How can a loving God be a God of wrath?

In Romans 1:18, Paul declares that, "The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men who suppress the truth by their wickedness."

(public domain via Wikimedia Commons)
How can a loving God be a God of wrath?

The answer is that God's wrath, like all his attributes, is an expression of his being, which is love (1 John 4:8). Because God is love, he loves us. And God finds the evil that hurts his children to be intolerable, and he, in his wrath, judges that evil. However, what Paul tells us in Romans is that God has already accomplished this judgment against sin and evil through the incarnation, life, death, resurrection and ascension of his Son, Jesus Christ. In Christ, God poured out his wrath on all sin. And through Christ, God's wrath is ended - the enmity humanity created between itself and God through sin, is ended.

God has reconciled himself to all humanity, through Jesus. Yet, in love, God continues to extend to all people the freedom to choose to accept or to reject God's love for them. To accept his love means accepting God's forgiveness in Jesus Christ, and to admit that we have been sinful creatures in hateful opposition to God. That’s what it means to “accept Christ." We accept our sinfulness and estrangement from God and acknowledge our faith that through Christ and his redemptive work we have been given reconciliation, transformation and eternal life in God as a free gift – and that we are free from wrath.

Ephesians 2:1-10 describes the human journey from being the objects of God’s wrath to receiving salvation by his grace. God’s purpose from the beginning is to express his love toward humans in the forgiveness of the world’s sin through the work of Jesus.

Ephesians 1:3-8 is instructive about mankind’s situation in relationship to God. It shows that there is an essential and, we might say, “built in” wrath by God against sinfulness in man that he purposed to eliminate through a real reconciliation he initiates and brings to fruition in Christ (Ephesians 2:15-18; Colossians 1:19-23). To say this reconciliation is real is to acknowledge that repentance and reconciliation come about not through human words, emotion or even our desire to do God’s will, but through the actual Person of and saving work in Christ by God on our behalf. That saving work was carried out as “loving wrath” against sinfulness and for us as persons. Because all humanity has been included "in Christ," no person is the object of God's wrath - God has reconciled himself to all.

Salvation is God’s rescue program in Christ –“who rescues us from the coming wrath” (1 Thessalonians 1:9-10). To repeat, human beings by nature are God’s enemies and this animosity causes a necessary and spontaneous countermeasure from a holy and loving God – his wrath. But from the beginning, God has purposed out of his love to end the human-caused wrath through sin by the saving work of Christ. It is through God’s love that we are reconciled to him in his own saving work in the death and life of his Son (Romans 5:9-10; John 3:16).

In summary, when speaking of “God’s wrath” it is important to consider how it is that God purposed to eliminate it. We thank God that God’s wrath disappears when sin is conquered and destroyed. We have assurance in the promise of his peace toward us because he has once and for all dealt with sin in Christ. God has reconciled us to himself in the saving work of his Son, thus ending his wrath through reconciliation, as it were. God’s “wrath” against sin and sinfulness is presupposed in his sending his Son, Jesus Christ, to personally win the final victory over this enemy of God. If God did not war against all forms of sinfulness – if he had no “wrath” against it – he would have seen no need to send his Son in human form as Jesus (John 1:1, 14) to destroy this enemy of his very Being and his purpose in man.

When we read the New Testament statement that God so loved the world that he sent his Son – and that whoever believes in him will not perish (John 3:16) – we are to understand from this very act that God is “wrathful” against sin. But in his war against sinfulness, God does not condemn sinful man, but saves him from it for reconciliation and eternal life. God’s “wrath” is not intended to “condemn the world,” (John 3:17) but to condemn and destroy the power of sin in all its forms so that humans may have an eternal relationship of love with him.

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  1. Anonymous11/21/2010


    Wrath is indeed a fascinating topic. As such, it is good to note where wrath finds its teeth. It is in the law. When the law is present, wrath is there because we humans cannot do law. So we just earn the penalty for breaking the law. However, when the law is not there, wrath goes away. As Paul says:

    Romans 4:13-15--For the promise, that he should be the heir of the world, was not to Abraham, or to his seed, through the law, but through the righteousness of faith. For if they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect: Because the law worketh wrath: for where no law is, there is no transgression. (KJV)

    Thankfully, Jesus gave Himself so that we can have His "apart from law" righteousness through His faith. Again, Paul addresses this thought by saying:

    Romans 3:19-22--Now we know that what things soever the law saith, it saith to them who are under the law: that every mouth may be stopped, and all the world may become guilty before God. Therefore by the deeds of the law there shall no flesh be justified in his sight: for by the law is the knowledge of sin. But now the righteousness of God without the law is manifested, being witnessed by the law and the prophets; Even the righteousness of God which is by faith of Jesus Christ unto all and upon all them that believe:… (KJV)

    The result is that this work of Jesus places us in a no sin zone wherein there is no wrath.

    All the best!

    J. Richard Parker

  2. Thank God that he judges us in grace as an expression of his love; not in law as though he had a need for vengeful justice. Note what Daniel L. Migliore writes in, "Faith Seeking Understanding":

    "The gospel of Jesus Christ and the motive of resentment and revenge are absolutely incompatible...The fire of [God's judgment] is the fire of a loving judgment and a judging love that we know in the cross of Christ to be for our salvation rather than our destruction...

    "The very same Christ who was crucified and raised for us will also be our judge on the final day. We are not confronted now with a gracious, forgiving Lord but then with a vengeful, vindictive judge...

    "The criterion of judgment, now and then, is nothing other than the self-giving, other-including love of God decisively made known in Jesus Christ. We will not be judged by whether we have said, 'Lord, Lord' (Matt. 7:21) or whether we have subscribed fully to certain orthodox doctrines. If we are guided by the scene of the final judgment in Matthew 25, the question we will have to answer will be something like this: 'In response to God's superabundant mercy to us, have we shown mercy, or only loved ourselves?...' The criteria are simple trust in God's grace and joyful participation in Christ'a agapic way of life..." (pp. 345-346).

  3. Thanks Ted
    Over the last few weeks heard different discussions on this and appreciate them all. One thing is of great comfort that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit before space/time already in thought had the solution in love. God knows about good and evil so this is no mystery to Him and His response is always in who He is. I know the biggest problem for me is that I can apprehend His love (for it is all around and in me) however I just do not comprehend it, and some of its attributes.

  4. Ted,
    You wrote: “Yet, in love, God continues to extend to all people the freedom to choose to accept or to reject God's love for them.” Was it Thomas Torrance who said in the “Ground and Grammar” lectures, and elsewhere, that there is no freedom involved in rejecting God? It is God who works in Christ to makes us free to awaken to his “yes”, but no freedom involved in refusing him, only continuing slavery to our alienated and hostile minds. Or something like that. Your thoughts?
    Bill Ford

  5. Hi Bill,

    Torrance has much to say about the nature of human freedom. A key point is that this freedom is not apart from our inclusion in God's love and life in Jesus. In other words, we are included whether we know it or not; whether we accept it or not.

    What we are free to do is choose to reject or to embrace our inclusion. By embracing we are able to enjoy our inclusion. By rejecting, what is a blessing turns into a curse.

    We see this dynamic working itself out in the experience of Israel in covenant with God. All Israel is included in the covenant and God will never let her go. Yet individual Israelites, in their freedom from inside the covenant obstinately reject their covenant God and thus experience covenant curses rather than blessings.

    In like manner, Robert Capon notes that in the end, all people are God's dearly loved, accepted and forgiven children. Those in heaven embrace and thus enjoy that reality, while those in hell reject it, placing themselves within a prison of untruth that is of their own making.

  6. Anonymous4/20/2011

    The problem i have with a wrathful god and a loving god is that i don't know which face i will see for example Ananias (Acts 5) is killed by god for keeping back money whereas Paul a man who was killing the Christians is forgiven.

    so for me this is difficult because say if i sacrifice something to god and then begin to doubt i squash that fear as opposed to dealing with it because i am worried that then god will punish not reward my gift. thus my relationship is governed by fear. Fear of the god is preached and encouraged yet for me i find it a concept really hard to understand because how can you trust someone you fear--how can you be yourself.

    Secondly god’s wrath in the Old Testament seemed to lack justice--for an example his killing of every first born. People say that god used Israel only as a weapon for his justice because the Egyptians did vile things such as child sacrifices however have we not all fallen short of the glory of god, and more important were these not given less of a chance to find god that the Israelites who were constantly forgiven as god’s chosen people.

    i am a Christian but i find it harder to move deeper in my faith because i find it hard to merge the different picture of god into one.

    if you could answer this is would be a great help.

    PS your blog is really helpful thank you.

  7. Dear anonymous,
    You ask some important and penetrating questions. I'd like to invite other readers to respond and let's see what we come up with together.

  8. Anonymous6/14/2011

    Real relationships are based on honesty, so don’t be afraid to air your questions about him. What really takes guts, is to bring your gripes to him, yourself. Remember how Abraham gathered his courage to wring some mercy out of his Lord. I see Jesus trying hard to stay serious, to contain the urge to get up and hug this son that he was so proud of.

    Job had some serious questions as to the fairness of how he was treated. First, God sets Job up, by bringing his situation to Satan’s attention. When the Devil suggests testing Job’s loyalty, God goes along with it! Here we see this God of love making a wager at the expense of a servant who, “was blameless and upright; he feared God and shunned evil.” (Job 1:1) After God’s stern admonishment, he praised Job’s words, but punished his companions for condemning Job. When God made his bet with Satan, he was showing all of heaven that there is something more than blessings and curses to motivate loyalty. In all of Job’s pain, and mental anguish, he couldn’t curse his God, because he would have to give up his friend.

    Have you ever wondered why some thoughtless jerks receive endless affection from women in denial; while some faithful guys can’t seem to win, they never get the benefit of the doubt? It’s the same way with God. God’s question to Job was simply, if you don’t have all the facts, how can you condemn my actions?

    The death of Ananias did cause a lot of fear. To me, the only way this can be understood, is that Saul thought he was crushing opposition to God’s truth, (thereby acting nobly), while Ananias was acting as if God was only a figment of the group's imagination. There may have been even more going on than we know.

    On top of all this, we put far more value on this life than God seems to. Does God’s momentary displeasure with Uzzah, and Ananias, mean that they will burn in hell for eternity? Does he not have the ability to fix their attitudes someday? Do you think that old Pharaoh may yet have a real chance to know God, since his heart was purposely hardened in this life? In the same way, don’t you think it’s a bit unfair to be born into a Muslim family, versus a Christian one? Is it fair for a young child to be allowed to die? No, this life is by no means fair, but that says nothing about God’s character, since the last act hasn’t been seen yet.

    I think God deserves the benefit of the doubt. Have you ever considered how tough it must be to be God? If he is truly loving, can you imagine how tough it must be to watch how we hurt each other? Consider Jesus’ reaction to the sorrow of Lazarus’ funeral. He even knew what he intended to do about it, but it still hurt him. We admire God’s willingness to have us adopted into his family, but do we even have an clue as to the incredible cost he is bearing? Why does the process have to be so painful? I don’t know, none of us do.

    The Father has done some strange things, like allow an Adversary to cause untold trouble in heaven, and on earth. However, once you consider how Satan played into his plan at Calvary, you just might be inclined to believe he might know what he’s doing.

    As you know, we consider blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job's perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy. (James 5:11)

    The LORD is good to all; he has compassion on all he has made. (Psalm 145:9)

    For God has bound all men over to disobedience so that he may have mercy on them all. (Roms.11:32)

    I cannot explain every verse in the Bible that seems to paint God in a bad light, but I cannot deal with life lived without him, either. Humans have been hiding from God ever since Satan lied to us in the garden. He has used religion to keep us in fear. I hope that you will continue to search for truth, because I believe it will prove that God is worthy of trust. If real love doesn’t exist, life isn’t worth living. How can anyone be asked to live selflessly, if he doesn’t.

  9. Just to toss in my 2₵, a great read on the subject is a book called Is God a Moral Monster?: Making Sense of the Old Testament God by Paul Copan.

    Here is an excerpt from an interview Lee Stroble did with Paul Copan...

    LS: How do you answer those who claim that God commands genocide in the Old Testament?

    PC: Critics fail to acknowledge that the language used about the Canaanites is the same language used about Israel—just one indication that this isn’t “genocidal.” God threatened to “vomit” out Israel from the land just as he had vomited out the Canaanites (Leviticus 18:25, 28; 20:22). If God commands Israel to “commit genocide” against the Canaanites and to “utterly destroy” them, then he is doing the same thing to the southern kingdom of Judah in the Babylonian captivity. God promises: “I will utterly destroy them and make them a horror and a hissing, and an everlasting desolation” (Jer. 25:9). Of course, Judah wasn’t literally utterly destroyed by Babylon; there were plenty of survivors, even if Judah’s religious, political, and military structures were disabled. The language of “totally wiping out and leaving no survivors” exaggeration or hyperbole was common in the ancient Near Eastern war accounts, and the Bible uses this exaggerated language as well. We use this when we talk about basketball teams “slaughtering” their opponents.

    LS: Obviously, we shouldn’t read the Bible in a wooden or always in a strictly “literal” way.

    PC: It’s important to distinguish between taking the Bible “literally” and taking it “literarily.” We shouldn’t interpret the Bible with some one-size-fits-all method. The biblical writers never intended this, but they use different types of literature or genres—poetry, prophecy, parable, Gospel—which require different approaches of interpretation.

    I can’t go into a lot of detail here, and I even expand upon the “utter destruction” of the Canaanites in an essay with Matthew Flannagan in a forthcoming book with InterVarsity Press, Old Testament “Holy War” and Christian Morality (coedited by Jeremy Evans, Heath Thomas, and me). I would argue that this exaggeration applies to the sweeping language of warfare texts of Joshua (Canaanites), Numbers 31 (Midianites) and 1 Samuel 15 (Amalekites).

    For example, Joshua (which talks about “leaving no survivors”) is closely connected to Judges 1-2 (where lots of Canaanite survivors remain). Even within Joshua we read: “There were no Anakim left in the land” (11:22); they were “utterly destroyed” in the hill country (11:21). Yet Caleb later asked permission to drive out the Anakites from the hill country (14:12-15; cp. 15:13-19). Joshua’s military campaign in Canaan simply wasn’t a territorial conquest, but a series of disabling raids, as Egyptologist Kenneth Kitchen argues—not military campaigns resulting in utter decimation. And this is exactly what the archaeological record shows.

    Furthermore, Deuteronomy and Joshua speak a lot about “driving out,” “dispossessing,” and “thrusting out” the Canaanites (Deut. 6:19; 7:1; 9:4; 18:12; Josh. 10:28, 30, 32, 35, 37, 39; 11:11, 14). If they are to be driven out, they are not literally killed or destroyed. You can’t both drive out and destroy. In all the alleged cases of “genocide,” we see plenty of survivors, which provides ample indication the biblical authors didn’t intend literal obliteration. So, if “Joshua obeyed all that Moses commanded” (Josh. 9:24; 11:12; etc.), and Joshua left many survivors, then Moses (in Dt. 20) must not have intended this either.


  10. LS: Some Christians might say you are minimizing the severity of God’s judgment on an immoral, idolatrous culture. How would you reply?

    PC: My point has been to show that critics typically take “utter destruction” texts literally, but they don’t do the same with the “many survivors” texts! Don’t get me wrong. God takes sin seriously, and in the Old Testament he brings judgment not only on sexually promiscuous, infant-sacrificing Canaanites. He, of course, did wait over 400 years until the time of judgment was ripe (Genesis 15:16). Yet he brought judgment on many other nations as well—including his own people in the Assyrian and Babylonian exiles!

    I’m fond of quoting the Yale theologian Miroslav Volf. He was born in Croatia and lived through the nightmare years of ethnic strife in the former Yugoslavia—including the destruction of churches, the rape of women, and the murder of innocents. He once thought that wrath and anger were beneath God, but he came to realize that his view of God had been too low. Here’s how Volf puts the New Atheists’ complaints about divine wrath into proper perspective:

    “I used to think that wrath was unworthy of God. Isn’t God love? Shouldn’t divine love be beyond wrath? God is love, and God loves every person and every creature. That’s exactly why God is wrathful against some of them. My last resistance to the idea of God’s wrath was a casualty of the war in the former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come. According to some estimates, 200,000 people were killed and over 3,000,000 were displaced. My villages and cities were destroyed, my people shelled day in and day out, some of them brutalized beyond imagination, and I could not imagine God not being angry. Or think of Rwanda in the last decade of the past century, where 800,000 people were hacked to death in one hundred days! How did God react to the carnage? By doting on the perpetrators in a grandfatherly fashion? By refusing to condemn the bloodbath but instead affirming the perpetrators’ basic goodness? Wasn’t God fiercely angry with them? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.”

  11. Thanks for this contribution to our discussion Robert. Good food for thought!

  12. Anonymous1/06/2014

    God's wrath may be that he allows us to be on our own without him where we are self-seeking, envious, murderers, idolators and all the other things we are without our accepting of God and his son Jesus Christ.


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