Here is a Spiritual Conundrum submitted to Spiritual Insights for Everyday Life by a reader named Garret:
One question that I don’t think you addressed sufficiently in the articles I have seen so far is this: How do you explain the anger recorded in the Old Testament that God seems to feel a lot of the time? Because the God of the near death experience is never angry, ever. Except when somebody wants to come to heaven before their time, then he does get angry.
How do you explain the difference between the God revealed in the Old Testament and the approach Jesus took, which was very peaceful, and never promoting the killing or aggression we see in the Old Testament? How do you explain the angry feelings the Old Testament records God doing? Jesus seems to support the God of the Old Testament, but yet he seems so different than the angry God in the Old Testament.
When the Bible talks about the Wrath of God – what is it referring to?
I’m sure you understand my question. I’d be curious what your thoughts are. Does Swedenborg ever address this disparity? I go to group Bible studies and this question comes up a lot.
Thanks for the great question, Garret!
For those just tuning in, Garret has a great series of videos on near-death experiences that are well worth watching. Here is my review of them: A Short(ish) Video Course on Near-Death Experiences.
Back to the question, here’s the quick version:
First, God is presented as angry in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. And God is also presented as loving in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. Still, it’s true that the Old Testament generally presents a more angry, wrathful, and warlike picture of God than the New Testament does.
It all has to do with the sort of people God was dealing with—and is still dealing with today. People who are at a low, materialistic spiritual ebb need to believe that God is angry at them so that they’ll listen to God. And the Bible is all about getting us to listen to God so that we will become more thoughtful and loving people.
The reality behind the appearance of God’s anger and wrath is that God is never angry at us. God is love. And God never looks at us, or acts toward us, with anything but love. Even when it appears to us that God is angry, that’s just what God lets us believe when it’s necessary to dislodge us from our low and evil states of mind and heart, and move us toward accepting God’s love and wisdom into our lives.
Let’s take a closer look.
An angry and loving God?
First, it’s a little too simple to say that the God of the Old Testament is angry, while the God of the New Testament, and specifically, Jesus Christ, is peaceful.
The loving God of the Old Testament
Yes, there is more about God being angry, destructive, and warlike in the Old Testament. But consider these Old Testament passages:
The Lord descended in the cloud and stood with him there, and proclaimed the name, “The Lord.” The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed,
“The Lord, the Lord,
a God merciful and gracious,
slow to anger,
and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,
keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation,
forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin.” (Exodus 34:5–7)
Yes, it goes on to say that the Lord does not leave the guilty unpunished, and so on. But here, in the Old Testament, God is presented as a loving, merciful, gracious, and forgiving God who is slow to anger.
And Psalm 136 starts out:
Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good.
His love endures forever.
Then, throughout the entire Psalm, every second line reads “His love endures forever.”
There are many, many more passages in the Old Testament speaking of the boundless love and mercy of God. So although in the Old Testament God is presented as angry and wrathful, God is also presented as loving, merciful, and forgiving.
The angry God of the New Testament
And yes, Jesus is depicted in the New Testament as the fulfillment of the Old Testament prophecy in Isaiah 9:6 of a future Prince of Peace.
However, consider these passages from the Gospels:
Another time Jesus went into the synagogue, and a man with a shriveled hand was there. Some of them were looking for a reason to accuse Jesus, so they watched him closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath. Jesus said to the man with the shriveled hand, “Stand up in front of everyone.”
Then Jesus asked them, “Which is lawful on the Sabbath: to do good or to do evil, to save life or to kill?” But they remained silent.
He looked around at them in anger and, deeply distressed at their stubborn hearts, said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was completely restored. Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus. (Mark 3:1–6, italics added)
Here it says that Jesus was angry at those who opposed him, who wanted to accuse him, and who plotted against him. In other words, Jesus was angry at evil people, just like the God of the Old Testament.
And consider this scene:
The Passover of the Jews was near, and Jesus went up to Jerusalem. In the temple he found people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and the money changers seated at their tables. Making a whip of cords, he drove all of them out of the temple, both the sheep and the cattle. He also poured out the coins of the money changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, “Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a marketplace!” His disciples remembered that it was written, “Zeal for your house will consume me.” (John 2:13–17)
Here Jesus took violent action against people who were profaning the Temple for personal profit. Doesn’t this sound like something that the angry, Old Testament God would do?
Moving on to the last book of the Bible:
Then the kings of the earth and the magnates and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of his wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” (Revelation 6:15–17, italics added)
Here the Lamb, a name evoking an innocent and peaceful God, is said to be wrathful.
These are far from the only passages in the New Testament that speak of God’s wrath and anger. So although in the New Testament God is presented as loving and merciful, God is also presented as angry and wrathful.
As you can see, then, the New Testament God really is a continuation of the Old Testament God.
There is certainly more of a tendency in the Old Testament to present God as angry, warlike, and destructive.
And there is certainly more of a tendency in the New Testament to present God as loving, peaceful, and life-giving.
But really, when it comes to the wrath of God, we must deal both with the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament. They are the same God, aren’t they?
So is God really angry and wrathful?
What does the Bible mean when it talks about “the wrath of God”?
What does the Bible mean when it says that God is angry with the wicked?
We’ll get to that. First, let’s look more closely at what anger is, and what love is.
What is anger?
Standard dictionaries define anger as a strong feeling of displeasure and hostility toward someone or something.
But why do we have these feelings?
Emanuel Swedenborg (1688–1772) helps. He says, in the most recent translation:
Anger is a generalized emotion—our reaction to everything that stands in the way of self-love and the desires that go along with it. (Secrets of Heaven #357)
However, the Latin wording commonly translated “self-love” here (amori proprio) is unusual. Though “self-love” is the most likely meaning, amori proprio could also be translated “our own love,” so that it would read:
Anger is a generalized emotion—our reaction to everything that stands in the way of our own love and the desires that go along with it.
If we read Swedenborg’s statement in this way, it offers a surprisingly broad and contemporary understanding of anger: if someone or something gets in the way of what we love and want, we get angry at that someone or something. For example:
- If, as a child, we want a cookie, but our parents say “no,” we’re likely to get angry at our parents because they’re not letting us have what we want.
- If, as an adult, we want to be promoted to a particular position at work, but the boss gives the promotion to someone else, we’re likely get angry both at the boss and at the person who got promoted over us.
- If, as a married person, we see someone else flirting with our spouse, we’re likely to get angry at the interloper—and at our spouse, too, if she or he responds to the flirting.
- If, as an auto mechanic, a bolt is rusted on so tight that it takes us half an hour to get the #$%^ thing out, we’re likely to get angry at the *&^% @#$% thing!
These are examples, great or small, of getting angry because someone or something is threatening or standing in the way of something we love or want to do.
When we get angry at someone or something because they’re blocking and wrecking what we love and want, our feelings often turn toward a desire to harm that person or thing. That is the “hostility” in the traditional definitions of “anger.”
And yet, behind that displeasure and hostility is a feeling that what we love and want is in danger of being lost and destroyed. In another place, Swedenborg expands on the meaning and source of anger:
Anger is a departure from the good of kindness, and therefore a turning away. . . . The reason “anger” means a turning away is that while we are angry at someone we turn our mind away from that person. Anger comes out or is roused in us when someone or something opposes the love that connects us to some other person or thing. When that connection is broken, we flare up and become angry, as though something in our life that gives us delight, and therefore something of our very life, has been lost. Our sadness then turns into grief, and our grief into anger. (Secrets of Heaven #5034)
When we see anger flaring out in ourselves or in others, what we see is the hostility against someone or something else. What we may not see is the sadness, grief, and pain behind the anger. It is the pain of feeling the loss of something or someone we love. And what we love is the core of who we are.
This means that at its core, anger is a protective emotion. It is a fierce outward expression of our inner need to guard and protect from harm the people, things, experiences, ideals, beliefs, and values that give our life meaning.
Positive and negative anger
But all anger is not created equal.
The quality of the anger depends on the quality of the loves and desires it is protecting.
There are as many different kinds of anger as there are human loves and desires. However, they fall into two general categories, which, in present-day terms, could be called positive and negative anger.
- If the loves and desires that give rise to the anger are selfish and materialistic, it is a negative and destructive anger.
- If the loves and desires that give rise to the anger are spiritual and humanitarian, it is a positive and protective anger.
In either case, our anger is a force to protect what we love. However when what we love is primarily ourselves and our own power, possessions, and pleasure, regardless of the wellbeing of anyone else, the anger that flares up to protect what we love and value becomes a destructive force that desires to annihilate anyone and anything that stands in our way. The ultimate desire of this kind of anger is the death and destruction of all that we perceive as enemies.
On the other hand, when we love spiritual values such as justice, truth, kindness, and compassion, and when we love other people not for what they can do for us, but for their intrinsic value as beautiful and beloved human beings, our anger is very different. It does not desire anyone’s destruction, but only the protection of the people and values we hold dear.
If our anger is a negative one, driven by a desire for personal power, wealth, and pleasure, we develop a murderous rage against anyone we perceive as an obstacle and enemy to our ambitions. If that rage is given free rein, it will not stop until the people and things we see as our enemies are all dead and destroyed. Even when they no longer have the ability to harm us or thwart our plans, we still desire their complete annihilation.
This sort of anger can often be seen in wartime when even after the battle is won, and the enemy no longer poses a threat, the victors wreak vengeance on the defeated soldiers, torturing and slaughtering them with great cruelty.
However, if our anger is a positive one, driven by a love of justice, compassion, and the wellbeing of the people we love, and of all people who are being attacked and oppressed, our anger flows out in a very different way—even if at times it may look exactly the same as negative anger that is driven by a desire for wealth and power.
This kind of anger does not want to destroy anyone or anything. It only engages in conflict and destruction when there is no other way to protect the people and values it holds dear. The moment the battle is won, the threat is over, and the conflict ceases, this kind of anger quickly turns into sorrow and compassion for those whose lives were harmed and destroyed in the conflict—even if moments before they were sworn enemies.
To use the wartime example, this is the kind of positive anger that causes soldiers to fiercely fight the enemy as long as the enemy is a threat to their fellow soldiers, their loved ones at home, and their country. But as soon as the battle is won, they treat their prisoners of war with humanity and respect, tending to their injuries and providing for their needs and their comfort.
When we are driven by this kind of anger, the enemy is our enemy only as long as they are attacking what we love. As soon as their attack is neutralized and they are no longer a threat, they cease to be our enemy, and our anger subsides. It has achieved its goal of protecting the people and the values that we love from those who would destroy them.
This is the kind of anger that Jesus felt when he saw the merchants buying and selling and profiting at the Temple. His violent reaction to this corruption of that very sacred place called to his disciples’ minds the verse from the Psalms, “Zeal for your house will consume me” (Psalm 69:9).
- Negative anger flows from selfish and materialistic loves and desires.
- Positive anger flows from love for our neighbors and love for the spiritual and divine values of justice, truth, kindness, compassion, and so on.
This deeper understanding of anger will help us understand the meaning of “the wrath of God” mentioned in the Bible, compared to our usual human conceptions of anger and wrath.
But first we must also understand the true nature of love, since love is the source that drives all anger, both positive and negative.
What is love?
The Apostle John writes:
Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. (1 John 4:8, italics added)
Not God has love.
Not God loves.
God is love.
Love is not merely one attribute among many other attributes that God has. No, love is the substance and being of God. It is what God is made of. Everything else that is part of the being and character of God is an expression of the love that is the very core, substance, and being of God.
But what is love? And what does it mean that God is love? What is the nature of God’s love?
Listen to what Swedenborg says about what love really is. And while you are reading, notice the distinction he draws between two opposite kinds of love. These are the same opposites that lead to the positive and negative kinds of anger described above.
The hallmark of love is not loving ourselves, but loving others and being united to them through love. The hallmark of love is also being loved by others because this is how we are united. Truly, the essence of all love is to be found in union, in the life of love that we call joy, delight, pleasure, sweetness, blessedness, contentment, and happiness.
The essence of love is that what is ours should belong to someone else. Feeling the joy of someone else as joy within ourselves—that is loving. Feeling our joy in others, though, and not theirs in ourselves is not loving. That is loving ourselves, while the former is loving our neighbor. These two kinds of love are exact opposites.
True, they both unite us; and it does not seem as though loving what belongs to us, or loving ourselves in the other, is divisive. Yet it is so divisive that to the extent that we love others in this way we later harbor hatred for them. Step by step our union with them dissolves, and the love becomes hatred of corresponding intensity. (Divine Love and Wisdom #47)
That’s a bit of a mind-bender—especially the second paragraph. Let’s put it in more ordinary words.
The first paragraph is easy enough. Real love is not loving ourselves—even if a healthy self-esteem may be a necessary foundation for real love. Rather, real love is loving other people, and being united to them in love. This means that real love is mutual. So love is a relationship with others that ties us together with them in mutual love. If there is no relationship and no union, there is no love.
The second paragraph is trickier. Here’s another way of putting it in more contemporary terms:
- Real love means valuing others for who they are, and feeling happiness within ourselves when we see that other people are happy thinking, feeling, and doing the kinds of things that they love to do.
- Self-centered love, on the other hand, is valuing other people only as much as they think, feel, and do the kinds of things that we ourselves find pleasure and joy in.
When we truly love others, we value and enjoy their differences from us, and feel happiness and joy when they are expressing and enjoying their own true loves, character, and identity. This is real, outgoing love for others. We see the differences and diversity among the people around us as beautiful variations and contrasts that add to the overall richness of human life.
But if we “love” other people only when we see our own loves, beliefs, character, identity, and pleasures reflected in them, what we’re really loving is ourselves in them, not them as they are in themselves. If we don’t see ourselves in them, we don’t love them at all. Instead, over time we grow to hate and despise them.
This is the root of all the prejudice, bigotry, racism, hatred, and conflict in the world.
- Real love is loving people for who they are, in all of their diversity and with all of their differences from us.
- Selfish love is loving people only if they’re exactly like us, loving, believing, and doing all the same things we do.
There is no anger, as we usually understand it, in God
It should go without saying that God’s love is the kind that loves all people for who they are, and values our differences and distinctness from one another and from God.
In fact, Swedenborg goes on to say in the next few paragraphs of Divine Love and Wisdom that it was absolutely necessary for God to create beings who are not God so that God could have someone else to love. Otherwise God’s love would be self-love.
That’s precisely why God created the universe to be distinct from God and not God, but at the same time to be in a continual relationship with God.
God created the universe so that God would have other beings to love.
And at the core of God, there is nothing but love for all of the beings God has created.
God loves you. God loves me. God loves all the rest of the seven billion or so people on this planet. And if there are other sentient beings out there in this vast universe, God loves every single one of them, too.
This means that God wants all the beings in the universe to feel happiness and joy, each in their own unique way, based on their own unique loves, thoughts, feelings, character, skills, and pleasures.
And for those beings that are capable of eternal life, such as human beings, God wants each one to experience eternal happiness and joy in heaven.
That is how God feels toward every single person on this earth. God has not one speck of anger, but only pure, infinite, eternal divine love toward each one of us. Swedenborg expresses this plainly in Secrets of Heaven #245:
Jehovah God—the Lord—never curses anyone, is never angry at anyone, never leads anyone into crisis. He does not even punish us, let alone curse us.
The wrath of God?
Then why does the Bible say that God is angry and wrathful?
Why does the Bible say that God punishes the wicked, and sends them to hell?
The answer is actually very simple:
When we are living selfish, materialistic lives in opposition to genuine love for God and for our fellow human beings, we need to believe that God is angry with us.
We need to believe that God is all-powerful, to do good or to do evil, so that we will pay attention to God.
To put it bluntly, most of us, when we are living a selfish and materialistic life, have to be scared out of our evil and destructive ways. The fear of punishment—or the actual experience of punishment—is the only thing that may get us to stop and reconsider the hell-bound way we are living.
This is the salutary purpose of “the fear of God” mentioned in the Bible. (There is, however, a deeper meaning of “the fear of God” for those who have progressed farther along their spiritual path: the holy fear of intentionally or unintentionally doing anything that would harm our neighbor and sadden God.)
We need to believe that God is all-powerful . . .
In Secrets of Heaven #245 Swedenborg goes on to say:
This passage [Genesis 3:14, in which God curses the serpent] and many others in the Bible describe Jehovah God as not only turning his face away, being angry, punishing, and testing, but even killing—and, yes, cursing. This was in order to foster the belief that the Lord controls and arranges every last detail in the universe, including evil itself, punishments, and times of trial. After accepting this very general idea, people would learn just how he controls and arranges things. They would see that he transforms the evil involved in punishment and in our ordeals into good.
All scriptural teaching and learning begins with the most general things; for this reason the literal meaning abounds in broad ideas.
The punishment of our evil actions, Swedenborg tells us, comes not from God, but from hell (which is the real meaning of “the Devil”) and from the evil itself. However, God allows us, in our simplistic states of mind, to think that it is God who punishes us and is angry with us so that we will believe that God is in control of the universe.
Let’s face it. For many of us humans here on earth, evil looks much sexier and more powerful than good. When we see greedy people getting rich, and power-hungry people rising to positions of power over others, we naturally think that evil is very powerful!
We see the powerful people of the earth living in wealth and luxury, exerting their control over others, and punishing, humiliating, and destroying those who stand in their way. We see them dominating and conquering other people politically or economically. We see them ruining, throwing into prison, stripping, torturing, and killing their enemies. We see them exerting their will, rewarding those who support them and serve them, and destroying those who oppose them and rise up against them.
This, to our worldly and materialistic eyes, looks like real power.
And let’s be realistic. If we didn’t think God had this kind of power, many of us would think of God as a weak and powerless God. We would look at such a God with contempt, as not worthy of our fear and devotion. We would figure that if God doesn’t get angry and punish people who do evil, then we might as well just go ahead and wreak as much havoc as we want!
I vividly recall a conversation with a Christian pastor who, when I said that I don’t believe God gets angry, actually got angry at me. She told me in no uncertain terms that she cannot believe in a God who does not get angry with rapists, murderers, child molesters, and other criminals. If God doesn’t throw those people into hell, she said, she cannot believe in such a God.
I do sympathize with her. And at that moment, I stopped saying anything to her about God not getting angry. I realized that she needed to believe that God gets angry with the wicked and punishes them. Otherwise she would believe that God is weak and powerless, and not worthy of her belief. (But the reality is expressed in Psalm 34:21: “evil will slay the wicked,” not God.)
That is precisely why the Bible, both in the Old Testament and the New Testament, says that God is angry with the wicked, curses them, punishes them, and sends them to everlasting torment in the fires of hell. Otherwise, people who think that evil is strong and powerful would pay no attention to God at all.
. . . so that we will stop doing evil things
And if these people paid no attention to God, they would also pay no attention to God’s commandments not to do evil and wicked things, but to love our neighbor as ourselves, and love God above all.
So it is precisely to get us to stop being evil and destructive and start being good and loving that God says in the Bible, and allows us to believe, that God is angry and wrathful at us when we are wicked.
In other words, God allows us to believe that God is angry at us because God loves us and wants us to experience the eternal joy of heaven instead of the eternal misery of hell.
So the true meaning of “the wrath of God” is the love and mercy of God, who will do whatever it takes to snap us out of our selfish and greedy path toward destruction, and get us turned around and moving on a pathway of faith and love that leads us to heaven. This is why Swedenborg says in Secrets of Heaven 6997, where he explains the deeper meaning of Exodus 4:14:
“And the anger of Jehovah was kindled against Moses” means compassion. This is clear from the meaning of “the anger of Jehovah” as not anger but the opposite of anger, which is mercy, or in this case, compassion. Clearly Jehovah does not have any anger, since he is love itself, goodness itself, and mercy itself—and anger is the opposite of these. Anger also a failing, which cannot be said of God. So when anger is attributed to Jehovah, or the Lord, in the Bible, the angels do not see it as anger, but either as God’s mercy or as God removing evil from heaven.
“The wrath of God” is really a reflection of our wrath against God
Yes, God will allow us to think that God is a bad guy in order to get us turned around and going in the right direction. This is beautifully expressed in Psalm 18:25–26:
With the merciful, you reveal yourself as merciful;
With an upright person, you reveal yourself as upright;
With the pure, you show yourself as pure;
And with the crooked, you show yourself as perverse.
It’s not that God is perverse and angry. It’s that when we are in opposition to God, God looks perverse and angry to us.
Remember what Swedenborg said earlier about anger causing us to turn our minds away from anyone who opposes us?
- What if we get our pleasure from insulting and taunting other people and making their day miserable?
- What if we get our pleasure from slacking off on the job and getting paid as much money as we can for doing as little work as we can?
- What if we get our pleasure from cheating people out of their money, or overcharging them for shoddy goods and poor services?
- What if we get our pleasure from having people suck up to us, tell us how great we are, and serve our every wish and whim?
If these or any other selfish and greedy desires and pleasures are what make us tick, what will our attitude be toward God?
It’s very simple: when we’re like this, all of the things we love and get pleasure from are exactly the things God tells us not to do.
And what do we feel toward anyone or anything who opposes and blocks our loves and desires?
We get angry at them!
That is why at heart, everyone who is selfish, materialistic, greedy, and focused on personal pleasure is continually angry at God.
When these are our loves and desires, from which we get our pleasures, we don’t like God. We hate God, because God is an obstacle to satisfying our desires and indulging in our pleasures. God says things like:
- Do not murder.
- Do not commit adultery
- Do not steal.
- Do not tell lies about others.
- Do not want anything that belongs to someone else. Don’t want anyone’s house, wife or husband, slaves, oxen, donkeys or anything else. (Exodus 20:13–17)
But these are precisely the things we want to do!
Okay, okay, maybe these days most of us aren’t envious of other people’s slaves, oxen, and donkeys. But that “anything else” includes other people’s money, nice cars, high-paid jobs, fancy vacations, and anything else they have that we want to take from them.
In short, when we are driven by selfish, evil, and destructive loves, everything we love and desire is exactly the opposite of what God wants for us. And that makes us mad at God.
Projecting our failings onto God
That’s when a phenomenon called (in modern terms) psychological projection kicks in.
When there’s something wrong with us, a flaw in our character such as jealousy, rudeness, greed, pettiness, and so on, and we get into conflict with other people because of those character flaws, how often do we think that we are the problem?
Usually, being the flawed human beings that we are, we blame everyone but ourselves for any conflicts and problems that we get into with others. And the weird thing is that whatever our character flaws are, that’s precisely what we accuse others of.
- If we’re jealous of others, we accuse everyone else of being jealous of us.
- If we’re spiteful and petty, we accuse everyone else of being spiteful and petty.
- If we’re rude and inconsiderate, we believe that everyone else is being rude and inconsiderate to us.
- If we’re greedy and money-hungry, we assume that everyone else is just after our money.
The list could go on and on. Whatever the flaws may be in our own character, we think that the people around us are guilty of those exact failings. Strange but true. If we pay even a little bit of attention, we’ll see it in many people around us all the time. (But it’s harder, yet more valuable, to see it in ourselves!)
All of this means that whatever faults and failings we humans have, we will attribute them to God.
Obviously I can’t be the problem. So if my life is a mess, God must have screwed me over. God must be a real bastard! It’s all God’s fault that my life isn’t what it’s supposed to be!
Since we’re angry at God, we firmly believe that God must be mad at us. But the reality is that we are mad at God for standing in the way of our self-centered loves and desires. We are simply projecting our own anger onto God.
And the Bible often speaks to us in our own terms. The Bible often says what things look like from our perspective. That’s because God, in the Bible, must reach us where we are. And if “where we are” is mired in evil and destructive desires, thoughts, and actions, the Bible must talk to us in terms that make sense to us—such as telling us that God will be angry at us and destroy us if we don’t shape up!
For more on how and why the Bible is written based on the mindset of the people it’s addressed to (that’s us!) see: How God Speaks in the Bible to Us Boneheads.
The wrath of God in Old Testament and New Testament times
Now it may be a little clearer why the Old Testament God seems especially angry, wrathful, and warlike, and why the New Testament God seems more peaceful.
It all depends on what sort of people God was talking to.
Jesus Christ came to earth at humanity’s lowest ebb spiritually. (See Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ? What about that Holy Spirit?) By the time most of the books of the Old Testament were written, humanity had fallen very far from its beautiful, innocent state of closeness to God at the time of our original creation—which is symbolized by Adam and Eve in Garden of Eden (see Genesis 2:4–25), before the Fall of Humankind.
By the time most of the books of the Old Testament were written, we humans were focused almost entirely on worldly wealth and power, and on physical pleasures. We were warlike and greedy, and the earth was ruled by despotic, tyrannical kingdoms and empires that were constantly fighting and conquering one another.
The Israelites themselves were called “a stiff-necked people” for their refusal to follow God, and their continual breaking of even the most basic commandments against idolatry, murder, theft, adultery, and so on. See, for example, Exodus 32:7-10; 33:1-6; 34:8-9; 2 Chronicles 30:1-9.
In short, the reason God appears so angry, wrathful, and warlike in the Old Testament is that the people of Old Testament times were generally worldly, greedy, selfish, warlike, and cruel to one another. They were so far from the true loving and merciful nature of God that the only kind of God they could understand was one who was angry and wrathful against enemies and evildoers, and who brought terrible punishments upon anyone who violated his commandments or attacked his people.
And yet, as explained earlier, God allowed them to have this faulty picture of God’s nature for their own good.
Believing that God was angry at them when they sinned, and that God would punish them miserably if they broke God’s commandments, was the only way to keep them from rushing headlong into even more wars, murders, adultery, theft, and lies. Since they, like the nations around them, were entirely worldly and unspiritual, the only way God could keep them in check was the fear of punishment at the hands of an angry God.
The spiritual change at the coming of Christ
By the time Jesus Christ came, that old fear-based form of religion had run its course. The Israelites had been destroyed as a nation. They were now living under the iron boot of Roman rule. The world had reached its lowest ebb morally and spiritually. The spirit of the people was broken. They were finally ready for a new and more spiritual message about God and the life that leads to heaven.
That is the message Jesus Christ delivered by his words and his actions.
Of course, the people were still at a low ebb spiritually. Some of them would still need to believe that God is angry at them and will punish them if they sin. In fact, many people today still need to believe this. So even the New Testament speaks of an angry God from time to time. And even Jesus Christ himself occasionally showed anger and violent zeal against the corrupt religious leaders and Temple profiteers of the day.
But Jesus was also able to deliver a more comforting message about God’s love for all sinners. Jesus was able to speak powerfully about God’s great longing to take away our sins—meaning our selfish and greedy desires, thoughts, and actions—and replace them with the love, understanding, and compassion that are the measure of a truly human being, created in the image of God.
And so the New Testament begins to remove the veil of darkness that had shrouded God throughout a dark and brutish era of humankind.
Jesus Christ was able to show us more of the truly loving and wise nature of God, who loves all people, and desires the eternal happiness of every single one of us, saint and sinner alike. Jesus was able to tell of us more about the true nature of God,
who makes his sun rise on the evil and on the good, and sends rain on the righteous and on the unrighteous. (Matthew 5:45)
The wrath of God is the removal of evil
God is pure, outgoing, unselfish, joy-giving love. In the love of God there is no wrath and anger as we humans commonly understand them. What we call “the wrath of God” is really God’s love, compassion, and mercy toward us.
But there’s a reason God’s love sometimes looks like wrath to us.
Wherever it goes, God’s love removes and destroys our selfishness, greed, lust for power, cruelty, deception, and general bitchiness. These human evils and failings that we love and cling to, derive pleasure from, and call our own cannot survive in the presence of God’s love.
If we let God’s love into our hearts, it will slowly but surely eradicate all of those selfish, greedy, and snippy parts of ourselves. It will burn them out. It will irradiate them with divine love, and kill them dead.
We will no longer be the person we once were.
And that’s scary for us.
It feels like we are being burnt up and destroyed as a person.
When we’re enmeshed in selfish, evil, and greedy desires, God’s love does feel to us like a terrible, burning wrath that will destroy everything about our life and character that we value.
It’s like the scene in The Wizard of Oz in which Dorothy inadvertently throws water on the Wicked Witch of the West, causing her to melt away and die. As she is dying she cries out, “Who would have thought a good little girl like you could destroy my beautiful wickedness!”
Dorothy had only thrown a bucket of water to put out a fire that was burning up her friend, the Scarecrow. But when that life-saving water hit the witch, it had the opposite effect on her. Because of her “beautiful wickedness,” the touch of the water on her body caused her death.
That is the effect that the love of God has on all of the wickedness in us that we consider “beautiful.” Whenever God’s love hits those evil parts of us, it melts them away and destroys them.
That is the real meaning of “the wrath of God.” It is God’s love removing and destroying everything that’s evil and false.
Why evil people flee from God’s “wrath”
This throws a whole new light on the scene quoted earlier from the book of Revelation:
Then the kings of the earth and the magnates and the generals and the rich and the powerful, and everyone, slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of the one seated on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of his wrath has come, and who is able to stand?” (Revelation 6:15–17)
That is the reaction of those who cling to their evil and false ways. That is the reaction to God’s love of those who identify with their own love for money, power, and pleasure.
For those who don’t want to change, who love selfishness and greed, and get their pleasure from exploiting, abusing, and oppressing others, the day of God’s coming with love and power is a terrible and fearsome day. On that day, they will hide away in the caves and rocks, seeking protection from the terrible love of God, which would destroy their evil cravings and pleasures if it touched them.
And that is precisely why, in the afterlife, those who have chosen evil and cling to their evil loves and desires flee from the presence of God, and rush into hell of their own accord. They send themselves to hell in order to escape the love of God that would destroy their evil selves if it got too close. This is what the Gospel of John is talking about when it says:
This is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. (John 3:19–20)
If we do not want God to remove the darkness that is in us, we will see God’s infinite love as God’s terrible wrath. And we will flee far away from it, into the realms of darkness.
Even God’s “wrath” is love
And yet, what looks to us like God’s wrath is still divine love.
Those selfish, greedy, and evil parts of us are precisely the parts that disfigure and destroy us. They turn us into twisted shells of human beings. They block us from becoming the beautiful angels of light that God created us to be. They prevent us from experiencing the full joy of our true humanity.
God, from a place of infinite love and compassion, sees that these faults, failings, and evils of ours will bring us nothing but pain and misery. Even the sick pleasures we get from them are small and paltry compared to the great joy we are capable of if we focus our lives on loving God and loving our neighbors.
God knows that the more those evil, false, petty, and destructive parts of us are burned away and destroyed, the more we can grow into beautiful, loving angels, capable of receiving God’s powerful love, and joyfully sharing the warmth of that love with others.
When God’s love is melting and burning away the small and selfish parts of ourselves, it may feel to us like wrath and anger. That’s especially so when we resist God’s power working within us, when we cling to our old faults and vices, and give them up only through hard and painful experiences.
And yet, what God feels toward us during this whole painful process is only a pure, merciful, tender, and compassionate love. God wants us to achieve and experience the full beauty and joy of living in loving relationship with one another and with God. And God knows this can happen only as the evil, false, and destructive parts of us are burned away and destroyed—as painful as that process may be due to our resistance and reluctance to give them up.
God wants nothing less for us than eternal life in the joyful, loving community of heaven.
And God’s infinitely powerful love will stop at nothing to achieve this for us, even if it means we may experience temporary pain—even if it means that at times we may hate and resist God, and wish God would just go away.
Yes, God sometimes looks to us like a terrible, wrathful being who wrecks all of our favorite vices and pleasures, and takes away all of our fun.
But God keeps right on loving us anyway.
As much as we allow it, God keeps right on removing from our heart, mind, and life everything that stands in the way of our long-term happiness.
No matter what we may think of God in the moment, God keeps right on doing whatever it takes to give us the gift of eternal joy.
This article is a response to a spiritual conundrum submitted by a reader.
For further reading:
- What about Violent Religions? Is God Really Bloodthirsty and Vengeful?
- If You Think You’re Going to Hell, Please Read This First
- If God is Love, Why all the Pain and Suffering?
- Is it Easy or Hard to Get to Heaven?
- Heaven, Regeneration, and the Meaning of Life on Earth
- Who is God? Who is Jesus Christ? What about that Holy Spirit?