Downplaying God’s Wrath

Author Tim Barnett Published on 01/10/2018

There are aspects of God’s nature that make people uncomfortable. God’s wrath is one of them. In fact, fewer and fewer churches nowadays will openly preach about the wrath of God. The topic is taboo to our modern sensibilities. While some ignore the biblical teaching of God’s wrath, others flat out deny it.

In a recent post from The Gospel Coalition, Gavin Ortlund offers four problems with downplaying God’s wrath. Of the four problems the author cites, the first seems to be the weightiest. He writes,

If we want to move away from the notion of an angry God while retaining an authoritative Bible, we have some pretty heavy revisionist lifting to do. I would say the effort is roughly comparable to Thomas Jefferson’s attempt to scissor-cut the supernatural out of the Bible. Just type in “Lord wrath” or “God angry” to a Bible Gateway search. There are more than 600 references to divine wrath in Scripture.

He’s right. The doctrine of God’s wrath against the wicked is clearly taught throughout Scripture. Listen to how the prophet Nahum describes God’s wrath against Ninevah.

The Lord is a jealous and avenging God;
the Lord is avenging and wrathful;
the Lord takes vengeance on His adversaries
and keeps wrath for His enemies.
The Lord is slow to anger and great in power,
and the Lord will by no means clear the guilty.
His way is in whirlwind and storm,
and the clouds are the dust of His feet.
He rebukes the sea and makes it dry;
He dries up all the rivers;
Bashan and Carmel wither;
the bloom of Lebanon withers.
The mountains quake before him;
the hills melt;
the earth heaves before Him,
the world and all who dwell in it.
Who can stand before His indignation?
Who can endure the heat of His anger?
His wrath is poured out like fire,
and the rocks are broken into pieces by Him.
The Lord is good,
a stronghold in the day of trouble;
He knows those who take refuge in him.
But with an overflowing flood
He will make a complete end of the adversaries,
and will pursue His enemies into darkness. (Nahum 1:2–8)

I cited this lengthy passage for a reason. Most people are happy to quote verses like “The Lord is slow to anger” (v.3) and “The Lord is good, a stronghold in the day of trouble” (v.7), yet they ignore verses like “The Lord is avenging and wrathful” (v.2) and “His wrath is poured out like fire” (v.6). They want to take the former but leave the latter. However, this minor prophet won’t allow it. God’s goodness and wrath are inseparably interwoven within the same text.

Many people have the mistaken impression that the character of God is split in the Bible—the God of the Old Testament is angry and wrathful, and the God of the New Testament is gracious and merciful. This simply isn’t true. And I can prove it. Not only does Nahum’s own words allude to God’s goodness and mercy (v.7), but Nahum’s audience was well aware of God’s goodness.

Nahum is writing to the Ninevites. These are the same Ninevites to whom God sent Jonah. These are the same wicked people who had repented and received mercy from God. Moreover, in response to God sparing the Ninevites, Jonah declared, “For I knew that you are a gracious God and merciful, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, and relenting from disaster” (Jonah 4:2).

Over a century has passed since Jonah’s oracle, and the Ninevites have turned back to their wicked ways. Now these people, who had received God’s mercy, are going to receive God’s wrath.

The tragic history of the Ninevites displays two aspects of God’s nature, and both are equally true. God is gracious and merciful. But He is also avenging and wrathful. Sound theology never pits one against the other.