“A god who is all love, all grace, all mercy, no sovereignty, no justice, no holiness, and no wrath is an idol.” ~ R. C. Sproul
If someone asked you to define the wrath of God, what would be your response? God’s anger? God’s vengeance? God’s justice? Some powerful words are synonymous with wrath, e.g., anger, fury, rage, outrage, indignation, annoyance, etc. Why is God so angry? Did Jesus suffer God’s wrath so we don’t have to? Should humankind fear God’s wrath? Should we worry about facing God after death? Is this the problem with the world that people don’t fear God? Is God a God of love or wrath? Is God so self-centered that if we don’t do it in God’s time and God’s way, God will destroy us? Is it possible we have a twisted perception about God and our understanding of God’s wrath?
Throughout history, the idea that God is angry and somebody must pay has dominated Western thought and culture. Many Christians understand the meaning of God’s wrath in this fashion. God is angry, and either humanity must suffer the punishment of sin, or the Son of God must suffer in their place, but one way or another, somebody is going to absorb the brunt of God’s wrath. Interpreting the wrath of God in this manner has burned into our minds the image of a punishing God. No wonder the number of people who state they want nothing to do with a God of wrath and have denounced religion altogether has grown exponentially. Today, many have sought spiritual alternatives that center on a God of love and inclusiveness instead of believing in a punishing God and fearing God’s wrath.
Growing up in the 60s and 70s, the religion I was raised taught that God was a punishing God; it was all about the fear factor and the hell, fire, and brimstone to come. I can’t begin to tell you how many times in my youth I heard the phrase “you’re going to hell, boy,” or you think it’s hot now wait until you die.” That understanding of God painted an image in my head that would take years to change; it left me feeling hopeless and living with the delusion of spiritual disqualification and the feeling of being a worthless human being. I wanted nothing to do with God or anyone who did. I felt like God was hiding around every corner with an ax waiting to get the Long boy. If you’re reading this and suffered from the same teaching, there is good news to come.
My journey in recovery was the road that led to understanding and experiencing God in a different light. My newfound friends invited me into their grace space and encouraged me to share my twisted perception of God and my resentments toward God and religion. I quickly discovered countless others who suffered the same experience and held to the same twisted perceptions of God and understanding of God’s wrath. Once I could replace these twisted perceptions of God with a Jesus-looking God, I became liberated, reconciled, and could finally stand in good graces with the Creator of the Universe.
Many theologians from the past and present-day have helped me better understand what God’s wrath truly means, especially Greg Boyd, theologian and the Senior/Teaching Pastor of Woodland Hills Church in Minnesota, and President of www.REKNEW.org. Greg has written several books, but the two I recommend for better understanding God’s wrath and they are “Crucifixion of the Warrior God”¹ and “Cross Vision.”² Greg’s writing and teaching have helped me deconstruct this idea of punishing God by helping me make sense of the horrendous acts of violence found throughout the bible. Greg also helped me reconstruct my faith, centered on a Jesus-looking God, who teaches and exemplifies a Kingdom-centered life of love and service toward others.
The way I understand God’s wrath today is the absence of God, not the punishment of God. Without God, there is no grace, and without grace, we become victims of our sinful nature. We live in a fallen world, and as a result, humans are born in a failed state, meaning separated from God. God’s grace is present in our lives from birth. John Wesley, the great theologian, suggested God’s grace is experienced in a progressive state and understood as prevenient grace, justifying grace, and sanctifying grace. God’s Spirit desires and pursues a relationship with each of us until by our extreme self-centeredness and repeated rejection of God; our hearts grow hard, and God eventually says, “goodbye” and hands us over to our selfish desires; I like to refer to this as the “point of no return.” (Romans 1:18:32) It’s like handing an addict over to their addiction, which eventually destroys them. It’s not your love that is killing them; it’s the rejection of your help and the power of their addiction that ultimately destroys them. The pain and suffering we experience is a byproduct of our sin itself, not God’s dishing out punishment on our lives.
God created humans with free will, which means we have an element of say-so in our lives. We each get to choose whether or not we say yes or no to a relationship with God. If we continuously say no to God, then at some point, God will stop trying to intervene in our lives and hand us over to ourselves and our sinful ways, which leads to pain, suffering, and death. The difference between heaven and hell is the presence or absence of God in our life. Hell is the absence of God in our lives and could last for eternity according to Scripture. (Revelation 14:11) (Matthew 25:41) Hell is not God punishing us; it’s us choosing to live our life on self-propulsion and claiming God’s seat for ourselves. My friend Peter often says, “when I get to heaven, I imagine the first words I will hear from God are “Peter, get out of my chair.”
The penalty of sin is not something God is doing to us; it’s the removal and absence of God in our lives. When God vacates a person, a community, a nation, a planet, etc., the result is God’s wrath. Again, it’s not God punishing anyone or anything; it’s the choice to go it alone without God. It’s the self-exaltation of ourselves above God and forcing God out of our lives. It shouldn’t be surprising if one day scientists discover that other planets once enjoyed life for themselves but decided to push God out, fell prey to their fallen nature, and now the existence of life is no longer present. The thief comes to steal, kill, and destroy. (John 10:10-CEB)
When I invited God back into my life, my life would never again be the same. The same is true for you; when you honestly ask God into your life, inviting God to dwell in your soul and to become the director of your life, your life will never be the same, only by choice. You have a say-so in your relationship with God. God has already said “yes,” the question is, will you? I hope by now you better understand the wrath of God and that it’s not a punishment from God but the absence of God in your life.
So, why did Jesus have to die if God is not a punishing God? God is perfect and holy, and God created the world perfect and holy. Led by Satan, these angelic beings wanted to exalt themselves above God, so God withdrew God’s Self from their presence and turned them over to themselves. Satan and one-third of the angels fell into the abyss of darkness and have yet to repent. (Revelation 12:4) They went on to occupy God’s earth, and the world fell prey to their deception and tactics, and the penalty of sin and death entered the world. (Genesis 3) God has never stopped trying to reconcile the world back to God’s Self. God created humankind with free will; like Satan and his fallen angels, humans have freedom of choice. Humans have repeatedly chosen to exalt themselves over God, and the penalties of sin continue to win out, as they always do. God removed God’s Self at the cross, and Jesus took on the sin of the world. What Jesus experienced wasn’t God’s punishment; it was the absence of God, God turning away, God removing God’s hand, God vacating the premises, as Jesus bore the sin of the world. (John 15).
Throughout the ages, God has attempted to reconcile all people back to God, and we continue to reject God and SHOUT for God’s removal from our culture and lives. God so loved the world and wanted nothing more than to save the world from its failed state, which meant that God would have to intervene. For God’s intervention to be a legit free will must remain. God sent God’s only Son to earth in some mysterious way, and through the incarnation of Jesus, Jesus arrived on earth fully human and fully God.
Jesus knew his purpose for being here, and God granted Him the freedom to choose if he would honor God’s wishes and submit to death for the world’s sins. Jesus, of course, said yes to the cross and resurrection and bore the sin of the world. Because of his obedience, humankind, at last, had victory over death and the power of sin. It is not that Jesus had to suffer God’s wrath; Jesus chose to lay down His life so we could experience the love, grace, and mercy of God for eternity and no longer suffer the evil nature of Satan and oppression of sin. We still die a physical death but no longer a spiritual death. We will live in heaven in the presence of God, not in Hell in the absence of God. Friends, that’s not God’s wrath; that’s God’s grace and love at its best. (John 3:1-21) God is not a punisher; God is a redeemer.
My Creator, thank You for the gift of life and for helping me untwist the twisted perceptions I held of You. You are a God of love and mercy and desire nothing more than a relationship with me, despite my doubts, flaws, and twisted perceptions. Please help me never to experience Your absence in my life. Grant me the willingness to always choose You over the world from now until eternity. In Your Spirit and Name, I pray these things. May Your will not mine be done, now and forever. Amen.