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:

34 Replies to “What is the Wrath of God?”

  1. I see the “Wrath of God” as being a poor human means of explaining that God is also Just, and that Justice must be equally satisfied, as well as His Mercy and Love.

    1. Yes, that is so but I think we have to hold that it is more than merely a poor human means. The scriptures are the Word of the Lord as well. Granted he uses the pitifully poor means of human language and weak human vessels. Further we humans are dull of mind and God has to speak to us in simplified ways. Nevertheless the scriptures remain more than merely human expression

  2. A beautiful piece of theology. Too often I have heard people say that God in the Old and the New Testement are too different, one vengeful and one merciful. But what is written above is the perfect way to reconcile both images, and, in fact, help to further complete the unending and eternally glorious picture that is God.

  3. Thank you!! I have always tried to understand the concept of God being unchanging and perfectly happy and serene and the concept of Jesus longing for our love, offended and hurt by our indifference. I am going to use your articles as a study for my family during Lent. These are truly the best explanations I have come across. My husband went through RCIA and was baptized into the Catholic faith three years ago. I feel in a way his religious education came to an abrupt halt after his Baptism. We are so in need of religious education for adults. Our faith is always being challenged. My husband was raised Jewish and I would love to have him receive more adult education than a five minute sermon once a week. I appreciate the film clips – I think my 14 yr old will love this one…making the theology very tangible!

    1. I am glad the article helps. Also glad to hear that the film clips help. One of the things I try to do is to link faith to culture and also distinguish the two. The films etc help me to do that.

  4. Thanks, Monsignor.
    I tend to believe that what is important is how much I love God. This love of God is and should be shown in my true love for my neighbours starting with my family members. To turn to God in order to avoid His wrath is a type of selfishness as I’ll be expecting a reward for my efforts.
    I am called to be pure as my Father in heaven is. I like variety of various things and experiences. Just like Adam and Eve in the Garden who chose a richer diet than God had prescribed.Mix some worldliness with practices of the City of God though Scripture demands ‘You are either hot or cold. Otherwise I will spit you out’.
    Lord have mercy on me. Give me the strength to do everything I have to do no matter how hard or unattractive it may be and refuse to do anything I should not do no matter how easy or attractive it may be. Please give me the wisdom to know which of the two I am facing now.

  5. I always pause when people say, “God punished me”. For example, when a person who is sexually immoral and sleeps around all of a sudden finds himself with a disease. The first one they take it out on is God. They say things like, “God must be punishing me for sleeping with that girl, but God gave me sexual desire so how can he punish me for doing it?” They fail to reconcile the two so they rebel and fall further away from God. What they don’t realize , in my opinion, was God didn’t do anything to them. Yes, God warns us of the sinfullness of fornication, but was his ONLY reason for maikng it sinful so that he can someday punish us? Did he really give us sexual desire to set us up against ourselves, to cause conflict within us, fall, then incur his wrath? That’s just not possible with an all loving God, a God who IS love. I look at it this way, and tell me if I am on the righ track Father. Everything God does or directs us to do has purpose. If he says fornication is a sin there is a reason, and it usually has to do with our well being, in this world and spiritually. Fornication can lead to disease, unwanted pregnancy (which can make us consider, and in some cases, carry out an abortion), tension between families etc. In other words, suffering and more sin. Suffering is a part of life, but an all loving God doesn’t want us to suffer more than we have to. God never said don’t have sex. But God knows what reckeless behavior can lead to, so he set up parameters to help us discipline ourselves. By not following his laws, he doesn’t have to punish us or cause suffering, we will cause enough pain and suffering ourselves. God is perfect. It’s not his way or the highway because he is a vengeful God who wants to control us. It’s his way because it is the ONLY way. Not following him will naturally lead to sin, suffering and eventually seperation from him. That’s just the way it is. You have a choice. Take up your cross, follow Our Lord and persevere or try going it alone and risk losing eternal peace and happiness. I don’t think it ALL boils down to this but it’s atleast a part of it.

    1. Yes, it is a funny way we blame God for the consequences of our own knuckleheaded behavior. GOd’s commands and warnings are as you point out not to set us up for punishment but to protect us. Not only does he want to protect us from the earthly consequences but also to protect us from the wrath wherein we will not be able to endure his holiness due to our own unrepented sin. He wants us and made us to enjoy heaven not be repelled by it. But unrepented sins will make us recoil at it for the reasons stated in the article

  6. Another excellent piece Father, thank you.

    We hear the phrase so seldom – perhaps as seldom as “Fear of the Lord” – that the mind races to other associations, in my case to Werner Herzog’s searing film “Aguirre, the Wrath of God” about a group of 16th century conquistadors making an ill-fated journey along the Amazon, with the anti-hero’s moral and mental disintegration almost palpable on the screen.

    I shall be tweeting a link to your post to my small (but no doubt select) group of “followers”.

  7. Excellent work sir. I have been reading the OT Testament books of Exodus, Leviticus and Numbers and just have begun back into Deuteronomy. I am confident in the consistency of God’s character, and this article of yours is very thoughtful and balanced and has further encouraged me. I have been meditating on this very subject and ran across this posting while doing sermon preparation today.
    -God’s best to you, from a an Assemblies of God brother.
    -Pastor Mark

  8. This is excellent. I’ve had some discontent with this question and the article has given me new avenues for thought. Thanks.

  9. Excellent article!
    And I always enjoy the clip of the Nazi’s comeuppance in ROLA film. Never understood why Indy and Miriam didn’t get consumed in that purifying fire, given their sordid past (I know, I know, its Hollywood).
    Thanks again for the excellent examination of the concept of God’s wrath.
    Robur virtute!

  10. Personaly I believe that the wrath of God is simply satan.Considering the story of Job,it’s quite clear that all evil deeds come from him,so when a person is totaly living a bad life, is definately accepting the wrath of God which eventualy means that you are abandoned from God and subject to satan’s will. Refering to Jesus words of “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) It simply saying that satan will remain the master of that person.Jesus came to the world purposely to cast out satan which means that satan will no more be in comand and the sole owner of the world, and God’s kingdom through the church,Holy Mary,and most of all the Holy Spirit whithin us is definately preventing satan from having total control of the world although it is still his.

  11. Thank You for artical of wrath of God by Charles Pope. It has helped a little. I am having trouble understanding Psalm 136:9, Osee 14:1. Perhaps he has wrote these and simalar passages. If so let me know. Thank You! P.S. if this wrong place to send this sorry. If you could be so kindly forward thank you.

  12. i don’t think of the wrath of God very often – i focus more attention on God’s love and the occasions when I turn away – because of my transgressions, God suffers because his love is without limit and he wants me and all of humanity to turn to him. Still working on turning toward instead of turning away.

  13. So, what about fire fights fire? In CA, when the wild fires are raging, one method
    of stopping the progression is to light a backfire. The end result is
    neutraling all fire. So if the fire of God’s wrath is in us the backfire MAY be

  14. This article is a worthwhile effort to explain what is valuable in the concept of the wrath of God. But in the end doesn’t the concept die the death of a thousand cuts? If it requires that many paragraphs of qualifications, what’s left of it?

    Wrath is simply a fancy word for anger. Anger is a sin. It is one of the seven deadly sins. (By the way, can one ever imagine attributing one of the other deadly sins — covetousness, envy, sloth — to God?) But we are told that anger in God is not sinful. But how can we ever understand that when the only anger we know is sinful.

    God’s anger is invoked in connection with his punishment of sinners. But isn’t that a mistake? Loving parents correct their children out of sorrow and love, not anger. Anger always leads us to excess. That’s why we should never punish when angry. Oh, but God’s anger never leads to excess, we are told. How enlightening is that, since the only anger we know of is a passion that leads to excess? It would be better to say that God punishes out of sorrow and love, rather than anger. Everything valuable that needs to be said about God and punishment can be said without attributing any anger to him.

    The point Msgr Pope makes about sin being incompatible with the holiness of God is great. But then replacing holiness by anger is just a bit of sleight of hand designed to try to save the concept of God’s anger. Everything valuable that needs to be said about God and sin can be said using concepts such as holiness. Anger adds nothing useful.

    In God, there is no change. Therefore, if God is angry, he is angry all the time. God is at the same time eternally loving and eternally angry with us. That image is so powerful as to be harmful. The idea of God’s permanent anger simply blots out the idea of his love for us. That leads people to act out of fear of God’s anger, or even to try to placate him (as in so many pagan religions). It is a lot easier to get people to keep the commandments out of fear of God’s anger than out of love for one’s neighbour, and unfortunately the Church has too often taken this easier path. It is easier to scare people into obedience than to change their heart.

    The concept of God’s anger has other undesirable consequenecs. It leads people to interpret natural disasters and personal misfortunes as God’s punishment. It also can lead us to enjoy the misfortunes of the wicked. Isn’t that the appeal of the Indiana Jones clip? Yay, God really fried those bad guys. It leads us to forget that God does not want the death of the sinner.

    In summary then:
    1. The concept of God’s anger is unnecessary since everything that needs to be said about God and sin can be said without having recourse to it. (An interesting challenge: can anyone point to something valuable that would be lost is we dispensed with the concept of God’s anger?)
    2. The concept of God’s anger is harmful since it fosters undesirable attitudes and leads to unacceptable conclusions.

    Therefore, better that it be consigned to the dustbin of theology.

    A last point about the passages in the NT that mention God’s anger. The assumption appears to be that is something can be found in the NT, then it is the last word of the subject. But that isn’t so. The implications of the Gospel are not always fully worked out in the NT. A notorious example is the failure of the NT to develop the social implications of the Gospel and to question the social relations in the society of that time and the subjection of certain people to others. In the NT, wives are to remain subject to their husbands, slaves to their masters — there is not a word in the NT about the immorality of slavery — and poltical subjects are never to resist or question the authority of their political masters. None of these views are compatible with the social doctrine of the Church. Therefore, just quoting passages from the NT is never an adequate answer to a theological question.

    1. Alot here but let me try to take them one by one.

      1. Not all anger is sin for scripture says, Be angry but sin not. Therefore not all anger is sin. Anger in the face of injustice is not sinful. Jesus of course expressed quite a lot of anger.

      2. It follows that since there is righteous anger that a loving parent can and does correct with sorrow and love but also with righteous anger. There may be an admixture of unrightwous anger in a human but not in God who’s wrath is not sinful.

      3. Since not all anger is sin then it does not follow that I have used a sleight of hand.

      4. It is a mystery as to how God who never cahnges interacts with us who do change. But since scripture does say that it pertains to God to be angry and also serene then we must hold to the mystery that righteous anger is in God. How this is so is mysterious to us but it is revealed. I have tried to address the problem by postulating that most of the “change” is not in God but rather in us. However I cannot wholly dismiss that anger is in God for scripture and tradition say that it does pertain to God to “be” angry. I admit the mysterious quality of this but often mysteries must be held in balance (for example God’s sovreignty and also our freedom.

      5. Possible bad consequences of a teaching misinterpreted does not negate the teaching or its true. All heresy is one true taken to the extreme or out of context. But it does not follow that we should fail to teach what is revealed out of fear of heresy

      6. You may think that it is possible to teach everything without having recourse to wrath but apparently God, the Holy Spirit did not get the memo in this regard for He has revealed it as a consistent teaching in both the OT and the NT. Before consigning teachings to the dustbin of history it is better to check with God who has not to my knowledged asked that it be so consigned. Since relevation closed with the death of the last apostle it seems unlikely that a corregida or addendum will be forthcoming.

      7. As to “just quoting scripture” there is merit in your objection however the article is a blog, not a full length theological treatise. It is meant to spur a discussion not answer all questions or objections. But as to the wrath of God you surely that know is well attested and referred to in in the Fathers, in Thomas, in Denziger etc. et al. not to mention the entire missionary outreach of the Church.

  15. What is the Wrath of God? That was the question. I have just thought of an answer that is ‘good enough’ for me, and that is “The wrath of God is when I blame God for my own human failings, or for things that ‘happen’ to me.” (I practicing being succinct. grin grin).

  16. I needed to see that.

    I struggle with my image of God, and my relationship with Him. I have always seen God as the “wrathful” God of the OT: judge, jury and executioner. The God who keeps that “Black Book” of all my sins. He’s the medieval King, and I’m the mud-caked serf. My station in this relationship requires that I bow and avert my eyes when the King passes by. You just don’t buddy-up to the King!

    So these words pierce me to the core.

    Through prayer with my wife, I have been reforming my relationship with God.

    This blog entry struck deep into my heart. It spoke to (and about) the depth of my soul.

    I find great encouragement in these words. This page is a “keeper” for me.


  17. As I was reading John chapter 3 verse 36 this morning the holy spirit caused me to question “What is the wrath of God?” So I decided to google it. To be honest with you I think this was my first mistake rather than pray Jesus reveal to me His truth about Gods word, because I don’t think anyone can really interpret Gods words better than Him. But to my point, I have not fully read your article, as a matter of fact I stopped shortly after reading your first quote from the bible. What cause me to halt was that you wrote: “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)” This is great news, but it didn’t come from Jesus. John the Baptist spoke this verse of Jesus because there was an argument arisen between the Jews and John’s disciples of the purification process. Jesus was in Judea at the time. You may ask why does it matter who said what as long as the message is the same right? I guess I kind of look at it this way….If you have to get a tooth pulled out why does it matter if you have the dentist apply a local anesthetic or not as long as the tooth comes out right? My point is you can cause great pain to someone with little faith if your message is not the right one. Just a thought….

  18. These days of austerity along with relative panic about getting debt, some people balk up against the idea of making use of a credit card in order to make purchase of merchandise or pay for a trip, preferring, instead to rely on the actual tried as well as trusted technique of making settlement – cash. However, in case you have the cash on hand to make the purchase in whole, then, paradoxically, this is the best time to use the card for several causes.

  19. Wednesday’s Gospel ended with wrath of God. I have been asking God what he thinks of Bin Laden who was just killed. I see him as evil but he thought he was doing God’s will. I asked my priest about the wrath of God and felt he denied what was apparent in the scriptures. He seemed confused and confused me so I googled wrath of God. Thank you so much for your article. The older I get the more I see how we reap what we sow. I think this helps us examine our own life and accept the suffering which is always among us. Also, we can see how others behavior can causeusf to suffer for the sins of others which gives us an opportunity to forgive. I believe we have a God of love but also a holy God and if we love him all things work together for our good. Thank you, thank you. Carol

  20. Thank you, Monsignor, for this blog post. It meant a lot to me. I am an eclectic Presbyterian, you might say, with a keen interest in classical Christianity. I actually referenced your post in my daily blog, http://www.oldsandals.org. I trust that is OK.

    My God bless you and your ministry,

  21. the wrath of the LAMB and the WRATH OF SATAN battle it out in the soul that has Jesus christ revealed: It is written the ‘Wrath of the LAMB” and Satans wrath is great when he knows his time is short:

    the wrath of the Lamb is against the wrath of Satan WITHIN OUR SOULS experience and nobody will be able to avoid this forever because the wrath of the LAMB is against Satan….thats the hard part to understand when you are going through this:

    It is never against the soul itself but the antichrist spirit within the experience of the soul that must be free of that wicked spirit within it:

    so the wrath of the lamb is against the ego or ‘self’ which is the seed of the serpent;

    while the wrath of Satan is against the soul (woman) and her seed………….these are at ENMITY with one another and only the wrath of the lamb is able to overcome the wrath of Satan in us………..

    the battle is the Lords but it is in us so we ENDURE this suffering with him:

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