Is God’s wrath a sign of God’s love?

Last week, Timothy Keller posted a number of tweets about God’s wrath and God’s love being inseparable. Here is one of them:

A god of less wrath than the God of the Bible is necessarily a god of less love. His anger is a product of his love.

They prompted quite a significant repose – including from myself.

Most respondents were concerned about the concept of God’s ‘wrath’, because of the parallel with human wrath that is justified as being ‘loving’, as is often the case in contexts of abuse. My reaction was related not to the concept but to the use of language and its implications.

(Based on follow-up tweets, it is possible that the quotation is actually taken from Volf, but this is not quite clear. I am responding to it on its own.)

Many people read this quotation through the lens of their own experiences of human love and human anger. That, of course, is perfectly understandable. It is not clear to me whether the originator of the quotation has this perspective or not. But it seems to me such an obviously likely perspective, and such a misleading one, that it constantly needs to be challenged.

The ‘anger’ or ‘wrath’ of God as described in the Bible, is often a way of speaking of God’s enactment of judgement on those who oppose God’s purposes. Such judgement is typically destructive. God as sovereign and good, wields absolute power for the purposes of the wellbeing of creation. This necessarily entails the thwarting of anything that mars, spoils or desecrates God’s good creation. Psalm 78 includes some examples.

I am convinced that the term ‘anger/wrath’ is used by the biblical writers to describe such a phenomenon in a figurative way. The human experience of destruction is so closely associated with anger, that ‘anger’ is used as the best available means of referring to what God is doing when God executes judgement.

From this point of view there are two vital differences between God’s ‘anger’ and human anger.

  1. Human anger when expressed as destructive behaviour is almost always harmful. God’s ‘anger’ is never harmful, other than to those who are incontrovertibly opposed to God’s purposes and thus who are themselves a source of harm.
  2. Since God’s ‘anger’ is a figurative way of referring to God’s judgement, and such judgement may be executed by God alone (in an orthodox Christian theological context), the consequence is that God’s ‘anger’ cannot be a model for human anger.

So this is the heart of my concern about Keller’s tweet. I completely concur with him that the biblical depiction is of a God who is ‘wrathful’, and I sympathise with him that this aspect of theology is badly neglected in much contemporary theological discourse and preaching. But I do not think it is pastorally safe to make any such assertion without immediately qualifying it by saying ‘but this does not justify human anger’.

As other respondents to the original tweet made clear, many people’s experience of human anger is that it is harmful. They thus can be instinctively dismissive of the concept of God’s ‘wrath’ as being incompatible with God’s love. That is tragic. It leads to the painfully common identification of the God of the Old Testament as one of ‘wrath’ and the God of the New Testament as one of ‘love’, as if these are somehow opposed. God is equally loving and judging (in the sense described above) throughout the whole Bible.

How are we to work our way around these problems? I can think of three possibilities, and perhaps I will write more on them another time:

  1. We can simply replace the word ‘wrath’ with what it typically represents (to avoid taking a figure of speech as if it were literal), thus: ‘A god of less judgement than the God of the Bible is necessarily a god of less love. God’s judgement is a product of God’s love.’ In other words, God’s love for creation necessitates that God take action against those who ruin it. To fail to take action would be unloving.
  2. We can distinguish between anger and love as feelings, and anger and love as actions. In the modern Western world, the words are most commonly used in relation to emotions. In contrast, I think the biblical writers used them principally as a way of describing actions, such as the use of ‘wrath’ to describe the enactment of judgement.
  3. We can be much more circumspect about comparing human capacities and divine. We can be careful not to project onto God our own experience of anger and of how this influences action. And conversely, we can avoid taking God’s ‘anger’ as a model for our own. As I often point out: the concept of ‘righteous anger’ is nowhere to be found in the Bible!

Two illustrations that draw together points 2. and 3:

A simple psychological model of the human emotion of anger is that it is caused by blocked goals. I.e. we want something (e.g. food, status, welfare of others), but are prevented from attaining it, and thus become angry. Therefore anger is rooted in motivations and desires. Here’s the simple contrast: human motives are always an inextricable mix of good and bad, or virtuous and selfish, of base and holy; whereas God is good, wholly, always. Therefore human anger cannot normally be compared favourably with divine ‘anger’.

And since someone will inevitably point be towards Jesus cleansing the temple, I will point out that the biblical text does not say Jesus was angry. If we interpret his actions as evidence of him being ‘angry’, then I believe it says something about our own experience and understanding of human anger, not about God. The only time Jesus is described as being angry is in Mark 3:5. What did he do as a result? He healed someone.

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2 Replies to “Is God’s wrath a sign of God’s love?”

  1. Very helpful Simon. That answers the objection some have to the line from the song ‘In Christ alone…’: ‘The wrath of God was satisfied ‘. It was his enacted judgement on sin.

    1. Thanks for your comment Paul. That line is problematic to many people, for the kind of reasons I discuss, and needs to be understood carefully.
      If it is seen as a vindictive God pouring out wrath on an innocent person (even his own ‘son’) that it does sound to some, as Steve Chalke put it, like ‘cosmic child abuse’).
      But if it is seen as God himself carrying the effects of human sin and rebellion in order to make restoration possible, then God is both enacter and recipient of judgement, for the benefit of the whole of humanity.

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