The wrath of God is His displeasure against sin and evil. It is God’s just and righteous response of judgment against sin, apostasy, unfairness, and injustice both within and without the community of God’s people. In the Old Testament, the most frequent cause of divine wrath on God’s people was centered on apostasy: (1) especially in the form of idolatry (Ex. 32:10; Deut. 4:25; 1 Kings 11:9; Jer. 2:23-28; Eze. 6:12; 8:5-18) and (2) social injustice, especially the oppression of the poor and weak (Isa. 1:23, 24; 42:24, 25; Jer. 21:12; Eze. 22:27-31). The wrath of God is prominent in the Pentateuch but more especially in the writings of the prophets.
When God’s people apostatized in idolatry or social injustice, He used surrounding nations as instruments of wrath on His people. He later turned on those nations, however, and judged them for their sin as well. The prophets made prophecies about nearby nations that the Lord had used previously to judge His people (Isa. 10:12, 13; Jeremiah 46–51; Ezekiel 25–32; Amos 1:3-2:3). Babylon, Assyria, Moab, Syria, Philistia, Sudan, Egypt, Arabia, and Phoenicia were mentioned in these prophecies. Therefore, God punished all nations for their sins, not only Israel and Judah. God dealt with sin wherever it was found. Apart from the use of military invasion, defeat, and destruction from other surrounding nations, natural disasters such as disease, plagues, locust attacks, famine, and drought (Deut. 28:15-68; 1 Kings 8:33-40) were also manifestations of God’s wrath against sin.
This wrath is also the basis for divine judgment on the eschatological Day of the Lord. This is to be a time in the future that the Old Testament prophets warned God’s people about. This Day of the Lord is a day of wrath, a day of universal judgment on all sinful individuals and nations (Isa. 34:2, 8; Jer. 46:10; Zeph. 1:18; 2:2; 3:8). It is to be a day when God will do away with sin and sinners forever.
In the New Testament, Paul draws on the prophetic theme of the Day of the Lord as a day of wrath. He transformed this Old Testament theme by applying it to Christ. In different parts of his Epistles, Paul refers to the day of Christ in several ways (1 Cor. 1:8; 3:13; 5:5; 1 Thess. 5:2, 4; 2 Tim. 1:12, 18; 4:8). For Paul, this day was to bring wrath on sinners who have disobeyed the gospel (2 Thess. 1:7-9; 2:8-12). They will receive divine wrath as their reward at the Second Coming (Rom. 2:5, 8).
In the Book of Revelation, the wrath of God is also evident as judgment against sin and sinners, especially at the Second Coming (Rev. 6:16, 17; 11:18). It is described in relation to wine (Rev. 14:8, 9; 16:19) and manifested in the pouring out of the seven last plagues (15:1, 7; 16:1).
God’s wrath as a cup of wine, which results in drunkenness, goes back to the Old Testament (Job 21:20; Ps. 75:8; Isa. 51:17; Jer. 25:15-38). The treading of grapes in a winepress was also Old Testament imagery for divine judgment and wrath on the enemies of God (Isa. 63:1-6; Joel 3:13). Immediately preceding Revelation 15, there is a recurrence of the word wrath in chapter 14—the wine of wrath of Babylon’s fornication (vs. 8), the wine of wrath of God (vs. 10), and the winepress of the wrath of God (vss. 19, 20). This follows the Old Testament imagery of wine as wrath. While those who receive the mark of the beast drink the wine of the impure sexual passion of spiritual Babylon and become part of her, they will also become recipients of the wine of the wrath of God.
Revelation is very clear that the seven last plagues are poured out as God’s wrath on those who drink Babylon’s wine and receive the mark of the beast in disobedience to divine warning (chap. 14:8, 10; 16:2). All of God’s enemies will be finally judged and destroyed at the end of the Day of the Lord, the day of wrath (Rev. 19:11-21; 20:1-15).
Divine Wrath and the Cross: Atonement
So far it has all been God’s wrath and judgment against sin. Where is the love in all this? The Bible shows that the love is revealed at the Cross in the plan of salvation. And this returns to the statement: God loves the sinner but hates the sin. How can a God who hates sin destroy it without destroying the sinner who loves the sin? This is the question that the plan of redemption answers.
Many world religions teach that when their gods are angered by the misbehavior (sin) of their followers/worshippers, the gods need to be appeased—usually through sacrifices. In this way the wrath/anger of the god or gods is turned away from the worshipper, and the god or gods are no longer displeased. This is called propitiation.
But in Christianity, the sinner is doomed to face the wrath of God against sin. God gave Christ, however, as a substitute for the sinner. Because Christ carried our sins on Himself at the cross, He faced the wrath of God for all sinners. He became the propitiation for the sins of the world (1 John 2:2; 4:10) and therefore met the demands of divine law and justice.
His death satisfied and appeased a God who hates sin and is radically opposed to it. His holiness and justice demand that atonement be made to change the condemned condition of the sinner, who faces the wrath of God. And love provides this atonement. Divine love makes provision of propitiation for the sinner to be received by faith (Rom. 3:25). In the end, God is just and the justifier of those who have faith (who believe) in Jesus Christ (vs. 26).
The Synoptic Gospels present a description of Christ as our propitiation by drawing from the Old Testament imagery of the cup as a symbol of God’s wrath. The agony of Jesus’ suffering in Gethsemane is portrayed as “‘this cup’” (Matt. 26: 39, 42). Through His suffering at Calvary, Christ tasted death for all sinners (Heb. 2:9) by drinking the cup of God’s wrath to the dregs. Jesus “feared that sin was so offensive to God that Their separation was to be eternal. . . . It was the sense of sin, bringing the Father's wrath upon Him as man's substitute, that made the cup He drank so bitter, and broke the heart of the Son of God.”1 “The death that God endured on the cross is the price His love pays for taking sin seriously while still loving sinners.”2
It, therefore, makes sense that those who do not accept Christ’s death as a propitiation for their sins will face God’s wrath for themselves (Rom. 1:18; Eph. 2:1). “As Christ bore the sins of every transgressor so the sinner who will not believe in Christ as his personal Saviour, . . . will bear the penalty of his transgression.”3 As the Book of Revelation points out, unrepentant sinners will ultimately drink the wine of God’s undiluted wrath (Rev. 14:9, 10). This will be the fate of all sinners who hold on to sin until the end. This is the fate described in the biblical pictures of judgment.
Divine Wrath, Christian Life, and Ministry: Testament
What is the significance of divine wrath for Christian life and ministry? This is an age in which the existence of sin is often denied. Morals have become lax, resulting in abounding licentiousness and immorality.
One of the reasons for this is the presentation of God in modern ministry today. Many churches and ministers present only the picture of a loving God and have excluded aspects of the gospel that include His character of holiness, righteousness, and judgment against sin. Words like wrath and fear are not in their vocabulary as they present God and our attitude toward Him. The Bible, however, is very clear that these are essential parts of the gospel. Modern ministers and churches today have minimized these fearsome aspects of God to accommodate all people of different backgrounds who are seeking for God (potential postmodern seekers). This approach, however, presents an incomplete gospel and results in spiritual deception.
Because of these presentations of God by modern Christian ministry, people have lost a sense of how sinful sin is and how much God hates it. “The real tragedy is that we have lost much of the knowledge of God, against whom we have sinned. We do not even feel that we have much to repent of, because we’re not always sure about just how much we have offended God with our sins. We can become dull to just how bad sin really is. Modern religious sentimentality often minimizes repugnance toward sin. And because sin doesn’t anger us anymore, perhaps it becomes harder to realize that sin arouses the wrath of a Holy God.”4
One major result of these false gospel presentations is cheap grace. Dietrich Bonhoeffer describes it as “the preaching of forgiveness without requiring repentance. . . . [It] is grace without discipleship, grace without the cross.”5
However, it is the duty and responsibility of the ministers and Christians to be true to the gospel message and to present the complete picture of God—a God who loves all people but hates sin. They are to point out that it is precisely because God loves humankind that He hates sin and has a plan to do away with it forever. He hates sin because it corrupts His children and does them eternal harm.
Marvin Moore illustrates this point with this scenario: He asked a father of two teenage daughters “How would you feel if you came home one evening and found an intruder assaulting one of your daughters?”
Harry looked at me with a puzzled expression on his face, and then said, “Murderous.”
“And how would you want God to feel?” I asked.
“Murderous,” he said.
“In other words . . . you would want a God who was just as angry about what was happening as you were.”
“That’s right,” he said.
Marvin Moore continues, “It’s the parents with the greatest love for their children who do the most to save them from abuse. And it’s anger that will fuel their actions. Without anger, we would watch abuse and fail to understand the seriousness of what was happening. Actually, millions of people long for an angry God. “Where was God when my child got hit by a car?” they demand. “Where was God when I lost my job?” “Where was God when I got cancer?”6
Just like loving parents will fight to protect and save their children from harm because of love, God will fight sin as an enemy until He gets rid of it eternally. Therefore it can be said that divine wrath is God’s angry love against sin and sinners. Divine wrath is when divine love becomes angry.
The questions are: What is your testament about who God is? What kind of God would you present to the world as a Christian?
“A Santa Claus kind of God who exists for the pleasure of humanity, to give them whatever they want? A God who tolerates, excuses, and permits sin in order to accommodate all? A God without awe or fear.”7
Ikechukwu Michael Oluikpe, Ph.D., is a recent graduate in New Testament Studies from the Adventist Institute of Advanced Studies, Silang, Cavite, Philippines. He is under appointment to teach in the School of Theology, Bugema University, Kampala, Uganda.
1. The Desire of Ages, p. 753.