Head’s Up: This post is not meant to be a complete answer to everything related to the wrath of God. In fact, if you read this, you will likely have more questions than answers. For example, I do not seek to justify God’s wrath in the Old Testament. Instead, the goal is to see how the writers of the New Testament approached the wrath of God as a whole in order to understand how we can internalize it as a theology that leads to godliness and a more powerful witness of the goodness of God.
If you’ve ever heard about the wrath of God you likely think about what is typically called Judgement Day. The writers of the scriptures typically refer to this day as “The Day of the Lord.” The Old Testament speaks to this too and it is that reality that many of the first Christians had to deal with. Many of the early Christians knew it would be a day of blessing for those who are in Christ, but there was still fear circulating the expectation of that day. People had many questions then too! When would it come? What would it be like? How bad would it be?
Paul spoke to the Thessalonian church on this matter. First, he discussed what they knew.
Now, brothers and sisters, about times and dates we do not need to write to you, for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, "peace and safety," destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape. 1 Thessalonians 5:1-3
Notice that Paul was referencing things that the people already know. “For you know very well” was his way of telling them that their viewpoint in this matter was accurate. But then he turns their knowledge on them.
But you, brothers and sisters, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief. You are all children of the light and children of the day. We do not belong to the night or the darkness... since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. He died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep, we may live together with him. Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing. 1 Thessalonians 5:4,5,8-11
The Thessalonians needed comfort and encouragement around the wrath of God and the Day of the Lord to come. It is the same case with us! We need to understand what the scriptures say about the wrath of God and keep the knowledge of our Lord Jesus at the forefront while we study it in order to lead to a more fruitful life in God as we await the day of the Lord.
As I share my points, please don’t take them as fact. Study the verses that I share and discover what Jesus and the apostles said about the wrath of God. Share any thoughts and comments so we can discuss them. If for some reason this discussion only brings fear into your heart, please reach out to me so we can discuss it in more detail.
The Wrath of God is still a Thing
There is a common theological trend that exists that uses a handful of scriptures to determine that the wrath of God is no longer an issue for anyone and that through the amazing grace of Jesus, Christian Universalism is the doctrine of the Bible and the Early Church.
This truth is more convenient than evidenced. This trend does two things: it largely disregards the epistles with a focus on the gospels themselves while focussing heavily on Jesus’ teachings (or interpretations thereof) that fit the doctrine while ignoring ones that do not. Here’s a clear example:
Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it. Matthew 7:13-14
Destruction is still a reality for those who find it. This is the wrath of God. Jesus wasn’t trying to hide that this destruction was what some would find. Instead, He was leading the way to life.
Now, in case that isn’t convincing, here are but a few of the instances where the wrath of God is referenced in the New Testament.
But when [John the baptizer] saw many of the Pharisses and Sadducees coming to where he was baptizing, he said to them: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee form the coming wrath?" Matthew 3:7-8 (See also Luke 3:7)
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on them. John 3:36
The Book of Acts contains a story of God’s wrath present among church members who lie to God and try to deceive other believers. (See chapter 5) This story may be vague to us but the writer of Acts puts this story here as a likely parallel to Leviticus 10 where two priests make strange sacrifices to God that leads to their deaths. The purpose of these events was nothing more to put fear in all peoples (Christians and otherwise) concerning the very real wrath of God.
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, Romans 1:18 (The wrath of God is referenced no fewer than seven more times in Romans)
Like the rest, we were by nature deserving of wrath. Ephesians 2:3
Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God's wrath comes on those who are disobedient. Ephesians 5:6
Because of these, the wrath of God is coming. Colossians 3:6
...and wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead- Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath. 1 Thessalonians 1:10
Other Apostles (they do not use the same word for wrath as Paul, but the theme still lines up)
If we deliberately keep on sinning after we have received the knowledge of the truth, no sacrifice for sins is left, but only a fearful expectation of judgment and of raging fire that will consume the enemies of God. Hebrews 10:26,27
if this is so, then the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment. 2 Peter 2:9
These verses, although not a complete list, paint an obvious picture of a very real and relevant wrath of God that should be a part of our understanding of God. I would even venture to say that it is a crucial part as it exists right along side our hope found in the gospel. John the baptizer, the last Old Testament prophet, was clearly explaining that those responding to his ministry were fleeing the wrath to come. Knowledge of the wrath of God preceded the ministry of Jesus and dictates the need of salvation.
Our need for salvation wasn’t just a deliverance from sin, but deliverance from the consequences of sin, that is, the wrath of God.
The Wrath of God looks like…
When most of us hear about the wrath of God, our minds go to the worst things imaginable. And this should make sense. If God is the all powerful and mighty one that we see Him as, then we should logically conclude that His wrath could be as extreme as we can imagine. This lack of clarity unfortunately brings a lot more fear and misunderstanding. In order to get a simple grid of the wrath of God, we only need to look at a few verses.
Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on them. John 3:36
This verse tells us that believing in the Son leads to eternal life, but rejecting the Son will not lead to life BECAUSE the wrath of God REMAINS. This must mean that the wrath of God is something opposing life/eternal life. To me, the presence of the wrath of God sounds like a death sentence, or a least a “don’t see life” sentence.
John states it a little differently as he quotes the words of Jesus two chapters later.
Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed from death to life. John 5:24
The word used for “crossed” is leaving or departing. It almost sounds like a person Jesus is referring to was standing in a region of death but is now standing in a region of life. While neither side may physically appear different, Jesus is not referring to a physical appearance but to a deeper reality.
The last verse I will use is a fairly popular one but now we can see in context with the wrath of God.
For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord. Romans 6:23
Now 1 John 3:4 tells us that sin is lawlessness. From there Romans 4:15 tells us that the law brings wrath. Coupling those with Romans 6:23, I read “Sin brings wrath which is death.”
Sin, to dive into that for a minute, brings wrath. At the beginning of Romans Paul says:
The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, Romans 1:18
Godlessness is really just a refusal to give reverence where it is due. Wickedness is any injustice of thought or action. As people, we have all, in one way or another, not given God His proper honor as our creator and giver of all things. For “He himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else.” (Acts 17:25) We have also held unjust and unrighteous thoughts or actions toward others who are made His image as “we praise our Lord and Father, and… curse human beings, who have been made in God’s likeness.” (James 3:9) Each one of us find ourselves guilty of rejecting God and failing to love His creation because of the presence of sin.
We all initially fall under the category of godlessness and wickedness.
To answer the question, “What does the wrath of God look like?” I would submit this answer.
The wrath of God looks like a sentence of death for all of humanity for rejection of God’s good character and failure to respond to His creation with love, that is, sin. You may have your own view of it, but, to put it as simple as possible, wrath is a death to come. This does not refer to our physical death, but it refers to the “second death” that will come when God judges all of us according to what we have done. (See Revelation 20:11-15)
God’s Response to the Wrath of God
Now that we know that the wrath of God exists and, at the present time, it remains as a sentence of death to come, it is important for us to see God’s character in His wrath. If we stop here, the idea that “God is good” almost doesn’t make sense. But, in fact, the wrath of God leads to His good character making sense. His judgment is simply against everything that opposes His good character and “we know that God’s judgment against those who do such things is based on truth.” (Romans 2:2) God desires to make everything right. That is the purpose of His wrath. But it doesn’t just stop there.
We often think of the Old Testament as a strong picture of God’s wrathful character, but to the Jews they saw it as His faithfulness. They flocked to John the baptizer’s message of repentance because they were confident in God’s desire to deliver them from the wrath to come. God conveyed this so clearly through one of Israel’s prophets when He said
"Son of man, say to the Israelites, 'This is what you are saying: "Our offenses and sins weigh us down, and we are wasting away because of them. How then can we live?"' Say to them, 'As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, people of Israel?'" Ezekiel 33:10,11 (check out the whole chapter for some pretty interesting feelings that God has about His wrath)
It is some good news that God takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, and He clearly takes no pleasure in the death sentence that His wrath declares although it aligns with His good character. He desires that all of the wicked turn and, as John the baptizer put it, “Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” (Matthew 3:8)
John Piper perhaps put it best. “The wisdom of God has ordained a way for the love of God to deliver us from the wrath of God without compromising the justice of God.”
God in His wisdom, while maintaining His strict judgment against everything that opposes His goodness, lovingly gave humanity a way out of the sentence of death that His wrath against sin requires. It is so simple as to be called a gift. And it is only one way but thankfully so! It is so clear and direct as to make it a guarantee for those who find it. This route is repentance by faith in Jesus.
Now this turning alone isn’t what gives a person the power to cross from the wrath of God to life, but it is the key. Jesus has the power that delivers us from this wrath.
God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. 2 Corinthians 5:21
God’s goodness and kindness did the work through Jesus that repentance initiates in our lives. God’s kindness leads us to repentance that then crosses us into the sentence of life! This gift of God is then what gives us the strength to live in line with the righteousness of God. Our righteous deeds could never accomplish it.
The wrath of God and the gospel go hand-in-hand to show the holy goodness and kindness of God that we might be led by Him into righteousness and godliness through Jesus.
The rejection of the wrath of God denies God’s good character and makes the gospel unnecessary.
Notice that, if you have repented and trusted in Jesus, we do not have our fullness of eternal life now. We will still die like all the rest. And this is what the Thessalonian church was trying to balance. But, like them, we do have a sentence of life! We begin to experience eternal life now that the power of sin in our lives was defeated by Jesus on the cross, and we will truly experience it at the resurrection of the dead where God will execute His sentence of wrath or eternal life on each of us. We will get the same eternal life as Jesus who lives even though He died.
With this good news I want to exhort you to two things.
First, please study this for yourself and figure out these answers for yourself. Ask questions in meditation on the scripture as well as well as in the comment section below if anything didn’t make sense. The wrath of God is a difficult subject but I am confident it is crucial for our understanding of the character of God. It is a topic I have to come back to from time to time in order to re-orient my understanding of God and correctly view how great His grace is.
Second, the presence of the wrath of God does not give us a license as the church of God to declare judgments on people’s eternal sentence. (See Romans 2:1-11) That is God’s doing and we are to “leave room for the wrath of God” rather than taking revenge ourselves. Our only right is to share the gospel that meets the wrath of God with the love of God that leads to eternal life. And if there is any place where we have questions that cannot be answered, we can trust Him. He’s got it. As Peter said,
the Lord knows how to rescue the godly from trials and to hold the unrighteous for punishment on the day of judgment. 2 Peter 2:9
If I come across any common questions from the comments below or elsewhere I will edit this post to include them in order to be most helpful.