God’s wrath is commonly understood to be God’s angry reactions to the sins of His children. These reactions are often understood to be violent reactions that cause injury or death.
Since we know that God is a God of love, and we know that love cannot be secured with coercion or threats, how do we reconcile the common belief about God’s wrath with what we know about God’s character?
Just like the confusion regarding fearing God, there has been a purposeful attempt to confuse the meaning of God’s wrath.
An enemy has sowed seeds of lies into the minds of humankind, and we have believed them, reaping pain, suffering, and death. Thankfully, Jesus came to show us the truth! God is not an angry, vindictive, arbitrary dictator, but a loving Father, Best Friend, and Doctor who wants us to experience peace and joy in paradise forever.
So, let us dig into the Bible to see what it says about God’s wrath.
In the Garden of Eden, God gave Adam and Eve a warning: Do not eat from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil or you will die.
This was not a threat borne of anger. It was a warning issued in love.
God was not threatening to kill the human couple, evidenced by the fact that He never did kill them. He was warning them of a dire consequence of losing their trust in Him and, thereby, turning their backs on Him, the source of life.
Ultimately, they died, just like God foretold.
The Example of Israel
Loving parents sometimes resort to threats of violence to save their children from imminent danger. For example, a mother might shout threats of violence to a child who is headed toward a busy highway. This is only to get the child to change direction to avoid being destroyed! Once the child is safe, however, the parent comforts the child, instructs them of the danger, and restores them on a path of safety.
What happens if the child does not heed the warning and continues into the path of oncoming traffic? He suffers significant injury and probably death. The child has suffered the consequences of his own actions.
In the Bible, when God spoke threats of violence toward Israel, it was the same thing. He was attempting to reach a stubborn people to get them to change their course so they would not suffer and die. Many times, however, Israel did not listen. What did God do in those cases? Did He follow through with the threatened violence?
For a fire will be kindled by my wrath, one that burns down to the realm of the dead below. It will devour the earth and its harvests and set afire the foundations of the mountains.Deuteronomy 32:22 (NIV)
God is threatening Israel with punishing violence. Then He makes a clarification:
They are a nation without sense, there is no discernment in them. If only they were wise and would understand this and discern what their end will be! How could one man chase a thousand, or two put ten thousand to flight, unless their Rock had sold them, unless the Lord had given them up?Deuteronomy 32:29, 30 (NIV)
In those times when God’s attempts to redirect or restore Israel did not work, God “gives them up.” God will never coerce and never force. He uses threats only to convince someone to turn away from destruction.
A relationship with God must always be chosen. When someone rejects God, by the nature of His love, He must set them free.
God set Israel free when they persisted in their rebellious course. Israel had made their choice: a life separate from the source of life, a life lived contrary to the law of love. At that point, God let them go to reap the consequences of their choices.
He stopped interceding on their behalf. He removed His protection, and the Babylonians destroyed Jerusalem.
Notice, the Babylonians, not God, destroyed Israel.
Over and over, the Bible shows us that God’s wrath is His letting people go to experience the consequences of their choices.
And in that day I will become angry with them and forsake them; I will hide my face from them, and they will be destroyed. Many disasters and calamities will come on them, and in that day they will ask, ‘Have not these disasters come on us because our God is not with us?’Deuteronomy 31:17 (NIV)
In the book of Romans in the New Testament, Paul tells us people experience the “wrath of God” after they persistently reject God, they refuse to accept the knowledge of Him, and they prefer their own way over God’s.
But God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness… instead of worshiping the glorious, ever-living God, they worshiped idols made to look like mere people and birds and animals and reptiles. So God abandoned them to do whatever shameful things their hearts desired… they worshiped and served the things God created instead of the Creator himself, who is worthy of eternal praise! Amen. That is why God abandoned them to their shameful desires… Since they thought it foolish to acknowledge God, he abandoned them to their foolish thinking and let them do things that should never be done.Romans 1:18–28 (NLT)
Jesus suffered God’s wrath when He was being murdered on the cross.
At about three o’clock, Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” which means “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?”Matthew 27:46 (NLT)
Jesus here cries out to His father, asking why the Father has abandoned Him. Notice, He did not ask, “Why are you killing me?”
When we hear the word “wrath,” we tend to think of punishing anger. That is human wrath.
God’s wrath is not like human wrath.
God’s wrath is letting one go who refuses to remain. And whenever God lets you go, you are truly gone.