Wrath seems to be a term that many modern theologians now smack their lips over. It is a word that they cannot keep from their lips when speaking or from their fingertips when typing. In today's popular theology, wrath has come to be understood as an almost insatiable appetite of the Most High, something that, at all cost, God must be appease.
There is an image being given of the Trinity in which the Son stands between the Father and the redeemed, defending us from His wrath. Where the Spirit is in all of this is not always fleshed out, which is another telling mark of today’s popular theology. In light of this view of Christ's grace, many talk about Christ's work as appeasing to God's appetite for wrath instead of a ransom paid for our sin, but what does this mean?
This is a question never really answered. Instead, ideas of God's wrath seem assumed or carelessly formed with no real theological consideration. Instead of seeking Scriptural understanding, ideas like the fact that a God of infinite love is also a God of infinite anger are assumed to be self-explanatory. Taking all this into consideration, what view of God is given by this popular theology?
Without giving qualification, it seems that God ends up being a very angry and divided being, simply waiting for a chance to deal his retribution upon an ungrateful people. The fact that wrath can be expressed from the Almighty can remain true, and yet, it might elicit a very different set of views of God if we take a step back and define our terms. Otherwise, we must join in with many of the more modern and popular theologians in defending a God that seems petty, vindictive, and retributive.
It is natural to assume we know the meaning of simple terms like wrath, but I would argue that we have assumed the term to be much flatter than it actually is, and we have tarnished our vision of God's character in the process. While God is revealed in human terms, we must allow Him to redefine them when they are used of Him. Any term that is first understood from a purely humanistic standpoint cannot hold up to His divine character.
We must not begin to talk of God's wrath before we properly understand wrath. Let's go back to the popular expression: "A God of infinite love must also be a God of infinite anger." Even when we think of this anger as righteous anger, an anger forever beset against evil, sin, and death, it can be worrisome. Once again, with proper perspective, this might not be so troublesome. While the above statement seems logical enough, it often elicits an unwarranted conclusion: Contrary to the assumptions of popular theology, love and anger are not two equally powerful and separate expressions of God's character.
In other words, we are not warranted to suggest that if God is described as being loving and being angry at separate points in Scripture, then we too must say in the same breath with, "God is Love," that "God is anger." Imagining love and anger as being two separate feelings God forever emotes is too dualistic. It is the sad result of allowing too much Greek philosophy into our theology, which would be better viewed through a Hebraic lens. Unfortunately, much modern theology has been developed from more Greek perspectives than Hebraic, Augustine being a champion of such theology, and a hero to many of our modern writers.
The truth of the matter is that the Bible says, "God is love." It does not say, "God is anger." However, this dualistic perspective in which all of God’s qualities are forever emoted is often the view of God's love and anger. One might want to delve into a bit of logical philosophy and argue that if God is ever angry in the course of human history, then he must be angry all of the time for God is unchanging. This, of course, being the inevitable question of Greek philosophy concerning “the perfect,” since Greek thought teaches that perfection is static and unchanging in any way.
If this were true, then we would also wish to affirm that God is forever disappointed, for there were times in which humanity obviously disappointed God. Of course we would not wish to think this of God, but if this is the sort of "logic" we use, then this is necessarily the case. This is too flat an understanding of emotions, and simply is not the Scriptural view of God, who is not simply a static perfection, but is a perfection that is also personal.
Simply put, God is love, and from that Character, he has the potential to express His love in various ways. Love expresses itself in various forms depending on the situation. If your child demonstrates great love by standing up for a friend, your love might express itself in praise. However, if your child demonstrates great selfishness by bullying another child, your love for your child might express itself with admonishment. The love for the child has not changed; it simply responds differently. In the case of where the child expresses good qualities that will be of benefit as he or she matures, love affirms, and, in the case where the child expresses self-destructive qualities that will damage him or her as he or she matures, love discourages.
So that which we often affirm as a positive expression of love is not separate from a negative expression of the same love, they are simply varying and appropriate expressions of that same love. To think that for God to have a characteristic it must forever be kinetic, in other words, it must be active, is too simplistic. Instead, we must understand that some abilities of God are potential, always existing as a capability, but only expressed at logical points in which they need to be expressed through personal response. To think of God as a static being, always and forever exuding certain expressions is a Greek view that has permeated Western Christian thought, and is problematic when imported into a more Judeo-Christian understanding of God.
What does this mean? Quite simply, this means that anger is not a characteristic of God that is to be juxtaposed to love. They do not belong on the same plane. Moreover, this means that love is not simply a characteristic of God, but is the summation of His character. In short, anger is not an equal quality to love, but is an expression that love takes in its position against those things damaging to that which love directs its service. In other words, anger is a form of love as it relates to that which is evil.
Moreover, anger has to be understood in its highest sense. We cannot think of the anger that we often experience that makes us petty, retributive, and vindictive. God is none of these things. Even while God is angry at sin and evil, he is also a joy-filled God, happy in the knowledge that He has dealt with sin in an everlasting way through the atonement of Christ. Therefore, we must not import our common experiences of being angry that are often accompanied by emotional turmoil and fits of rage. From a human perspective, anger is often an uncontrollable feeling, but to God it is a very controlled response to sin, and wrath is only a response of anger when necessary.
Since God is love (I John 4:16), he cannot be slow to loving. Whatever He does, He does in love, for that is His very character. But, the Bible clearly states that God is slow to anger (Exodus 34:6). Moreover, while God's love can never be lessened by the actions of men, His anger can (Numbers 25:11). Clearly love and anger are not equal emotions or characteristics of God. Moreover, God is not divided by His love and His anger.
Christ does not stand in the way of a Father who wants nothing more than to lash out at us. This is an unfortunate idea of popular theology that must be discarded. If the Trinity teaches us anything about God, it teaches us the equality of the Father and the Son, as well as the Spirit. It teaches that each member is working hand-in-hand to accomplish the will of the Godhead. If Christ's love is demonstrated in the cross so that we come to understand that Jesus love is selfless, outward-focused, cruciform love, then we must understand that what is at the center of Christ's heart is also at the center of the Father's heart.
If the Son is selfless, the Father cannot be vindictive and retributive. Christ was not the only member of the Trinity to make a sacrifice for us. So, once again, God's wrath becomes a position that Holy Love (the Character of God) takes in light of evil. Love is the defining characteristic of God, not anger. Without evil, love need not be wrathful. Yet, until evil is fully dealt with, wrath will be expressed when needed.
What does all this mean? It means contrary to the assumptions of popular theology that God does not intrinsically need to appease an appetite for wrath. It means that He has not simply created subjects to punish as an expression of His character just as He has created subjects to love out of expression of His character. It means we were all created as an expression of God’s character, which the Bible tells us is love.
It also means that the Father and the Son are not in opposition when it comes to how they each wish to treat humanity. Finally, it means that love and anger are not equal, dualistic forces, but that anger is an expression of love. Just as we would be naturally angered at that which means harm towards the ones we love, the God of Love is moved to anger against that which is set out to harm that which He loves. Wrath is not simply about making sure God gets the glory He deserves; it is about taking on that which God selflessly loves.
Does this mean that the world can breath a sigh of relief since anger might not be as big a deal as popular theology has suggested? If this is a relief for Christians who, in light of this confused theology, could not fathom a God of wrath ever loving a sinner like them, then yes. However, this should not give relief to any human that gives his or her self over to evil. While this person was created as an expression of love, if this person gives him or her self over to evil, God will, in His patient timing, eventually exact wrath in order to stop evil.
God's wrath is directed towards that which is harmful to that which He loves, and placing yourself in the camp of evil is placing yourself in the wake of God's wrath, and we must understand the sheer determination of God when it comes to dealing with evil. He is so against evil that He would subject Himself to death on a cross in order to defeat it. If an all-powerful God would subject Himself to such, we must not be mistaken concerning the extent He will go in utterly destroying evil. Hell fire and brimstone is an utterly fitting discussion to have when considering our future states if left in sin. It is a warning to not give one’s self over to evil, but over to love. The saying: "A God of infinite love must also be a God of infinite anger," is very true in the sense that God's love is forever against evil.
We must be forever mindful to respect and uphold the character of God. Popular theology would agree with this by saying that God is most concerned with His glorification, more so than His concern for the salvation of humanity. This stems from this dualistic view of God's characteristics. God is not a glory monger who also happens to be merciful to some. He is concerned about His character namely because He loves us. When we misunderstand His character, we misunderstand our place in reality.
We are made to serve God, for being under Him is our protection. To place our selves outside His rule is to place our selves in harms way. His concern to right our misconception of His glory deserving character is an expression of His Love. Respecting God's character is much more about being good representatives of His character for the sake of others over being a benefit to the Almighty. If I misunderstand God, what does that do to diminish Him? It does nothing at all to diminish Him. He does not need me to do or understand anything in order to be complete in His joy. Instead, it is a detriment to me to misunderstand God, for if I do not take His glory seriously, I misalign myself from that which provides me life. Moreover, when I misrepresent God, I run the real risk of leading others astray. Such mistreatment of God's character is evil for it is a harm to those whom God loves, and this means I am in real danger of God's wrath which is set to make right those things that are perverted and bent out of shape and cause harm to the beings and things He loves.