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How to Interpret God’s “Wrath”

What do you do with the “wrath of God”?

You may be surprised to know that throughout Christian history, theologians have been troubled by “wrath of God” language. Why? Because they knew that for Christians, Christ is the full revelation of God. As Colossians 1:19 puts it, “In him, the fullness of God was pleased to dwell.”

Notice that Colossians, and the New Testament as a whole, does not say that the fullness of God was pleased to dwell in the Scriptures or in the Bible. The early Christians knew that the Bible was important and even God-breathed, but they also knew that God fully dwelled in Jesus, not the Bible.

For the early Christians, this meant that Jesus was their interpretive lens for all of life, including the Scriptures.  

The Christian Orthodox Teaching on God’s Wrath

For many orthodox Christians, this meant that they couldn’t interpret the language of the Bible concerning the “wrath of God” literally. Take John Cassian, for example. Cassian lived during the fourth and fifth centuries AD and is revered as a saint in the Roman Catholic tradition and in the Easter Orthodox tradition. In his book, Institutes, Book 8.3, Cassian claims something that may seem obvious to you: When the Bible speaks of God’s arms or mouth or feet, it is speaking metaphorically. God does not literally have a body, so you can’t interpret those passages literally.

But here is a big surprise: in the very next paragraph (8.4), Cassian says that you can’t interpret God’s wrath literally, either. He states,

“And so as without horrible profanity these things (God’s body) cannot be understood literally of Him who is declared by the authority of Holy Scripture to be invisible, ineffable, incomprehensible, inestimable, simple, and uncompounded, so neither can the passion of anger and wrath be attributed to that unchangeable nature without fearful blasphemy.”

Wow! When I first read that, it shook me. Cassian says that in the same way that we can’t take God having a body literally, we can’t take God having anger or wrath literally. We typically think that having issues with God’s wrath is a modern concern for people who just want a God of love who is weak. That’s not true on two fronts. First, Christians have always been concerned about the Bible’s portrayal of “God’s wrath.” And second, God’s radical nonviolent love does not make God weak. It is part of God’s great power to love.

“God is love,” as 1 John claims. You may have heard it differently. Many claim that God is love, but also holy and just, which means God is also wrath. But 1 John doesn’t say those things. It just says, “God is love.” 

How Should We Interpret God’s Wrath?

So how should we interpret God’s anger and wrath? In his book, A More Christlike God, Brad Jersack says we much interpret these concepts metaphorically. He states, “When the Bible speaks in a metaphor, to understand its message, we must read it and interpret it as metaphor. This sloppy propensity to literalize metaphors is a major reason why so much misunderstanding about ‘wrath’ (i.e., ‘God’s wrath’) persists” (pg 189).

But if we “God’s wrath” metaphorically and not literally, what does that look like?

Well, there is good news. Because the Bible already has the key to a metaphorical interpretation of “God’s wrath.”

We usually think of “wrath” as anger that is uncontrollable. It’s anger that is all-consuming. Wrath involves violent anger that needs an outlet, and it may find any victim close by.

That is not how the God revealed in Jesus acts. And so there must be something else going on.

Over time in the Bible, God’s “wrath” is revealed as something that God doesn’t act upon. The Book of Job is a good example. Briefly, Job is a rich man who has a big family and a joyful life. But everything is taken away from him. Job suffers great loss, but he proclaims his innocence. Job’s four friends tell him that he must have sinned to deserve his suffering. They quote biblical principles that state God causes sinners to suffer because of their sins. They implore Job to fess up to his sins. But Job continues to proclaim his innocence.

At the end of the book in chapter 42, God tells Job that he was right the whole time. Then God says to Job’s friends, “My wrath is kindled against you…for you have not spoken of me what is right, as my servant Job has.”

But what does God’s wrath look like? Fire and brimstone? Leprosy? Death?

No. None of that. Instead, God tells the friends to “offer up for yourselves a burnt offering” and Job shall pray for you, “for I will accept his prayer not to deal with you according to your folly.”

In Job, God’s wrath is something God desperately tries to avoid. That’s not wrath as I’ve understood wrath before.

In Romans, Paul talks about God’s “wrath” in chapter 1. Paul states, “For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of those who by their wickedness suppress the truth.” But what does God’s wrath look like in action? Paul explains a few verses later, “Therefore, God gave them up in the lusts of their hearts to impurity.”

In Job, God deals “wrathfully” with Job’s friends by telling them to offering up burnt offerings and by Job praying for them. This is a very non-wrathful way that God deals with God’s “wrath.” Notice that it doesn’t let Job’s friends “off the hook.” God confronts the friends by telling them that their attempts to use religion to blame Job was a misuse of religion. And God shows them the truth about God – that God is not a God of punishing wrath, but a God of loving forgiveness.

In Romans, Paul tells us that “God’s wrath” is shown in that God lets us suffer the consequences of our own actions. If we are going to insist on treating one another without God’s love and grace, there will be consequences. We will create patterns of hostility against one another. And God won’t stop us from our own determination toward hostility.

God is Not a God of Wrath. God is a God of Grace.

But there is more. God is not a God of karma. God is a God of grace. Paul writes in Romans 5:20 that, “where sin increased, wrath abounded all the more.”

No! Paul didn’t say that. He actually wrote, “where sin increased, grace abounded all the more.”

So, I think the John Cassian, the 5th century orthodox theologian, was correct. God’s wrath is a metaphor. It’s not uncontrollable violent “wrath.” But the Bible won’t let us get rid of “wrath” language. Instead, wrath is a metaphor. It describes the way God deals with sin, which isn’t by ignoring it.

As with Job’s friends, God might come to us and show us what we’ve gotten wrong. Coming face to face with the ways we have harmed others can feel like God’s “wrath.” But God doesn’t leave us there. While God allows us to suffer the consequences of our sins, God doesn’t meet us with violent wrath, but with all the more grace and love.

For more on this topic, watch my full presentation and Q&A on the Bible and violence at the Theology and Peace YouTube Channel

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Adam Ericksen

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