In Tuesday’s Mass there was a reference to the wrath of God: The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness (Romans 1:18).
What is God’s wrath? It is spoken of often in Scripture but is a concept with which we must be careful. On the one hand, we cannot simply dismiss it as contrary to the fact that God is love, but on the other, we cannot deny that God’s wrath is unfit in terms of His love.
Let’s consider some aspects of the complex reality of the wrath of God. There is not enough space to cover the topic fully in a single post, so I welcome your additions and subtractions in the comments section, as always.
The wrath of God is not merely an Old Testament concept. In fact, it is mentioned quite frequently in the New Testament as well. Here are a few of the many New Testament passages:
Jesus said, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains upon him” (John 3:36).
Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath, for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord (Rom 12:19).
Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things [e.g., immorality] God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient (Ephesians 5:6).
For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 5:9).
The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great winepress of God’s wrath (Revelation 14:19).
Clearly, the “wrath of God” is not some ancient or primitive concept with which the New Testament has dispensed. Notice also that the wrath of God is not something reserved for the end of the world; it is spoken of as already operative in certain people.
What is God’s wrath, and how can we reconcile it with His love? Consider these explanations. Taken together, they can lead us to an overall understanding.
God’s wrath is His passion to set things right. We see an example of this right at the beginning, in Genesis, when God cursed Satan and uttered the protoevangelium: I will make you and the woman enemies … one of her seed will crush your head while you strike at his heel (Genesis 3:15). God is clearly angered at what sin has done to Adam and Eve, and He continues to have anger whenever He beholds sin and injustice. He has a passion for our holiness. He wants what is best for us and is angered by what hinders this. All sins provoke His wrath, but there are five that especially cry out to Heaven for vengeance: willful murder (Gen 4:10), the sin of the Sodomites (Gen 18:20, 19:13), the cry of the oppressed (Exodus 3:7-10); the cry of the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan (Ex 20:20-22), and injustice to the wage earner (Deuteronomy 24:14-5, James 5:4, Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1867). In terms of sin, injustice, and anything that hinders the possibility of salvation, God has a wrathful indignation and a passion to set things right. This is part of His love for us. His wrath may be manifested through punishment, disturbance of our conscience, or simply by allowing us to experience the consequences of our sin.
God’s wrath is not like our anger. In saying that God is angry we ought to be careful to understand that however God experiences anger (or any passion), it is not tainted by sin. God is not angry in the way that we are. When we get angry, we often lose control, saying and doing things that are excessive if not downright sinful. It cannot pertain to God to have temper tantrums, fly off the handle, or lash out unreasonably. The way God does experience anger is not something we can fully understand but it is surely a sovereign and serene act of His will, not an out-of-control emotion.
God is not moody. It does not pertain to God to have good days and bad days, good moods and bad ones. Scripture seems clear enough that God does not change. Consider this from the Book of James: Every good and perfect gift comes from above, from the Father of lights, in whom there is no variableness or shadow of turning (James 1:17). Hence, God’s wrath does not represent Him suddenly getting fed up, or His temper flaring, or His mood souring. He does not change; He is not variable.
God’s wrath is our experience of the total incompatibility of our sinful state before the holiness of God. Sin and God’s holiness just don’t mix; they can’t keep company. Think of fire and water; they cannot coexist in the same place. Bring them together and you can hear the conflict. Think of a small amount of water poured into a large fire: the water droplets sizzle and pop; steam rises as the water boils away. If there is a lot of water, the fire is overwhelmed and extinguished. The point is that they cannot coexist; they will conflict, and one will win. This is God’s wrath: the complete incompatibility of two things, sin and His utter holiness. We must be purified before entering His presence, otherwise we could not tolerate His glory. We would wail and grind our teeth, turning away in horror. The wrath is the conflict between our sin and God’s holiness. God cannot and will not change, so we must be changed or else we will experience wrath.
The primary location of God’s wrath is not in Him; it is in us. God does not change; He is holy and serene; He is love. If we experience His wrath it is on account of us, not Him.
It is we who change, not God, and this causes wrath to be experienced or not.
Consider the following example. On the ceiling of my bedroom is a fixture with a 100-watt light bulb. Before bed at night, I delight in the light; I become accustomed to it. At bedtime, I turn off the light and go to sleep. When I awake it is still dark, and I turn on the light. Now now it seems too bright, and I curse it. Obviously, the light itself has not changed; it is just as bright in the early morning hours as it was the previous evening. The light is the same, but I have changed. Yet do you know what I do? I blame the light, saying, “That light is so harsh!” The light is not any harsher than it was the night before when I was perfectly happy with it. Now that I have changed, I experience its “wrath,” but the wrath is really in me.
Now consider the experience of the ancient family of man with God. Adam and Eve walked with God in the cool of the evening when the dew collected on the grass (cf Gen 3:8). They had a warm friendship with Him and did not fear His presence. After sinning, they hid. Had God changed? No, they had. They now experienced Him very differently.
Fast forward to another theophany. God had come to Mt Sinai, and as He descended the people were terrified, for there were peals of thunder, lightning, clouds, and the blast of a trumpet. The people told Moses, “You speak to us, and we will listen, but let not God speak to us, else we will die” (Ex 20:19). God, too, warned Moses that the people could not get close lest His wrath be vented upon them (Ex 19:20-25). Had God changed? No, He was the same God who had walked with Adam and Eve in the cool of the evening in a most intimate way. It was we who had changed. We had lost the holiness without which no one can see the Lord (Heb 12:14). The same God, unchanged though He was, now seemed frightening and wrathful.
What, then, shall we do? If we can allow the image of fire to remain before us, we may well find a hopeful sign in God’s providence. If God is a holy fire, a consuming fire (cf Heb 12:26; Is 33:14), how can we possibly come into His presence? How can we avoid the wrath that would destroy us? Well, what is the only thing that survives in the presence of fire? Fire! It looks as if we’d better become fire if we want to see God. He sent tongues of fire upon the apostles and upon us at our Confirmation. God wants to set us on fire with the Holy Spirit in holiness. He wants to bring us up to the temperature of glory so that we can stand in His presence.
See, I will send my messenger, who will prepare the way before me. Then suddenly the Lord you are seeking will come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant, whom you desire, will come, says the LORD Almighty. But who can endure the day of his coming? Who can stand when he appears? For he will be like a refiner’s fire or a launderer’s soap. He will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver; he will purify the Levites and refine them like gold and silver. Then the LORD will have men who will bring offerings in righteousness, and the offerings of Judah and Jerusalem will be acceptable to the LORD, as in days gone by, as in former years (Mal 3:1-4).
Indeed, Jesus has now come: For you have turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath (1 Thess 1:10-11).
So, there is a “wrath of God,” and it is more in us than it is in Him. I will not claim that there is no wrath in God. Scripture seems clear that wrath does pertain to God’s inner life. What exactly it is and how He experiences it is a mystery to us. We can say to some extent what it is not, but we cannot really say what it is exactly. A far richer point to meditate is that the wrath of God is essentially in us. It is our experience of the incompatibility of sin before God. We must be washed clean in the Blood of the Lamb and purified. Most of us will need purification in Purgatory, too. However, if we let the Lord work His saving work, we will be saved from the wrath, for we are made holy and set on fire with His love—and fire doesn’t fear the presence of fire. God is love, but He will not change; His love must change us.
One of the greatest cinematic depictions of the wrath of God occurred in the movie Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Nazis sinfully think they can open the Ark and withstand the presence of God; what they get, however, is His wrath, for sin cannot endure the reality of His presence. “Enjoy” this clip: