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I recently read The Wrath of Almighty God, a book of essays by Jonathan Edwards (reviewed in this issue of Tabletalk, p. 59). I had read these essays before and was more than vaguely familiar with their contents. However, as I read them this time I had an epiphany of sorts. It was not a pleasant one. I suddenly realized I have been guilty of skirting the matter of the wrath of God in my teaching and preaching. I have taken pride in proclaiming the whole counsel of God. But this epiphany revealed that my pride was the sort that precedes destruction and, like a haughty spirit, precipitates a fall.

In subtle ways, it is easy to flee from dealing with the wrath of God, and many preachers and teachers do so. It is not a popular subject, for it violates all the canons of political correctness.

Though an emphasis upon divine wrath was in vogue during the Great Awakening of the eighteenth century, it quickly passed from the scene, and the “scare theology” of the likes of Edwards, Wesley, and Whitefield gave way to the more sanguine approach of nineteenth-century liberalism. We can summarize the message of the eighteenth-century preachers as “Man is very bad and God is very mad.” The nineteenth-century litany ran, “Man is not so bad and God is not so mad.” Today, wrath has been so extricated from the divine character that God is portrayed as loving everyone “unconditionally.”

In the early twentieth century, some Continental theologians reacted against the reductionism of liberal theology, which not only reduced God’s wrath to a minimum but denied it altogether. These newer theologians insisted that if one is going to have a Biblical view of God, it must contain an element of the reality of God’s wrath. Sadly, this attempt to restore a Biblical perspective on divine wrath carried with it perhaps an even more diabolical distortion of the nature of God.

Influenced by the passion motif and the drug of irrationalism that inoculated existential philosophy, these men argued that though God’s wrath is real, it is based on an impure and chaotic element within the personality of God Himself. They spoke of the “shadow side” of God that barely concealed the demonic element within His character. Good and evil were said to exist in a dualistic tension within Him. The evil was manifested in the paroxysms of fury that erupted in God, particularly in the Old Testament. The outbursts recorded there included God’s rage against Uzzah for touching the ark of the covenant (2 Sam. 6:6–7), His instant execution of Nadab and Abihu for offering “strange fire” on the altar (Lev. 10:1–7), and the swift destruction of Korah and his cohorts in their rebellion against Moses (Num. 16:1–35). His raging fury also was seen in the deluge that wiped out almost the entire human race, the slaughter of the Egyptian children in the Passover, and the merciless annihilation of the Canaanites. These episodes were cited as evidence of irrational and evil anger in God, of God simply venting His wrath for no good reason and to no good end.

This view stands in stark contrast to the Biblical view that God’s wrath does not reveal a defect in His character but His perfection. His wrath is a manifestation of His holiness. A holy being who is indifferent to or tolerant of evil is simply not holy.

Wrath has been so extricated from the divine character that God is portrayed as loving everyone “unconditionally.”

James M. Boice, whose commentary is guiding our study through Romans this year, once said: “The wrath of God is not ignoble. Rather, it is too noble, too just, too perfect—it is this that bothers us.”

In Romans, Paul writes, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who suppress the truth in unrighteousness” (1:18). Notice that God’s wrath is provoked not by goodness or righteousness. It is not the benign behavior of the creature that incites His wrath. Thus, His wrath is not irrational, that is, it is not for no good reason. The twin terms Paul uses here, ungodliness and unrighteousness, probably do not refer to two distinct actions but to one act that is both ungodly and unrighteous. In this case, Paul would be using a literary device called hendiadys, in which two terms are used to describe a single notion. The act in view is the suppression of God’s revelation of Himself through creation, which basal behavior forms the foundation for idolatry. Thus, God’s anger has a rational and reasonable object—human wickedness. It is the evil of men that prompts His fury.

The Greek word Paul uses for wrath is orge. It is the same word from which the English word orgy is derived. In antiquity, orgies usually were connected with pagan religious rites that involved unrestrained and excessive frenzies of a sexual nature. Obviously God’s wrath is not an act of sexual frenzy. The verbal link is with respect to intensity of passion. God’s wrath is not mere displeasure. It cannot be dismissed as simple annoyance or mild irritation. Rather, it is a raging fury directed against evildoers. It is a matter of heat that rivals the melting fire of the sun. God is revealed as an all-consuming fire.

These metaphors are designed to awaken all of us to the reality of God’s righteous judgment, to jerk us from our ease in Zion by which we rest, complacently assuming that God is incapable of anger.

Ashamed of Wrath

“How Long, O Lord?”

Keep Reading Righteous Wrath: The Wrath of God

From the February 2002 Issue
Feb 2002 Issue