I’m convinced there’s one prominent biblical topic that most people, including Christians, prefer not to discuss: the wrath of God. Even though you’ll find it presented often in Scripture, from Genesis to Revelation, most Bible-believing Christ-followers would rather ignore it.
I would expect such an attitude from non-Christians. But evangelicals have hopped on the “God is only love” bandwagon in increasing numbers over the past few decades. This is cause for much concern if we are truly committed, like the Apostle Paul, to proclaim “the whole counsel of God” (Acts 20:27).
I’ve been thinking about this ever since I read J.I. Packer’s book Knowing God. He asks the question, “How often during the past year did you hear a sermon on the wrath of God?” My answer: zero. In fact, I can only remember one sermon in the past ten years that dealt with the subject. How about you?
Yet David wrote about God’s wrath repeatedly in the Psalms. And, of course, that means this is something that Old Testament believers sang about repeatedly. Hmmm. When was the last time you sang a hymn about God’s punishment of the wicked?
Consider these verses in Psalm 11:5-6.“The LORD, the Righteous One, examines the wicked, and those who love violence his soul hates. On the wicked he will rain fiery coals and burning sulfur; a scorching wind will be their lot.”
Admittedly, those are tough words to swallow. Does the Bible really say that God hates people who love violence? But how can God hate anyone? The best-known verse of all says “God so loved the world” (John 3:16). Oh how we love to remind ourselves that “God is love” (1 John 4:16). Yet there it is in black and white. God loves people and God hates people. How do we harmonize those statements?
One explanation I’ve heard goes like this: God loves the sinner, but he hates his sin. At first glance, that makes sense. I sure wish that’s what the Bible says; but it doesn’t. The verse quoted above says that God hates “those who love violence.” And there are other verses that speak of God’s hatred toward people. “The arrogant cannot stand in your presence; you hate all who do wrong” (Psalm 5:5). Or how about Proverbs 6:16-19, which begins by saying that “There are six things the LORD hates, seven that are detestable to him.” Solomon then lists particular sins such as “haughty eyes, a lying tongue and hands that shed innocent blood.” But by the end of the passage the list moves from sinful behaviors to the people who commit them: “a false witness . . . and a man who stirs up dissension.”
I don’t think there’s a quick answer to this dilemma. It’s hard for us to reconcile these two apparently contradictory characteristics. We usually think of hatred as something inherently evil. And for us, that is usually the case. But think about your own feelings toward wickedness. Isn’t it possible to be so outraged at a person’s behavior that you can’t help but hate both the action and the person who committed the despicable crime? At the same time, by the power of the Holy Spirit who indwells us, isn’t it also possible to extend grace and forgiveness to the guilty party? Certainly this is much easier said than done, but Jesus told us to love our enemies, and He only instructs us to do what He also enables us to carry out.
Let’s we go back to Psalm 11, where there’s one more verse that I find helpful. The hymn ends with this powerful verse: “For the LORD is righteous; he loves justice” (Psalm 11:7). Yes, God is love. But He is also righteous and just and holy. That means He must punish sin and the unrepentant sinner who does sinful things. Ironically, this is all due to God’s love — His love for justice. We tend to get so wrapped up in God’s love for people that we forget that God loves to do the right thing. And for the arrogant person who rejects the salvation offered through Jesus Christ, eternal punishment is the right thing.
Oh, may our enjoyment of God’s love not blot out our awareness of God’s wrath. May we never forget that “God’s justice stands forever against the sinner in utter severity. The vague and tenuous hope that God is too kind to punish the ungodly has become a deadly opiate for the consciences of millions” (A.W. Tozer).
If you ever want to write a book about God that will not read, just write one about the wrath of God. Fortunately, the best-selling book of all time has already been written, and it’s all about His wrath and His love.
How many times does John 3:16 mention heaven? And how many times does it mention hell? May that be the model for biblical preaching about God today.