How does the wrath of God fit with the fact that he is love in his essence? Is the God of the Old Testament different from the God of the New Testament? In this article, it will make clear that God’s wrath and his judging actions are continuously defined the same throughout the Bible and are an expression of his love.
When did God first become angry in the Bible?
The first thing that may come to mind for many is the Flood. In this story, however, God is not described as angry. God is sad, his heart is hurting. Why? Because the people he created in his image rejected his way and chose the way of violence. By their behavior, they ruined the earth (Gen 6:11,12). The earth was already destroyed and doomed before the Flood came and this broke God’s heart.
So God said to Noah, “I have decided that all living creatures must die, for the earth is filled with violence because of them. Now I am about to destroy them and the earth.”
Gen 6:13 can thus be translated more literally:
“The end of all flesh has come before me; because of men, the earth is filled with violence. I will ruin them with the earth.” (Wenham 1987:172; Reyburn 1998:156)
Because God knew that the violence would not stop, but only increase, he decided to accelerate the process of destruction so as not to prolong and delay the suffering. The earth was already irremediably ruined, the Flood only accelerated the process of destruction. It was not God who destroyed the earth, but humans.
God took away his protecting hand and all creation, which exists only through him, fell back into chaos. The story of the Flood is an undoing of creation. When God created everything God brought order into the destructive chaos (symbolized by the primeval floods in Gen 1,2+6+7) and pushed it back. In the Flood, God hands people over to the consequences of their decisions, he withdraws. The consequence is that the world sinks again into the waters of the primeval floods (Gen 7:11). One could summarize the story this way:
Humans have destroyed and ruined everything God created. They have initiated the process of undoing creation. This broke God’s heart. He saw that the outcome of everything was only more violence and destruction, so he accelerated the process by withdrawing his protective hands. The creation was undone and the primeval floods completed the process that humans initiated.
God gave them over to the consequences of their own choices.
Back to the original question: when did God first become angry in the Bible?
In Exodus 4:14, God becomes angry for the first time in the Bible. Why? Because Moses refused to go and free the Israelites from slavery. God gets angry when his people do not stand up against injustice and do not stand up for the oppressed. Did God punish Moses in his anger? No! On the contrary, God sent Aaron to Moses to help him with the task.
Then onwards, we discover God’s judging action in the Bible mostly in the form of God giving people over to what they ask for. God’s wrath is that he lets people go their own way and gives them over to the consequences of their own choices.
In Jeremiah 25:15, we find a new image for God’s wrath: the “cup of wrath.” This is what Jeremiah is to give Jerusalem and Judah to drink. What did this image stand for? How did God’s wrath become a reality?
The Babylonians came, destroyed Jerusalem, and took the people captive into exile. God’s wrath was made evident by God handing Israel over to the Babylonians. Why did the Babylonians destroy Jerusalem in the first place? Nebuchadnezzar had appointed Zedekiah as an administrator of Judah, but Zedekiah made a covenant with the Egyptians, against God’s warning (2 Chr 36:12) and rebelled against Nebuchadnezzar (2 Kings 25:1). This so enraged Nebuchadnezzar that Nebuchadnezzar took brutal revenge on Zedekiah (2 Kings 25:1-7) and destroyed Jerusalem, this rebellious city.
The situation we find at the beginning of the New Testament is similar to Israel’s situation just before the Babylonians destroyed them. John the Baptist threatened a coming imminent judgment (Luke 3:7, 9). The idea of eternal punishment after death is often read into this, but this is very unlikely because this idea is foreign to the entire Old Testament.
Jesus took over this topic from John. He too warned of a coming imminent judgment if Israel did not repent. However, this judgment was not understood by Jesus to be the result of God’s wrath. When Jesus quoted from Isaiah 61 in Luke 4:16-20, he deliberately omitted the passage about God’s wrath (Isa 61:2). This infuriated his listeners because they had hoped that God’s wrath would strike the hated Romans. Jesus did not understand the coming judgment as a consequence of God’s wrath. Jesus repeatedly used symbolism from the Old Testament (Gehenna, unquenchable fire…) to warn the Israelites of impending judgment and to persuade them to repent (for more details, see the article HERE).
As Jesus and Barabbas stood before Pilate, they symbolize two paths. Barabbas represents the way of violence. He was a freedom fighter. Jesus represents the way of love and rejection of violence. Barabbas deserved death. Jesus did not. Jesus took the place of Barabbas. He identified with violent Israel, which rebelled against God’s way of love. And as a consequence, Jesus drank the cup of God’s wrath (Luke 22:42), handing himself over to the Romans and thus to the dark forces behind the Romans. This is what is meant when the Bible talks about Jesus bearing and taking upon himself the wrath of God. This is not about God’s feelings of wrath being dumped on Jesus. Through his blameless life, which was a lifelong sacrifice of obedience, and his identification with Israel, he fulfilled the covenant vicariously for Israel. He died, entered death, and conquered death vicariously for us.
But the Israelites rejected Jesus’ way of love and chose the way of violence and rebellion. As a consequence, they were handed over to Rome. In 70 A.D. the Romans came, killed the inhabitants of Jerusalem, and destroyed the Temple. The drama of the first destruction of Jerusalem was repeated – exactly what Jesus had warned them about did happen.
Paul also defined God’s wrath exactly the same as the OT and Jesus. In Romans 1:18-32, Paul talks about God’s wrath and points out three times (verse 24, 26, 28) that God’s wrath is expressed in leaving people to their own desires. His wrath makes people go their own way, which often leads to harm and destruction because without Jesus we are slaves to sin and sin is intrinsically always destructive.
The Old and New Testaments are consistent. God’s wrath, his judging action, is to surrender people to the consequences of their actions. This surrender is an act of love to bring people to their senses and restore them, not an act of vengeance or acting out of uncontrolled anger.
God’s judgment and wrath are an expression of His love.
Wenham, G. J. (1987). Genesis 1–15 (Vol. 1, p. 172). Dallas: Word, Incorporated.
Reyburn, W. D., & Fry, E. M. (1998). A handbook on Genesis (p. 156). New York: United Bible Societies.