Have you ever come across those passages of scripture which talk about God’s wrath and it caused you to cringe? Recently the major motion picture Noah brought God’s judgment against sin vividly to screen. Would God really kill all those people? What about when God ordered the slaying of the Amalekites (1 Sam 15)? How could the same God who did these things be the God who “so loved the world” in John 3:16?
This question is nothing new. In the second century, a heretic named Marcion became convinced that the God of the New Testament must be different than the one in the Old. His inability to reconcile the “God of Wrath” with the “God of Love” led Him to literally rewrite his own version of the Bible and create one of the first cults in the early church.
This question still remains for us to grapple with in today’s world. We believe that “God is love” (1 John 4:8). Jesus Himself told us to imitate our heavenly Father and love even our enemies (Matt 5:45). Yet how are we to imitate a God who, at least on the surface, has a history of some pretty violent judgments upon His enemies? This is not to mention the judgments of Revelation which are yet to come upon the whole world. What about the reality of hell itself?
While I certainly don’t expect to answer this whole question in one short article, I hope I can shed some light on the subject by positing one crucial argument: God’s love and wrath are not opposite attitudes, they are interrelated. In other words, having one necessarily demands the other. Let me explain.
I love my family. I care about them very much. Let’s say I walked into my home and found a stranger doing harm to my children or wife. My love for them is so great that I would instantly be filled with wrath towards the one harming them. That wrath would manifest itself in violence towards the offender.
In this illustration, we learn that anger/wrath is not the opposite of love, it is a derivative of love. The opposite of love is apathy. If (for the sake of argument) I didn’t love my family, then the sight of them being hurt wouldn’t affect me in the least. Sometimes being patient or calm isn’t a sign of one’s gentleness, it could mean they could care less.
On cannot be angry without loving something. A lot of anger we see today is a result of our love of self. Someone says an unkind word and we blow up because our honor has been offended. Some of our anger comes from a love our own plans or agendas. We get mad when we get a flat tire or miss the green light. Why? Because life isn’t playing out exactly like we want it to.
I don’t question that God gets angry and even acts upon that anger. We have plenty of Biblical evidence to prove that. The real question becomes, “Why does He get angry? What does he love so much that would cause Him to unleash fury?”
Let’s explore this question with another illustration from my family. Often a day doesn’t go by when one of my children decide to test me over some command I have given them. Usually it’s not a blatant disobedience. Rather it’s due to absentmindedness or immaturity. However, there are times they are deliberately choosing not to follow my instruction.
When that happens, some form of anger usually rises up in me. I say “some form” because usually it comes from one of two places. The first place is the place of honor. How dare the children that I work so hard to feed and clothe defy me? Am I not the master of the house? This is the kind of anger that arises from pride. I elevate myself to a place of importance and get mad when those around me do not recognize that importance.
The other possible source of anger is my love for them. As a parent, I have been given the responsibility by God to train them up to be disciples of Jesus. I have plans for the kind of person I am helping them become. I can see that their defiance, if left alone, could possible result in a way of life which will be detrimental to them and to those around them. I get angry because I am seeking their good. I love them, but I am angry with them because their actions are harmful to themselves.
So let’s bring this back to God. If you look up the Bible verses which talk about God’s anger, most of them talk about how slow He is to get angry. God is not prone to outbursts. His anger is not irrational. Why does God get mad? Is it because someone offended His honor or because someone is bringing harm to His creation? I would argue for the second option. It is because of God’s love for people that He must judge.
Scripture tells us the story about how the sickness of sin has overtaken the object of His love – people. God made the world good, He made it to share in His goodness. He wants nothing but the best for His creation. Yet mankind threw this gift away and continues to embrace the cancer of sin which eats away at us – making us into mere shells of the image of God we were meant to be.
In the Old Testament, the people of Israel were depicted as a remedy for the sickness. God told Abraham in Genesis 12, “I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that you will be a blessing. I will bless those who bless you, and him who dishonors you I will curse, and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” Ultimately these verses were talking about the Messiah who would come from Abraham’s family. However you can’t miss the tone of the passage. God is looking to bless the world through Israel and woe to the ones who try to harm those bringing the cure.
I believe God’s love for people never changes. Hell isn’t for people whom God hates; it’s for people who hate God. God is in the business of saving the world and there has to be a place to put the people who want none of it. Is there wrath in the book of Revelation? Yes, but it is wrath due to love. Over and over, while God is pouring out judgment, He is giving the opportunity to repent. Yet the Bible specifically says, “They did not repent of their deeds” (Rev 16:11) Rather, they chose to curse Him.
God’s default is always mercy. He loves even to the point of sentencing to hell. His wrath is due to a love scorned. “As I live, declares the Lord God, I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live; turn back, turn back from your evil ways, for why will you die?” (Ezekiel 33:11)
If you have a problem with this concept, go back and read the book of Jonah. God loves bad guys. That’s why He tells Jonah to go and preach to the Ninevites. Jonah disobeys and ultimately tries to commit suicide. God saves Him by sending a big fish to rescue him and bring him back to land. Jonah then obeys and preaches to the Ninevites who then repent. God spares them from judgment. The book ends with God’s prophet getting mad because he wants to see the bad people burn. Funny, isn’t it? God’s people being more prone to judgment than the Judge is?
God’s love never fails. God’s love always gives us a choice. Sometimes our choice gives God no other choice than to judge.