I think it is safe to say that the wrath of God is not a popular idea in the western world. Indeed, we are terribly uncomfortable with the idea of God’s wrath. Rarely do preachers expound God’s historical acts of judgment, let alone the climactic act of God’s judgment in Hell. The title of Rob Bell’s 2011 wildly popular book Love Wins, a book about Hell or the lack thereof, is telling. Bell’s book toys with the idea of universalism, that God will not lay a sentence of eternal punishment upon sinners but will reconcile all humanity to Himself in the end. For Bel, love wins because God’s wrath abides, is held back.
This is the tale of God’s wrath in the 19th-21st centuries, however it is not the story the Bible tells. The Bible doesn’t flinch at the thought of God being wrathful nor does it pit God’s wrath against His love. To the contrary, God’s love is presented side by side with His wrath. Love and wrath are even simultaneously expressed towards the same subjects! While we were still enemies of God—objects of His wrath—He died for us (Rom. 5:6-8, 10; Eph. 2:1-7; Col. 3:6-7)!
Instead of shrinking from the topic, the wrath of God in Scripture is a source of joy and praise! God’s wrath—even Hell itself—is an object of hope and praise for the believer. That sounds wrong to our ears. Yet this is, as we will see, the truth. The Bible does acknowledge the weight of wrath and Hell—God Himself, in one sense, does not delight in the death of the wicked (Ezk. 18:23, 32; though, e.g. Deut. 28:63). But it never shies away from the positive aspect of wrath. The Bible, of course, speaks of much more than wrath. It is full of the hope of God’s mercy and the joy of His love, but the focus of this post will be on the hope Christians can find in the doctrine of the wrath of God. I want look at fives ways that we can rejoice in the wrath of God, five ways that God’s wrath is good news.
1. God’s Wrath Magnifies the Wonder of the Cross
39And going a little farther he fell on his face and prayed, saying, “My Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me; nevertheless, not as I will, but as you will.”
– Matthew 26:39 (ESV)
16You will be sated with dishonour instead of glory;
now you yourself drink and have your uncircumcision exposed!
the cup of YHWH’s right hand is coming around to you
and disgrace will come upon your glory.
– Habakkuk 2:16 (cf. Isa. 51:17, 22, Rev. 14:10)1
What happened when Jesus died on the Cross? We can imagine the pain of death; all of us have witnessed death and seen its pain in the lives of those we love. We can also imagine the historical judgments of God, those times when He has brought future judgment into the present by toppling nations and deposing leaders (e.g., Habakkuk 2:5-20). Can we imagine the full weight of God’s judgment, though?
The doctrine of Penal Substitution teaches us that Jesus died in our place bearing the punishment of our sin. That is, He bore the wrath of God we deserved (Isa. 53; Rom. 3:21-27; Eph. 5:2, 25; Heb. 9:11-28; Rev. 5:9-10, 13:8, 20:11-15). Indeed, when Jesus prays in the Gospels about the cup He is about to drink, He is not using a trite metaphor. He is invoking the prophetic imagery of the cup of God’s wrath.
In the Prophets, Habakkuk serving as a good example, the nations and Israel drink from the cup of God’s wrath when they receive His righteous judgment. This judgment is expressed in historical acts of destruction. Jesus drank of this same cup; He drank of God’s wrath in full.
If Hell is God’s punishment for our sin, and Jesus took upon Himself the punishment we deserve for our sins, we only comprehend the cost of the cross by contemplating the doctrine of Hell. To understand what Jesus went through in our place, we can contemplate those brief passages that describe a lake of burning fire (Rev. 20:7-15) or the outer darkness (Matt. 25:30). But we will only fully understand the Cross in Eternity, when we know the true cost of Sin exemplified by the punishment it receives in Hell (cf. Rom. 9:22-24). We can, therefore, rejoice in God’s wrath—past, present, and future—because it shows us the magnificent glory of His grace shown toward us sinners.
2. God’s Wrath Answers the Injustice of This Age
17Will he, therefore, empty out his net,
and continue to slay nations,
not showing mercy?
– Habakkuk 1:17
When the court renders a judgement, convicts a murder, we rejoice: justice is served! Yet the thought of Hell makes us tremble. We lament the idea of our loved ones—or anyone—suffering in Hell. This is genuine and important perspective on Hell, for God Himself does not delight in the death of the wicked (Ezk. 18:23). But this cannot be our only perspective on Hell, for this is not the only perspective the Bible gives on Hell. In way analogous to our discomfort with Hell, many of us hope that a convicted murder would be redeemed. We hope that they would have their life turned around, and one day be released to a normal life. Yet, despite this hope, we still rejoice in earthly justice. We rejoice in justice served. Why, then, do we not rejoice in the case of Hell, the ultimate perfection of justice?
Consider a question many of us have asked, “how could God let evil people get away with their sins?” Throughout human history countless numbers of men and woman have escaped punishment for their earthly crimes (e.g., Hitler, Jack the Ripper). We rightly consider this an injustice. We desire justice to given, for the guilty to receive their due punishment. Furthermore, in Canada, there have been several recent cases where criminals wanted for heinous crimes have been acquitted because their trials were taking too long (http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/manitoba-jordan-ruling-decision-1.4449689; http://www.cbc.ca/news/canada/manitoba/court-case-delay-thrown-out-manitoba-1.3951177). We recognize this as wrong! The injustice of such crimes left unpunished is shocking! How much more should the thought of sins against the Holy Creator of the heavens and the earth being left unpunished shock us?
According to the Bible, God’s answer to this injustice is Hell. God will not let the wicked get away with their crimes. He has ordained a day of reckoning for all the wrong doing of man (Matt.25:1-46; Acts 17:30-31; Rev. 20:11-15). Earthly tribunals are only a foretaste of that day when justice will be fully enacted. Hell is our assurance that no criminal will ever truly get away, that justice will be perfected (Rom. 2:6-11). It is for this reason that the failure of earthly justice doesn’t need to cause us distress, for true justice awaits Christ’s return. This promise of final judgment also allows us to surrender the evils committed against us to God. We can praise God for His wrath because on the day of His final judgment, all injustice will disappear.