The wrath of God is a topic unpopular in the present era. Much theological ink has been spilled in the modern period in an attempt to explain away or otherwise neutralize the idea, despite its clear presence in the scriptures and in the writings of the fathers. An entire fully developed complex of ideas in later Western theology, including not only God’s wrath but also a particular conception of his justice and of penal substitution, is seen by many modern commentators as an inextricably linked whole. This complex idea is then caricatured in various ways and rejected wholesale. To reject the teaching of the church at the foundation, however, along with the later erroneous edifice built upon it is to deform the Christian faith. Rather than, as many of St. Paul’s original hearers, seeking to justify themselves, post-modern thought demands that the faithful justify God in the face of a denuded sense of morality. This approach makes the concept of true repentance utterly unintelligible or at best a bland form of self-improvement. Worse, it makes the cross of Christ an embarrassment once again as it was to so many in the ancient world.
Though the wrath of God as a concept is expressed using words related to emotional anger, it is not intended to express a passionate or emotional state. This is an important distinction in breaking the popular caricature of the “wrathful God.” What is described by the terms relevant to the wrath of God is a particular experience of God by human persons and those who witness that experience. It is never used in the scriptures to portray God as fickle or intemperate. Quite the opposite. An oft-repeated theme of the Hebrew scriptures is that God is slow to anger (in Hebrew idiom, literally “long of nose”), describing the long period of patient mercy which precedes the experience of his wrath.
In order to understand the origin of the human experiences described as the wrath of God, two interlinked concepts need to be understood. The first of these is the concept of justice or righteousness. Both the Hebrew ‘mishpat’ and the Greek ‘dikaios’ describe the world as being in a rightly ordered state. Existence and non-existence and therefore Yahweh’s act of creation in Gen 1 are conceived in the scriptures as bringing order to chaos. Humanity was originally created to continue the work of creation in cooperation with Yahweh by bringing the order and beauty of Paradise with them to make the whole creation into Eden. Humanity, however, was expelled from Paradise into this present world of chaos and violence under the power of sin and death. The great promise of the Hebrew scriptures is that a day, most often called ‘the day Yahweh’ will come when he will establish perfect justice in the whole creation (Isa 13:6, 9; Jer 46:10; Ezek 13:5; 30:3; Joel 1:15; 2:1-31; 3:14; Amos 5:18, 20; Obad 1:15; Zeph 1:7-14; 14:1; Mal 4:1-5).
Though this is a promise, that on a final day Yahweh will bring his great work of creation to its completion in bringing it to perfect order, a casual perusal of the Old Testament passages above gives a rather horrifying description of that day. From these descriptions, however, certain motifs relating to the nature of God’s wrath as expressed on that day emerge. The first of these is fire. Specifically, a fire which tries and tests all things (eg. Mal 4:1-5). This fire has two effects on two different groups of people. For one group, this fire is destructive and consumes them utterly. For the other group, this fire is purgative and they emerge from the day of Yahweh purified like gold from the dross and stain of their sins and transgressions. This latter group are those who are justified, made righteous or made just. Rather than being consumed with their sins and wickedness they are purified from them by a burning away. This burning fire is rightly described by scripture and the fathers as God’s wrath.
Undergoing this fiery trial, with either result, is “judgment” in its Biblical sense. In the new covenant, this justification, being made righteous or just, being set in order as God’s creation, begins in this life in this world. In his prophetic ministry, St. John the Forerunner speaks of the wrath to come using this motif of cleansing fire (eg. Matt 3:7-12). He also, however, links this fire to the Holy Spirit, and specifically to baptism with the Holy Spirit (3:11). The phrase generally translated ‘baptize you with the Holy Spirit’ in English is directly parallel to St. John’s statement that he ‘baptize[s] you with water’ for repentance. It literally describes being immersed or submerged in the Holy Spirit and, as he here makes clear, fire. Repentance is therefore linked here to, and serves as the precondition for, the cleansing fire of the Spirit. Repentance is here not seen as self-improvement or growth, but as testing and trial by fire. It is bringing one’s self under judgment now in order to remove the fire of judgment on the day of the Lord (1 Cor 11:31).
The other major motif surrounding the day of Yahweh in the Hebrew prophets is that of distributive justice (eg. Obad 1:15). The state of this present world, as it is still God’s creation, still reflects his character. Humanity is still the image of God within it. It is therefore not abject chaos and destruction, but a broken order which requires the cleansing and purification described above. This distributive justice character of judgment sees the final completion of the ordering of creation as shoring up and repairing the order which still persists therein. It is a restoration of balance and order. This restoration will necessarily affect some positively and others negatively based upon their thoughts, words, and deeds (Rom 2:6; 2 Cor 5:10). Many scriptural categories describe the two poles of this experience of God, such as reward and punishment, blessing and curse, and vindication and wrath. Punishment, curse, and wrath are all ways of describing the experience of those who suffer loss in this restoration. This loss is not merely shame or embarrassment but is quite real. For the Egyptians, their massacre of the male children of God’s firstborn, Israel, was rebalanced by the death of their firstborn sons. For two hundred years of apostasy, the northern kingdom of Israel was scattered back into non-existence. For 490 years of ignoring the Sabbath year, the southern kingdom of Judah faced 70 years of exile in a foreign land. That this sort of massive upheaval is coming is a constant theme of Christ’s own preaching (eg. Matt 19:30; 20:16; Mark 10:31; Luke 13:30; 16:25).
The various punishments or consequences for sin in the Torah are grounded in this twofold understanding of the wrath of God. The Torah never imposes suffering or pain as a means of recompense for sin, though this is not uncommon in other ancient cultures. Sin in the Torah is handled either by death, corresponding to the consuming fire of wrath, or by restitution, the suffering of loss to restore the right order of justice. Restitution is, therefore, a critical and necessary element of repentance (Luke 19:8-9). This understanding gave rise to the concept of penance in the church. It is also a constitutive element to the church’s understanding of asceticism.
The second concept, linked with the understanding of the wrath of God as the experience of judgment and righteousness, is that the experience of God’s wrath stems from his presence. In Hebrew idiom, what is generally translated in English as being in God’s presence is actually to be “before his face,” which is itself a reference to seeing him. God is righteous. God is holy. God is surrounded by the fullness of his glory. These are not merely adjectives correctly applied to God as if he were being judged against some external standard. Rather, just as God is love, he is also righteousness, holiness, glory, etc. This is why for Moses, to see his glory would be to see God himself (Ex 33:18-20). This is why St. Paul can say that Christ is the righteousness of God (1 Cor 1:30-31). The experience of a sinful human person coming into the presence of God is dramatized in Isaiah’s prophetic call (Isa 6:1-13). The prophet experiences his own undoing in his experience of the righteousness, holiness, and glory of God (v. 5). In order for him to speak the words of God, his lips must be purified by fire (v. 6-7).
God’s coming to bring judgment upon the gods of Egypt and to vindicate his people is therefore referred to in the Torah as him visiting his people (Gen 50:24-25; Ex 4:31). The day of Yahweh is therefore also referred to as the day on which he will visit his people (Ex 32:34; Lev 26:16; Isa 23:27; 29:6; Jer 15:15; 27:22; 29:10; 32:5). In the prophetic timeline, the day of Yahweh would come first upon Judea, preceded by the coming of Elijah. Judgment would come upon God’s people first, through which a remnant would be refined by fire. After this would come a period, the last days, during which the nations would stream to Jerusalem to worship Yahweh, concluding in Yahweh’s judgment of the entire creation and the completion of his creative work.
Basic to the understanding of the New Testament authors is that this timeline was advanced in their day. Jesus Christ is Yahweh and he has come to his people in Judea. His very presence in their midst brought about judgment. Most were cut off through their rejection of Christ. A remnant, however, found repentance and justification in Christ. Following this, the Gentiles were added to this remnant, reconstituting the assembly of Israel, the church. The apostles bore witness to these events and attest to them in the scriptures. This means, as they attest, that we are now in the latter days during which Christ rules in the midst of his enemies. At the conclusion of this period, described by St. John figuratively as a thousand years in the Apocalypse, Christ will again visit his creation to complete the eighth creation day begun by incarnation and resurrection. Thus he will judge the living and the dead. The word “Parousia,” generally translated in English as “return,” more literally means “presence.” All of creation will be brought before the throne of Christ. All of creation will stand in his presence. All will see his face. This will bring all of creation to order and completion. Human persons will either themselves be justified, purified by fire, or will be purged, losing even what little they may presently possess. For the first, this experience will be reward and joy, but for the second punishment and wrath.
As a final note, this understanding of the presence of Christ is firmly embedded in the church’s understanding of the Eucharist. In the Eucharist, a human person receives Christ himself into his own person. The presence of Christ, as has already been seen, can bring either purification or destruction, forgiveness or wrath. St. Paul speaks of this when he describes the consequences of receiving the Eucharist in an unworthy manner (1 Cor 11:27-34). The priest’s prayers reference the purification of Isaiah described above (Isa 6:6-7). The prayer of St. Symeon the Translator after receiving the Eucharist is a profound meditation upon these themes. Repentance and the purification of our souls and bodies can be painful and difficult, but they prepare us to stand before the face of our Lord Jesus Christ and for the eternal righteousness, holiness, and glory of the world to come.