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: