The Wrath of God
God’s wrath, in perfect harmony with all of his divine attributes, is the holy action of retributive justice towards persons whose actions deserve eternal condemnation.
Despite the disinterest of our secular age and many in the evangelical church, the wrath of God is a deeply biblical truth. It affirms God’s righteous displeasure with sin and his just retribution upon unrepentant sinners. Starting with a short history of this doctrine in America, this essay surveys the Old and New Testaments to think holistically about what Scripture says about God’s wrath. It concludes with a section that considers the importance of this doctrine for the sake of the gospel, theology proper, and Christian discipleship.
In our secular age, God’s wrath is a foreign and unwanted truth. Nevertheless, the wrath of God is a theme that runs through the Bible, one Christians must consider to know the God who is love, light, and life.
From Jonathan Edwards to Joel Osteen: The Elimination of God’s Wrath from the American Church
In the Great Awakening Jonathan Edwards famously preached a sermon entitled “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God.” The passage is a vivid exposition of Deuteronomy 32:35, which reads, “Vengeance is mine, and recompense, for the time when their foot shall slip; for the day of their calamity is at hand, and their doom comes swiftly.” Focusing on the second line (“their foot shall slip in due time,” KJV), Edwards illustrates the perilous position of the lost. Those without Christ dangle over the flames of hell, like a spider over a flame.1 This kind of preaching ignited revival as it set salvation in the context of God’s holy wrath.2
By contrast, God’s wrath was eliminated from many (or most?) twentieth-century pulpits. Jonathan Edwards warnings against hell have been replaced by Dale Carnegie’s positive message of winning friends and influencing people. Speaking to churches and pastors devoid of God’s wrath, Richard Niebuhr famously described Protestant Liberalism’s gospel: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.”3
This indictment highlights what happens when God’s love is divorced from his holiness. Without a clear understanding of God’s hatred for sin, the character of God becomes misshapen and the universe bends towards human individuals—regardless of their character. Love becomes pure affirmation. God becomes a personal friend who assists us in all of life’s difficulties. Robert Schuller’s and Joel Osteen’s television ministries, as well as the panache of the seeker-sensitive movement, eschewed God’s wrath. Instead, they built ministries with the power of positive thinking, which only added to disinterest in this biblical doctrine.4
Enter the twenty-first century, and “expressive individualism” has made God’s love into absolute affirmation of the individual. Even those with more traditional views of God are afflicted by a divine weightlessness that wafts through modern evangelicalism.5 As David Wells has observed, “In all Western cultures, . . . the love of God is welcomed and the holiness of God is given inhospitable treatment.”6 Accordingly, God’s wrath is not a divine attribute fondly received today. Nevertheless, the God of the Bible remains the same, as Nahum 1:2 declares,
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.
Despite what is (not) preached from modern pulpits, the Bible is full of language describing God’s wrath.
God’s Wrath in the Old Testament
Leon Morris states, “There is a consistency about the wrath of God in the Old Testament. It is no capricious passion, but the stern reaction of the divine nature towards evil.”7 In short, wrath is the vengeance God takes towards all forms of wickedness. In the ESV, the word first translated “wrath” is found in Exodus 22:24, as God warns Israel of mistreating sojourners in their midst.
If you do mistreat [the sojourners], and they cry out to me, I will surely hear their cry, and my wrath will burn, and I will kill you with the sword, and your wives shall become widows and your children fatherless.
This verse captures the severity that God takes towards sin. As God warned Adam, “in the day that you eat of this tree, you will surely die” (Gen. 2:17). Death entered the world through Adam’s one sin (Rom. 5:12). And sin has always brought about the holy wrath of God.
Long before the word “wrath” is found in the Bible, therefore, divine wrath is witnessed in human history. Death is God’s punishment upon all sin (Rom. 5:12–21; 6:23), and as Moses reflects in Psalm 90, the brevity of life is a mark of God’s wrath that stands over all humanity. In this way, God’s wrath is a common and inescapable reality in our sin-cursed world. Every cemetery is a testimony to God’s wrath, and every funeral a reminder that eternal death awaits us all, unless we take refuge in God’s wrath-bearer.
Until that pivotal day, what we find in the Old Testament is that God’s anger towards sin is real and deadly. Adam and Eve’s exile from Eden (Gen. 3), the cosmic flood (Gen. 6–9), the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19), the defeat of Pharaoh and his army in the Red Sea (Exod. 14–15), and the incineration of Nadab and Abihu (Lev. 10) are all examples of God’s wrath. Though only Leviticus 10:6 uses a word translated “wrath,” each of these instances display God’s zeal for his holiness. God cannot withstand sin, and while he may delay his justice, he will not deny his holiness. And thus, through divine intervention and secondary agents (e.g., the army of Assyria in Isaiah 10), God’s wrath will be vented fully.
Importantly, God’s wrath is never hasty or disconnected from his other attributes.8 As Exodus 34:6–7 states, Yahweh is “slow to anger.”9 Such patience is another aspect of his divine glory and one that extols his wisdom to know when to be patient and when to act in justice. Indeed, God’s slowness to anger should be taken as motivation for repentance (Joel 2:13) and never a denial of his justice. For Exodus 34:7 goes on to say, “for he will not clear the guilty” (cf. Num. 14:18).
From Genesis to Malachi we find a consistent testimony of God’s wrath against sin. This was true in all nations and in all periods. While God passed over the sins of his people (Rom. 3:25), there is a consistent testimony to God’s wrath, one that carries over into the New Testament.
God’s Wrath in the New Testament
Some have argued the New Testament God is wholly loving, in contrast to the Old Testament God who is wholly vengeful. Such a Marcion-like division of Scripture, however, does not match the biblical data. From the ministry of John the Baptist to the wrath of the Lamb in Revelation, the theme of God’s wrath pervades the New Testament—and in many respects, it exceeds the judgments of the Old Testament.
For instance, Acts 10:42–43 provides a striking reminder of how the Old Testament promised a savior and the New Testament warns of judgment. As Peter recalls, “[Christ] commanded us to preach to the people and to testify that he is the one appointed by God to be judge of the living and the dead. To him all the prophets bear witness that everyone who believes in him receives forgiveness of sins through his name.” Peter’s words indicate how Christ fulfilled all the prophetic promises and warn of a judgment to come (cf. Rom. 2:16).
This promise of future judgment runs through the New Testament and serves as a backdrop for the message of salvation. Indeed, salvation according to Christ and the Apostles is a salvation from God’s wrath, which means that wrath continues to be a prominent feature in the New Testament witness. Consider three ways this is so.
First, Jesus came to save his people from God’s wrath. John the Baptist warned of this “wrath to come” (Matt. 3:7; Luke 3:7) as he prepared the way for Christ. Likewise, Jesus regularly spoke of God’s wrath when he described the conditions of hell—e.g., the “hell of fire” (Matt. 5:22), the “eternal fire” (Matt. 18:8), and a place where “worm does not die and the fire is not quenched” (Mark 9:48). In John 3:36, salvation in the Son is set in direct contrast to God’s wrath: “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.” From Jesus’s own lips, we can see why Peter said that Christ “commanded us to preach” about God’s judgment (Acts 10:42).
Second, the rest of the New Testament is equally committed to speaking of God’s wrath. While some scholars have explained God’s wrath in passive and impersonal terms—i.e., men like C. H. Dodd limit God’s wrath to his “giving over” of sinners to a depraved mind (see Rom. 1:24, 26, 28)10—such a truncated view of God’s wrath denies the emphasis Paul and others speak of God’s personal judgment. From Romans itself, J. I. Packer makes the point that God’s wrath is his “resolute action in punishing sin.”11
Presently, God’s wrath is revealed in the way idolaters are handed over to sin and its corruptions (1:18, 24, 26, 28). Then, as it relates to salvation, God’s wrath awaits the future day of judgment (2:5, 8; 5:9). Going further, Romans 3:5–6 defends the righteousness of God’s wrath and his justification of the ungodly (Rom. 3:21–26; 4:5). In the gospel message, God propitiates his wrath by means his personal provision: As John Stott wonderfully puts it, the cross centers on God’s “divine satisfaction through divine substitution.”12
Moreover, Romans 4:15 explains how lawbreaking invites God’s wrath. Romans 9:23 describes “vessels of wrath” who will experience eternal destruction. And Romans 12:19 motivates trust in God by recalling God’s vengeance and future wrath. In all these ways, Romans, a letter dedicated to explicating the gospel, presents a full portrait of God’s wrath.
The rest of Paul’s letters also present God’s wrath as the backdrop to his message of grace (e.g., Eph. 2:3; 5:6; Col. 3:6; 1Thess. 1:10). Likewise, Hebrews speaks of God’s wrath, as it contrasts Israel’s wrath-inducing unbelief with the enduring faith of new covenant believers (see Heb. 3:11; 4:3). Most dramatically, Revelation assigns God’s wrath to Jesus Christ. Described as the “wrath of the Lamb” (6:16; 14:10), we discover that in the final account, it will be Jesus who executes God’s judgment (cf. John 5:22, 27; 9:39; 17:2).
As we finish our survey of the New Testament, therefore, we are left in full agreement with R. V. G. Tasker, who concludes,
These are sayings of terrible severity, but they are just as much part of the revelation of God made known in Christ Jesus as those sayings and deeds of the Master which so conspicuously display the divine love and mercy. To thrust these severe sayings on one side and to concentrate attention solely upon passages of the Gospels where the divine Fatherhood is proclaimed is to preach a debilitated Christianity, which does not and cannot do what Christ came into the world to do, viz. save men from the wrath to come.13
God’s Wrath in Theological and Practical Application
From this survey, we are ready to define what wrath is and what it is not. First, the negative. Wrath is not a pagan idea assigned improperly to God. Scripture has “nothing to do with pagan conceptions of a capricious and vindictive deity, inflicting arbitrary punishments on offending worshipers, who must then bribe him back to a good mood by the appropriate offerings.”14 Neither is divine wrath anything like an “irrational temper,” where God looks like Anger, the red-faced cartoon from Inside-Out. Biblically-speaking, divine wrath is the right and righteous response of God to sin.
Put positively, wrath, in perfect harmony with all of his divine attributes, is God’s holy action of retributive justice towards persons whose actions deserve eternal condemnation. God formed humanity to bring him glory. Yet, because we rebelled against his holy standard, the perfect judge of the universe has declared he will pour out his wrath upon those who have sinned against him without repentance or faith in his Son.
Truly, the wrath of God is not the main message of the gospel, but the biblical gospel cannot be understood apart from it. On the cross, God the Son bore the full weight of divine judgment, even as he volunteered himself—in eternity and time—to drink the full cup of God’s wrath (Psa. 75:8). As we learn from his prayers in Gethsemane, there was no other way for wrath to be removed, but through his death on the cross (Matt. 26:39, 42). For all those who trust in Christ, this punishment is removed. For those who refuse Christ, God’s wrath remains (John 3:36; Rom. 2:6). At the final judgment, God will separate those for whom Christ bore their wrath from those whom will bear the punishment themselves. Still, the eternal realities of heaven and hell can only be understood with a proper understanding of God’s wrath.
Even more, the nature of God himself and his divine love is revealed through in his wrath. In other words, God’s love is a pure and holy love, and just as God calls his people to hate evil (Psa. 97:10; 101:3; Amos 5:15; Rom. 12:9), so God hates evil (Psa. 5:4–6; 11:4–7). God’s wrath magnifies the holiness of his love. Whereas love in our modern culture is regularly devoid of any moral standard; God’s love is actually defined by hatred towards sin and the gift of his Son to propitiate his wrath (1Jn. 4:10).15
Similarly, the mercy of God is seen only in its relief of God’s wrath. In other words, mercy defined biblically is more than God’s generic pity for the poor and needy. Without denying common grace, God’s mercy, as expressed in the gospel, is what declares the wicked righteous by means of Christ’s wrath-bearing sacrifice. Paul defines the gospel as “the mercies of God” (Rom 12:1), which he takes eleven chapters to explain (Rom. 1:18–11:36). And critically, the gospel is the good news which resolves the problem of God’s wrath.16
Finally, God’s wrath generates wisdom and praise when we understand the fullness of God’s justice and mercy. In Psalm 90, Moses finds understanding when he considers the wrath of God. And in Revelation, John recounts the smoke of God’s judgment upon the wicked. Remarkably, instead of inviting the forced applause, the wrath of the Lamb evokes endless praise in the people of God. Therefore, we will let the great multitude of God’s redeemed have the final word about God’s righteous wrath, as they teach us to embrace this doctrine and not reject it.
1 After this I heard what seemed to be the loud voice of a great multitude in heaven, crying out, “Hallelujah! Salvation and glory and power belong to our God, 2 for his judgments are true and just; for he has judged the great prostitute who corrupted the earth with her immorality, and has avenged on her the blood of his servants.” 3 Once more they cried out, “Hallelujah! The smoke from her goes up forever and ever” (Rev. 19:1–3).
- A. W. Pink, The Attributes of God (Swengel, PA: Reiner, 1968).
- Tony Lane, “The Wrath of God as an Aspect of the Love of God,” in Nothing Greater, Nothing Better: Theological Essays on the Love of God, Kevin J. Vanhoozer (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2001), 138–67.
- Leon Morris, The Biblical Doctrine of Judgment (Inter-Varsity, 1960; Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 2006).
- Leon Morris, “The Wrath of God in the Old Testament, in The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, 3rd Ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), 147–54.
- Leon Morris, “The Wrath of God in the New Testament, in The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross, 3rd Ed. (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965), 179–84.
- Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God”
- J. I. Packer, “The Wrath of God,” Knowing God (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1993), 148–57.
- R. C. Sproul, The Holiness of God, Revised and Expanded (Carol Stream, IL: Tyndale, 1998).
- John R. W. Stott, The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1986).
- R. V. G. Tasker, The Biblical Doctrine of the Wrath of God (London: Tyndale: 1957). Available online by PDF.
- David Wells, God in the Whirlwind: How the Holy-love of God Reorients Our World (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014).
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