One could say that anger precedes wrath, but there is no dividing line in the use of words between being angry and being filled with wrath. Cain was angry (KJV "wroth") with God (Genesis 4:6), Moses was very wroth with his people and their officials (Numbers 16:15; 31:14), as was King David (2 Samuel 13:21).
Such wrath among humans does not bother us, especially when the anger is justified. Our problem is with the wrath of God. Somehow we imagine our loving God should not get angry. But there are over a hundred references to the anger and wrath of God in the Old Testament. Wrath is part of any day of the Lord. There are fourteen references to "The great day of the Lord" in the first twenty verses of Zephaniah. And "That day will be a day of wrath, a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation" (Zephaniah 1:14, 15).
Nor does the New Testament avoid such strong language. "Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great ! . . . They will also drink the wine of God's wrath, poured unmixed into the cup of his anger, and they will be tormented with fire and sulphur in the presence of the holy angels and the lamb. And the smoke of their torment goes up for ever and ever" (Revelation 14:8, 10, 11, 19). As in the rest of the book of Revelation, the language is highly symbolic and metaphorical. And it seems that it refers to the wrath that will fall on the City of Rome, as it did on Babylon.
How do we cope with these references to the wrath of our Lord? We begin by noting that the bad consequences of wrath were always in this life. There is not one example in the Old Testament of wrath condemning people to eternal damnation. For Paul's model of the wrath of God see the commentary on Romans 1:16 ff.
But the idea of wrath, even in this life, has disturbing moral problems. In our first three chapters we concluded that the gentle Jesus of the Gospels is also the supreme Judge among nations. An obvious difficulty is that when he intervenes with wrath in a day of the Lord, say in the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, Babylon or Jerusalem, many innocent men, women and children die. The problem of undeserved wrath goes back at least three thousand years (Psalm 73:3-14).
Another problem is to distinguish a direct wrath intervention by the Lord from the ordinary predictable course of events in our world. Some might call AIDS an example of the wrath of God. It certainly has very bad consequences. But do we call it wrath when innocent people die from infected blood ? A mother has an unfaithful husband, and their child gets AIDS.
We also need to distinguish the ordinary bad consequences of unprotected sex, alcoholism, drinking and driving, and child abuse, from consequences assigned directly by the wrath of God.
Job for example was devastated by waves of horrendous disaster (Job 1:13-2:8). Each of these tragedies on their own could have been viewed as a naturally occurring event. But Job has no doubt that this must be a direct intervention of God. "Bold as a lion you hunt me; and you repeat your exploits against me (10:16). He tells his friends that God "has torn me in his wrath, and hated me . . . He slashes open my kidneys, and shows no mercy" (16:9, 13 -14; 19:11).
Though there is no sharp definition of what is, or is not, wrath from the Lord, the prophets had a sense, and most humans have a sense that some events must be ascribed to the direct intervention of God. There is a similar fuzziness in defining what is divine healing, as opposed to ordinary treatment. Sharp definitions belong only to geometry. There is no precision in defining love, joy, or peace; justice, beauty, or goodness. So it is wrong-headed to reject these realities because we cannot give them a scientific definition. The prophets might not know for certain that something was the wrath of God, but in other situations they knew that the imminent intervention was not a mere chance occurrence.
Perhaps more seriously we are disturbed by the savagery of the wrath of God. In the second century Marcion was excommunicated because he rejected the wrathful God of the Old Testament, and tried to retain the loving God of the New Testament. He still has many followers in our present-day churches. And many of them would like to excise the wrath that is so prominent both in the Old Testament and in the visions of the beloved disciple in the last book of the Bible.
Some say we have no business questioning the judgment of the Almighty. Others are glad when wrath catches up on their enemies. "He deserved it." Or, "They began the war, and they had it coming to them." Many are content to be fatalistic. "It is the will of Allah." Or with resigned faith they say "God has given, and God has taken away, blessed be the name of the Lord."
One advantage of being an atheist is that there is no need to defend God's wrath. But if we believe in God, it is important to begin our discussion of wrath with the fact that it was the Creator who invented death. The billions of trees and plants and flowers of the third day of creation all flourish and die (Genesis 1:11-13). The birds and fish of the fifth day live either by eating vegetation or by eating one another. In nature the mammals are "red in tooth and claw." And it is hard to escape the fact that God somehow approves of this, or at least lets it happen. Death is not a problem for God.
What bothers us about death is not the peaceful end of someone who is ready to go in ripe old age after a long creative life. The enormity hits us in the death of a beloved child, the sudden end in a car crash, the loss of a partner, the slowness of a painful death from cancer.
We are also horrified at large numbers being wiped out in an earthquake or atomic explosion or genocide. If God is almighty, are these also expressions of the wrath of God?
Regardless of how death occurs, humans look for an explanation of what happens to us when that moment comes. Some think we are snuffed out for ever. Others picture their soul escaping the body, and returning in another form. Usually they assume that the quality of their soul or real self in this life will govern what they will become. But reincarnation is no ultimate solution. Hindus and Buddhists tend to agree that the real object of our existence must be somehow to escape the constant reincarnations of this miserable world (See article on Reincarnation on this site).
Muslims expect a judgment in which Allah will decide if they are good enough for heaven or deserve to go to hell. For them the object of life is to meet the standards that God requires.
A variant of this vision is that those who get to hear about Jesus Christ, and accept him as their personal Savior, will go to heaven and all others will burn in hell for ever. For those who adopt this view the most important thing in life is to make the right saving decision, and then persuade others to do the same.
Is there any alternative to these unappetizing visions of the meaning of life after wrath or chance has terminated our life on earth?
Instead of beginning with the problem of what happens when our body dies, we could begin with love as the ultimate reality of our universe. This means that we view love as creating and forming matter rather than love emerging from our material bodies. At first sight this seems to deny all that science had taught us. We were told that matter is the one permanent reality. Even the Bible tells us that we are dust of the earth and to dust we must return (Genesis 2:7; 3:19).
But matter might not be as material as we imagined. Materialism was the idea that human love emerges from matter. But then suddenly ninety years ago Einstein persuaded us that matter and energy are interchangeable. All matter is a temporary organization of energy.
This changes the meaning of death. Since every atom of our body is energy, death is a change in the direction of our energies. We might restate the basic fact of life to say that we are energy and to energy we must return.
But in this century another astonishing fact has become common knowledge. Babies who are given all the proper foods, but are deprived of love, tend to die. This suggests that love influences the direction of our life energy. This is obvious when someone falls in love and every atom of his or her face and body becomes radiant by a strange change of chemistry.
When a wilted plant receives the water it needs it revives dramatically. And when a person has wilted through feeling unloved, a sudden experience of being loved has an equally dramatic effect. We also know that love has tremendous healing power. From that fact it is easy to think of love as the most creative thing in the world. We used to talk about the power of mind over matter. Perhaps the world is now ready to think of the power of love over matter.
This vision has already changed our perception of the needs of the dying. They do not want heroic measures to preserve their present organization of matter till it finally disintegrates. They want the freedom to love and to be loved. A Copernican revolution has begun. Love has moved to the center of our universe, and we are ready to try out the astonishing statement that God is love? (1 John 4:16).
What if we took a step beyond Einstein? Love brought energy into being, and energy brought matter into being. In that sense Love is the Artist of our world, and when we love the way God loves we are in the creative image of God.
Christians view Jesus as the perfect expression in life and words of the love of God. He came to invite us into the perfect love that love has in mind for us. He died by crucifixion and rose again. That obviously implies that death is not the end of our loving. The resurrection of our body is the reorganization of our energy to free us to love as perfectly as God loves. With that freedom every atom of our body will be changed infinitely more than a lover is changed by falling in love.
In such a model, having taken it for granted that God is love, we choose to view all wrath consequences as a subsection of the love of God. Or in other words, all the wrath we experience in our world will ultimately have a meaning in the plan to free us for the perfection of God's kind of loving.
From inside the womb of our world we cannot imagine how the Son of God can possibly achieve such an astonishing outcome for the billions of people he intends to save. And we have no proof that he will do so. All we have is the faith to believe that God is both loving and powerful. The alternative is a dismal life without hope that ends for ever in the grave.
Admittedly some die in infancy, and before we imagine they have the opportunity to learn the love of God, but we can trust God to do justly and make sure they are included in his purposes. What of those who are retarded, ignorant, and deprived of the opportunity to understand God's purposes? With C.S. Lewis in The Great Divorce we prefer to say that no one will be in hell who could by any means enjoy the perfect love of heaven.
There is however the strange fact that some people do seem to reject loving and being loved. They go into a hell of their own. In some cases the rejection is temporary till Love can come back into person's life. But what if one deliberately chose the final rejection of Love and being loved? That would result in ultimate death (we could call it darkness) because apart from love humans are awfully dead. It is not the Lord's wrath that destroys them, but part of the awesome freedom we are given. God's love cannot force us into loving.
But if God is love, and wants us to enjoy the perfect love of heaven, where does hell come into the picture? We cannot come to terms with the wrath of God till we have some answer to that question.
In the Bible the word "hell" is a translation of the two Greek words Hades and Gehenna. Hades was the rough equivalent of the Hebrew word sheol which was the ordinary word for "death." They spoke of going down into sheol, the abode of the dead. Unfortunately in the King James Version the word "hell" was often used to translate the word sheol. Modern translations now recognize that it was not eternal damnation that was in view. And in the Apostles' Creed we have corrected the misleading "He descended into hell" to the plain fact that "He descended to the dead."
In the New Testament the other word that is translated "hell" is Gehenna. Gehenna was ge hinnom, the Valley of Hinnom, which used to be the place where garbage was thrown over the east wall of Jerusalem. On wet days the stinking mess was crawling with maggots (see Mark 9:48). On dry days fire from the cinders that were dumped there burned continually (see the unquenchable fire of Mark 9:43).
The references to Gehenna in the Gospels suggested the metaphorical idea of wrath casting us into an eternal Gehenna. And to this day there are preachers who tell us that humanity is under the wrath of God, and this wrath must send them to burn in hell for ever unless they repent and believe the Gospel.
But the very few texts about hell in the New Testament are more easily understood as referring to bad consequences here on earth. Calling someone a fool does not put the person "in danger of hell fire" in an eternal sense (See commentary on Matthew 5:22). It was even worse than murderous anger and writing the person off with "raca."
Looking lustfully is like the right eye of an archer focussed on a victim, and the right hand pulling back the bowstring . Better turn your eye away and take your hand off the string. "It is better for you to lose one of your members than for your whole body to be thrown into hell (Gehenna: Matthew 5:28-30; 18:8-9; Mark 9:43-45). This does not mean that the result of lust is burning in hell for ever. Jesus is saying that adultery has terrible consequences in the here and now (as in Proverbs 6:26, 32-35; 7:23).
Jesus used startling metaphorical language to say "You snakes, you brood of vipers! How can you escape being sentenced to hell?" (Matthew 23:33). This was in the context of the fiery destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in that generation (verse 36). Within forty years, those who failed to flee from Jerusalem and its religious establishment (Matthew 21:40-41; 24:15-22; Mark 13:14-19) would suffer the wrath of the Lord's coming to destroy that city. There is no need to be anti-Semitic and assume that all Pharisees deserve eternal damnation.
Nor does Jesus warn us, as we serve him, that Satan can destroy us in an eternal sense. Satan can stir people to kill our bodies, and by torture even destroy us as persons here on earth, but the devil has no say in our ultimate life after death (Matthew 10:28. The variant readings in Luke 12:5 suggest a corruption of our text to introduce the false idea of Satan's power "after" our physical death).
There are three metaphorical references to "outer darkness." The first refers to people of all nations coming to eat in the kingdom of heaven, and the Jewish "heirs of the kingdom" being excluded (Matthew 8:12). That actually happened in the first century.
Another is in the Parable of the Wedding Banquet where one guest is thrown out from the reception into the darkness outside for being improperly dressed (Matthew 22:3). This parable must have another meaning, but the outer darkness in the story is something that happens in this life.
The third reference to outer darkness describes the fate of the servant who failed to invest the talent he was given and buried his talent in the ground. The consequences of added responsibility for the servants, who did well, were here on earth. This suggests that the consequences of failing to use what we are given is the metaphorical darkness of having no creative function in this life (25:30). In each case, as in the Old Testament, the wrath consequences are here on earth. Surely Jesus wasn't suggesting that all of us who fail to use the talents God has given us will end up in eternal damnation?
There is a text about the wrath on nations that fail as nations to care for the poor and needy (Matthew 25:32, 41, 46; Jude 7). It tells us nothing about the heart of individual citizens (see the distinction in Genesis 18:25-32). Or do we want to say that all of us who fail to care for the poor and needy in our world are sent to hell?
Even if we add two other problematic texts (Matthew 23:15; James 3:6) there is very little in the New Testament to support the theory of being condemned to eternal punishment in hell. If escaping from eternal damnation was at all important in Jesus' preaching, surely it would have been reflected in the Gospels. The picture of burning in the fires of hell is found in Augustine's The City of God (413-426 AD). The torments of the damned are pictured in Dante's Divine Comedy (about 1300 AD). And until recently the idea continued to be part of both Roman Catholic and Protestant theology. It is still the point of hundreds of popular jokes about earning heaven or deserving hell. But it is a doctrine that has no place in the Apostles' or Nicene Creed.
That God condemns people to hell is an essential part of an Islamic model, but hardly fits our Trinitarian Theism. An alternative called Creative Love Theism is set out in Clark Pinnock and Robert Brow, Unbounded Love: A Good News Theology for the 21st. Century (InterVarsity, 1994, p.8 ff.).
As we noted in the previous chapter, our eternal destiny is based on our heart longing, not our good or bad performance (John 3:17-21). And we have already seen that this text does not in any way deny the possibility of eternal death and separation from the love of God. What is denied is that it is God who sends people to hell (see the argument developed in God of Many Names).
Many preachers will object that such a model removes the sense of urgency from our missions. In the past hundred years men and women have gone out heroically to get the heathen to make an individual decision for Christ before they die under the wrath of God. But there is no evidence of this motivation in the work of Jesus himself, or his instructions to the disciples.
In our model the sense of urgency is that the Lord has commissioned us to teach his good news to all nations. Paul's sense of urgency was based on a great longing to plant churches in all the main cities from Jerusalem to present day Croatia (Romans 15:18-24). And these churches were left to teach and make visible the love of God in the surrounding country (Acts 11:25-26). Church planting and steady teaching produces long-term fruits which never appear from the work of those rush around trying to get as many people to make a decision as possible.
Another motive for urgency in our mission is often suggested: the Lord cannot come until all people have been evangelized. But in the model that has emerged the Lord came in the fall of Jerusalem, and he has come to intervene again and again in days of the Lord in all nations ever since. If wrath is an essential part of the reigning interventions of the Lord, it makes no sense to talk about saving people from the wrath of God
This long digression about hell and eternal consequences was necessary to assure ourselves that in Isaiah and the Old Testament, as well as in the New Testament, wrath never refers to eternal damnation. Wrath is the assignment of bad consequences for nations, and in some cases individuals, here on earth. But if God really loves us, then sudden death in war, or in a massive disaster, makes no difference to the ultimate outcome. And even if a person's death, or a million persons' death, seems unjust or undeserved, we cannot say that the love of God has failed till we know the end of the story.
But does God's wrath need to be as cruel as the destruction of Babylon? "Wail, for the day of the Lord is near . . . See, the day of the Lord comes, cruel, with wrath and fierce anger" (Isaiah 13:6-9). For us the words cruel, wrath, and fierce anger, seem incompatible with genuine love.
But that is only from our point of view. In the mind of their children loving parents often seem to be cruel. Being spanked for running across a busy street seems a strange way to love. Being forced to go to the dentist, or to lie down on the operating table, is to a child terrible cruelty. We use the expression "You have to be cruel to be kind." We also approve the wrath of loving parents when they see their children tip over the wheelchair of an invalid, call another child retarded, throw rocks through the neighbour's window, or tie up and torture the cat.
Wrath can therefore be an expression of genuine love, but only if we are sure the ultimate outcome is loving, and the pain inflicted is no more than the outcome requires. Because we do not see the ultimate outcome, we inevitably question whether God has a right to use what seems to us very bad means for his very good end.
There is no way for us to evaluate whether the Lord's wrath is more severe than the good end that he intends for us. But in the next chapter we can try to get a clearer vision of the very good end that the Lord has for his kingdom. And when that becomes clear, wrath might seem a more acceptable medicine for our ultimate healing.