. Most people believe that paradise would be free of death.
6. The opening lines of the bible state that the “EARTH BECAME WITHOUT FORM & VOID”. This phrase is used 1 other time in the bible and in the context of it’s use the phrase is denoting spiritual, mental, emotional, and physical evil. How could the world be perfect if this occurred?
7. Knowing the difference between good and evil is vitally important for maturity yet religion depicts this story as God wanting to keep people dumb and immature. He’s practically the democratic party trying to indoctrinate people into stupidity. All throughout the bible there are discussions about compare and contrast, wisdom and knowledge being of immeasurable value yet in the beginning knowledge was evil? Why even plant a tree of death and destruction in a perfect world? Trust me when i say this, God did not let the world fall into evil over one man’s choice of a snack. That’s nonsense. The trees are the first depiction of LAW (tree of knowledge of good and evil) and GRACE (tree of life – Jesus).
8. You, along with so many others assume that when God said “it’s good” it somehow means without flaw and perfect. This is the basis for so much of Christianity. They think God created a perfect world > then Adam screwed it up > God has been working overtime to restore it back to Eden. Maybe the correct way to see it is from the belief that God intentionally created and imperfect world and planted the seed of mankind in which he plans to perfect life via them. This theory correlates with so much of the bible. The kingdom is like a seed. What do seeds do? They grow and blossom until they fill the entire earth. Obstacles either slow or prevent their growth.
7. If you have a son and he’s playing football in the backyard and gets tackled and it hurts mom may want to rush out and coddle the boy and stop the game, but you as the father think it’s a good thing. You see the big picture and know that a little bump and a temporary minor bruise is not a bad thing because it will make your son stronger, smarter, and more able to accomplish and solve harder problems, not to mention his emotional and mental strength to overcome fearful situations with positivity and intelligence. Your son, in the midst of the tackle will obviously think this is not a perfect or even good situation because it hurts. Mom clearly thinks it’s not good, but here you are, the dad, totally relaxed, smiling, and happy because you know he’s not seriously hurt and you’re there to pick him up, dust him off, tell him you’re proud of him and motivate him to get back out there and win. To you this is a “good”, but everyone else may think it’s not. This is an analogy of the garden. God wanted man to leave the garden and spread out over the world taking with him the knowledge, spirit, power, and love of God to eventually encompass the entire Earth.
I am reminded of the sort of people who feel attacked when privileges that were once theirs alone are spread to others. It somehow doesn’t matter that they didn’t actually lose anything, the fact that people who used to be “below” them are now at the same level is enough to ignite their fury.
(For a specific example, consider those offended by same-sex marriage. They seem to think legalizing same-sex marriage was somehow an attack on opposite-sex marriage… Despite the fact marriage equality advocates had no intention of make opposite-sex marriage illegal or otherwise hindering it in any way.)
I can definitely see love given to others being seen as wrath for such individuals. When you are only able to appreciate what you have because others don’t have it, you’re pretty much doomed to suffer when placed in an environment of perfect love and equality.
I thought this was a good article. I also liked another persons explanation of it as well. it went like this. If you drink large quantities of alcohol, you will screw up your liver. If you cheat on your wife, it will bite you in the a….. if you rob a bank and get caught, you will go to prison. There is a penalty to sin. It doesn’t matter if you are a Christian or not, same effect. Sin has an inbuilt wrath system to it. Sorta like what Ben says… it’s that part of love that when you go against love ( by your actions or thoughts even) you will suffer, not from the hand of God directly, but from the sin itself. Because anything that is not of God, will cause suffering. So the wrath aspect when you sin, is designed from love, to draw you back to God again. God’s wrath is corrective.
Though I agree with where you’re coming from, I feel a little disquiet on two related fronts. First, it begins from an individualistic perspective – the love or wrath of God is primarily something individuals experience. Secondly, I read someone (Tom Wright maybe?) who sees God’s wrath primarily as God’s stance against the evil, the injustice, the cosmic powers Paul talks about that enslave God’s people and God’s creation. You’ve said below “the wrath is an aspect of love that purges that which stands in the way of God’s love and God’s mission to restore creation and reconcile the world.’. I think that’s getting close to something similar.
Since we have all sinned then there is no salvation for anyone. It is unrepentant sinner that end up in hell. Jesus paid the price for us but that is dependent upon us accepting it and changes how we live by the power of God. If we truly love God then we will follow His will in our lives.