Q&R with Brad Jersak: What about “God’s wrath” in the NT?
Just bought and read A More Christlike God. I loved the book!
I really want to believe your theology of wrath – but how do you explain these NT verses that refer to wrath? Is it all explained by “giving over”? For example:
- John 3:36 Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God’s wrath remains on them.
- Romans 2:8 But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger.
- Ephesians 5:6 Let no one deceive you with empty words, for because of such things God’s wrath comes on those who are disobedient.
- Colossians 3:5-6 5 Put to death, therefore, whatever belongs to your earthly nature: sexual immorality, impurity, lust, evil desires and greed, which is idolatry. 6 Because of these, the wrath of God is coming
- 1 Thessalonians 2:16 in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath of God has come upon them at last
- Hebrews 3:9-11 9 where your ancestors tested and tried me, though for forty years they saw what I did.10 That is why I was angry with that generation; I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray, and they have not known my ways.’ 11 So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.
- Hebrews 4:3 Now we who have believed enter that rest, just as God has said, “So I declared on oath in my anger, ‘They shall never enter my rest.’”And yet his works have been finished since the creation of the world.
- Revelation 11:18 The nations were angry, and your wrath has come. The time has come for judging the dead, and for rewarding your servants the prophets and your people who revere your name, both great and small-and for destroying those who destroy the earth.”
I’d begin the same way I describe in the book: “Wrath” (orge) is a metaphor for the self-inflicted consequences of defying God. It’s not that God literally wraths them, but as long as we turn from the light, we will endure the suffering generated by the shadow we create. The Light of Christ’s unfailing love shines on all without fail, but our rejection of the Light leaves us wallowing in our brokenness. The wrath or the judgment is intrinsic to the sin–i.e. the ‘wages of sin’ [not of God] is death but the free gift of God is eternal life.” Reject eternal life and light what have you left?
Take someone who falls into a serious drug addiction, supports the addiction through break and entries, gets caught, arrested, convicted and put in jail. They are undergoing “the wrath” of their own sins. And indeed, some texts use “wrath” as a synonym for “Satan” or “the destroyer” (as I mentioned re: Romans 5 and Wisdom of Solomon 18). God did not cause the addiction, the lifestyle of crime, the arrest or even imprisonment. The natural consequences and spiritual bondage is its own sufficient punishment.
So then in what sense is the wrath “God’s.” So the church fathers say “only figuratively”–it is projecting the consequences of our sin onto the one we are sinning against. If God’s law is love but we act in hate, then experience the backlash of our own hate, is God’s law the problem? Did God’s law cause the backlash? The backlash is only associated with God in that our acts were a violation of his law. But the punishment is the backlash of our own hate.
The wrath also “God’s” in that despite our wilful defiance and the consequential suffering, God’s presence in our lives subverts these outcomes into a means of redemption. For the addict, for example, they may lose everything … but losing everything may be the very occasion God uses (not sends) to wake them up and steer them home. The prodigal son woke up in a pigpen and came to his senses. The Father did not send him there. It was not literally God’s wrath. But it became part of the big picture of the son’s redemption.
The parable of the prodigal sons is the clearest picture we have of what wrath is, how it works, what causes it and how it is and isn’t “God’s.” The texts you’ve listed would all generally fit that model. However…
The other dynamic is that these texts also employ rhetoric. Rhetorical devices are common in the NT–a way of communicating with intense pathos to move truth from the head to the heart to the hands (action). And NT authors use it all the time (along with hyperbole, etc.). Threats of wrath are used rhetorically as a slap on the face but are nearly always paired up with contrasting words of comfort, consolation and confidence. We run into a problem when we literalize and totalize rhetoric, as if it’s passionless information to be absorbed at face value. It’s the toughest genre to work with because we’re prone to think it’s simple didactic teaching or propositional truth. But rhetoric is like preaching. It’s an oratory method for effect.
Sometimes, the wrath language serves as a wake-up call similar to the pig manure that finally caught the prodigal’s attention. But, speaking analogously, does the Father ever literally shove the paddies in the boy’s face? Not at all. Indeed, the punchline comes as a welcome invitation home… the same invitation we see in the immediate context of nearly all wrath rhetoric.
This might seem like a stretch to modern readers but to the early Christians, this approach is mandatory because the alternative ends up throwing God’s character under the bus. To anthropomorphize the ‘wrath’ inevitably creates an idol or commits a blasphemy–a lesser God than the all-merciful Abba revealed in Christ.
I hope this helps.