What’s the deal with the wrath of God? I mean, the Bible tells us that God is love. And yet, numerous times in Scripture, God is angry, punishing those who fall out of line. So, how are we to understand the wrath of God? The New Testament uses this term to refer to three different things as determined by the context:
- The “coming wrath” describes the events leading up to the destruction of Jerusalem and the Temple in 70 A.D.
- God’s wrath refers to the Day of Judgement at the end of time.
- God’s wrath is the natural consequence of sin.
The “Coming Wrath”
The events leading up to and including the destruction of Jerusalem feature heavily in the prophetic parts of the New Testament. Matthew 24, Mark 13, and Luke 21 are entirely dedicated to these events, as is Revelation. (Cf. Revelation 6:16-17; 14:10, 19, 15:1).
John the Baptist questioned the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to where he was baptising people. He said to them: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Luke has John saying this “to the crowds coming out to be baptised by him.” What a novel way to start a sermon!
Jesus said, How dreadful it will be in those days for pregnant women and nursing mothers! There will be great distress in the land and wrath against this people. The land refers to first-century Israel.
Paul spoke of this in 1 Thessalonians: and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath. More on that in a moment.
Jesus warned of the events leading up to Jerusalem’s destruction in Matthew 24 and Luke 21, “And when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then you will know that the time of its destruction has arrived. Then, those in Judea must flee to the hills. Those in Jerusalem must get out, and those out in the country should not return to the city. For those will be days of God’s vengeance, and the prophetic words of the Scriptures will be fulfilled“ (Luke 21:20-22). In other words, the so-called “end times” prophecies that some Christians still use to traumatise God’s people were fulfilled in the first century. Let that sink in.
History reveals that Jesus’ followers understood His prophecies. The believers obeyed the warnings and fled Jerusalem to a town called Pella in the southern hills (those in Judea must flee to the hills), thus saving themselves. Not a single Christian perished in the destruction of Jerusalem. Christians left Jerusalem, thus escaping what Jesus referred to as great tribulation. The destruction of Jerusalem occurred three and a half years later, at the end of the Great Tribulation.
And so, this is what Paul foretold in 1 Thessalonians in the early 50s: and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath. God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ.
God’s wrath can also refer to the Day of Judgement at the end of time. Judgement Day is God’s guarantee of ultimate justice. Think of all the times when there hasn’t been justice in this life. Maybe you’ve experienced this or seen the fate of others who have suffered unfairly, and you’ve asked yourself, where is the justice in life? Well, wait. The New Testament is replete with forewarnings about Judgement Day:
Jesus said, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.” And, “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.” That’s because they’ve trusted someone who’s been there (death) and returned.
Paul wrote extensively about Judgement Day as an expression of God’s wrath. Consider Romans 2:5: But because of your stubbornness and unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed. (Cf. Ephesians 5:6; Colossians 3:6). God’s Judgement is a punishment, not a beating.
Suffer the Consequences
The final meaning of God’s wrath in Scripture is allowing people to suffer the consequences of their choices. Paul’s letter to the Romans is handy here: The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people. The rest of chapter one shows how Paul defines this wrath of God: God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts. God gave them over to shameful lusts. God gave them over to a depraved mind. (Vs. 24, 26, 28)
God is like a parent who says, well, that’s not how I want you to behave, but if you persist with having your way, you’ll also need to be prepared to wear the consequences of your choices. People have free will, and God does not control us.
God is a loving father who is angry at injustice. Righteous anger is an ethical expression of authentic love as inferred by the Greek word translated “wrath. Orgē comes from the verb oragō meaning, ‘to teem, or swell.’ God’s wrath is not a sudden outburst but a controlled, passionate response to wickedness and unfairness: His anger lasts only a moment, but his favour lasts a lifetime. Because of the Lord’s great love, we are not consumed, for his compassions never fail. They are new every morning; great is your faithfulness.
God loves all people, but that love doesn’t mean that certain behaviours don’t anger God. God’s wrath will be satisfied by ultimate justice being done and appropriate punishment being given. But, as the Psalmist declares, “He will not always accuse, nor will he harbour his anger forever.” That is good news for everyone.