In yesterday’s Mass (Thursday of the Second Week of Easter) there was a reference to the wrath of God and the fact that only Jesus can save us from it. The Gospel warns, whoever disobeys the Son, will not see life, but the wrath of God remains upon him (John 3:36).
But what is God’s wrath? It is spoken of often in Scripture but it is a concept with which we must be careful. On the one hand we cannot simply dismiss it as contradictory to the fact that God is love, but neither can we deny God’s wrath as unfit in terms of His love.
It seems worthwhile to consider some aspects of the very complicated reality. There is not enough space to cover the whole topic in this post, but the comments stay open, as always, for your additions and subtractions. What are some ways that we can explain and understand the wrath of God? Let me propose a few.
The wrath of God is not merely an Old Testament concept. In fact, it is mentioned quite frequently in the New Testament as well. For example, consider the following examples, of which there are many more:
- Jesus said, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on him” (John 3:36).
- The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness (Rom 1:18).
- 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., sexual immorality] God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient (Eph 5:6).
- For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thess 5:9).
- The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great winepress of God’s wrath (Rev 14:19).
It is clear that the “wrath of God” is not some primitive concept with which the New Testament has dispensed. Notice, too, that the wrath of God is not something only for the end of the world. It is also spoken of as something already operative in certain people.
So again, what is God’s wrath and how can we reconcile it with His love? Consider some of the following images, explanations of God’s wrath. None of them alone is sufficient, but considered together, one can get an overall understanding.
- Image: On one level, God’s wrath is His passion to set things right. We see this image of God’s wrath in Genesis, when God cursed Satan and uttered the protoevangelium (the first good news): 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; this continues whenever He beholds sin and injustice. God has a passion for our holiness. He wants what is best for us. He is angered by what hinders us in this regard. Surely all sins provoke His wrath, but there are five sins that especially cry out to Heaven: willful murder (Gen. 4:10); the sin of the Sodomites (Gen. 18:20; 19:13); the cry of the people oppressed (Ex. 3:7-10); the cry of the foreigner, the widow, and the orphan (Ex. 20:20-22); and injustice to the wage earner (Deut. 24:14-5; Jas. 5:4) (cf 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 and injustice.
- Clarification: God’s wrath is not like our anger. In saying that God is angry, we must understand that however God experiences anger (or any passion), it is not tainted by sin. When we get angry we often experience an out-of-control quality; our temper flares and we say and do things that are excessive if not sinful. It cannot pertain to God to have temper tantrums and to fly off the handle, to combine anger with an unreasonable lashing out. 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.
- Clarification: God is not moody. It does not pertain to God to have good days and bad days, good moods and bad ones. Scripture clearly indicates 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). God’s wrath does not indicate that He has suddenly had enough, or that His temper has flared, or that His mood has soured. God is. He does not change.
- Image: The primary location of God’s wrath is not in God; it is in us. Perhaps the best definition I have ever heard of God’s wrath is this one: “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 do not mix. They cannot coexist in the same spot. Bring them together and you can hear the conflict. Think of water spilled on a hot stove and hear the sizzling and popping; see the steam rising as the water flees. If, on the other hand, there is a lot of water, the fire is overwhelmed and extinguished, but the point is that they cannot coexist. They will conflict and one will win. This is wrath: the complete incompatibility of two things. It is this way between sin and God’s utter holiness. We must be purified before we can enter the presence of God otherwise we could never tolerate His glory. We would wail and grind our teeth and turn 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, otherwise we experience wrath. Notice that the experience is primarily within us, not God. 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.
- Image: 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 light with a 100-watt light bulb. At night before bed I delight in the light. I am accustomed to it. But then at bedtime I turn off the light and go to sleep. When I awake it is still dark, so I turn on the light. Ugh! Grrr! The light is bright and I curse it! Now, mind you, the light has not changed one bit. It is still the same 100-watt bulb it was hours earlier. The light is the same; it is I who have changed. But do you know what I do? I blame the light and say, “That light is harsh!” But the light is not harsh; it is just the same as when I was happy with it. Now that I have changed I experience its wrath but the wrath is really in me. 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? He had not; 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 was thunder and lightning, clouds, and the loud blast of a trumpet. The people told Moses, “You speak to us, but let not God speak, 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 had not. He was the same God who walked with them 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 to us.
- 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. 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 is the only thing that survives! So we’d better become fire if we want to see God. So it was that God sent tongues of fire upon the Apostles, and upon us at our Confirmation. God wants to set us on fire with the Holy Spirit and in holiness. God 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,” but it is more in us than in God. But I will not say to you that there is no wrath in God. Scripture does indicate that wrath pertains to God’s inner life. What exactly it is and how God experiences it is mysterious. To some extent we can say what it is not (as we did above) but we cannot really say precisely what it is. Far more rich than this is the meditation 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 also need purification in Purgatory, but if we let the Lord do His saving work, we are saved from the wrath, for we are made holy and set on fire with His love. Fire never fears the presence of fire. God is love, but He will not change, so 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 that they can open the Ark and endure the presence of God. What they get is wrath, for sin cannot endure the reality of God’s presence. “Enjoy” this clip from the movie!