If God is love, what's up with his wrath?
God is love. Many people today hear that assertion and ask (aloud or silently), "Oh yeah? Then how come God. . .?" That's an important question. Actually, considering how many ways people fill in those three dots, that's a lot of important questions. They all deserve a serious answer.
Wrath seems particularly incompatible with love. Humans display wrath by losing their temper in frustration and trying to exert control over whomever is not letting them have their way. It's not enough simply to assert that God is somehow different. I hope to demonstrate just exactly how God is different.
The wrath of God is revealed against human godlessness and wickedness. I suppose nearly everyone has seen that scripture plastered, all by itself, on at least one billboard. It doesn't make God seem very nice. Jesus—now, Jesus seems like a really nice guy.
- At least until we read about him losing his temper in the temple and wielding a whip.
- At least until we recognize that Jesus warns about hell more sternly than anyone else in the entire Bible.
Out of character? Only if someone reads the gospels very selectively to define Jesus' character. No two ways about it: God and Jesus are on the same page. That makes sense if, as Christians claim, Jesus is God made evident in human flesh.
The meaning of wrath
Probably the first task in reconciling God's wrath with his love is to understand what wrath is. Here's what I did: I looked up "wrath" in Strong's concordance and found the number (3709) of the Greek word (orge) used in the verse I cited earlier.
In the King James (the translation Strong's is based on), it is translated using four different English words: anger, indignation, vengeance, and wrath. That Greek word, in turn, comes from one that means to stretch oneself or reach out after (Str 3713, oregomai), rendered in King James English as covet after or desire.
The word Paul used is not the only Greek word for "anger." Looking further through reference works, I find that the word we're looking at means a settled habit of anger. That's important, because anger that comes suddenly on impulse is always expressed by a different Greek word. Now we know at least that the wrath of God does not mean anything impulsive.
Human anger can be either a settled habit or a sudden impulse, and neither kind is very pretty. We get angry one way or another when something thwarts our will, hurts our feelings, or arouses our insecurity.
Modern psychologists tell us that anger is energy that we can use to change things. Actually, anger can be beneficial if we want to change things. Terrible problems result when we try to change people instead of things. Anger used that way destroys relationships, and often other things as well.
Here's where God is different. By definition, he is all-powerful. Nothing can thwart his will. Search Scripture from front to back with a fine-tooth comb. No one has ever alleged that any act of God's anger resulted from hurt feelings or insecurity.
The verse I'm using as a text says that it's revealed against godlessness and human wickedness (or unrighteousness, or any number of ways of expressing it in various translations). Whatever its source, though, God's wrath is a settled habit. That means that he can exercise it with inexhaustible calmness and patience.
The meaning of wickedness
In Genesis 5:1, we see that God made man in his own image and created them male and female. The Hebrew for that word "man" is adam, the generic word for all of humanity.
The church (and the Jews centuries before the church came into being) has often taught, foolishly, that somehow Eve, the woman in the Garden of Eden, was somehow responsible for the disaster that happened there. God gave adam everything in the garden, with only one prohibition.
The very fact that adam means both the male and female in Eden and not simply the name of the male sufficiently indicates that both of them faced temptation to take the one thing forbidden to them and that both of them failed the test.
Adam, that is, the entire human race represented by one man and one woman, chose to obey the serpent, Satan, instead of God. Right there is the very definition of wickedness: choosing to obey Satan and not God. God had given adam complete control to rule the entire earth as his steward.
When the human race chose wickedness and rebelled, it did not gain freedom from "slavery" to God. We simply gained slavery to Satan instead. He lied. It may have seemed for a while that he offered a better deal than God, but he lied. At war with God, he wanted to capture and dominate humanity, this new creation of God's, so he could gain the upper hand.
Now, adam still had authority to rule the earth, but ruled as Satan's slave instead of God's steward. Since Satan cares nothing about the world, adam's wickedness has been an unmitigated disaster.
God could have walked away from the mess and devised a Plan B. That's probably what he would have done if he had been anything like us. Instead, he had a plan for winning the war Satan started no matter what the humans decided in the garden.
Since they chose sin, God chose to rescue them. Ultimately, it meant that he had to become human himself, and as the man Jesus, resist all the temptation that Satan could throw at him. And having done that, Jesus had to die in order to descend into hell (in the sense of Satan's office) and, as a sinless human, destroy the contract that adam had made in the garden.
Then he rose from the grave, appeared to his followers, and rose to heaven. All subsequent history is like the fourth quarter of a football game, where one team has an unbeatable lead over the other and the beaten team continues to play dirty while it runs out the clock.
The meaning of God's love and wrath
God revealed his love for the human race by creating us in the first place and giving us an entire world full of all kinds of life and natural processes to watch over for us.
He revealed his love after the fall by clothing his sinful stewards and driving them out of the garden. (What could be worse for a fallen creature than to stumble on the tree of life and live forever in a fallen state?)
He revealed his love by sending Jesus, and after the ascension, the Holy Spirit.
Throughout the Bible, we read of harsh judgments to be sure, but in every case, God revealed his love through constant and undeserved restoration and favor. To this day, he continues to reveal his love both through Scripture, through nature, and through the stunning acts of human kindness that break through ordinary human selfishness.
God reveals his wrath not against people, but against ungodliness. And what is ungodliness? Anyone who is boiling with anger after reading the last two paragraphs, anyone who can't see or accept the constant and unceasing revelation of God's love in every direction is essentially calling God a liar. That is, people who don't discern God's love buy into exactly the same lie Satan foisted on adam in the garden.
When someone believes that lie—that ungodliness—it doesn't hurt God's feelings. It hurts the person who is living under the lie. This world, with Satan as its ruler by adam's gift, dishes out a lot of pain to everyone. God's grace offers the only possible relief from that pain. Ungodliness—sin in whatever form it takes—prevents hurting people from seeking and finding that relief.
- Please understand the distinction between ungodliness and the hurting person trapped in it.
- Please understand the distinction between sin (anything that falls short of perfection) and the sinner (everyone except Jesus himself who has ever drawn a breath of air).
The wrath of God, revealed against ungodliness, is really just another revelation of his love for every human being,--past, present, and future.