I’d like to talk directly to those of you who are creeped out by the whole “God loathes my sin and thinks I should die” thing, which, in my experience, represents the vast majority of people.
The wrath of God is a phrase used in the Bible to describe God’s angry response to human disobedience. The clearest expression of God’s wrath is found in Romans 1:18: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people.” The word for “wrath” is the Greek word orge, which means, “to be puﬀed up or become excited.” The Old Testament counterpart was the Hebrew word ‘ap, which has the sense of snorting. Both refer to the physical transformation that takes place in someone’s face when he or she is caught up in an angry explosion. However, when the biblical writers used these words, their intent wasn’t to describe the transformation of God’s facial features, rather the extreme brutality of his rage (e.g. plague, drought, disease, social disorder, war, exile, and death) that could be provoked at any moment by human disobedience.
The wrath of God is both a present and future reality. Those who have yet to become Christians are under God’s wrath right now. Ephesians 2:3 tells us that nonbelievers are “by nature deserving of wrath.” Romans 1:18 says, “The wrath of God is being revealed.” God’s wrath is a present reality, right now, right here in the twenty-ﬁrst century in the lives of your friends who are far from God. But the Bible also teaches that those without Christ will experience God’s wrath in the future. John 3:36 says,
“Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.” As biblical scholar Douglas Moo observes, “The present experience of God’s wrath is merely a foretaste of what will come on the Day of Judgment.”
When I think of God’s wrath, I think of the day my friend’s normally mild-mannered German shepherd managed to sneak into the chicken coop. The result was utter carnage—bloody feathers all over the ground, the walls, half-eaten body parts strewn about, the dog’s face and body covered with blood—it was an odd sight. One minute the dog is playing with my friend’s kids near the swing set, the next minute he’s violently ripping apart seventeen chickens. Moments later, it’s back to sitting peacefully with the kids while they’re playing jump rope. I think that’s what the wrath of God looks like—one moment God is calm, and the next He’s provoked by human disobedience into a state of holy rage (and usually after repeated warnings).
Deuteronomy 32:40–42 gives us a glimpse of God when His fury is provoked:
I lift my hand to heaven and solemnly swear:
As surely as I live forever, when I sharpen my ﬂashing sword and my hand grasps it in judgment, I will take vengeance on my adversaries and repay those who hate me. I will make my arrows drunk with blood, while my sword devours ﬂesh: the blood of the slain and the captives, the heads of the enemy leaders.
If you’re thinking, Okay, that’s just about as creepy as you can get, then you’re starting to gain a clearer understanding of the true character of the God in whom you’ve placed your trust as a Christian.
In the biblical story, God’s love and God’s wrath are never mutually exclusive. Understandably, a vengeful deity seems like a leftover from the dark ages. If you think our God sounds like something you’d read about in National Geographic, you might understand why the second-century Roman pastor Marcion (who was viewed as a dangerous heretic) deleted the two words “of God” in Romans 1:18 in the Bibles used in the churches he served (i.e., “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven”).
Wrath is an acceptable part of the human experience. However, the idea of the wrath of God is often something people struggle with, whether they live in the twenty-ﬁrst century or lived in the second.
Outspoken atheist Richard Dawkins wrote:
The God of the Old Testament is arguably the most unpleasant character in all ﬁction: jealous and proud of it; a petty, unjust, unforgiving control freak; a vindictive, bloodthirsty ethnic cleanser; a misogynistic, homophobic, racist, infanticidal, genocidal, ﬁlicidal, pestilential, megalomaniacal, sadomasochistic, capriciously malevolent bully. Those of us schooled from infancy in his ways can become desensitized to their horror.
When I ﬁrst read this, I was infuriated. His comments are based on two entirely false allegations. First, the God of the Old Testament is the same God of the New Testament. In Christian theology, whatever attributes describe God in the ﬁrst thirty-nine books of the Old Testament also apply to the God portrayed in the twenty-seven books of the New Testament.
If the God of the Old Testament is petty, unjust, and vindictive, either the God of the New Testament bears those same characteristics, or that characterization is utterly false. There aren’t two Gods in the Bible—a mean Old Testament God and a nice New Testament God—the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Joseph is also the God of Jesus, Paul, Peter, and John.
Second, Dawkins is dead wrong, not because he paints God with too cruel of a brushstroke, but because he’s too ﬂattering. The God of the Bible is far more vengeful than Dawkins could ever dream. The real God, the Deity we only catch a quick glimpse of in the pages of Scripture, is inﬁnitely more bloodthirsty, vindictive, genocidal, pestilential, sadomasochistic, and capriciously malevolent than human language could begin to express. This soft depiction does a tremendous disservice to the cause of Christ.
Why? Until you realize how vengeful God really is, you’ll never feel an urgency for your friends and family members who are without Christ.
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