What Comes to Mind?

What comes to mind when you hear the expression “the wrath of God”? More often than not, this expression evokes emotional outrage, narcissistic rage, or a kind of bloodthirsty fit of vengeance. It is unquestionably accurate that some preachers create that sense for the expression. It seems everyone wants to put this behind us.

But this means one has to define what “wrath of God” means in the Bible, and I think here of the classic passage in Romans 1:18-32.

What does “wrath of God” mean? How would you explain this expression?

Tony Thiselton, in Life after Death, examines this expression and here are his principal findings:

1. Love is permanent; wrath is not permanent. It is not eternal and does not reach beyond time. It is not a permanent quality of God like righteousness.

2. The opposite of love is not wrath but indifference. Wrath is not indifference.

3. A bewildering variety of terms in the Bible feeds into our expression, but one thing is clear: they are often emotive terms. “The word clearly implies emotion in God” (160).

4. What generates the wrath of God in the Bible most often is idolatry. This contributes to the meaning of “Jealous God.”

5. C.H. Dodd famously contended “wrath of God” was an “inevitable process of cause and effect in a moral universe,” and his point was to distance God from a vindicative rage. He overdid it, and as scholars like Stephen Travis have often pointed out, if God made the world of cause and effect, God remains personally involved in the wrath process.

6. Often wrath is remedial and restorative, but not every instance can be explained that way.

But what about unbelievers in the postmortem state? [It appears to me Thiselton is asking about eternal conscious experience of the wrath of God.] Again, Thiselton is not sure that we can know from the Bible. We know believers are justified; we know wrath is often remedial; we know wrath is not permanent. But, again, he argues we are to leave these things in the hands of God.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • AT

    Some thoughts/ questions:
    Is God’s Wrath towards sin eternal?
    Is God’s wrath towards injustice eternal?

    If these concepts are even memories then God’s emotional response towards them would surely be wrath…
    Or will these concepts cease to even be a memory in the mind of God in the new heaven/earth?

    I believe some people overemphasise (and ‘over personalise’) God’s wrath -as though the core thing that happened on the cross was God pouring hatred on his Son… focusing on God’s hatred of esau etc…God preparing objects for wrath – double predestination etc…

    I also believe many people completely remove wrath to make the Bible/ God more ‘nice’ – making wrath more like God’s love through a different lens…as I read scripture I just can’t make that jump without feeling that I’m forcing a meaning upon difficult passages…..

  • Kyle

    If we know that wrath is impermanent, then hell cannot be held firm by this energizing mood, which would put God in a curious position relative to this wasteland. To follow the logic, God would begin to take on a posture of indifference to this hell, which hardly seems conceivable given His great participatory commitment through Jesus. Hell must be first and foremost described as a place inimical to God’s vision, a place that everlastingly relates to Him through his fervor for a better way, which lands us squarely back at wrath being potentially permanent, at least to those unbelievers who have departed. To argue that we must leave things in the hands of God is certainly true (how could we not?), but could Thiselton approach his hierarchy of love over wrath with a pinch of incredulity, or at least an asterisk denoting that this hierarchy and its inverse may be separately truthful depending on who is doing the reporting? Anyone in hell, or even just alive and in a state of unbelief, does not conceive of God as a believer would, and can the worldview determine whether love (or wrath) appears to win? Is this form of contradiction heresy or a pleasant ode to the mystery?

  • Ben Thorp

    Is wrath impermanent because in eternity there is nothing to be wrathful about? There will be no more sin and injustice to invoke the wrath of God?

  • Susan N.

    Actually, I think that indifference could be classified as a passive-aggressive form of wrath (e.g., shunning.)

    Reading Exodus 33:18-34:9 yesterday, and connecting it with John 1:14-18, the “glory of God” is His hesed and emet.

    Word!

  • CGC

    According to my understanding of the ancient Eastern Orthodox church, they teach that God’s wrath is grounded in God’s love. If this is true, and I for one agree with them, then it would seem strange to say God’s love is permanent and God’s wrath is not as Thieselton does. This sounds like another form of dichtomous thinking and theologizing but then others theological perspectives may vary.

  • http://everythingnew.org Jeff Cook

    A common expression of God’s emotions (and I think that is the correct depiction) is voiced in Psalm 30:5

    “His anger lasts only a moment, but his favor lasts a lifetime; weeping may remain for a night, but rejoicing comes in the morning.”

    But I do think AT (1) is asking the right kind of questions to introduce his(?) post. Annihilationists will need to wrestle with them.

    It seems to me my own anger at past abuses I’ve experienced no longer exists in places I have chosen forgiveness. I imagine that would be God’s experience as well.

  • Percival

    Jeff,
    What is it exactly about that comment (#1) that Annhilationists need to wrestle with? Could you clarify? I might be up for a little wraslin’ but I saw nothing there that I needed to grapple with. What am I missing?

  • http://natomaschurch.wordpress.com Mike

    Once again, as I stated in the last discussion on Thiselton’s book, this is not just about the Love/Wrath dualism. Those are only two of the Core Values of God. God also values Human Freedom of Choice and His Sovereign Plan.

    Most of us only have to weight two values in any ethical dilemma. For instance, Corrie Ten Boom’s family had to choose between telling the truth (and revealing their Jewish friends hiding in their house) and saving their lives. The saving of lives was a weightier value than telling the truth.

    In terms of Eternity, God is weighing these four values: The wrath of God, the Love of God, the Plan of God and the Free Choice of Man. Which of these, if any, is eternal? And how are we to determine that? There is some evidence in Scripture that any of the four could be the weightiest.

    This is really what the discussion is about. Thiselton claims that the Love of God is the weightiest. But a Calvinist claims the Plan of God is. The ultra-fundamentalist claims it is the Wrath of God and the Open Theist claims it is the Free Choice of Man. The rest of us see varying degrees of weight for these values.

  • http://urbanmennoniteblog.com Ryan

    I’ve heard many claim that God’s wrath is just as much a part of his character as love (usually in the context of penal substitution atonement theology). I would put it this way: God is love, and sometimes that means that God shows wrath. God is not permanently angry, but sometimes the loving response is anger at an injustice against those who you love. Not against the totality of the person who caused the injustice, but against the injustice. I’m also an Open Theist and I’d argue that God can feel different emotions, so of course adopting the Classical Theist unfeeling God model would completely void that opinion.

  • Tim Graham

    What biblical support does he proffer for the contention that wrath is not permanent?

  • C

    I can’t find the reference right now, but recently I ran into a rather insightful thought on God’s wrath.

    If a child runs into the street in front of a semi, what loving mother won’t grab him forcefully and yank him out of the street? When he’s safe on the sidewalk, she’ll probably bend down, grab him by the shoulders and say, “Don’t EVER do that again.” But the child starts to cry, and his mother melts and pulls him into a tight embrace.

    “I would never try to hurt you. I love you, and I just don’t want anything to happen to you.”

    The picture of God’s wrath, I think, is not Edwards-style “sinners in the hands of an angry God,” but Jesus weeping over the death of Lazarus. It seems the concept might be better conveyed in English by the word GRIEF rather than WRATH. Not tame, smooshy, pietistic sadness–real, gut-wrenching grief. People who have experienced this know what I’m talking about. The kind of grief that makes you scream and cry and hit walls.

    From the Scriptures, I imagine God’s “wrathful” thoughts something like, “It absolutely KILLS me that you did this. It grieves me so much to see the people I created to know and love turn their backs on me and wound each other. I HATE that this is happening. You’ve hurt yourselves, you’ve hurt each other, and you’ve hurt me. My heart breaks over this. I’m so ANGRY it has to be this way.”

  • A Medrano

    Holiness is permanently active.
    Evil is temporarily active.
    Wrath is re-active.

  • AT

    God’s wrath ‘towards’ humans is temporary.
    God’s wrath towards injustice, sin and evil continues whilst they exist.
    The effects of God’s wrath continue after ‘it’ has subsided e.g. Ananias and Sapphira didn’t come back to life.

  • Jon G

    AT (#13), I see Ananias and Sapphira’s deaths more a result of sinning in the temple (the group of believers in which the Spirit dwelt) than of suffering God’s wrath. Otherwise, God would kill everyone who lies, no? I believe they were an example, like Uzzah from 2 Samuel 6:1-15 (I think), of what happens when unholiness comes into direct contact with true holiness.

    The point to the passage, IMO, is that the church was now fully accessible to God’s holiness and with that power came consequences. In otherwords, I think of them more as sticking their fingers in an electical socket than being killed in an electric chair…if that makes any sense.

  • http://www.reignbridge.com Fawn Parish

    Isaiah 59:17-19 is instructive to me on God’s wrath. After truth has stumbled in the streets, and honesty cannot enter, the Lord looks for someone to intervene and there is no one, so “He put on righteousness as his breastplate; and the helmet of salvation on his head; he put on the garments of vengeance and wrapped himself in zeal as in a cloak. According to what they have done so will he repay wrath to his enemies, and retribution to his foes;

    I see in this passage God’s wrath directed at the principalities, powers, rulers and authorities, that have fueled Zion’s rebellion and distance from God. I think the majority of God’s wrath (not all, but most) is in that direction.

    I come to that conclusion from Ephesians 6 where we again hear of the helmet of salvation, and the breastplate of righteousness. Which is preceded by “For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms.”

    In regard to man yes he can experience God’s wrath, but God prefers to destroy His enemies by making them His friends.

    In regard to our stance, “Before God we are intimate, before man we are servants, before the powers of hell we are rulers with zero tolerance for evil.”-Bill Johnson

  • Luke Allison

    I’m eagerly awaiting Greg Boyd’s new scholarly work “The Crucifixion of the Warrior God” to see how he interacts with the wrath of God throughout the Scriptures.

    Whatever mutation wrath takes on through the lens of sinful humanity, that gut feeling we get when we read about a horrible crime (take that joker who killed the lacrosse player recently), or about perversion of humanity (child porn, exploitation, etc.) is part of the Imago Dei. Nobody is going to convince me otherwise. So what is the healthiest expression of that feeling?

    Modern thought seems to view anger as an overwhelmingly negative state to find oneself in. Even some posters seem extremely hesitant to imply that God might be angry at anything, in an emotional sense of the word. I think this relates back to our impassibility discussion a few days ago. Greek philosophical thought saw impassibility as superior to emotional reaction. So a being higher than humanity would have to interact on a different level too. Anger doesn’t make any sense in this picture of God. It actually seems trite and meaningless, if indeed omnipotence equals omni-control and omniscience equals “the future is set”. Then anger is petty, useless, and ultimately “lower” than God.

    But if we view God in a slightly more dynamic framework (is the future a real thing? Not yet!) emotions and anger begin to make a little more sense, and they tell us where are passions and emotions should be channeled. I will f this up 9 times out of 10, but that 1 time I get it right, the world gets changed, right? That’s optimistic, but I view anger as one of the most positive traits of God. Why fear the fact that God is angry at injustice? Why fear the fact that God is angry at idolatry? Why fear the fact that God hates the breakdown of his good universe due to human error and corruption? Why fear? Do something!

  • http://www.gurrydesign.com/ Peter G.

    @Jeff, (#6), remember that God has never needed to ask for forgiveness. He’s never experienced true guilt. So there’s an irreducible danger in comparing our experience of forgiveness to God’s. God can never be compared to the unforgiving servant in Matt 18. He’s never been in anyone’s debt. Ever. What does that do to our from-the-ground-up comparisons? There’s a real danger of idolatry at play when we say God’s experience is like ours when it comes to forgiveness.

    Just a word of caution; not trying to read into your comment.

  • http://shanescottonline.com Shane Scott

    Scot you have mentioned that you see the wrath of God as referring to the punishment of death (if I have read you correctly). Could you elaborate more on that?

  • Kenny Johnson

    @Luke 16

    It seems like I’ve been waiting forever for Boyd’s book. It looks like it won’t be available until Spring 2013 though.

  • http://www.createdtobelikegod.com theophilus.dr

    A somewhat different slant?

    It’s difficult for me to read a human emotional definition of wrath — anger and jealousy — into these Romans 1 verses. By using these words of human emotion, one has to go and define “anger” and “jealousy” in application to God. That certainly sounds like an opportunity to interject some human “wisdom” into the formula to define “I AM WHO I AM.”

    One approach might be to look in the verses in Romans 1:18-32, themselves, for the meaning of “the wrath of God.” First of all, verse 16 says that wrath “is being revealed,” suggesting that something from the spiritual realm (i.e., from out of “heaven”) is becoming obvious in the physical realm. Perhaps it’s been there in principle all along, as in “before the creation of the world.” Secondly, it sounds like wrath is a logical response that is brought about in the physical realm, perhaps in the form of a physical law such as “action and equal and opposite reaction” that God put into place at creation. Thirdly, it sounds like the wrath of God is directed “against all the godlessness and wickedness of men, and not against humans, themselves. This would leave open the possibility that the wrath of God is indeed redemptive and is generated from out of His love. The wrath of God in the physical realm is better than the separation from God in eternity.

    The definition of wrath is perhaps found in a phrase used repeatedly in verses 24, 26, and 28 — “Therefore, God gave them over to ……” Meaning what? God gave them over to reap the consequences of their unrepentant, fleshly choice to follow only their human, evil, and corrupted desires. Perhaps it is similar in meaning to Paul’s “giving over to Satan” (1 Tim. 1:20; 1 Cor. 5:5).

    We know that “sowing to the flesh reaps destruction” – God’s wrath has been ordained at creation in natural consequences for natural, fleshly choices and rejection and rebellion to God. These consequences are revealed when people operate out of the natural instead of the Spirit. The people described in Romans 1 may have developed themselves pretty far along the pathway to corruption, but then Paul starts Romans 2 by saying that no one should look down their noses in judgment because all humans are equally guilty of sin and dead without Jesus Christ.

    With this interpretation, the wrath of God is not like some human emotion, but is a logical and created natural consequence to human rebellion against God. It is a form of last chance redemptive purification. It may even be a tiny taste (appetizer?) of what awaits when God deals eternally with rebellion in the spiritual realm. Better to figure it out now that rebellion against God is not a good idea.

  • Merv Olsen

    John 3:36 is pretty clear to me about what God’s wrath is and how long it lasts …

    NIV – Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him.

  • Jurgan

    “4. What generates the wrath of God in the Bible most often is idolatry. This contributes to the meaning of ‘Jealous God.’”

    I’m not sure I agree with that. Certainly, God (especially in the Old Testament) was unhappy with Israel turning its back on him in favor of pagan gods, but he was most angry about that when the pagan rituals involved exploiting others. The other religions often relied on prostitution (which was often exploitative of women) or even human sacrifice. My read is that the fundamental sin of Israel was always how it treated its weakest members. Most of the prophets’ concerns were that people in Israel suffered and those in power either ignored their needs or outright exploited them for their own profit. God wants us to worship him, but he doesn’t need it. However, there are people in the world who need our help, and we choose to ignore them. God always seemed more concerned with the latter sin than the former.


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