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Angry God?

Rethinking some myths about God’s wrath

John Peckham
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Angry God?
Photo by Felix Mittermeier on Unsplash

My toy cabin made of Lincoln Logs was a masterpiece. Or so it seemed to me as I sat in my grandmother’s living room as a young child. As I stood up to show it off, I accidentally stepped on my sister’s little cabin, knocking it to pieces.

She ran to Grandma, complaining that I’d destroyed her cabin. Not realizing it was an accident, Grandma gave her permission to knock my cabin over, and my sister did so.

I was angry. Not just because my little cabin was destroyed, but because I’d been blamed and punished for an accident. In my mind this was profoundly unjust. 

So I took matters into my own hands. I went outside and knocked over every piece of Grandma’s outdoor furniture. Boy, did I regret that later.

I overreacted. My anger got the best of me. Human anger is typically like this—unrighteous, self-serving, and over the top.

God’s anger, however, is very different.

Yet some believe that since God is love (1 John 4:8, 16), He should never be angry. Is that so? What, then, of the biblical depictions of divine anger?

OLD TESTAMENT GOD OF WRATH VERSUS NEW TESTAMENT GOD OF LOVE? 

Perhaps you’ve heard the common myth that the “Old Testament God” is a God of wrath, while the New Testament God is a God of love. This is false. The New Testament God is the same as the Old Testament God. Both testaments consistently teach that God is love—“a God full of compassion, and gracious, longsuffering and abundant in mercy and truth” (Ps. 86:15).

What about depictions of God’s anger in the Bible, then?

Suppose a mother sees a man viciously attacking her 3-year-old daughter. Should she be angry? Indeed. Such anger is called righteous indignation—the good and just response of love against evil.

The injustice in this story is dwarfed by the great evil humans have committed against one another over the ages, including such atrocities as child sacrifice (2 Chron. 33:6) and many others.

Because God loves deeply, these and other evils evoke God’s intense, but always appropriate, anger. Evil angers God because evil always harms at least one person God loves, even when such harm is self-inflicted. 

This is not unique to the Old Testament. The New Testament also repeatedly displays divine anger in response to evil.

For example, Jesus “drove out all those who bought and sold in the temple, and overturned the tables of the money changers and the seats of those who sold doves,” declaring they were making God’s house a “den of thieves” (Matt. 21:12, 13). Here and elsewhere, Jesus exhibited profound righteous indignation against those who used God’s house to take advantage of the poor, widows, and orphans.

Christ’s response on this occasion and others (see Mark 3:5; 10:14) mirrors the way God responds to evil in the Old Testament. And Jesus Himself repeatedly taught about God’s wrath and judgment against evil (e.g., John 3:36), even attributing this judgment to Himself (e.g., Matt. 13:41, 42; cf. 8:12; 10:28; 22:5, 6, 13; 23:16-33; 24:50, 51; 25:41-43; Luke 13:28). 

Elsewhere, Paul teaches: “Is God unjust who inflicts wrath? (I speak as a man.) Certainly not! For then how will God judge the world?” (Rom. 3:5, 6; cf. Rom. 12:19; Heb. 10:30). 

The anger of the so-called God of the Old Testament is mirrored by Jesus and affirmed elsewhere in the New Testament. Yet in both testaments God’s anger is the anger of love—the appropriate response of love against evil and the harm it inevitably inflicts on God’s children. 

DOES GOD CONTINUALLY BRING JUDGMENT ON HIS PEOPLE?

This brings us to a second myth: the common view that God is always angry and continually bringing judgment. In contrast, Scripture teaches that God is exceedingly longsuffering and compassionate. 

Scripture includes numerous instances of God’s wrath and judgment. But attention to the biblical time line shows that long ages often pass between those instances. Indeed, God often overlooks the people’s evils for centuries!

God’s covenant people repeatedly perpetrated horrible evils, which “provoked” God to wrath (Deut. 9:7; cf. 32:16, 21). As Psalm 78:40 puts it: “How often they provoked Him in the wilderness, and grieved Him in the desert” (cf. verse 58; Isa. 63:10; 1 Cor. 10:5). 

Indeed, the following cycle of rebellion repeatedly appears, wherein:

God’s people rebel and commit horrible evils, breaking the covenant and effectively rejecting God.

God withdraws in accordance with the people’s rejection of Him.

Surrounding nations oppress God’s people.

The people cry to God for help.

God hears and graciously rescues them.

The people rebel again, often in worse ways than before (see Ps. 78; Neh. 9).

Throughout these cycles God remains faithful—like a loving and patient parent whose children constantly rebel (see Deut. 32:5, 18) or a devoted husband whose wife goes after other lovers (see Hosea 1-3; Isa. 62:4).1

Again and again God met His people’s unfaithfulness with longsuffering mercy far beyond any reasonable expectations. For example, after the people rebelled with the golden calf, “God would have been ‘just’ in putting an end to these rebellious people. Yet he kept on loving, guiding, and delivering them (Ex. 32:10; 33:5).”2

Later, despite centuries of repeated cycles of rebellion, God continued to pour out compassion (Neh. 9:7-33). God, “being full of compassion, forgave their iniquity, and did not destroy them. Yes, many a time He turned His anger away, and did not stir up all His wrath” (Ps. 78:38).

Long periods passed between judgment events, and God repeatedly sent prophets to call His people back to Him, but the people would not listen (see Jer. 35:14-17). This deeply pained God, who cried out: “My people would not heed My voice, and Israel would have none of Me. So I gave them over to their own stubborn heart, to walk in their own counsels. Oh, that My people would listen to Me” (Ps. 81:11-13; cf. Hosea 11:8, 9). Much later Jesus likewise cried, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the one who kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to her! How often I wanted to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, but you were not willing!” (Matt. 23:37).

IS WRATH THE OPPOSITE OF LOVE?

Human anger is often incompatible with love (see Matt. 5:22; 1 Cor. 13:4-7; Gal. 5:20; James 1:19, 20). God’s righteous indignation, however, is different. 

Human anger often overreacts, but God’s anger is always love’s perfect response against evil, toward the best achievable good for all.

Throughout Scripture God’s prophets long for judgment to come because it brings deliverance to victims of evil. In contrast to the way judgment is often viewed today, biblical authors frequently question why God does not bring judgment more quickly to right wrongs sooner, crying, “How long, Lord?” 

When God did bring judgment, God disciplined people to do good for them “in the end” (Deut. 8:16), as a good father lovingly disciplines his son (Deut. 8:5; cf. Heb. 12:10). “For whom the Lord loves He corrects, just as a father the son in whom he delights” (Prov. 3:12; cf. Rev. 3:19).

When God brings judgment, “He does not afflict willingly” (Lam. 3:33) and does so only when there is “no remedy” (2 Chron. 36:16). God takes “no pleasure in the death of one who dies” (Eze. 18:32). And through the many cycles of rebellion “often He restrained his anger” (Ps. 78:38, NASB) for long periods, providing a way for deliverance for anyone willing (see Ps. 81:11-14; Matt. 23:37). 

Thus, God Himself asks, “What more could have been done to My vineyard that I have not done in it?” (Isa. 5:4).

Some think God’s ways of dealing with His people in the wilderness (and beyond) were harsh, but God’s loving discipline of His people must be understood in the context of the situations the people faced. 

After being brought out of Egypt, God’s chosen people were surrounded by dangers. They were in the wilderness with a shortage of food and water, amid poisonous snakes and other dangers, and the surrounding nations wanted to destroy them. Without God’s special protection and sustenance, they had no hope to survive.

And, left unchecked, their evil actions would eventually cut them off from God’s special protection. Their evil actions were literally an existential threat to the nation.

Consider this. Why is it such a serious matter to disobey a flight attendant’s instructions on a plane, but those same instructions might be disregarded without consequence on the street? Because of the increased danger to everyone on the plane, the safety of which hinges on the flight crew.

Israel was in a somewhat similar situation. Accordingly, God’s laws and the way He governed the people were aimed at preventing Israel’s destruction by surrounding nations or other dangers—destruction that was sure to take place if the enemy succeeded to separate God’s people from Him. So, very often, God disciplined them to deter them from going over a cliff, as it were. 

Eventually, however, the people pushed God so far away that His special protection had to be removed. The people of Judah persistently “provoked the God of heaven to wrath,” so that God eventually withdrew and “gave them into the hand of Nebuchadnezzar” (Ezra 5:12; see also Judges 2:13, 14; Ps. 106:41, 42; Jer. 38:18; Neh. 9:30). God withdrew only after the people over many years continually “despised His words, and scoffed at His prophets” that were sent to warn them and provide a way of escape, “till there was no remedy” (2 Chron. 36:16). In the meantime God did everything He could for His people (see Isa. 5:3, 4).

On this and other occasions God brings judgment only when there are no preferable alternatives available to Him (given all factors) and only after providing warnings and a way of escape (e.g., Jer. 38:2). 

God’s wrath, however, does not continue forever. It is the temporary response of love to evil. But where there is no evil, there is no wrath. Moreover, God’s compassion far exceeds His wrath—His “anger is but for a moment,” but “His favor is for life” (Ps. 30:5; cf. Ex. 34:6; Judges 10:16; Luke 13:34).

Love demands justice, and God loves justice (Ps. 33:5; Isa. 61:8; Jer. 9:24; cf. Luke 11:42). Again, God despises evil because evil always harms God’s children, even when self-inflicted. The next time you think of God’s wrath, envision a compassionate father or mother mourning the harm done to their children. That is the ground and origin of God’s wrath—evil and the harm it brings to His beloved children. 

Everything God does is always loving. God’s wrath is not the opposite of love. It is the final resort of love—always and only in response to evil and to do good for all in the end.

1 As William L. Lane notes, “God’s anger (cf. Num 14:11, 23, 43b) was not aroused by a single incident but by a persistent tendency to refuse his direction” (Hebrews 1–8 [Dallas: Word, 2002], p. 86).

2 Mervin Breneman, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther (Nashville: B&H, 1993), p. 241.

John Peckham

John Peckham is associate editor of Adventist Review and research professor of theology and Christian philosophy at Andrews University.

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