The Vault

God and “The Wrath”

C.H. Dodd prefers the translation “the Wrath of God” to Moffatt’s “God’s anger” in Rom. 1:18, “because such an archaic phrase suits a thoroughly archaic idea,” while Nicolas Berdyaev writes “Anger in every shape and form is foreign to God.” And again, Sydney Cave speaks of law and Wrath as “almost personified powers, which, owing to God their origin, act on in partial independence of God, and are hostile to men as He is not.”

In such words many modern writers give expression to their conviction that God cannot be thought of as exercising wrath towards men, so that where the Scripture speaks of “the wrath of God’ it must either be explained away or abandoned. But his seems far to hasty, and indeed it may be doubted whether we can get along without the idea that there is about God that which is most aptly described as “wrath”, though it may be freely conceded that this must be understood carefully, and that it is easy to misunderstand it. But this is not a peculiarity of wrath. It applies to every other way of speaking to God. For example, we have no hesitation of referring to “the love of God”, but can we think for a moment that that puny thing that human love is at its best is really like the love of God? Of course we can’t, but we use the term with a mental note that when we employ it of God it is without the manifold imperfections that are implicit when it is used of man. So with wrath.

Wrath in the Old Testament

Sometimes the attempt is made to show that the wrath is absent from the Old Testament, and that the New Testament writers simply take up and repeat this idea. Thus Dodd argues that in the Old Testament “the wrath of God” is simply a name for an impersonal process of cause and effect; sin is the cause, disaster is the effect, and God is not personally active in wrath as He is in mercy.

This kind of reasoning is very difficult to substantiate, and the present writer is of opinion that nobody who has looked up all the Old Testament references to wrath will countenance it for a moment. There are five hundred and eighty-five such references that I have counted, and there may be others. But these are widespread, so continuous, and so often expressive of the closest personal activity that there cannot be the slightest doubt that the men of the Old Testament thought of God as personally active in deeds of wrath as in deeds of mercy (see for example Ps 60:1-3; Is 30:27-31; Jer 23:20; Ezk 7:8-9).

“The Wrath”

Others rely on the New Testament, and suggest that it is significant that there we do not often find the expression “the wrath of God,” it being more common to find the more impersonal term “the wrath,” and Cave can make the remark at the head of this article. But he connection of the wrath with God is not so slight as we are being led to believe. It is explicitly associated with Him in Jn 3:36; Rom 1:18; Eph 5:6; Col 3:6; Rev 19:15 and hardly less so in Rom 9:22; Rev 11:18, 14:10, 16:19. A different Greek word, somewhat more vivid in meaning, gives the same thought in Rev 14:10, 19, 15:1, 7, 16:1, 19:15.

Nor is it only in the passages which explicitly speak of wrath that we find the idea expressed. For example in Rom 1:24, 26, 28, we have it three times said of certain sinners that “God gave them up” to the appropriate retribution. It is true that for St. Paul, sin has its consequences, but it is also true that the hand of God is to be seen in these consequences. Nor is this confined to the here and now, for such a passage as 2 Thess 1:7-9 thinks of this kind of activity in connection with “the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven.”

It seems clear enough that we can no more remove the idea of the wrath of God from the New Testament than we can from the Old.

Modern Thought

Accordingly exponents of such points of view often fall back on the idea that in the middle of the twentieth century it is impossible for thinking men to ascribe to the Deity such an irrational passion as wrath.

To this it may be retorted in the first place that by the wrath of God we do not mean an irrational passion. It is rather that which we speak of as “righteous indignation” raised to the highest power. This may not be an ideal way of speaking about God, but we must refuse to accept alternatives which do not safeguard the truth that God is totally hostile to everything that is evil. To speak of an impersonal retribution does not, for it implies that God personally is indifferent to moral evil, which is a repellent thought.

In the second place, we can see the necessity for some such concept if we think for a moment about expiation. Nearly all theologians would admit that Christ expiated our sin, but what if He had not? Why should sin be expiated? If it were not, would the consequences for man be unpleasant? And if so, would the hand of God be in those consequences?

As soon as we ask such questions we see the impossibility of the idea. Put forward as acceptable to modern thought it will not stand up to modern examination for a moment, unless we are prepared to accept the idea that God is indifferent to evil. The concept of the wrath of God is necessary if we are to think of God as a righteous God.

Wrath and Love

This does not mean that we must choose between a God of Love and a God of wrath. D. M. Baillie speaks of the wrath of God as “identical with the consuming fire of inexorable divine love in relation to our sins,” and this gives us the point of view. It is just because the love of God is real love, and not mere sentimentality that the wrath is necessary. Because God loves us so greatly He is vigorously hostile to our sins. Wrath and love are complementary conceptions.

From the Vault of the Australian Church Record, July 7, 1955.