IS THE CREATOR A GOD OF WRATH?
There are those who say that God is a God of love, but he is also a God of wrath—or anger. This has been held by many Christians throughout the ages, and is popular among some evangelicals today. Some Bible teachers think they can support this view because of the many Bible passages that mention God’s anger. On the surface it appears to be true, but in taking a closer look at Scripture, we can see it is not. The idea of a “God of wrath” seems to contradict the truth that God is loving and kind, and doesn’t really fit the portrait of God shown in the Bible.
The belief in God as a God both of love and anger is what we call dualism. A dualistic belief system divides something into two opposed or contrasting aspects or attributes. People who believe this see God as a being of two contradictory or polarized attributes, with love on the one side and anger on the other. Thus, they say that God is a God of love, but he is also a God of wrath. God possesses both as innate attributes. But for both to exist, they must be balanced perfectly so that one does not overpower the other. In this view, love is just one of many attributes of God that is balanced against others.
Another dualism that many Christians hold to is the belief that the God of the Old Testament is angry and vengeful, but the God of the New Testament as revealed by Jesus is kind and compassionate. In this view the purpose of Jesus’ sacrifice was to appease the angry and capricious Old Testament God who is difficult and even impossible to please.
These dualistic views of God in some ways resemble the beliefs of the ancient Greeks. The Greek gods possessed many conflicting and contradictory attributes. But the Greeks’ belief in multiple gods allowed them to separate these attributes into separate gods. For example, Aphrodite was the goddess of love, while Ares was the god of war.
Lyssa was the Greek goddess of anger and rage. This goddess more fit the description of a “god of wrath.” She was the personification of mad rage, fury, and crazed frenzy. Wrath was her innate characteristic.
The Greek gods bore more resemblance to humans than a sovereign Creator God. Many of their actions resembled some of the worst of human behavior. In Greek mythology, killing their opponents and even their close relatives to maintain power or exact revenge was common. Zeus’s behavior was typical of this.
But the Greek gods and the mythology surrounding them did not reflect the high moral ideals of the Hebrew culture and religion, and did not provide any basis for the concept of God as held by the Christian church. The actions and attributes of these gods as portrayed in the Greek myths did not reflect the God that we know and love as Christians.
Is wrath an innate characteristic of God?
An honest look at the Bible shows that there is no “God of the Old Testament” and “God of the New Testament.” None of the writers of the New Testament books believed this or alluded to any idea like this. There is only one God who is and has always been:
The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished. (Exodus 34:6-7)
God not only abounds in love, but in I John 4:8 the Apostle John proclaims “God is love.” Love is one of God’s innate characteristics. And of course God is also a God of justice, as he punishes sin.
A quick study of the words wrath and anger in the Bible reveal that God is nowhere described as a “God of wrath.” The term “God of wrath” cannot even be not found in Scripture, so we must conclude that wrath is not an innate attribute of God, as is the attribute of love. “God of wrath” suggests that he is intrinsically angry, expresses anger continually, and is just waiting for an opportunity to show it like the Greek goddess Lyssa.
So how do we reconcile this with the the fact that he is also a God of justice? The idea that God was “provoked to anger” is frequently found in the Old Testament. This means that that rebellious actions of humans elicited his response, not that he was always angry. It takes a lot to provoke God, but at some point a limit is reached and he will act to correct and punish evil.
The Old Testament Prophecies
People are right to ask the question, “Why is the God of the Old Testament so angry?” Doesn’t the Old Testament show God as an angry God? We might think so, since countless verses describe “the wrath of God” or “his wrath” against the disobedience of the Israelites and other peoples. One such verse found in Nahum declares:
A jealous and avenging God is the Lord; The Lord is avenging and wrathful. The Lord takes vengeance on His adversaries, And He reserves wrath for His enemies. (Nahum 1:2) (NASV)
But it’s important to know that God’s anger in this case was a response to grave injustices and cruelty committed by the Ninevites. The theme of the book of Nahum is God’s judgment on the ancient city of Nineveh for their their idolatry and cruelty to and oppression of the helpless. His anger was against the Ninevites that lived at that time, not all people, and it was for a limited time. It was because of his love for the helpless and oppressed that he was angry, not in spite of or in opposition to his love. And just as in Exodus 34, Nahum reminds us in the next verse that: “The Lord is slow to anger…” (Nahum 1:3).
Later, Nahum continues:
The Lord is good, a refuge in times of trouble. He cares for those who trust in him… (Nahum 1:7)
God is indeed a good God, as he protects and provides for those who trust him.
Seeing the Old Testament in context
It’s essential to read the Old Testament prophets in their proper context. A large reason that people get the idea of a God of wrath is that the writings of the prophets take up much of the Old Testament. There are abundant references to God’s wrath, especially in the major prophets Isaiah, Jeremiah, and Ezekiel.
These prophets prophesied during times of great turmoil and stress in the history of the Jewish people. God had to deal strongly with the Israelites for their flagrant disobedience of his laws and their rejection of God himself at various times. The language given by God to the prophets was appropriate because he gave those people many opportunities to come back to faith in him, but they wasted those opportunities. They chose to reject God and preferred instead to worship idols, oppress the poor, and commit murder and adultery.
It’s important to know that in Old Testament times, God always showed his anger as a response to specific sin and rebellion against him. He always focused his anger at specific people who intentionally and flagrantly disobeyed his laws and personally rejected or ignored him. Many times it was against arrogant and violent people who were oppressing the innocent and the poor.
Viewing history in time
The Israelites experienced intense suffering from God’s anger at times. Because these stories seem to dominate the Old Testament, it appears as though God was always angry at everyone. But this is not true—the time they suffered was not long, compared to the total history of the nation of ancient Israel.
Added to this, some of the prophets prophesied during the same historical timeframe about the same issues. Nahum prophesied at about the same time as Jeremiah, Ezekiel, Zephaniah, and Habakkuk. They all prophesied about the decadence of the Israelites and their leaders, and the coming judgment of God through the invading Babylonians. Therefore, there was considerable overlap of their messages. So the space taken up in the Bible by these prophetic books is out of proportion to the total time covered by these stories in history.
Anger is an emotion, not a quality
Actually, anger is an emotion. And emotions are transient—they come and go. They are temporary responses to situations in our lives. As humans, we don’t want to be known by our emotions. If you are a parent, there have probably been times when you were angry at your children. But would you ever like to be known as a “dad of wrath,” or “the angry mom?” If so, you should probably get some counseling.
God can also show anger as an emotion in response to human sin and defiance. But he does so when warranted, and not continually. So God’s anger doesn’t characterize him. In Psalm 30 the Psalmist declares about God:
His anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime. (Psalm 30:5)
And in terms of actual time, God’s favor to his people lasts much longer than his anger.
God’s character attributes
God prefers to show his love and compassion much more than his anger. His attributes of love and goodness are actually innate to his being, and he shows these continually to all with the goal of inspiring us to praise and thanksgiving. He is reluctant to show anger, and doesn’t enjoy doing it.
And Psalm 145:8-9 is even more explicit:
The Lord is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and rich in love. The Lord is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made.
His default attribute is love, and he will always prefer to show it before showing any anger. In fact, he is looking for ways to not show anger!
The Bible passages we have reviewed so far reveal these important truths:
- God is slow to get angry. He is hesitant or even reluctant to do so and he delays before he decides to express it and act on it. God expresses anger only for a limited time, because he finds no pleasure in it.
- God’s anger is a temporary response to sin, not an innate character attribute on equal par with his love. It is not always present in his dealings with humans.
- God does not give anger arbitrarily or randomly. God is not capricious and his actions are not baseless or irrational.
Christ the true image of God
Before we finish this discussion, we need to look at Jesus Christ, God’s Son. John wrote:
For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. (John 1:17)
Moses’ ministry served an important purpose: to bring God’s law to the people. But grace and truth came through Jesus, not Moses. Jesus, as the exact image of God, revealed to us God’s fullness in his earthly life.
The Son is the radiance of God’s glory and the exact representation of his being… (Hebrews 1:2)
Jesus Christ is the true image of God, not Moses. Jesus came to show us the true nature of God, and whatever he received from God the Father, he showed to us. So what we see in the life of Christ on earth accurately reflects the God who is in heaven. And the God of the New Testament is the same God of the Old Testament.
As Christians, our faith and focus are in Christ: his life, teaching, death, and resurrection. We are now under a new covenant which was finalized by Christ, the Lord of the Church. Although his teaching did not conflict with the Old Testament, Christ’s teaching and ministry superseded the commandments of the Old Testament. He provided a much needed focus in his teaching, which was on the two greatest commands: love God, and love your neighbor.
Saved from God’s Wrath
God sent his Son Jesus to the cross, and this was the greatest act of love he ever showed. Speaking of Christ’s sacrifice, the Apostle Paul says:
Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! (Romans 5:9)
Some Bible teachers like to say that “God’s wrath was satisfied” when Jesus died. But the writers of the New Testament never use this phrase. This sounds more like a “God of wrath” who needs to punish someone to satisfy his anger. The phrase that we find in Scripture when people repent of their sin, is that God’s anger is turned away. In other words, it goes away— it subsides and he isn’t angry anymore.
So, what is the wrath in this passage that Christ’s sacrifice saves us from? It is the final punishment, referred to as Gehenna. This is reserved for the unrepentant and defiant, described by Jesus in Matthew 10:28 as the complete destruction of body and soul. But even in punishing the unrepentant, God’s wrath has an end to it, because he will destroy them completely and eternally in one final act. They will not be tortured forever, as it isn’t in God’s nature to do so.
Jesus’ willing sacrifice of his life pleased God and turned his wrath away from us. Christ took the punishment of death that was due to us! Thus, through repentance and faith in God’s Son Jesus, we are saved from the final death of Gehenna. What a great mystery! God in the flesh taking the punishment for our sins! That is a deep love that will take an eternity to comprehend.
I hope that this helps you better understand the nature of God, that he is truly good. Through it may you grow deeper in your love for him.
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