How Can a God of Love Also Be a God of Wrath?
Everybody loves to talk about God’s love. The love of God is a concept we can receive quite easily…after all, what’s not to love about us? (Read sarcastically.) We are fond of the idea of a God who is fond of us, a God who’s love and patience and compassion knows no limits. We all want a God who loves us, and that is exactly what the Bible says God is like. 1 John 4:8 says it so simply, “God is love”. The God of the Bible is a loving God and we are exactly right to say so.
And yet the Bible has a few other things to say about God as well. In addition to speaking of his love, the Bible also speaks about God’s wrath. Some 600 times the Old Testament refers to the wrath of God. The New Testament also speaks regularly of God’s anger, and Jesus himself speaks more about hell and final judgment than anyone else in the Scriptures. There’s no doubt that if you read the Bible in its totality, you are confronted with both a God of love and a God of wrath.
This really trips some people up. A God of love I get, but a God of wrath? What’s the deal with that? Because we bristle at the idea of God’s wrath, more and more people are trying to deny that aspect of God’s character. Not only do faintly religious people deny God’s wrath, but more and more those who are committed Christians are also trying to dismiss the idea of an angry God. It is quite fashionable these days to highlight the love of God while ignoring the wrath of God. Many pastors and Bible teachers are happy to speak of God’s love but avoid speaking of his wrath like a cat avoids water. Yet this is clearly a tactic to skirt the obvious, that Scripture paints us a picture of God that includes wrath and judgment.
It’s a natural question to ask: If the Bible presents God as having both love and wrath, how can those two qualities exist together? How can a God of love also be a God of wrath?
Though this question presents a challenge for many people, I believe the answer is a lot more obvious than we might expect. The reason God can be both loving and wrathful is because those emotions go hand-in-hand, not only for God but also among human beings. In order for God to be a God of love, he by necessity must also be a God of wrath. If you try to remove the wrath of God, you actually are creating a God of less love.
Think of it like this. When you love someone deeply, you care a lot about their well-being. You desire what is best for them. You want things to go well for them. You hope that they can create a wonderful life for themselves and that they are fortunate enough to avoid grief and hardship. That is the normal outworking of love for another person.
Then, I would ask, how would you feel if you saw your loved one making terrible choices with their life, if they were self-destructing before your very eyes? What would your response be if they were squandering so much potential and making life so much harder for themselves than it needed to be? The answer is that you would be upset about it. You would be sad, you would be disappointed, and you might even be a little angry.
Author Becky Pippert hits on this point in her book Hope Has Its Reasons. She says:
“Think how we feel when we see someone we love ravaged by unwise actions or relationships. Do we respond with benign tolerance as we might toward strangers? Far from it. … Anger isn’t the opposite of love. Hate is, and the final form of hate is indifference… Human love here offers a true analogy: the more a father loves his son, the more he hates in him the drunkard, the liar, the traitor… [Similarly], if I, a flawed narcissistic sinful woman, can feel this much pain and anger over someone’s condition, how much more a morally perfect God who made them? God’s wrath is not a cranky explosion, but his settled opposition to the cancer of sin which is eating out the insides of the human race he loves with his whole being.”
In other words, God is a God of wrath precisely because he is a God of love. He loves his creation and when he sees it being destroyed, it bothers him. He’s not happy about it. He desires better for us, because he loves us.
It’s not just that we (and God) get upset when people ruin their own lives. We also get mad when we see other people ruin the lives of those we love. When someone we care for is wronged, we rightly feel outrage. That outrage is an expression of love. We feel a deep-seated sense of anger that someone we love experienced unnecessary or unjust pain. And, not surprisingly, God feels the exact same way.
When God looks down on earth and sees injustice, when he sees adultery, when he sees abuse, enslavement, violence, neglect, rip-offs, lying, cheating, manipulation, coercion, slander, bullying, and divorce, what do you think he feels? Well, he feels exactly the same way you and I do. He hates it. He is angry. He doesn’t want it to be that way. What kind of a sick God sees the horrors that are committed by humanity and isn’t bothered by it? If God were to look upon the darkness of our world and meet it with a shrug of indifference, he would not be a God of love. His love demands that he respond with anger.
This is why it makes perfect sense that God is both a God of love and wrath. In fact, he cannot be one without the other. His love for his own creation makes his wrath a necessary part of his character. A God without wrath is not a God of love, at least not in a world where sin runs rampant. The mess and implosion that humanity finds itself in, God’s beloved creation, wells up within him a sense of frustration and anger over the whole thing. It is precisely his love that brings about such a response.