God’s Wrath and God’s Justice

It is common in some Christian circles to use the phrase “God’s wrath” and I have known a number of people who have bristled under the phrase. This is because when most people hear the word wrath they think of anger or rage and the way this phrase is often used is that God’s wrath is directed at my sin or as in the Keith Getty song In Christ Alone,

'Til on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied

In either case, what most people hear is that God is angry because humans have done wrong and is seeking to punish us, and often angry because we did wrong even when we did not realize our actions were wrong. The only bright side(?) to this is that Jesus stepped up and took the anger on himself and so we have the opportunity to live as if God is not angry. There are two things I need to acknowledge 1. I am not part of the tradition that emphasizes God’s wrath 2. The best of that theological tradition does not understand the doctrine this way, however this IS how the many understand the teaching and so I want to offer a major correction to this bad theology.

I started thinking about this question reading Colossians 3:6 “On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient.” And considering the preceding verse is a list of sins, we could on a surface reading understandably come to the conclusion that the above understanding of God’s wrath is correct. But there is a nuance to the word ὀργὴ (wrath) that is not often noticed but I think the authors of Scripture have in mind. Like English, Greek has a few ways to speak of anger and passion and ὀργὴ has a connotation of “passion brought about by a concern for justice”. It is possible that the New Testament writers were not concerned with this definition when they wrote of God’s wrath and simply mean anger but I do not think this is the case. For one thing the concept of zealous for justice fits well with the character God expresses in Exodus 34:6-7

“The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin,
yet by no means clearing the guilty,
but visiting the iniquity of the parents
upon the children
and the children’s children
to the third and the fourth generation.”

These verses describe God as controlling raw anger and simultaneously concerned with justice. God will punish the guilty (unjust) but does so out of a desire for love and peace to flourish not our of anger. Read against this background, the sin list in Colossians 3:5 reflects ways in which people commit to promoting injustice in the world. These are not arbitrary wrongs that upset God these are areas where we harm one another and put us in danger of being caught up as God cleanses the world of injustice. God’s wrath is not inherently directed at us because we messed up it is directed at the injustice of the world and if we are committed to that kind of injustice then we will be held accountable when God takes action.I don’t think the English word wrath captures this very well, because to me wrath sounds like unbridled fury. The universal description of God’s character is one of passion but a controlled and deliberate passion, intentionally focused on one target. But we (as far as I know) have a term for this in English and so we are left in the lurch by the inadequacies of our language.

I think the reason we miss this is because we tend to think of wrath in terms of “God is angry with me” (or something akin to it) is because that is how our anger usual plays out. I am angered by how the actions of others impact my world, not inherently by injustice and if my anger is motivated by justice it is often a one-sided and partial justice. To complicate this further the pantheons of other religions usually express their gods with the same wrath and fury that humans depict. And we end up projecting that same emotion on God, instead of recognizing the God’s motives and working from there. God wants to create a world of love, joy, peace, etc. and so the wrath God displays must both be motivated by a love for humanity and a desire to end anything unloving.

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