Two weeks ago I wrote a post asking if God brought on COVID-19, here. I received some push-back on that post, which I found very helpful. In that post I emphasized God’s love and the fact that COVID-19 is a natural plague, rather than a Divinely caused plague. In response, a person simply asked me how I view God’s wrath. Is God’s wrath real? Do we take God’s wrath seriously? And if so what does that mean?
As I approach this answer I should make two disclaimers. First, this topic has been much more thoroughly covered by others and my efforts here are simply an outline. Second, I grew up encountering (but not in) a tradition which emphasized God’s wrath to a point that God sounded angry, and I have come to shy away from sounding similar. I admit this desire to distance myself from such a theology does at times place me in danger of too closely agreeing with those who fail to see any wrath in God.
It is this Liberal/Progressive tendency to see God as “purely loving”, which is so pervasive in our culture, that drove the question. I will say that the problem with with such theology is that God ends up not being loving at all. Modern theologies which cannot talk about God’s wrath do not show a loving God at all, they simply have a permissive God. God’s love inevitably produces wrath. God is upset and grieved by the fact that this world, which was supposed to be God’s garden temple, is corrupted by sin. A God who loves the world must be angry when that world is abused, perverted, and polluted. This is true of all levels of the created order. Genesis 1 speaks of creation being “very good”, or we might say working as God would have it. Just as I get upset when my work is marred, God must also feel pain and grief at the marring of creation.
But I think the problem here is one of linguistics, you see I have yet to define “wrath”. I think there are a number of individuals who likewise never define what they mean (or what the Bible means) by wrath. I think that implicitly both of the theologies which I find fault with fall into the same trap in how they define wrath. Both camps which I try to shy away from treat wrath as a synonym for a tit-for-tat kind of vengeance. Rather than connecting God’s wrath to grief and suffering, this view connects wrath to a blind rage. Connecting wrath with rage provides a picture of God waiting, lighting bolt in hand, to strike down sinners. The difference being the more conservative group blindly embraces such a notion and preaches it. For its part the more progressive camp rejects the notion of a violent God and therefore concludes we cannot speak of God’s wrath. The problem is, the god that is pictured is more in line with the Greek Zeus than the God Jesus called Father.
To begin with I do not connect God’s wrath to rage; I connect God’s wrath to grief, much like those who loose someone tend to feel angry. I should say this is a gross oversimplification and God certainty is complex enough to experience both of these motivators. however, As I read Romans 1 I see God being grieved over the corruption of creation. Romans 1 is important because the book of Romans provides many with their understanding of Divine wrath and Paul’s understanding is defined in 1:17-18.
For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith; as it is written, “The one who is righteous will live by faith.” For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth. (NRSV)
What I notice about these verses is that God’s wrath and righteousness are paired. they are both reactions to humanity’s actions. As we read further, through chapters 1-2, we see God is distraught over the sin of human and “creation’s groaning” (8:22). God though, patiently waits allowing humanity to continue sinning and providing a chance for redemption. These are not the actions of an angry and spiteful god. finally though: “For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.” Romans 2:6-8
Yet even here God’s actions are up to interpretation. Is this the vengeance of a spiteful God or the loving act of “The one who gives good things”? God’s grief at the corruption of the world produces a raw anger and desire within God to restore the goodness of creation. Notice my distinction God is not in a blind fury directed at people. God is grieved by humanity, yes certainly, but the anger is directed against the wickedness and evil tainting creation.
Though God’s wrath is not primarily directed at humanity, people will be caught up in it. Humans have chosen and continue to choose to live outside of God’s desires and as God brings the glorious day of New Creation many will experience that as wrath and destruction. This is why the image of refining is such a useful metaphor the fire that makes the God shine also is destruction for impurity. This picture is behind Romans 1:17-18, as God’s righteousness shines through the faith of believers so God’s wrath is seen in unbelievers. These are not two different character traits but one aspect of God seen by people at the opposite ends of love for God.
This is why I can say in my other post that COVID-19 is not a plague brought from God, because God desires goodness. But along with Paul in Romans 1 I can see how our sinfulness has so grieved God and God may be more distant than we would like. I can see how we might be experiencing God’s wrath as we are being purged of our sinfulness and being made like God.
God’s wrath is God’s holiness experienced by those things which are not holy. Wrath is not God’s desire to punish and whip people (forget Dante) God’s wrath is God’s overpowering character experienced by those who are unable to endure such qualities. Personally I think this video sums it up nicely. https://bibleproject.com/explore/holiness/