The Bible is replete with references to the word “wrath” (and its derivatives) including, of course, the wrath of God. In fact, the Bible contains over 200 references to wrath, making it a major theme throughout the Bible—in both the Old and New Testaments.
By definition in American English, “wrath” is “intense anger; rage; fury.” The Bible’s definition of human wrath is similar. But when the Bible defines God’s wrath there is a great difference. Since God is infinite, eternal, and unchangeable, wrath as it applies to God is a figure of speech—an anthropopathism (attributing human feelings and emotions to God; God does not really become angry; He only appears to do so from the standpoint of humans. God’s basic character and nature is that He is altogether good and absolutely everything He does is good (Psalm 119: 68, and many other biblical references).
Here’s a simple illustration of what I’m attempting to say. Because He is unchangeable, God cannot “feel” loving, gracious, and kind toward me one moment, and then the next moment (because of something “bad” I have done) feel intense anger, rage, and fury towards me. That’s simply not the unchanging nature and character of God. His unchanging nature and character is that He is good. He cannot become angry as humans do.
The real issue is not whether God dispenses or pours out his wrath upon humans; the real issue is what is God’s wrath—what constitutes God’s wrath. That is the issue: what is the wrath of God and how does it “work”? I will attempt to answer that in this teaching, but bear in mind I am a fallible human and don’t know all the answers; in fact, I don’t even know all the questions. My knowledge about God and the way He works among humans is very incomplete. However, I have studied this subject for many years, and I feel that gives me a measure of understanding. This is the first teaching I have presented about God’s wrath.
Through those many years that I have wrestled with what the Bible teaches about God’s wrath, I have arrived at two basic conclusions upon which this teaching you are reading is based; I have not arrived at these conclusions easily or hastily because they seem to contradict much of what is taught by Bible scholars throughout the western Church, but I must be true to my own studies. Here are those two conclusions or premises:
- God’s wrath toward humans must always be seen in the light of the clear biblical teaching about apokatastasis, God’s final restoration and reconciliation of everything—including all humanity—to Himself.
- God’s wrath toward humans is ultimately to destroy what’s destroying us.
If those two conclusions are kept in mind as anyone studies God’s wrath throughout the Bible, a very clear understanding will emerge, but it will fly in the face of much western biblical scholarship.
Another matter about God’s wrath that emerges from studying and discussing the matter with many other people through the years is this: for whatever reason, most people hold to a traditional view of God’s wrath being like human wrath because something in us wants “bad” people to get “what’s coming to them.” Most people do not want bad people to get away without punishment for their bad behavior and deeds. We humans want vengeance. We want to believe that God will ultimately punish people and pour out his wrath on them for evil, sinful behavior. That feeling seems to be pretty basic to the thinking and feelings of most humans.
Before beginning to examine specific references in the Bible about God’s wrath, there is a little-known matter about God’s wrath as revealed in the Bible that is often overlooked by Bible scholars and theologians. I will address that matter for a few paragraphs. It goes something like this. Before God chose and selected Abraham and the tribes of Israel to represent Him on earth with monotheism (belief in one Supreme God), most of the tribes, people-groups and nations on earth were polytheistic (belief in many gods) and some were pantheistic (belief that God is not a person, but, rather, the universe is God).
Polytheism and pantheism were prevalent among almost all earth’s human inhabitants almost from the dawn of human history until “civilization” began. One of the few exceptions to that prevalent view was in ancient China or Sinim. The pre-civilized world consisted largely of tribal groups gathered in villages or small city-states immersed in polytheism. Numerous local gods (most often displayed and worshipped in homes and centers of worship as countless hand-made idols) ruled all of life. A personal relationship with the gods was not considered possible—only some means of appeasing them, often by human sacrifices, including infants. One’s relationship with the gods was only as a member of the tribe. The gods were impersonal—often “mean” and evil—beings who ruled all of life without regard to individuals.
In those ancient polytheistic systems, individuals could not conceive of themselves as individuals outside of the tribal or city-state system. While part of the tribe or city-state, one was only a tribal member, with duties to one’s tribal gods, nothing outside the tribe. This was why exile from the tribe was the worst possible punishment. It was worse than death because the exiled one was cut off from the local gods as well. Such exile or banishment was considered to be the wrath of the gods upon the banished individual.
Often, people from other tribes were not even considered part of the same species. To enslave or kill a member of another tribe was to kill another species. One did not seek to kill individuals from another tribe, but to slaughter the entire tribe—men, women, and children; this was considered to be the wrath of the gods. What existed was the tribe, not individuals within the tribe. One’s tribe was “human”; other tribes were not.
With that in mind, it’s somewhat easier to understand the mentality of many of the incidents in the Old Testament when God would summon one tribe or people-group to slaughter another entire tribe, including men, women and children. This understanding does not explain why God would do that (or excuse God), but it helps to understand the context, mind-set, and milieu in which such events occurred.
Also, when one understands the biblical teaching of apokatastasis, one then realizes that all the people slaughtered throughout the Old Testament are not doomed forever, but will one day be restored and reconciled to God in ages to come and in his Kingdom. I’m not suggesting that excuses all the slaughter and bloodshed in the Old Testament ordered by God, only that such understanding serves to help us comprehend that was not the final end of things for all those men, women and children who were slaughtered. I am not making excuses for God.
Look at it this way, too. Today we would label all those killings in the Old Testament ordered by God as genocide and condemn them as war crimes. Remember such genocide took place a long, long time ago before the time of Jesus when very little was understood about God’s true character and nature, when human life had little or no value. When the mind-set and culture of people was all about death and dying. Killing, death, and dying—sometimes in horrible ways—was simply what most people believed in and practiced in those ancient times. It was simply a given that one tribe was to enslave or kill other tribes.
As horrible as such scenarios were, one answer might be that God ordered them killed in order to spare them from further degradation, abomination, and depravity—from further evil and horror, and even more brutal and vicious killings had they been allowed to live a lifetime of slavery when they had no worth as humans or as individuals. What is best? A quick death or a lifetime of brutal slavery and degradation? These are merely some additional thoughts to address the issue of God pouring out his wrath on people by ordering them slaughtered. They are not intended to be complete and full answers to such matters. I suggest them only as more “food for thought.” I’m not certain that even in Eternal Realms will we have full and complete answers to such matters.
Let’s now begin to examine some of the biblical references about God’s wrath, simply to get a feel for what it’s all about; there are many such references. I will select only a relatively few that are most representative of all those many references. I mentioned earlier that there are approximately 200 references in the Bible about wrath—both human wrath and God’s wrath. Let’s examine some of the representative references about God’s wrath and see if we can arrive at a conclusion about what God’s wrath is and how it works.
The first biblical mention of God’s wrath is found in the second book of the Bible (Exodus), chapter 15, verse 7. It is in a song Moses and the recently freed Israelites sang to God, praising Him for freeing them from their bondage by the Egyptians. They sang: “In the greatness of your majesty You overthrow those rising against You. You send forth your wrath and consume them like stubble.” (The Amplified Bible). This description of God’s wrath seems to be consistent with the generally accepted view of God’s wrath toward humans.
Let’s read on. In Numbers 25: 11, we read of an incident where the actions of one of the Israelites turned back the wrath of God by his actions to stop some of God’s people from worshipping other gods. That holds true today: God’s people can still turn back the wrath of God by prayer and righteous actions. A similar incident is recorded in 2 Chronicles 12: 7: when some of God’s people humbled themselves God wrath was stopped. Another such incident is found in 2 Chronicles 29: 10 when one of Israel’s kings—Hezekiah—turned away God’s wrath by making a covenant with God. The point of these 3 incidents in the Old Testament is that God’s wrath is not necessarily fixed; his wrath can be turned away or stopped by righteous actions, prayer, and humility.
Isaiah 66: 10 speaks of God’s wrath striking people, but accompanied (or followed?) by God’s mercy and favor. Nahum 1: 2 tells us that God reserves his wrath for his enemies. Habakkuk 3: 2 tells us that while the wrath of God is being poured out, He remembers his mercy.
Those, then, are merely a tiny smattering of Old Testament references about God’s wrath. Such a smattering of only a few references doesn’t really answer any questions about the wrath of God—or resolve any issues about his wrath, but merely sheds a little different light on the wrath of God in the Old Testament. Many legitimate questions remain about God’s wrath.
Through the years I’ve often taught that the Old Testament is the New Testament concealed and the New Testament is the Old Testament Revealed.
We now turn to the New Testament to shed further light upon what God’s wrath is and how it works. Much of what the New Testament teaches about the wrath of God can be found in the book of Romans, specifically the first chapter. In fact, it could be stated that the first chapter of Romans is God’s summary statement about his wrath and how it works among humans.
The first 7 verses of Romans 1 are about Paul greeting his readers and giving his “credentials” to them. Verses 8 – 13 are about Paul’s desire to visit the city of Rome for the first time. Verses 16 and 17 are about God’s Good News and living by faith. The remainder of the chapter (verses 18 – 32) is about the wrath of God, including Paul’s definition of God’s wrath and how it “works.”
The passage reveals all sorts of evil, uncleanness, unrighteousness, vile passions, and ungodliness—including murder—people resort to when they turn their backs on God and seek to go their own way—to do their own thing. Unbridled, unrestrained anarchy prevails in such instances. The essence of sin is when people go their own way, disregard God, and are deluded into thinking they can control their own lives apart from God and his ways. To successfully live a good life independent from God is a strong delusion!
Notice in verses 24, 26, and 28 the expression “God gave them up (or over)…” Some versions read “God hands them over…” or “delivers them over…” Other versions read “So God let them go ahead and do…” “God abandoned them to…” “God said, in effect, “If that’s what you want, that’s what you get…” “God quit bothering them and let them run loose…” “God surrendered them…”
Yes, God “gives people up” when they wrongfully choose to go their own ways in total disregard for God. This passage catalogues and lists various wrongful acts (including murder) when God gives people up to their own ways. One translation of this passage reads like this in verses 28 – 32:
“Since they didn’t bother to acknowledge God, God quit bothering them and let them run loose. And then all hell broke loose: rampant evil, grabbing and grasping, vicious backstabbing, They made life hell on earth with their envy, wanton killing, bickering, and cheating. Look at them: mean-spirited, venomous, fork-tongued God-bashers. Bullies, swaggerers, insufferable windbags! They keep inventing new ways of wrecking lives. They ditch their parents when they get in the way. Stupid, slimy, cruel, cold-blooded. And it’s not as if they don’t know better. They know perfectly well they’re spitting in God’s face. And they don’t care—worse, they hand out prizes to those who do the worse things best!”
If we comprehend this understanding of wrath in the New Testament it can go a long way towards helping us understand God’s wrath throughout the Old Testament, notably the slaughter of so-called innocent people at God’s command. Sinful people were simply “doing what comes naturally” when God “gave them over” to sinful lifestyles.
As I begin to conclude, let me put my understanding and definition of the wrath of God as simply as I’m able to: The wrath of God in both the Old and New Testaments is when God gives people up to their own sinful ways to reap the consequences of those ways. Yes, even including giving people over to killing and slaughtering other people.
Again, I fully recognize this teaching does not answer all the questions about God’s wrath as it is typically understood by most people. But if it helps you understand just a little better what the Bible teaches, then I am satisfied.
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Revised and Updated December 2020