What We Get Wrong About The Wrath Of God (and what we need to know)
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If you grew up in a more traditional church you probably heard your fair share of sermons about the wrath of God. And if you were like me, those sermons left you terrified with questions you were too scared to ask.
Most Christians simply avoid talking about or even thinking about God’s wrath. Largely because it’s so misunderstood and misrepresented.
Most of what I have seen and heard about the wrath of God has been in the form of a scare tactic trying to frighten people into heaven. Which is not only ineffective, it has left many with a terrible understanding of what the wrath of God really is.
So, let’s look at the wrath of God is and isn’t.
What Does The Bible Say About The Wrath Of God?
Whenever we want to learn more about God the best place to start is the Bible. And the Bible is not shy about talking about the Wrath of God.
I’m not going to look at every passage on wrath. But if you would like a more complete list you can find it here: Bible Verses About The Wrath of God
Here are a few verses that I think encapsulates the many facets of God’s wrath: Romans 1:18-28, Romans 2:5, John 3:36, Ezekiel 33:11, Deuteronomy 9:7, Nahum 1:2-6, Ephesians 5:6, 1 Thessalonians 5:9
What’s easy to see is that the Bible talks a LOT about God’s wrath. And contrary to popular belief the New Testament talks about it just as much as the Old Testament.
What these passages teach us is both what God’s wrath is and also what it isn’t. We will start by looking at what God’s wrath isn’t.
What The Wrath Of God Isn’t
We all read the Bible through the lens of our life experiences. We can’t help it, but we need to acknowledge it. When it comes to the wrath of God we view it through our own understanding of wrath. So before we can look at what God’s wrath is, we need to counter the primary picture most of us have of the wrath of God.
God’s Wrath Is Not An Anger Induced Rage
Wrath is generally seen in western culture as a rage induce fury in which the aggressor takes out his/her “wrath” on the person that has done the wrong. Wrath is often seen as a retributory punishment for an offense. That’s not only the dictionary definition, but it’s also how we commonly think about the word.
When we think of God’s wrath in these terms the picture we get is God in a furious rage beating sinners. I know we wouldn’t go that far, but that is, in essence, the picture. God is simply handing out deserved punishment. To take it a step further this view sees God as beating Jesus on the cross as he bore the sins of the world.
The problem I have with this view is it paints God as this angry dad that can’t stand his wife and kids, so he beats them for each little mistake they make.
What concerns me is that many Christians seemingly WANT this to be true. They want God’s wrath to look like this. Anytime I write about God’s love I get plenty of emails, comments, and pushback that God is angry and his wrath is coming. Rather than focus on his love and grace, I need to warn of his coming wrath.
But that’s not the correct picture of God’s wrath. God’s wrath is not based out of anger towards his creation. And he certainly doesn’t want to punish his people. In fact, the Bible (John 3:16-18, 1 Thessalonians 5:9, Ezekiel 33:11 to name a few) makes clear God’s desire is to redeem his people, not destroy them.
We’ll get more into this, but right now what I want us to recognize is: The wrath of God is not based in an anger induced rage towards his people.
What The Wrath of God Is
I know some of you probably grew up with hell-fire and brimstone sermons are probably a little uncomfortable and questioning my message at this point. Just hear me on this. I’m not trying to downplay the wrath of God. Rather I’m trying to correct our misconception with Biblical truth.
With that in mind, let’s turn the page and look at what God’s wrath is.
The Natural Consequence Of Sin IS The Wrath Of God
God has set up an order, a design, for life. The right way to live. Because God loves us he gives us what we want, even if it’s not the best for us. When we choose to live apart from that design we will experience the natural consequences of our actions, the wrath of God. It’s not God directly punishing us, rather it’s us suffering the consequences of our actions.
We often think of God’s wrath as something extra, an additional punishment. We sin, we suffer the consequence of our sin, and then God’s wrath really gives us what we deserve.
The problem with this view is it downplays the natural consequences of our sin. In the Hebrew worldview, the natural consequence was seen as one and the same as God’s wrath. God’s wrath is the natural consequence of sin.
Don’t miss what I’m saying or add words that I’m not… I’m not saying God will not judge us, the Bible makes that will happen. And those that refuse to turn back to God will be eternally separated (living in torment, not torture). The point I’m making is that God’s wrath is the natural consequence of our sin not God’s rage-induced reaction to our mistakes. We are the ones to blame for the outcome, not God.
Throughout the Bible God constantly reminds his people how to live. Why? Because he loves them and wants the best for them. The best is to live within the rules God has established. When we venture outside of those rules we will experience his wrath. God’s wrath is the natural consequence of our disobedience.
This should cause us to ask, why would God allow us to live outside his will?
God’s Wrath Is Founded In Love
The foundation of God’s wrath is not in anger, as we have seen. Rather it’s in his love.
The reason many Christians struggle with understanding the wrath of God is that it seems like it’s opposed to God’s love. Which is largely due to the incorrect picture we have that we have already looked at.
But God’s wrath is not opposed to God’s love, rather his wrath is a part of his love.
Joshua Ryan Butler in The Pursuing God says it this way: We see wrath is not God being mean or vindictive, or something opposed to God’s holy love, but rather as an expression of God’s holy love.
God has an interesting way of showing his anger. He gives us what we want. Like the Prodigal son who squanders his inheritance in a faraway land. We too leave God in pursuit of our own desires. The problem is this pursuit always ends in destruction. But that’s what we wanted, isn’t it? Love requires choice, it cannot be forced. Because God loves us and wants us to love him, he’s given us a choice.
Similarly, hell is often seen as a place God punishes sinners. But in reality, it’s God’s final act of love. Read more here: Rethinking The Traditional Views of Hell
God’s Wrath Is A Punishment, But Not A Beating
Romans 1:18-28 gives us a good picture of the consequences of God’s wrath.
Paul ties our actions, our leaving behind what God says is best, to the wrath of God. God’s wrath is being revealed in the things we do. Which is what we just covered, the natural consequence of our sin is the wrath of God. But there’s something more in the passage.
Several times Paul uses the phrase “gave them over”. God gave them over to their evil desires. He is giving people over to what they truly desire, distance from him. Because love requires a choice and they choose separation from their creator.
God gives them what they truly desire because he loves them. Even though it’s not what’s best for them since it’s outside his design for life. They are l like a fish that desires to live on land only to find outside the water is suffocating. The fish flopping around on land is not the creator torturing it, rather the wrath that is experienced is the natural consequence of its own decision.
Similarly, when people leave the ocean of God’s love for their own desires on land, they experience the consequences. They face punishment. But it’s not a beating from an angry God. Rather they flop on land suffocating from their decisions. The wrath of God is the flopping. No beating required.
It’s important that we recognize the origin of God’s wrath. God’s not bringing his wrath unto us, we brought it onto ourselves. It is a punishment. But it’s not a beating.
God’s Wrath Is Just, Fair, and Slow
We tend to have a low view of our own sin. It’s not THAT big of a deal, right? But we fail to see if from God’s perspective. Like a wife that’s appalled by her husband’s decision to flirt and eventually cheat with someone other than her. God is offended by our sin that says I want someone or something other than you.
Just as a spouse that cheats deserves a divorce, we deserve separation from God. Thankfully we serve a God that is full of undeserved grace. More on that in a minute.
Because of our low view of sin we see our punishment as too harsh. But in fact, our punishment fits our crime. God’s wrath is just and fair. We choose to leave God for something or someone else, because of his love, he lets us go. We get what we deserve and what we asked for.
Actually, you could argue that God’s wrath is not fair. Not because it’s harsh, but because he’s too lenient. He gives people too much time to repent.
Time and time again in the Bible God is shown being slow to anger. Rather than squash someone the moment they sin he gives them ample time to repent.
God is far more gracious than we deserve.
Jesus Took Upon Himself The Wrath of God
We can’t end without recognizing this last truth about the wrath of God.
God’s wrath was satisfied in Jesus. In other words, the wrath we deserve was absorbed by Jesus on the cross. We no longer have to face God’s wrath. We no longer are destined to get what we deserve. Jesus paid the price for our transgressions.
As we’ve seen this isn’t an anger induced rage in which God viciously beats his son to death. That’s an unhelpful and disturbing picture.
Jesus doesn’t absorb the blows from his father intended for us. Rather, he joins us in our agony of being a fish on land. He shows us through the suffering of the cross the way back to the water.
Jesus leaves his native environment swimming in the ocean of the Father’s eternal love, to join us in our distance and suffer in agony on the cross, being bound in union with us as our new head, to bear the deadly devastation we’ve merited in running from the God of goodness and life. Why? To ultimately bring us back with him into the ocean of God’s eternal love. Joshua Ryan Butler in The Pursuing God
Jesus takes on the destruction and disorder (God’s wrath) brought on by our actions and bears it on the cross. Our collective sin brought destruction that sent humanity hurtling towards eternal death. As Paul says the wages of our sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life with him (Romans 6:23).
While God’s wrath is satisfied it must be chosen. Some will ignore it. And God will let them. Why? Because he loves them. He will let them leave for lovers less than him. Thus they will heap wrath on their head. God isn’t angrily punishing them, rather weeping over losing them.
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