WRATH OF GOD
The Hebrew language is rich in terms for "anger," these picturing either the inward fire of wrath, or its outward manifestations in terms of animated physical life, specially breathing ('anaph
), then overflowing rage, and consuming fire (Deut. xxxii. 19
sqq). The anger of God is kindled (Isa. v. 25
), and he comes "to render his anger with fury, and his rebuke with flames of fire" (Isa. lxvi. 15
); his indignation is poured out (Zeph. iii. 8
); and his wrath produces the tempest described in Ps. xviii. 7
sqq. Jeremiah and Ezekiel may be described as par excellence
the prophets of wrath. Nor is this wrath a mere figure of speech; it is real anger, manifested not only in its effects, but in the divine motive toward his creation. It is the divine counterpart of human anger, and one tacitly accepted by the New Testament from the Old. The traditional view holds that the first sin and the divine anger are correlates, so that man is now a "child of wrath," while God has withdrawn far from him. Drop by drop man must drink the cup of divine wrath to the dregs, until finally the angry divine majesty snaps the thread of the life of man who selfishly withdraws in sin from the service of God (cf. Gen. ii., iii.
with Ps. xc.
). Since anger is possible only when one associates with another, and since, after Yahweh had chosen Israel, such intercommunication was possible only with his own people, and no longer with the Gentiles, whom he left "to walk in their own ways" (Acts xiv. 16
), therefore the wrath of God is generally spoken of in the Old Testament only in connection with human interference in Yahweh's personal relations with Israel: The very basis of the entire dispensation whereby Yahweh restricted his presence to Israel and left the Gentiles to their own devices was his wrath, which led him to deliver to death the race which had proved recreant to him (Gen. iii., vi., xi.
); and this divine wrath, separating sinful man from life, is typified in the cherubim and the flaming sword at the gates of Eden (Gen. iii. 24
). All this makes clear the relation of the wrath of God to his holiness. When man becomes sensible of the separation between himself and God, he must seek to repair the breach, and since repentance is the object of all divine judgments, God then restrains his wrath, so that mention is made, throughout all periods of the Old-Testament revelation, of the mercy and long-suffering of Yahweh. And yet, the rendering of love is not unlimited by the claims of wrath, and the holiness of God must still set up a barrier against the sin of man, so that all who draw near unworthily encounter divine wrath which is, in the most literal sense, a devouring flame (cf. Deut. iv. 33
; Lev. x. 1-3
). But despite his sin, man
may draw near to God, approaching by means of prayer and intercession. This was true not only of
such men of God as Abraham and Moses, but also of the priests, though even the latter must bring
gifts and sacrifices. Sin must be "covered" from the sight of a wrathful God, and the killing of the sacrificial victim symbolizes the punishment of death which Yahweh's representative must exact. When death or sickness or other distresses approach, the righteous cry: "Rebuke me not in thins anger, neither chasten me in thy hot displeasure" (Ps. vi. 1, xxxviii. 1
); but even when the faithful experience the wrath of God, this is but transitory, vividly contracting with the divine grace which endures forever (Ps. xxx. 5
; Isa. liv. 7-8, Ix. 10
). Intermediate between these passages are those which represent the people of God; just and unjust, as one, in which the wrath of God is salvation to the faithful remnant and to the others a consuming fire (Isa. xxvi. 20
; Mic. vii. 9
). Here the wrath of God can not be assumed as merely instrumental or feigned, concealing the real motive of love. The entire earthly relation between God and man, and especially between Yahweh and Israel, is entirely preparatory and transitional, and the sharp antithesis between wrath and grace is reached only at the end. "Days of wrath" come in the present world to individuals and communities (Prov. xi. 4
); and for
Israel it is the day of the destruction of Jerusalem (Ezek. vii. 19
). The "after time" brings the day of the Lord and his wrath against the apostate, and especially against the Gentiles opposed to him and Israel (cf. Deut. xxxii. 35-36
; Isa. lxi. 2,lxiii. 4
); and from the time of Joel this judgment gradually widens into the judgment of the world, and the day of the Lord is resolved into a final judgment issuing into an eternal dualism of grace and wrath (Isa. lxv.-lxvi.
The New Testament.
The wrath of God is as prominent in the New Testament as in the Old. Christ is described as angry (Mark iii. 5), especially at the cleansing of the temple (Matt. xxi. 12-13), while such parables as those of the talents and of the sheep and the goats imply a similar feeling. The wrath of God described in the New Testament is essentially eschatological. John the Baptist speaks of flight from "the wrath to come" (Matt. iii. 7); from which Christ gives deliverance (I Thess. i. 10). Paul mentions a series of sins that provoke the divine wrath (Eph. v. 3-6; Col. iii. 5-6); and to him wrath is the antithesis of justification, being the imputation and punishment of guilt (Rom. v. 9). In other passages it may be uncertain whether the wrath mentioned is, in character eschatological, or general, embracing a combination of the two with alternative emphasis (John iii. 36; Rom. i. 18, iii. 5, iv. 15, ix. 22, xii. 19; Eph. ii. 3, v. 6; I Thess. ii. 16). It seems most probable, however, that these passages do not exclusively refer to the eschatological idea, but also allude to the wrath of God as essentially present in this world. This view also justifies the orthodox idea of the Atonement (q.v.), that through Christ the divine wrath, which doomed a sinful world to the judgment of death, was averted, and in its place, mercy, justice, and life were brought to mankind (practically to those who believe). By its implications the New Testament seems to justify the doctrine that Christ bore the wrath of God for man (cf. Gal. iii. 13; II Cor. v. 21). If to the Pauline utterances concerning the relation of the death of Christ to mankind and to death, the wages of sin, there be added the synoptic statements regarding the death of Christ, who must suffer according to the Scriptures, and give his life a ransom for many (Matt. xx. 28; cf. Isa. liii.; Zech. xi.), then it becomes clear that the apostolic Church was convinced that Christ had turned away the divine wrath. To this must be added the fourth Word from the Cross, the agony in the garden, and the numerous references of Paul and other New-Testament writers to sacrifice and to prophecy (especially Isa. liii.) with reference to Christ, all of which imply that the judgment of divine wrath for a sinful world was actually borne, in concentrated form, by Christ. The fact that there is no specific mention of the wrath of God in connection with the work of Christ is doubtless due to the lack of anthropomorphism in the New Testament, where the wrath of God, except in its eschatological sense, is used only to denote the cause of the condemnation of fallen man. This does not imply that the wrath of God is not real, or that it is a mere figure of speech for the concept of righteous recompense; but the Old-Testament relation of Yahweh to Israel no longer existed, and the Old-Testament covenantal concept was at an end. There could be, therefore, no such allusions to divine wrath as in the Old Testament, except in eschatological passages like Rev. xvi. 19, xix. 15; and since a wrong connotation might be given to the Old-Testament concept, the phrase "wrath of God" seems to have been intentionally omitted in the New-Testament passages concerning the atonement.
In opposition to the Epicurean and Stoic concepts of God, Lactantius (q.v.) postulated not merely the possibility but the necessity of the "wrath in God"; not alone because of the divine personality, of which man's nature was a pattern, but also because of the divine love, since "he who hates not, loves not" (De ira Dei.
, iv., vii.; Eng. transl., ANF,
vii. 260-263), besides laying stress on the practical perils lurking in the denial of so restraining a doctrine. It is true that a living, personal God is unimaginable without emotions and will, the former taking cognizance of pleasure and displeasure, and the latter acting and reacting. Thus wrath becomes an attribute of God, with whom it forms the constant protector of the divine self-complacency against all disturbing elements. A wrathless association of God with others than himself is unthinkable, without sacrificing his personality. A "natural side" to the divine being (F. Delitzsch), or a "dark background" or abyss (J. Boehme), to ground the possibility of God's wrath, are futile conjectures; it can come in view only in God's intercourse with others, or revelation. The Fathers, biased by a philosophy which abhorred anthropomorphic aspects of deity, and clinging to the idea of an impassible God, were strangely at one with the rationalistic deists, who deny the divine wrath;
but their belief in the true revelation of God and its record in the Bible forestalled the consequences of the divorce between God and man on the part of the latter.
The relation of the divine wrath to the holiness of God depends largely on the problem whether wrath is an emotion with God as with man. This is rightly affirmed by Lactantius, when he defines anger as "an emotion of the mind arousing itself for the restraining of faults" (De ira, xvii.), a definition followed by many later theologians. The relation of God's wrath to his holiness may be thus stated. In the conditions of life created by the divine holiness God participates personally with his feeling and self-complacency. Any disturbance of these conditions of life involves an alteration of the motive life and self-complacency of God who reveals himself to and dwells among men; and thus necessarily not only brings about au instantaneous reaction, but results in a personal defensive attitude, a personal antagonism and the withdrawal of self from the disturbing factor, and the removal of the latter from self. It is not altogether correct to consider wrath as the energy of divine justice in its punitive aspect, for the latter appertains to the divine will, while wrath is primarily a part of emotion and self-sensibility. Justice is concerned with the preservation of divine order; wrath with the
protection of God's personal interest. To avert the questionable aspects of personal emotion and passion, many theologians would seek for anger a close coordination with love. Just as an earthly father, in punishing a naughty child, becomes really angry and exercises the right of stern chastisement, while contemplating at the same time loving intention and hope, rendered, however, only on condition of improvement, so God is at the same time truly wrathful against the sinful, but full of love toward them when they repent. In so far as the experience of this wrath tends to produce repentance, it is, of course, a means to the end of love. To man's conduct toward God corresponds God's conduct toward man. Partial separation and partial alienation of man from God entails the dual dispensation of love and wrath. To these alternating preponderances of God's rendering to the individual corresponds also God's attitude toward the obdurate as a class and inversely toward the believers.
Sin and Atonement.
By sin man not only violates the divinely appointed order, which consequently reacts against
him, but he also invades the sphere of God's life and so conflicts, as person against person, with the divine self-consciousness as to draw upon himself the movement which negates both him and the relation to God. The power of life becomes a power of death and destruction. The first negation of sin by God followed the first emission of wrath that placed the sinful world universally under the permanent sway of the powers of death and destruction (Gen. iii.). This the New Testament frequently designates as "wrath of God," and it warrants the Church in referring God's anger to original sin. There are climaxes of this revelation of wrath, partly against all mankind because of "ungodliness and unrighteousness" (Rom. i. 18), and principally within the sphere of the special covenant, because of personal fellowship between God and man. A distinction must be drawn between an objective wrath, which, pregnant with destruction, lowers over a sinful world, breaking with fury from time to time, and a personal wrath manifested by God toward and apperceived by individuals. The latter is felt in
proportion to the tenderness of conscience, and thus is found especially among believers. Among these the sense of divine wrath may become excited to a morbid experience confounding truth and error, as in the case of many mystics. In the atonement, he who places himself under the wrath of God over the sinful world, in order to withdraw it from others, must do this by the free ethical assumption of the judgment of penalty pending over the world. On the other hand, only he is qualified to do this who is the organic head of the race. The coalescence of the two produces the ethical mystical view, presented here as the Biblical. In this substitute is realized that toward which humanity aspired symbolically by their sacrifices, and for which God set up a type in the Old Testament, not only in the sacrifices and prophecies but on the whole in the entire institution in which he accepted propitiation, whether through persons, acts, intercessions, or suffering. As before Christ the time of wrath was indeed the time of "forbearance" (Rom. iii. 25-26), so, inversely, in Christ, the revealer of grace and
truth, the wrath and curse over sin come first to light in the full sense; and there is ushered in the crisis continuing throughout the centuries dividing the human race into "vessels of wrath" and "vessels of mercy," until the last day of wrath (see DAY OF THE LORD) shall bring the ultimate decision. To those who persist to the end in self-estrangement from God, it can mean only interminable separation from him and the divine life.
(ARNOLD RÜEGG +)
For discussions of the Biblical idea the reader is referred to the works named in and under BIBLICAL THEOLOGY.
From the dogmatic standpoint the literature is to be found in the works specified in and under DOGMA, DOGMATICS;
and under Sin Consult further:
Lactantius, De ira Dei, Eng transl. in ANF, vii. 259-280;
A. Ritschl, De ira Dei, Bonn, 1859
(cf. L. Haug, Darstellung und Beurtheilung der Ritschl'schen Theologie, Ludwigsburg, 1885–combats Ritschl);
idem, Rechtfertigung and Versöhnung, ii. 119-156, 3 vols., Bonn, 1870-74;
F. Weber, Vom Zorne Gottes, Erlangen, 1862;
C. von Orelli, in ZKW, 1884, pp. 22-33;
W. G. T. Shedd, Doctrine of Endless Punishment, New York, 1886;
J. Ninek, Jesus als Charakter, pp. 27-40, Berlin, 1906;
M. Pohlenz, Vom Zorne Gottes. Ein Studie über den Einfuss der griechischen Philosophice auf das alte Christentum, Göttingen, 1909.