What Is the Wrath of God?

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:

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: What Is the Wrath of God?

A Less Well-Known but Essential Role of the Priest

Great Day of His Wrath, John Martin (c. 1851)

There are many roles that come to mind when one thinks of a parish priest or pastor: he is to celebrate the Liturgy, to preach, to teach, and to care for the people’s pastoral needs. In the reading for Wednesday of the Second Week of Lent, Jeremiah refers to a role many of us would not think of. As he reflects on his prophetic role, Jeremiah says to the Lord,

Remember that I stood before you to speak in their behalf, to turn away your wrath from them (Jer 18:20).

Very few people would say, “My pastor turns away God’s wrath from me.” Part of the reason for this is that we have “domesticated” God, even trivialized Him. Many think of God more as a grandfather than a father. The idea that we need to be prepared to see Him has often been replaced by the notion that He will simply welcome us into Heaven.

We must also be careful to understand what is meant by the “wrath” of God. It does not mean that He is angry or in a bad temper; God is not moody. Scripture says,

  • In God there is no variableness or shadow of turning (James 1:17).
  • For I, the LORD, do not change (Malachi 3:6).
  • And God said unto Moses, I AM THAT I AM: (Ex 3:14).

God is not wrathful one moment and serene the next.

The wrath of God is not in Him; it is in us. It is our possible experience of God if we are not ready to encounter Him. For example, if we are used to moral darkness, the glorious brightness of God’s holiness will seem harsh and unbearable to us. We might call this the “horror of God,” but the horror is in us not in Him. Similarly, if we are used to the coldness of this world of sin, the fiery warmth of God’s love will seem to us as a blazing, wrathful inferno. The problem is in us, not in God. (I have written more on this topic here: What is the Wrath of God?.)

Jeremiah sees a role for the preacher as turning away the wrath of God from His people. The bishop, priest, or deacon does this by accustoming God’s people to the light of truth and the temperature of glory. As we are repeatedly taught God’s ways and learn them, the proclaimed word of God does more than inform us; it transforms us (if we let it). This prepares us to see God—and we must be prepared to see Him.

St Gregory the Great says this of the priest:

The lips of the priest are to preserve knowledge, and men shall look to him for the law, for he is the messenger of the Lord of hosts … Anyone ordained a priest undertakes the task of preaching, so that with a loud cry he may go on ahead of the terrible judge who follows (Pope Gregory Pastoral Guide, Book 2:4).

We almost never speak of Jesus this way, as “terrible judge.” Of course, “terrible” is used here more in the sense of awe or reverential fear. The word “terrible” literally means “able to cause terror.” If there is a terror, though, it is in us, not in God, who is love. Thus St. Gregory is actually saying the same thing that Jeremiah did: the role of the priest is to prepare God’s people so that terror is not their experience on their day of judgment. The judgment seat of Christ is nothing to be cavalier about. It will be a place of great honesty—and most of us are made uncomfortable by that! Therefore, we must be prepared by Word and Sacrament for our day of judgment.

What is the Wrath of God? A Study of a Common Biblical Theme

In Tuesday’s reading at daily Mass (Tuesday of the 28th Week) there was a reference to the wrath of God: The wrath of God is indeed being revealed from heaven against every impiety and wickedness of those who suppress the truth (Romans 1:18). St. Paul goes on to set forth a host of social ills that result from the suppression of the truth, including the approval of homosexual acts, as evidence of a darkened intellect and debased mind (Rom 1:28).

But what is God’s wrath? It is spoken of often in Scripture and is a subject we must treat carefully. On the one hand we cannot simply dismiss the concept 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 of the wrath of God. There is not enough space to cover the whole topic in this post, but the comment section will stay open, as always, for your continued 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. It is mentioned quite frequently in the New Testament as well. For example, consider the following New Testament passages:

  1. 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).
  2. 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).
  3. 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).
  4. 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).
  5. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ (1 Thess 5:9).
  6. 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).

There are at least a dozen other New Testament texts I cite, but allow these to suffice. So it is clear that the “wrath of God” is not some ancient or primitive concept with which the New Testament has dispensed. And notice, too, that the wrath of God is not something reserved simply 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 or explanations of God’s wrath. None of them alone explains it, but considered together, an overall understanding may emerge.

  1. Image: God’s wrath is His passion to set things right. We see this image of God’s wrath right at the beginning 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 and continues to have anger whenever He beholds sin and injustice. He has a passion for our holiness. God wants what is best for us. He is angered by what hinders us. Surely all sins provoke His wrath, but there are five 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. God’s wrath may be manifested through punishment, by disturbing our conscience, or simply by allowing us to experience the consequences of our sin and injustice.
  2. Clarification: 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 the way we are. When we get angry we often experience an out-of-control quality; our temper flares and we often say and do things that are excessive, if not sinful. It cannot pertain to God to have temper tantrums or to “fly off the handle,” to combine anger with an unreasonable lashing out. The way God experiences 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.
  3. Clarification: God is not moody. God does not have good days and bad days, good moods and bad ones. Scripture seems clear enough on this subject when it 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). The fact that God shows wrath does not mean that He has suddenly had enough or that His temper has flared, or that His mood has soured. God is. He does not change. As Scripture says, He is not variable. And this leads us to the next image.
  4. Image: The primary location of God’s wrath is not within God; it is in us. Perhaps the best definition I have heard of God’s wrath is this: 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. Consider 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; hear the sizzling and popping; see the steam rising as the water flees away. 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. But notice that the experience is in us primarily and not in God; He does not change. He is holy and serene; He is love. If we experience His wrath, it is on account of us, not Him. Consider the next image.
  5. 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 wake up it is still dark (at least in the winter), so I turn on the light. Ugh! Grrr! Now the light is too 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 too harsh!” But the light is not harsh; it is just the same as it was when I was happy with it. Because 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, but they had, and they now experienced him very differently. Fast forward to another theophany. God had come to Mt. Sinai. As He descended, the people were terrified, for there were peals of thunder, flashes of 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 too close lest His wrath be vented upon them (Ex 19:20-25). Now, again, 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.
  6. 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. Since 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 itself! So it looks as if we’d better become fire if we want to see God. And thus it was that God sent tongues of fire upon the Apostles and upon us at our Confirmation. God wants to set you and me 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). And 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.” As I have tried to show, it is more in us than it is in God. But I will not say to you that there is no wrath in God. Scripture is clear in indicating that wrath does pertain to God’s inner life. What exactly it is and how God experiences it is mysterious to us. We can say to some extent what it is not (as we did above), but we cannot really say what it is exactly. But far richer is the meditation that the wrath of God is essentially within 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. But if we let the Lord perform His saving work, we are saved from His wrath, for we are made holy and set on fire with God’s love. And fire never fears the presence of fire. God is love, but He will not change. So it is that 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 of the Covenant and endure the presence of God. What they get is wrath, for sin cannot endure the reality of God’s presence. “Enjoy” this clip:

 

His Wrath is Not Turned Back, His Hand is Still Outstretched! Pondering the Wrath of God as a Work of Revelation

blog.8.24When reading Scripture that mentions the wrath of God, most think of His wrath in human terms. But we must be clear that God does not get angry the way we do. Further, our God is not moody: pleasant and patient one moment and then angry and punishing the next. No, God does not suffer from mood swings or throw tantrums. God is love; stably, serenely, and consistently so.

So then what is God’s wrath? I have written on this topic in greater depth here: What is the Wrath of God? However for this post, allow me to summarize by saying that God’s wrath is His “passion” to set things right. His wrath is His work to root out sin and injustice and bring forth holiness and righteousness.

Another thing to note about God’s wrath is that the anger is really more in us than in God. The wrath of God is our experience of the total incompatibility of our unrepentant sin before the holiness of God. It is like fire and water: they do not mix. And one can hear the wrathful conflict when fire and water come together. So the sinner in the presence of the all holy God is going to experience a conflict. It is not so much that God is angry as that the sinner is incapable of enduring His glory, so bright and awesome. It is like wax before the fire.

In this post I would like explore how God’s wrath is also a work of revelation. St. Paul says, For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth (Romans 1:18). And so St. Paul speaks of God’s wrath as being revealed, as being a work of revelation. As such, it exposes our injustice, error, and sin.

A recent text we read in the Liturgy of the Hours (from Isaiah Ch. 9) also develops God’s wrath as a kind of light of revelation, as a hand pointing out our iniquity. Within the longer passage below there is this refrain: For all this, his wrath is not turned back, and his hand is still outstretched! For indeed, God’s wrath casts a light on our wrongs and his outstretched hand points to them, revealing them and executing their results. Let’s consider Isaiah’s treatment of the revelatory wrath of God.

The Lord has sent word against Jacob,
it falls upon Israel;
And all the people know it,
Ephraim and those who dwell in Samaria,
those who say in arrogance and pride of heart,
“Bricks have fallen,
but we will build with cut stone;
Sycamores are felled,
but we will replace them with cedars.”
But the Lord raises up their foes against them
and stirs up their enemies to action:
Aram on the east and the Philistines on the west
devour Israel with open mouth.
For all this, his wrath is not turned back,
and his hand is still outstretched!
(Is 9:8-12)

And thus we see that the wrath of God reveals in Israel a bold, prideful resistance to His warnings. “Bricks have fallen … [and] sycamores have been felled.” These were warnings from God that neither natural nor man-made structures can stand; they crumble under the weight of sin and injustice. Yet instead of heeding the warning, the people doubled-down on their sins, arrogantly thinking that they could replace what God had established with designs of their own.

For us today a similar pattern is evident, as our families crumble and we twist nature. But even seeing the darkness and deep confusion we have ushered in, we still do not seek God’s light again. Rather, our culture “doubles down” and arrogantly asserts that we can redefine marriage, family, sexuality, and even the nature of things themselves. We sweep aside the “bricks and sycamores” that God has established, thinking that we can do better with the stone and cedars of our imagining.

Having instructed Israel through His law and warned her to no avail, God handed Israel over to her enemies, just as today we are being handed over to the enemies of our rebellion: STDs, depopulation, divorce, cohabitation, sexual confusion of a colossal nature, the tragic loss of our children through abortion, the decline of our children (lack of discipline, lack of proper psychological formation) due to broken families—the list could go on and on.

When the text says that God “handed them over,” it means that He let them have their own way and allowed them to suffer the consequences. As would any loving father, God seeks first to teach and warn His children. Next, He resorts to punishments that seek to draw us back from the full impact of our sin. But if all these fail, He finally hands us over to our own designs.

When we experience wrath, we experience the total incompatibility of our sinful stance with the glory for which we were made. There comes on us, collectively and individually, a burning indignation toward God and any who represent Him or remind us of the truth for which we were made. We project our anger on God. But God is not angry. Rather, He has a passion, a will to set things right. His justice and love are one reality.

How is the wrath of God a work of revelation? It shows us the full consequences of our sinful rejection of God and His plan for us. The fact is, we grow weak and become easy prey for our enemies, both literal and figurative. For Ancient Israel this meant Aram and the Philistines. For us in the decaying, once-Christian West it means we become too weak to resist enemies like lust and greed. We can no longer make commitments and keep them; we have little self-control. These enemies devour our strength, cloud our minds, and erode our progress.

This wrathful condition is a revelation from God, showing us what we are when we reject His favor, His mercy, and His call to truth. As a work of revelation, there is always the hoped-for response: repentance. But, sadly, the text continues in this way:

The people do not turn to him who struck them,
nor seek the Lord of hosts
.

And so the wrath continues, revealing to us in ever-deeper and darker tones the full depths of our condition, of our sad state. Sin grows; the young especially suffer from the sins of parents and elders. If we do not want grace, we will not have it; if we do not seek His mercy and grace, we will be increasingly without them. We cannot endure God’s holiness and justice apart from grace and mercy, and so we experience His holiness as wrath. This reveals to us our grave condition.

Time does not permit further commentary on the text below (from Isaiah). But as you read it, is there not a sobering sense that what is described is all too familiar? Is not this wrathful recitation a revelation?

The leaders of this people mislead them
and those to be led are engulfed.
For this reason, the Lord does not spare their young men,
and their orphans and widows he does not pity;
They are wholly profaned and sinful,
and every mouth gives vent to folly.
For all this, his wrath is not turned back,
his hand is still outstretched!

For wickedness burns like fire,
devouring brier and thorn;
It kindles the forest thickets,
which go up in columns of smoke.
At the wrath of the Lord of hosts the land quakes,
and the people are like fuel for fire;
No man spares his brother,
each devours the flesh of his neighbor.
Though they hack on the right, they are hungry;
though they eat on the left, they are not filled.
Manasseh devours Ephraim, and Ephraim Manasseh;
together they turn on Judah.
For all this, his wrath is not turned back,
his hand is still outstretched!

Woe to those who enact unjust statutes
and who write oppressive decrees,
Depriving the needy of judgment
and robbing my people’s poor of their rights,
Making widows their plunder,
and orphans their prey!
What will you do on the day of punishment,
when ruin comes from afar?
To whom will you flee for help?
Where will you leave your wealth,
Lest it sink beneath the captive
or fall beneath the slain?
For all this, his wrath is not turned back,
his hand is still outstretched
!

Yes, as the text asks, what will we do on the day of full judgment? Even when we are in our worst state, God allows His wrath (our experience of His holy justice) to be a revelation to us, in the hope that before our final judgment we will finally call on Him. For on that day, the door of possible change will close and our condition will be final and forever fixed.

Woe to us that God’s wrath must be our revelation, his wrath is not turned back, his hand is still outstretched. Better for us to repent and allow His beautiful truth and mercy to be our light, our revelation. Have mercy on us, Lord. Give us added graces to repent!

What is the Wrath of God?

Not long ago I saw a bottle of hot sauce with the creative name “Wrath of God!” Now that’s gotta be some hot sauce! But what is God’s wrath? It is spoken of often in the scriptures and it is a concept with which we have to be careful. On the one hand we cannot simply dismiss the concept as contradictory to the fact that God is love. But neither can we fail to see God’s wrath apart from his love.

As a followup from yesterday’s blog it seems worthwhile to consider some aspects of the very complicated and reality of the wrath of God. There is not enough space to cover the whole topic in the 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 we find it mentioned quite frequently in the New Testament as well. For example consider the following:

  1. 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)
  2. 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)
  3. 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)
  4. Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things [i.e. sexual immorality] God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient. (Eph 5:6)
  5. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thess 5:9)
  6. 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)

And there are at least a dozen other texts from the New Testament that could be referenced but allow these to suffice. So it is clear that the “wrath of God” is not some ancient or primitive concept that the New Testament has dispensed with. And notice too that the wrath of God is not something simply for the end of the world. It is also spoken of in some of the texts above and others not listed as something already operative in certain people.

So what is God’s wrath? And how can we reconcile it with his love?  Consider some of the images, explanations of God’s wrath. None of them all alone explain it but together a picture and understanding may emerge.

  1. Image: God’s wrath is his passion to set things right. We see this image of God’s wrath right at the beginning 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 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. 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: Wilful 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]; Injustice to the wage earner. [Deut. 24:14-5; Jas. 5:4] (cf Catechism of the Catholic Church # 1867). In terms of all sin and injustice and anything that afflicts or 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 manifest through punishments, disturbances of our conscience, or simply by allowing us to experience some or all the consequences of our sin and injustice.
  2. Clarification: 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 like we are angry. When we get angry we often experience an out of control quality, our temper flares and we often say and do things that are either sinful or at least excessive. It cannot pertain to God to have temper tantrums and to fly off the handle, to admix anger with an unreasonable lashing out. The way God does experience anger is not something we can fully understand but is it surely a sovereign and serene act of his will, not an out of control emotion.
  3. Clarification: 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 when it indicates that God does not Change. Consider this from the Book of James 1:17 Every good and perfect gift comes from above, from the Father of lights, in whom there is no variableness or shadow of turning. Hence to speak of God’s wrath does not mean that he has suddenly had enough or that his temper has flared, or that his mood has soured. God IS. He does not change. As the text says, he is not variable. And this leads us to the next point.
  4. Image: Given what we have said,  the primary location of God’s wrath is not in God,  it is in us. Perhaps the best definition I have heard of God’s wrath is this: 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 you can hear the conflict. Think of water spilled on a hot stove and hear the sizzle and popping and the steam as the water flees away. 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. But notice the experience is in us primarily and not God. God does not change, he is holy, serene, he is love. If we experience his wrath it is on account of us, not him. Consider the next example.
  5. Image: It is we who change, not God and this causes wrath to be experienced or not –Consider an 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 bed time I put out the light and sleep. When I awake it is still dark (at least in the winter). Hence I put the light on. But Ugh! Grrr! Now 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 just the same, it is I who have changed. But do you know what I do? I blame the light and say, “The 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. So also 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 warm friendship with him and did not fear his presence. After sin, they hide. Had God changed? He had not, they had and they now experience him very differently. Fast forward to another Theophany. God has come to Mt Sinai and as he descends the people are terrified for there are peals of thunder, 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). Now again, had God changed? 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 to us frightening and wrathful.
  6. 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. Since 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 it looks like we’d better become fire if we want to see God. And thus it was that God sent tongues of fire upon the Apostles and us at our confirmation. God wants to set you and me 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). And 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. As I have tried to show it is more in us than in God. But I will not say to you that there is NO wrath IN  God. Scripture seems clear to indicate that wrath does pertain to God’s inner life. What exactly it is and how God experiences it  is mysterious to us. We can say to some extent what it is not (as we did above) but we cannot really say what it is exactly. But far more rich 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 need purification in purgatory too. But if we let the Lord work his saving work we are saved from the wrath for we are made holy and set on fire with God’s love. And fire never fears the presence of fire. God is Love but he will not change. So it is that Love must change us.

One of the greatest cinematic depictions of the Wrath of God occurred in the move the Raiders of the Lost Ark. The Nazi’s sinfully think 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: