On July 8, 1741, in a church in Enfield, Massachusetts, USA, Jonathan Edwards rose to preach what has become probably the most infamous sermon of all time. His text was Deuteronomy 32:35—‘ …their foot shall slide in due time’. But it was the title that has stuck in our collective imaginations: ‘Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.’ It conjures up images of poor helpless sinners being dangled by their ankles above the roaring fires of hell. At the time it is reported that many of the listeners were hysterical with fear afterwards. Some have labelled it ‘the most powerful sermon ever preached’.
At the time it is reported that many of the listeners were hysterical with fear afterwards. Some have labelled it ‘the most powerful sermon ever preached’.
What gives the sermon’s title such emotional potency is the word, ‘angry’. For many reasons the image of an angry God has become something to avoid or gloss over. For atheists it is an absurd image, seemingly designed to scare superstitious people into religious observance (and so must be resisted). For deists (the majority of our fellow Aussies) it is incomprehensible: why would the watchmaker feel anything about what happens in his distant planet, let alone anger? For the Christian, it feels at odds with the image of a benevolent God: how could God love me and be angry with me as well? For the Biblical Christian deeply convinced of the amazing grace of God in his Son, it just doesn’t seem to fit: it is an outlier is our systematic theology and experience. It is clearly there in the Bible, so can’t be denied, but it feels alien and so is glossed over.
When Edwards applied the truths he outlines in his sermon, he began with,
The use of this awful subject may be for awakening unconverted persons to a conviction of their danger, this that you have heard is the case of everyone out if Christ. That world of misery, that lake of burning brimstone, is extended abroad under you. There is the dreadful pit of the glowing flames of the wrath of God; there is hell’s wide gaping mouth open; and you have nothing to stand upon, nor anything between you and hell but the air; it is only the power and mere pleasure of God that holds you up.
Contrary to popular assumptions, the hands of God are not dangling the poor sinner over the flames of hell, but holding him up out of the flames—at least for the moment. But the fear of hell, the fear of falling into the fire-pit of an angry, avenging God is palpable.
Taking God at his Word
But we must come to terms with the anger/wrath of God as God presents it in his word. Despite Marcion-like attempts to excise it from our Bibles by cutting out the Old Testament, it is firmly engrained in the New Testament. Jesus speaks of the anger of the king (=God) at the unmerciful servant (Matthew 18:34) and urges us to fear Him who can destroy body and soul into hell (Matthew 10:28). For Paul, the wrath of God is at the core of the problem that the death of Jesus must resolve (eg Romans 1:18, 2:5, 3:25 ‘propitiation’ = appease the wrath of God). The coming judgement can just as easily be described as ‘the coming wrath’ (Romans 5:9, Ephesians 5:6, Colossians 3:6, 1 Thessalonians 1:10). Hebrews warns against hardening our hearts to God’s word, lest we come under the wrath of God (Hebrews 4:3), for it is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God, who says, ‘It is mine to avenge’ (Hebrews 10:30-31, quoting Edwards’ text of Deuteronomy 32:35). Jesus and the apostles seem uncomfortable comfortably talking about the wrath of God.
Nor has the attempt to reduce the wrath of God to merely the inevitable process of cause and effect in a moral universe been successful (think Leon Morris’s refutation of CH Dodd). The Bible describes the wrath of God as a personal animosity against evil. Yes, we need to be careful assuming God’s wrath is like human wrath in its unpredictable tempestuousness, but we mustn’t remove the emotionally potent concept of genuine personal anger from God. He is ‘slow to anger’ (eg Psalm 145:8) but that does not make him devoid of anger.
My aim in the rest of this article is to attempt to show that the wrath of God is a good thing, to be welcomed and embraced (even as we fear it).
The Good Wrath of God
In order to maintain the truth of God’s wrath while preferencing God’s love, many people say things like, ‘God really loves us but he has to be just, he has to punish sin’. I understand the motive, but it has some fairly obvious difficulties. Firstly, it casts God as more than a little schizophrenic, pulled in 2 mutually incompatible directions. Secondly, it creates a situation where God is bound by something outside himself, against his better instincts. This contradicts an important characteristic of God—his simplicity. This isn’t about God being naïve and easy to comprehend, but about God being fully integrated in his person. His love is not opposed to his justice, and his anger is not opposed to his mercy.
A better way to understand God’s wrath comes from asking the cause of God’s wrath. It is never that God is angry because he had a bad night’s sleep or a headache. The cause of his anger is evil, especially human evil. And if we reflect on evil even a little bit we will realise that evil should elicit anger. Pick any day and follow the news cycle on your preferred medium, and you will get angry: angry that another woman has been raped and murdered; angry that corporate greed has left people reeling in poverty; angry that children have been neglected by self-indulgent parents; angry that porn has demeaned and objectified people. If you are not angry at such things, it is not because you love but because you don’t love. You don’t care about the victims. To be indifferent in the face of such evil is morally reprehensible. God’s anger arises directly from his love—his love for the victims, his love for the goodness and flourishing and wellbeing of his creation.
Pick any day and follow the news cycle on your preferred medium, and you will get angry. If you are not angry it is because you don’t love.
And God is rightly angry because of our neglect of him and our refusal to thank and honour him. That may appear to have the whiff of self-indulgent narcissism at first sight, but God-as-Trinity helps us to understand that this is not the case. As Jesus explains in John 5, the Father loves the Son and so does all to bring honour to the Son. When people do not honour the Son, the Father takes it personally—he is unhappy, he is angry. Again his anger flows from his love; it is not opposed to his love.
The God who Cares
And this helps us think more clearly about God’s judgement. God’s judgement is not the action of a distant, impartial and unmoved assessor. He judges because he cares—he cares for the victims. Justice in the Bible is best understood as ‘distributed love’—in his love for all, he decides to act against the perpetrators to bring justice to the oppressed. And so his judgements are highly emotional—he doesn’t simply condemn evildoers from a dispassionate distance, but he thunders at them in his wrath. To our minds it is an extraordinary thing that the Bible calls on everyone to rejoice ‘because he comes to judge the earth’ (Psalms 96 and 98). But if we understand judgement and wrath rightly, we will rejoice. And we will fear, because without the propitiation of the blood of Jesus we will feel the full heat of his wrath forever.
I am often tempted to gloss over or downplay the wrath of God, especially in my conversations with unbelievers. But to do so diminishes God, and especially diminishes the strength and depth of his love. I find it helpful to occasionally feed my anger, at least just a little. To watch the news and feel some empathy for victims is good for my soul. To observe the way my Lord is trashed in conversations, and feel the anger rise is a helpful spur. Unless we feel loving wrath, we will struggle to feel the goodness of God’s wrath.