A Consideration of the Focus of God’s Wrath (or Anger)

The painting above is John Martin’s, Great Day of His Wrath. (It hangs in the Tate Gallery in London.)

A while back, in a Sunday service, I mentioned that my perspective of God’s wrath is that it has more to do with God’s longing than with God’s anger. This perspective elicited a disagreeing comment by someone who was there. Following is my attempt to articulate my thinking in this area. I am not insisting that I am right, only passing on to you my current thinking in this area…
“Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient” (Eph 5:6, emphasis added).
The word orgē (Greek: ὀργή) is used approximately 36 times in the New Testament; twenty-one times in Paul’s writings, six times in Revelation, and only occasionally in the Gospels.[1] In his letter to the church at Ephesus, Paul uses orgē three times (2:3; 4:31; 5:6).

Biblical hermeneutics is the art and science of biblical interpretation and is perhaps summarized best by 2 Timothy 2:15,

“Be diligent to present yourself approved to God, a worker who does not need to be ashamed, rightly dividing the word of truth.”

Biblical hermeneutics is art because it calls for nuance and craft and science because it demands technique and skill. There are accepted academic rules to follow and one of those rules states that a verse or passage must be interpreted:
  • Historically,
  • Grammatically, and
  • Contextually.
Historical interpretation refers to understanding the culture, background, and situation, which prompted the text. Grammatical interpretation is recognizing the rules of grammar and nuances of the Hebrew and Greek languages and applying those principles to the understanding of a passage. Contextual interpretation involves always taking the surrounding context of a verse/passage into consideration when trying to determine the meaning.

In Paul’s letter (epistle) to the Ephesians he was probably writing primarily to Christ-following Gentiles, or Greeks — and not Jews. (Ephesus was ranked with Rome, Corinth, Antioch, and Alexandria as the foremost urban centers of the Roman Empire.) In writing to Gentiles, Paul, as a well educated rabbi and also a citizen of Rome was, no doubt, aware that in the Rhetoric,[2] Aristotle defined wrath (orgē) as, “a longing, accompanied by pain…”[3]  Aristotle additionally ascribed value to wrath (or anger) that has arisen from perceived injustice because it is useful for preventing injustice.[4]

Misconceptions of the wrath of God have led to a false picture of God. One such is reading into the phrase “wrath of God” the idea of a “wrathful” or “angry” God. Here God is often seen as stern and cruel, a mean Judge who loves to revenge and punish humankind whenever there is an opportunity to do so, and at times even does so arbitrarily. Such a picture of God, however, is a grave distortion of God’s character and often leads to unhealthy fear or reward-motivated obedience — disconnected from love.

The Old Testament certainly states that opposition to God’s will results in God’s anger. In reference to anger, the Jewish Encyclopedia[5] states: God is not an intellectual abstraction, nor is He conceived as a being indifferent to the doings of man; and His pure and lofty nature resents most energetically anything wrong and impure in the moral world. Christ-followers also subscribe to the perspective of God’s holiness and anger welling up in the sight of evil and this anger is not inconsistent with God’s love. We also believe that the wrath of God comes upon those who reject Jesus.

Yet, could this wrath (or anger) of God be focused more on the effects of sin than on the sinner? In Romans 1:18 Paul states, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.” Could this be speaking of the longing and pain that God has for people to repent of their godlessness and wickedness?

The totality of Scripture makes it very clear that the wrath of God is not the last horizon. God is love (1 John 4:16). God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but is pleased when they turn from their sinful ways and live (Ezekiel 18:23). God wants all to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the saving truth (1 Tim. 2:4-6). Reconciliation has its starting point in Christ. God wants the world to be reconciled with him, both in and through him (2 Cor. 5:18-21; Rom. 5:8-11). God does not desire revengeful punishment. Within the context of biblical judgment, divine wrath is not an expression of a despotic deity, but a just and legitimate reaction against the effects (or, sinfulness) of sin. God’s wrath is aroused against sin, because sin is a rebellion against God’s nature and character. But even in God’s wrath mercy is remembered (Is. 54:7, 8).

The ultimate test of biblical scholarship is whether it serves effectively to equip God’s people for discipleship. The essentials of the Christian faith include: 
  • The authority of Scripture
  • The existence of a Triune God
  • Humankind is a physical and spiritual being who is created in God’s image
  • Jesus Christ is by God’s grace, was born of a virgin, is fully God and fully man, died for our sins, physically rose from the dead, will one day return to judge the world and fully deliver his people, and was sent to save us from our bondage to sin
  • Faith in Christ is the only means by which humankind can escape eternal judgment
  • The church as God’s ordained institution headed by Christ, composed of all believers, and organized for the furtherance of the kingdom of God.
In the essentials of the Christian faith, we must have unity (Eph. 4:4-6); in the non-essentials of the faith, we embrace diversity (Rom. 14:1-6); in all matters of faith, we seek to have charity (1 Cor. 13:1-3).[6]

The focus of God’s wrath, or anger, is not – by my understanding – an essential of the Christian faith. Respectful, honest dialogue will help us to refine our faith…

What are your thoughts??

[1] Brown, Dictionary of NT Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1967), p. 110
[2] Rhetoric is an ancient Greek treatise on the art of persuasion, dating from the fourth century BC.
[3] 1378a
[4] According to Aristotle: “The person who is angry at the right things and toward the right people, and also in the right way, at the right time and for the right length of time is morally praiseworthy.” cf. Paul M. Hughes, Anger, Encyclopedia of Ethics, Vol I, Second Edition, Rutledge Press
[6] The History of the Christian Church, by Philip Schaff. In Volume VII, Modern Christianity, The German Reformation, Schaff writes: “This famous motto of Christian Irenics, which I have slightly modified in the text, is often falsely attributed to St. Augustin (whose creed would not allow it, though his heart might have approved of it), but is of much later origin. It appears for the first time in Germany, a.d. 1627 and 1628, among peaceful divines of the Lutheran and German Reformed churches, and found a hearty welcome among moderate divines in England…The authorship has recently been traced to Rupertus Meldenius, an otherwise unknown divine, and author of a remarkable tract in which the sentence first occurs. He gave classical expression to the irenic sentiments of such divines as Calixtus of Helmstädt, David Pareus of Heidelberg, Crocius of Marburg, John Valentin Andrew of Wuerttemberg, John Arnd of Zelle, Georg Frank of Francfort-on-the Oder, the brothers Bergius in Brandenburg, and of the indefatigable traveling evangelist of Christian union, John Dury, and Richard Baxter.”

8 thoughts on “A Consideration of the Focus of God’s Wrath (or Anger)

  1. Gregg is right that God wants to woo people to himself. However, the word “orge” has nothing to do with that. Of course, God wishes that no man would perish but have everlasting life.

    The problem is when you define the “wrath of God” as a wooing, that is when you have trouble.

    People talk about the OT God vs the NT God. Actually, they are the same. God judged Israel as a nation. Now He judges believers individually.

    God is the same person/entity as he was in the past.

    There were times where God didn’t want to give mercy to a nation that Israel was attacking.

    So, the conundrum is this. God is holy, JUST & loving. It can seem paradoxical at times, but just because we don’t fully understand it, doesn’t mean that we can leave out one of God’s character attributes.

  2. Great insights and perspective Philip. I would be in agreement with all you wrote. Thanks very much. My stated perspective would certainly not be in opposition to yours – possibly in addition to yours.

  3. what about God’s killing everyone in Sodom? And wiping out everyone except Noah? These stories point more to a wrathful God than to a loving one. I can’t imagine Jesus choosing to kill all the Pharisees and Sadduccees. Please help me understand.

  4. Hebrews 13:8, says,”Jesus is the same, yesterday, today & forever.” So, the pre-incarnate Christ was alive & well before he became the son of Mary.

    There are a couple of things one must note about the Old Testament. One, God was dealing with Israel’s sin. He wasn’t dealing with it on an individual basis.

    Two, the law was meant to show us our sin. Paul talks about it in Romans how the law convicts us of our sin but doesn’t help us out of it!

    Read Jeremiah 31:31-34. God had promised thru Jeremiah 586 years before Christ’s birth that there would be a new covenant (agreement).

    If you look at v30, do you see that God is telling Jeremiah that people will be responsible for their own sin?

    Rd John 1:17. It is God’s unmerited favor which we get now. He doesn’t want to zap us when he gets mad. Instead he wants us to change our attitude & behavior & seek Him

    First seek the Kingdom of God & its righteousness, then all of these things will be given to you.

    Now we have a loving Father we can go to because Jesus substituted himself on the cross for our sin. God’s condemnation for sin has been satisfied.

  5. Great question Christine! There’s no question that God has a standard of holiness. Jesus has bridged the gap and now we have access to the presence of God through faith in him. (We are saved by grace through faith – check out Eph 2:4-6.) And you’re right, everything changes with the coming of Jesus – his message is subversive and changes people from the inside out. No more need to match the standard of the Old Testament. Think of the OT like it’s a dentist’s mirror – it can point out decay, but can’t do anything about it. Jesus has done the work.

  6. Gregg, I feel like you’re trying to soften the blow.

    You ask: “Yet, could this wrath (or anger) of God be focused more on the effects of sin than on the sinner? In Romans 1:18 Paul states, “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness.” Could this be speaking of the longing and pain that God has for people to repent of their godlessness and wickedness?”

    Aristotle may define it like that, but apparently, it’s meaning in New Testament Koine Greek is what we’re accustomed to thinking:
    1. anger, the natural disposition, temper, character
    2. movement or agitation of the soul, impulse, desire, any violent emotion, but esp. anger
    3. anger, wrath, indignation
    4. anger exhibited in punishment, hence used for punishment itself
    1. of punishments inflicted by magistrates
    (from http://www.studylight.org)

    Doing a search on the word, I find the following relevant entries:

    # John 3:36
    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.

    This sounds like wrath on a person, not on their sin.

    # Romans 2:5
    But because of your hard and impenitent heart you are storing up wrath for yourself on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed.
    # Romans 2:8
    but for those who are self-seeking and do not obey the truth, but obey unrighteousness, there will be wrath and fury.
    Again, wrath on the person. Sounds pretty bad.
    # Romans 3:5
    But if our unrighteousness serves to show the righteousness of God, what shall we say? That God is unrighteous to inflict wrath on us? ( I speak in a human way.)

    Again wrath on a person.
    # Romans 5:9
    Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God.

    This says to me that it’s not good to be under the wrath of God.
    # Romans 9:22
    What if God, desiring to show his wrath and to make known his power, has endured with much patience vessels of wrath prepared for destruction,
    # Ephesians 2:3
    among whom we all once lived in the passions of our flesh, carrying out the desires of the body and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, like the rest of mankind.
    # Ephesians 5:6
    Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of these things the wrath of God comes upon the sons of disobedience.
    # Colossians 3:6
    For which things’ sake the wrath of God cometh on the children of disobedience:
    # 1 Thessalonians 1:10
    and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead, Jesus who delivers us from the wrath to come.

    Again, sounds like a good thing to be out from under God’s wrath, which is directed at people, not just sin.

    So, do you think that God’s wrath is an intense longing, and is directed at sin? That’s where your logic is taking you if you carry it out. I believe that Scripture does not support either. Yes, the wrath may be at the sin but that’s not the main point of the wrath passages in Scripture. God may have great pain at those who rebel against Him, but it doesn’t remove the fact that His wrath is directed at them, and that that’s not a good place to be. We were enemies (Romans 5:10).

    You can believe in the wrath of God directed at sinners, and also a loving God who sent His Son Jesus to take the guilt, penalty, and effects of sin on Himself, for His Church. That’s a both/and I can live with.

  7. John – I don’t disagree with anything you said. I’m just trying to advocate for God’s longing in his wrath. Common or not, I can’t help but think that Paul, educated as he was, was well acquainted with Aristotle’s definition of wrath – and that he may have used it on purpose.

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