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The Wrath of God in the New Testament

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by Leon Morris


There is neither the same richness of vocabulary nor the same frequency of mention in the New Testament treatment of the wrath of God as in the Old. Nevertheless, the relevant passages show that for the early Christians the divine wrath was just as real as it was for the men of the old covenant.


In our section on wrath in the Old Testament we noted the view held by some that for the prophets wrath signifies nothing more than an impersonal process of retribution. Such views are held, too, with regard to the New Testament. For example, C. H. Dodd says that, in the teaching of Jesus, ‘anger as an attitude of God to men disappears, and His love and mercy become all-embracing’.316 St. Paul, he thinks, agrees with this in substance and retains the concept of the wrath of God ‘not to describe the attitude of God to man, but to describe an inevitable process of cause and effect in a moral universe’.317 In support he appeals to Romans 1: 18f. It is difficult to see how such views can be substantiated.


There are two Greek words particularly used to denote the divine anger, namely θυμός and ỏργή. The two seem at times to be used synonymously: Büchsel, indeed, denies that we can distinguish between them. Etymologically there is a distinction, for θυός derives from θύω which means to rush on or along, and, as Grimm-Thayer put it: ‘to rush along or on, be in a heat, breathe violently; hence Plato correctly says, Cratyl. p. 419e θυμòς ἀπò τῆς θὑσεως x. ζέσεως, τῆς ψυχῆς ; accordingly it signifies both the spirit panting as it were in the body, and the rage with which the man pants and swells.‘318 ὀργή on the other hand is from ὀργάω which signifies ‘to be getting ready to bear, growing ripe for something’.319 It comes to mean the natural disposition or character, any movement of soul, especially strong emotion, and so anger. This leads to a distinction between the two words such that θυός more readily denotes passionate anger, arising and subsiding quickly, whereas ỏργή is adapted to a more settled emotion,320 and Grimm-Thayer cite Plato and Gregory Nazianzum to show this.


This original distinction is not always observed, but from it we can see that ỏργή is a more suitable term for the divine wrath than θυμός, and, in point of fact, the latter term is used only once of God’s anger outside the Apocalypse, in which book the thought of a passionate wrath is in keeping with the vivid imagery used throughout.321 The point of all this is that the biblical writers habitually use for the divine wrath a word which denotes not so much a sudden flaring up of passion which is soon over, as a strong and settled opposition to all that is evil arising out of God’s very nature.


In the Gospels the actual term ‘wrath’ is not of frequent occurrence.322 But Jesus Himself is once said to have been angry (Mk. 3: 5), and He spoke of the siege of Jerusalem as ‘wrath unto this people’ (Lk. 21: 23), while His forerunner warned men of ‘wrath to come’ (Mt. 3: 7; Lk. 3: 7). We also read of the disobedient (or unbeliever; ὁ ἀπειθῶν τῷ υἱῷ) that ‘the wrath of God abideth on him’ (Jn. 3 : 36), where wrath is the portion of the sinner, corresponding to the believer’s reception of eternal life.


But in other places where the term ‘wrath’ does not occur we find strong expressions for the divine hostility to all that is evil. Thus Jesus taught explicitly that men stand in danger of a hell which may be described as a ‘hell of fire’ (Mt. 5: 22, etc.), or as ‘the eternal fire’ (Mt. 18: 8), a place where ‘their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched’ (Mk. 9: 48). God is to be feared, for He, ‘after he hath killed hath power to cast into hell’ (Lk. 12: 5). Jesus’ severe strictures on Capernaum and other cities (Mt. 11: 20, 24), and on the Pharisees (Mt. 23), show an intolerance of evil, which we see again in ‘except ye repent, ye shall all in like manner perish’ (Lk. 13: 3, 5), and in ‘whosoever shall blaspheme against the Holy Spirit hath never forgiveness, but is guilty of an eternal sin’ (Mk. 3 : 29). It is in keeping with this general attitude that we read of Judas, ‘good were it for that man if he had not been born’ (Mk. 14: 21), and that, on the day of judgment, the verdict on some will be, ‘Depart from me, ye cursed, into the eternal fire’ (Mt. 25: 41 and cf. verse 46). In the parables judgment is a persistent theme (e.g. Mt. 13: 42, 50; 18: 34; 21: 44; 22: 7, 33). So, too, is the idea of the ‘outer darkness’ where there will be ‘weeping and gnashing of teeth’ (Mt. 8: 12; 13: 42, 50; 22: 13; 24: 51; 25: 30; Lk. 13: 28). In the face of all this it is difficult to maintain that Jesus had discarded the conception of the wrath of God. For Him the divine reaction in the face of evil was a solemn and terrible reality.


Nor is the case different when we turn to the rest of the New Testament. It is sometimes said that there is significance in the fact that ‘the wrath’ occurs often without being definitely associated with God. This is said to point to a semi-personalization, wrath being conceived of as something different from, and almost independent of, God.323 To this there are two answers. The first is that more than one conclusion can be drawn from the occurrence of‘the wrath’. It is quite legitimate for us to hold that the prophets who spoke of the coming day of wrath when God would punish sin had done their work so well that the fact that the wrath that was to be revealed was God’s wrath did not require emphasis. The second is that the association of ‘the wrath’ with God is not so tenuous as some would have us believe. ‘The wrath’ (ἡ ὀργή) is specifically said to be of God (Jn. 3: 36; Rom. 1: 18; Eph. 5: 6; Col. 3: 6; Rev. 19: 15). In addiction ἡ ὀργή σoυ (Rev. 11: 18) and τῆς ὀγῆςρ αὐτοῦ (Rev. 14: 10; 16: 19) obviously refer the wrath to God, while most people would agree that Romans 9: 22 is correctly translated by ‘What if God, willing to shew his wrath’ (with AV, RV, RSV, etc.). Again ‘the wrath of the lamb’ (Rev. 6: 16) associates wrath personally with a divine Being. θυμός is used to convey the idea of an anger specifically linked with God in Revelation 14: 10, 19; 15: 1, 7; 16: 1; 19: 15, while in Revelation 16: 19 the anger is clearly that of God. Nor have we told the whole story when we have listed the passages where there is an explicit connection of ‘wrath’ with God, for there are some passages without this where it is quite plain that such a link must be postulated. Thus C. Anderson Scott includes in a list of passages where ‘Directly or indirectly St Paul connects God with the idea of anger or wrath’ Romans 2: 5 ; 3: 5 ; 5: 9; Ephesians 5: 6 ; Colossians 3: 6; 1 Thessalonians 1: 10, while he thinks ‘the same reference is less clearly expressed’ in Romans 4: 15; Ephesians 2: 3; 1 Thessalonians 5: 9.324 He also refers to Romans 1: 18; 1 Thessalonians 2: 16.


Nor have we yet finished. What are we to make of ‘the revelation of the Lord Jesus from heaven with the angels of his power in flaming fire, rendering vengeance to them that know not God, and to them that obey not the gospel of our Lord Jesus: who shall suffer punishment, even eternal destruction from the face of the Lord and from the glory of his might’ (2 Thes. 1: 7-9)? This plainly means that the apostle expected a day to come when that which he elsewhere designates as ‘the wrath of God’ will have full operation. It is impossible to hold that he is referring to an impersonal retribution, for he speaks of the revelation of a person. Similarly, in Romans 2: 5-9, although we do not encounter the phrase ‘the wrath of God’, we cannot feel that the apostle is thinking of an impersonal retribution which operates while God remains apart, little more than a spectator. Paul’s vigorous language gives us rather a picture of a God who is personally active in dealing with sinners. As Hebrews 12: 29 puts it, ‘our God is a consuming fire.’325


P. T. Forsyth has a valuable Addendum to his The Work of Christ in which this question is discussed with great force. He asks: ‘When a man piles up his sin and rejoices in iniquity, is God simply a bystander and spectator of the process? Does not God’s pressure on the man blind him, urge him, stiffen him, shut him up into sin, if only that he might be shut up to mercy alone? Is it enough to say that this is but the action of a process which God simply watches in a permissive way? Is He but passive and not positive to the situation? Can the Absolute be passive to anything? If so, where is the inner action of the personal God whose immanence in things is one of His great modern revelations?‘326


We saw earlier that Dodd sees in Romans 1: 18f. the concept of ‘the wrath of God’ used ‘to describe an inevitable process of cause and effect in a moral universe’. But in these very verses we find the personal activity of God brought out, for when St. Paul might well say that the sins of the heathen produced inevitable results, or might make use of some similar impersonal expression, he seems to go out of his way to lay stress upon the divine activity. ‘God gave them up ... unto uncleanness’ (verse 24); ‘God gave them up unto vile passions’ (verse 26) ; ‘God gave them up unto a reprobate mind’ (verse 28). It is true that sin has its consequences; but for St. Paul this does not take place apart from God, for His activity is to be discerned in those consequences. Indeed the whole of this section might be regarded as an expansion of the opening words, ‘For wrath of God is being continually revealed from heaven upon all impiety and unrighteousness of men’. And, as H. Wheeler Robinson says: ‘this wrath of God is not the blind and automatic working of abstract law - always a fiction, since “law” is a conception, not an entity, till it finds expression through its instruments. The wrath of God is the wrath of divine Personality.‘327

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