THERE MAY BE NO THEOLOGICAL TOPIC more controversial than divine wrath. While most of humanity is eager to acknowledge the existence of God, and while most love to acknowledge his traits of grace and mercy and kindness, very few want to acknowledge his wrath. Yet wrath is a consistent theme in the Bible and a defining characteristic of the God we meet in its pages. Divine wrath suffers when we fail to understand it aright. Here are two serious, common misconceptions.
The first misconception is that God’s wrath is cruel. Too many people associate God’s wrath with human anger which, indeed, is often arbitrary and mean. The truth is that God’s wrath is always the wrath of God as Judge. Thus, God’s wrath is always a measured, just, judicial wrath.
According to J.I. Packer, “the explicit presupposition of all that we find in the Bible … on the torments of those who experience the fullness of God’s wrath is that each receives precisely what he deserves. ‘The day of God’s wrath’, Paul tells us, is also the day ‘when his righteous judgment will be revealed.’ And in that day ‘God will give to each person according to what he has done’ (Romans 2:5ff).” Just as our justice systems dole out punishments fitting for particular crimes, Jesus himself taught that God’s retribution will be proportionate to the individual and his offense (see Luke 12:47ff) .
Of course that is precisely why God’s wrath is so fearsome. No one will suffer beyond what he deserves. But what he deserves is unspeakably terrible. “If it is asked: can disobedience to our Creator really deserve great and grievous punishment? anyone who has ever been convicted of sin knows beyond any shadow of doubt that the answer is yes, and knows too that those whose consciences have not yet been awaked to consider, as Anselm put it, ‘how weighty sin is’ are not yet qualified to give an opinion.” God will serve as Judge and will judge justly.
The second misconception is that God’s wrath is something God inflicts upon ignorant, innocent people. This misconception teaches that God inflicts hell upon people who would have chosen God if only they had the option or the appropriate understanding. But
God’s wrath in the Bible is something which people choose for themselves. Before hell is an experience inflicted by God, it is a state for which a person himself opts, by retreating from the light which God shines in his heart to lead him to himself. … The decisive act of judgment upon the lost is the judgment which they pass upon themselves, by rejecting the light that comes to them in and through Jesus Christ. In the last analysis, all that God does subsequently in judicial action towards the unbeliever, whether in this life or beyond it, is to show him, and lead him into, the full implications of the choice he has made.Packer goes on to say, “Nobody stands under the wrath of God save those who have chosen to do so. The essence of God’s action in wrath is to give people what they choose in all its implications: nothing more, and equally nothing less. God’s readiness to respect human choice to this extent may appear disconcerting and even terrifying, but it is plain that his attitude here is supremely just, and poles apart from the wanton and irresponsible inflicting of pain which is what we mean by cruelty.” And then he provides this memorable line: “What God is hereby doing is no more than to ratify and confirm judgments which those whom he ‘visits’ have already passed on themselves by the course they have chosen to follow.”
God is not cruel in his wrath. He is not arbitrary. And his wrath will never extend to the ignorant or innocent. He will apportion his wrath with perfect fairness upon those who have chosen to face it.