In Defense of Divine Wrath

A lot of people in our culture, both within and without the church, seem to have trouble with the idea of an angry God. Many secular people look at passages in the Bible where God gets angry and judges people and think, “that is just why religion is so primitive and dangerous.” And many Christians seem to want to tone down, or even excise completely from our creed, the doctrine of divine wrath. It is seen as an embarrassment—something to be ameliorated, qualified, explained, reconfigured. Many people, for example, feel more comfortable with the view that C.H. Dodd popularized in the early 20th century, that divine wrath refers not to a divine attitude toward persons, but to the inevitable cause-and-effect process of a moral universe. Similarly, others point to passages like Romans 1:18-32 and argue that divine wrath is simply a passive response of letting sin reap its consequences.

This whole development is not a theological sidebar, irrelevant church life and worship. I would argue that the doctrine of divine wrath is an integral piece of the gospel message, and therefore that moving away from it will inevitably have far-reaching consequences for the church’s faith and life. For example, I would estimate that the driving impetus behind most revisionist atonement theologies is discomfort with the traditional doctrine of divine wrath. George Smeaton claimed all the way back in 1870, “the question of divine wrath is at present the great point in debate on the subject of the atonement,” and I think his comment is very much still apt today in atonement discussions. As goes our view of divine wrath, so generally goes our view of the atonement. I think movements away from the doctrine of hell are also often connected to discomfort with divine wrath. For example, I remember in Rob Bell’s promotional video for Love Wins, he asks, “what kind of God would need to save us from Himself? And how could that possibly be good news?” The root issue for Bell was not just hell per se, but the more general notions of divine wrath and judgment.

My heart goes out to those who might struggle with this doctrine, especially those who struggle because they have seen it caricatured or because they unconsciously associate it with their experience of sinful human anger. As an effort to help, I list here several problems with downplaying the notion of divine wrath (or denying its active, personal dimensions).

1) The Bible

If we want to move away from the notion of an angry God while retaining an authoritative Bible, we have some pretty heavy revisionist lifting to do. I would say the effort is roughly comparable to Thomas Jefferson’s attempt to cut the supernatural out of the Bible. Just type in “Lord wrath” or “God angry” to a Biblegateway search. D.A. Carson has noted that there are over 500 references to divine wrath in the Bible. What strikes me most, however, is not how frequently the Bible speaks of God’s wrath, but the absence of the embarrassment or hesitation or shuffling of the feet that is so often present in contemporary attitudes toward this doctrine. In the Bible, divine wrath is not the problem but the solution, not the offensive doctrine needing defense but the long-awaited vindication of justice after the tension of the prophets “how long O Lord?” Hence divine wrath is expressed in the strongest of metaphors, and with the firmest of language. Note, for instance, the metaphor of fire (implicit in the words “burning” and “kindled”) employed by the narrator of Kings after recording Manasseh’s sin:

“Still the LORD did not turn from the burning of his great wrath, by which his anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked him” (II Kings 23:26).

Or consider the opening verse of Nahum:

“The Lord is a jealous and avenging God;
the Lord is avenging and wrathful;
the Lord takes vengeance on his adversaries
and keeps wrath for his enemies” (Nahum 1:2).

Some people think that in the Old Testament God’s wrath is emphasized, while the New Testament emphasizes God’s love. It would be more accurate to say that both God’s love and God’s wrath are present very strongly in the Old Testament, and then both are ratcheted up even more intensely in the New Testament. Revelation, for instance, envisions the kings of the earth calling for the mountains to fall on them because they cannot stand the great wrath of the Lamb (6:15-17). Later it champions a warrior Christ with a sword and an army coming to judge the nations and “tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty” (19:15). This does not sound like an impersonal, passive process of simply letting evil reap its own consequences.

J.I. Packer devoted a chapter of his classic Knowing God to the wrath of God, and in it he asked a worthy question:

Clearly, the theme of God’s wrath is one about which the Biblical writers feel no inhibitions whatever. Why, then, should we? Why, when the Bible is vocal about it, should we feel obliged to be silent?

2) Church History

Its also worth considering that discomfort with the doctrine of divine wrath appears to be primarily a recent, Western development. Pre-modern Christians did not really have a problem with the notion of an angry God. In fact, I would be hard-pressed to imagine any major theologian of the church who died before the year 1750 who would regard current objections to divine wrath as anything other than strange, alarming, and highly eccentric. The doctrine of divine judgment, a sister doctrine to divine wrath, even achieved creedal status. The earliest and most ecumenical creeds, the Apostles’ and Nicene, both affirmed that “(Christ) shall come to judge the quick and the dead;” and the Athanasian Creed (also ecumenical) ratcheted up divine judgment to include sentence into “everlasting fire.” A God who judges evil was an assumed norm of orthodox, creedal Christianity. Nor did this point really distinguish Christianity from the other monotheistic religions. Maimonides, Muhammad, and Martin Luther were all agreed on this point.

3) Cultural Considerations

Why did the idea of divine wrath (like divine judgment) not seem to even require a defense to most Christians throughout church history? Why does it tend to flourish, instead, in the most affluent and comfortable societies? Perhaps it is because it is hard to appreciate the righteousness and appropriateness and (I even say) desirableness of divine wrath when we have fairly cushy lives. When we come face to face with brutal evil—when we sit with a rape victim or walk the halls of Auschwitz—the idea of an angry God rarely strikes us as offensive. Instead, we see why the biblical writers saw divine wrath as a good thing—a righteous and fitting part of the world’s governance. Miroslav Volf made this point with devastating force:

My thesis that the practice of nonviolence requires a belief in divine vengeance will be unpopular with many Christians, especially theologians in the West. To the person who is inclined to dismiss it, I suggest imagining that you are delivering a lecture in a war zone (which is where a paper that underlies this chapter was originally delivered). Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit. The topic of the lecture: a Christian attitude toward violence. The thesis: we should not retaliate since God is perfect noncoercive love. Soon you would discover that it takes the quiet of a suburban home for the birth of the thesis that human nonviolence corresponds to God’s refusal to judge. In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, it will invariably die. And as one watches it die, one will do well to reflect about many other pleasant captivities of the liberal mind (Exclusion & Embrace [Abingdon, 1996], 304

 4) The Psychology of Anger

Apart from any theological or even religious considerations, the idea that love and wrath are at odds is hard to square with basic human psychology. We all know good, loving people who get angry precisely because they are good and loving. What good parent is not angry, for example, at the mistreatment of his children? Do any of us not feel anger when we see real evil in the world—runaway greed, for instance, or blatant hypocrisy? Is this anger evidence of a lack of charity in us? No, just the opposite: we feel anger at injustice and wrong because we care about people. Anger is how goodness responds to evil, just as squinting is how eyes respond to bright lights or recoiling is how hands respond to hot surfaces. I would go so far as to say that a God who never got angry—a God who left the cry of the victim and the downtrodden echoing without answer for eternity—such a God would not be good, and therefore would not be God. Its very difficult to worship, or believe in, or even imagine, such a God. As Tim Keller put it in The Reason for God:

The belief in a God of pure love—who accepts everyone and judges no one—is a powerful act of faith. Not only is there no evidence for it in the natural order, but there is almost no historical, religious textual support for it…. The more one looks at it, the less justified it appears.

A Final Note

We might intuitively think that an impersonal, “evil is its own punishment” process is a more moderate and humane way to achieve justice in this world. But an impersonal process cannot forgive us, while a God who has anger can. In whatever places we might be tempted to deny the notion of divine anger, we will find more freedom and comfort in acknowledging it, and seeing its solution at the cross. It might sound harsh to modern sensibilities to look at the bloodied body of Jesus on the cross and say, “I helped put him there; that is how God feels about my sin.” To say that is to humble yourself under the offense of the gospel; it is the last surrender, the death of the ego, the eye of the needle through which the camel of human pride must shrink and squeeze. But it is also freedom, because the person who can say, “Jesus faced the wrath I deserved” can now also say, “I now have the love and favor Jesus deserved.” Only the person who submits the offense of the gospel can be lifted up to fully see its glory. As James Denney said,

The Atonement is a reality of such a sort that it can make no compromise. The man who fights it knows that he is fighting for his life, and puts all his strength into the battle. The surrender is literally to give up himself, to cease to be the man he is, and to become another man …. The cross of Christ is man’s own glory, or it is his final stumbling block.

3 Comments

  1. […] Gavin Ortlund. In Defense of Divine Wrath. […]

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  2. eortlund

    I think a God who never gets angry is unworthy of worship and trust. God is somehow able to be angry and also perfectly fair, in a way we are not. But a God who never gets angry is pathetic.

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  3. […] Because anger can be good, God can be both loving and wrathful at the same time.  In other words,  God’s love and God’s anger are not mutually exclusive.   God is a person of perfect love and righteous anger simultaneously, without compromising his character.   Further, God’s anger is actually best understood as an extension of his love, inseparable from it.  Here, I quote a blogger named Gavin Ortlund: […]

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