Between Heaven and Earth

The Apocalypse and the Wrath of God

What fascinates, is mysterious, and frightening—all at once—is the picture of a vengeful God displaying and dispensing his wrath on a wicked people at the end of time. Passages like this: 

Then another angel, a third one, followed them, saying with a loud voice, “If anyone worships the beast and his image, and receives a mark on his forehead or on his hand,  he also will drink of the wine of the wrath of God, which is mixed in full strength in the cup of His anger; and he will be tormented with fire and brimstone in the presence of the holy angels and in the presence of the Lamb.  And the smoke of their torment ascends forever and ever; they have no rest day and night, those who worship the beast and his image, and whoever receives the mark of his name.” (Revelation 14:9-11)

Or Isaiah:

For this reason the anger of the Lord has burned against His people,
 And He has stretched out His hand against them and struck them.
 And the mountains quaked, and their corpses lay like refuse in the middle of the streets.
 Despite all this, His anger is not spent,
 But His hand is still stretched out. (Isaiah 5:25). 

A cup of wrath, undiluted; bodies in the streets? Pretty scary, serious stuff, it seems, is God’s wrath. But what about grace? What about the good God—the God of whom Jesus said: “If you’ve seen me, you’ve seen the Father”? How does this all make sense in our study of the apocalypse? Is God an emotional God subjected to joy and sorrow, anger and offense? These are human traits associated with human physiological changes. With anger, for example, you get an adrenaline rush, a rapid heart rate, your muscles tighten, your facial skin becomes hot and red and your voice loud and cryptic. 

But God does not experience human physiology. God doesn’t have an adrenal gland, doesn’t have muscles, doesn’t have a beating heart, doesn’t have facial skin that looks like ours. 

In the Hebrew language, “anger” is written in a metaphoric way. The words for anger in Hebrew are “Your nose burned hot.” Literally one of the words for anger is “nose.” This metaphor is, of course, related to how the nose becomes red and hot with anger.  “The hand of our God is favorably disposed to all who seek Him, but His power and His anger [literally, in Hebrew, “his great nose”] are against all those who abandon Him.” Isaiah 42:25 says: “So He poured out on him the heat of His anger”—literally, “he poured out on him the heat of his nose.” And Deuteronomy 29:27 says “Therefore, the anger of the Lord burned against that land….’ 

Of course God does not have a nose. This is just a way of mankind’s expressing God’s feelings. We call it anthropomorphism. And in any case, divine anger is not the same thing as human anger. This is where we must be very cautious. Unlike mankind, God’s wrath is never capricious, irrational, or unpredictable. God’s wrath in the Scripture is seen in response to his justice and in response to mankind’s breaking of its covenant with God. 

But what then is God’s anger? What is His wrath? What does it look like for real? 

First of all, in Exodus 34:6, God presents his business card, his credentials, his own personal characteristics: “I am.” he says, “Yahwei” (Jehovah), “a God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in loyal love and faithfulness.” That’s how God describes himself. 

The phrase “slow to anger” in Hebrew literally means “long of nose.” It takes a long time, it seems, for God’s nose to get hot. God is patient and loving. He is so patient that we humans are apt to try to take some advantage of that long nose. Romans 2:4 says “Do you think highly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that this kindness of God leads you to repentance?” 

But what exactly is God’s wrath? How are we to understand it? 

Consider the phrase: “God hands us over.” In the Bible we see this phrase over and over when God gets angry. He hands us over, he gives us up. But what does that mean? In the first chapter of Genesis, God speaks into being a cosmic order where life and humanity can flourish. 

He speaks this cosmic order from the dark waters which represent chaos and disorder. Although they are not eliminated, they are restrained by God’s sustaining power. As celebrated in the Bible, God is constantly holding back the forces of disorder and death (see Psalm 46, for example). God could let go and allow creation to collapse back into disorder, due to human evil. In fact, you might say that he did, once—in the flood story of the book of Genesis that depicts what it looks like for God to take his hand off of this control and let the chaotic waters of Genesis 1 flood back in. 

The early chapters of Genesis offer a fundamental portrait of God’s justice and anger. When humans do great evil and stop representing God’s kingdom in the world, he hands them over and gives them up to the death and the disorder that they have unleashed on creation. That phrase—”he handed them over”—is one of the most common ways that God expresses his anger in the biblical story. 

In Judges 2:13, for example: “They abandoned the Lord and served Baal and the Ashtaroth”* and the Lord’s anger burned hot against Israel as he gave them up into the hands of raiders who plundered them. He sold them into the hands of their enemies all around, whom they were no longer able to resist. 

There are more examples of God giving people up—the Israelites particularly: Judges 3:7-8, Judges 10:6-7, 2 Kings 13:2-3, and more that could be mentioned. These Old Testament stories are summarized by the apostle Paul when he talks about God’s wrath in his letter to the Romans, repeating this phrase over: and over: “God gave them up”…

 For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth in unrighteousness, because that which is known about God is evident within them; for God made it evident to them. For since the creation of the world His invisible attributes, that is, His eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, being understood by what has been made, so that they are without excuse. For even though they knew God, they did not honor Him as God or give thanks, but they became futile in their reasonings, and their senseless hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and they exchanged the glory of the incorruptible God for an image in the form of corruptible mankind, of birds, four-footed animals, and crawling creatures. 

Therefore God gave them up to vile impurity in the lusts of their hearts, so that their bodies would be dishonored among them. For they exchanged the truth of God for falsehood, and worshiped and served the creature rather than the Creator, who is blessed forever. Amen. 

For this reason God gave them over to degrading passions; for their women exchanged natural relations for that which is contrary to nature, and likewise the men, too, abandoned natural relations with women and burned in their desire toward one another, males with males committing shameful acts and receiving in their own persons the due penalty of their error. 

And just as they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up to a depraved mind, to do those things that are not proper, people having been filled with all unrighteousness, wickedness, greed, and evil; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, and malice; they are gossips, slanderers, haters of God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil, disobedient to parents, without understanding, untrustworthy, unfeeling, and unmerciful; and although they know the ordinance of God, that those who practice such things are worthy of death, they not only do the same, but also approve of those who practice them.  (Romans 1:18-32)

Giving them up to the sinful desires of their heart, giving them up to their shameful lust, giving them up to the depraved mind… These are all evidences of God’s anger. We see here a picture of God holding back evil.

Evil itself is destructive and deadly. In Revelation 7:1 we see the four angels holding back the winds of strife. Without God’s ever-present intervention, evil would destroy us all. That is the nature of evil. It is destructive and deadly, but fortunately, God holds evil back until the very end of the age when everything becomes exposed—those who accepted God’s grace, and those who put their own works into judgment. 

When God gives us up to evil which we have embraced, the consequences are dreadful and deadly. When the winds of strife are no longer held back, when the cosmic sea of Genesis 1 is unleashed, evil will be destroyed. People will of course be destroyed by evil if they have not accepted God’s grace, but they are destroyed at the hands of evil, not at the hands of our gracious God. God’s giving us up is the natural consequence of evil. 

God’s wrath is letting evil take its course. 

The word in Greek that Paul uses in the passage from Romans for giving us up for God’s wrath is the same word used in John 19:30 for Jesus’ giving up the ghost, the spirit, life itself on the cross. So too with evil—be it an evil place, an evil thing, an evil idea, an evil substance, or an evil person. Evil unchecked by God and left to its own devices will relinquish life itself. 

It looks like death everywhere, bodies in the streets. It looks like wrath poured without dilution into the cup of his indignation. But it is at the hands of evil that this destruction is released. It is not at the hands of our gracious God. An evil person is by definition one who fails to accept God’s grace, fails to look at the serpent who was lifted up in the wilderness, failed to put on the required garment at the marriage supper of the Lamb. Evil is someone who has relied on hiss or her own works for salvation, instead of God’s grace. It takes a willful act of defiance to be lost. 

The following is one of my favorite passages in the Bible because it gives us great hope of salvation:

 After these things I looked, and behold, a great multitude which no one could count, from every nation and all the tribes, peoples, and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, and palm branches were in their hands; 10 and they *cried out with a loud voice, saying,  “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb.” (Revelation 7:9)

Here we see an infinite number saved; a number that no man can count. What does that mean? It means there’s always room for one more. It means there’s always room for you and for me. Salvation from our God means simply that grace is what brought us here. 

But another way that God’s anger is described in the Bible is through the metaphor and through the phrase “God hiding his face”—a withdrawal of divine presence and power. This is what God says to Moses about what he will do when Israel reaches the limit of corruption. “Israel will forsake me and break the covenant I made with them,” he says, “and in that day, my anger will burn hot with them and forsake them and I will hide my face from them and they will be destroyed. Many disasters and calamities will come on them the day that they ask: ‘Have not these disasters come on us because our God is not with us?’ And I will certainly hide my face in that day because of the wickedness of them turning to other gods.”

The biblical authors want us to see that God’s anger, his wrath, is always a response to human betrayal and evil, to a rejection of grace. It is expressed through handing humans over to the logical consequence of their decisions—the evil destruction that occurs as a result. In other words, God’s anger is expressed by giving humans what they want, or at least what they’ve chosen. And when they do that, the choice is ruin and death. In God’s anger, humanity has been handed over to death. 

But that isn’t the end of the story. God’s love, you see, is even greater. In Paul’s mind, it is God’s own love, God’s own grace, that answers God’s own wrath, through the life and death and resurrection of Jesus. Instead of God hiding his face and handing us over, he has reconciled us to himself, and in turn we get to experience God’s powerful, creative, graceful life in us. 

So we see that God’s wrath—whether by giving us up or by hiding his face and withholding his presence—is to allow evil to destroy itself. 

Throughout history, we have seen evil personified, as God has given those against him up to their own devices, given them up to themselves. The apocalyptic ending will be violent and deadly because evil is violent and deadly. Evil unchecked is self-destructive. We would all be dead but for God holding back at the present time the winds of strife. We would all be dead except for God’s grace. Evil takes life. God’s grace gives life. Evil is an end in itself. Grace is the beginning of something new. 

While evil must eventually come to an end, we see in the story of Gomer and Hosea** that God is highly reluctant to give us up. Like Hosea pursuing a wayward Gomer, we see God reluctantly giving us up to our own evil desires. We see God’s reluctance to give us up in Hosea 11, at the end of the chapter, talking about Israel: “How can I give you up?” he says to Ephraim. “How can I surrender you? How can I give you up?” This reluctance of God to give us up is a strong theme in the book of Hosea. 

While God’s wrath is turning us over to our own devices, even then his grace-filled reluctance is manifest. God’s emotions are not like our emotions. He says: “I am not a man like you. I am a holy one in the midst of thee. I will not come in wrath” (Hosea 11:9). Like Hosea, God leaves no stone unturned, no expense spared, to release us and to redeem us from ourselves. God’s wrath is not at the sinfulness of the wicked, but that they have rather chosen not to accept his everlasting grace, that they should have shouted the truth about his grace and substitute instead lies about God’s wrath. 

I’m passionate about God’s grace and God’s wrath. That’s why I come back to it time and time again. It’s important not to misrepresent God. God is not stoking the fires of hell. He is ever patient with wayward mankind, “not willing that any should perish” (2 Peter 3:9). 

What is your view of God’s wrath, and how does it fit into our understanding of the apocalypse? How much does God value you and the great lengths that he goes to save you? 

David: Is there a contradiction between God giving us up and Jesus saying “Turn the other cheek”? Jesus is implying that whatever happens, if evil happens to you, then let it happen. That is a contradiction in his own behavior in the temple when he gets angry and overturns the money changers’ tables. Is turning the cheek conditional upon the type of slap? If so, judgment would seem to be needed.

Donald: This is an amazing contrast to the conversation that we’ve had for the last number of months in relationship to grace. Our salvation comes through Christ. There’s no question about that. But some people are drawn to the topic of evil and death and destruction, while others are drawn to the topics of love, and patience and kindness and goodness. It’s interesting that our faith can actually use both sides of that. 

A neighbor has planted a yard sign about the Revelation series, about end of time things. What does God really want us to portray of him? We recognize that he will bring evil to an end but is that the way we should evangelize? How should we talk about God? Do we talk about him as wrathful?—it’s part of the Bible, after all, but only a small portion of it. The New Testament presents him as a graceful God. Which do we choose to focus on, his wrath or his grace? What helps us on our spiritual journey: Fear? Or love?

Michael: I think that’s an important question. And I would answer, at least from some of my experiences, that when Christians talk about love, when they’re trying to evangelize and bring someone in, that’s usually when they talk about love of God, love of Jesus, love of Christ, salvation, and so on. Once you’re in, however, there is no more talk of that. It all stops and is replaced by a laundry list of what you must do and must not do.

Again in my experience, sermons in the Seventh Day Adventist Church may talk of love but it was never unconditional. And the pastor makes that clear. It’s big but there is a condition. It has limits. I think that’s wrong.

David: Which makes you wonder: Why doesn’t God save us from evil? Why does he abandon us to evil?

C-J: If we separate, strip away all these things that we’re talking about—rules of engagement, conduct, narrative, them/us, God/us, good evil—it really is the species trying to survive the end times, whether it’s within my lifetime, which is very brief, or in humanity’s lifetime. So it’s always about relationship and loss. What are you willing to give up to survive, to become more than you thought you could be?

Anonymous: I want to share two thoughts that came this week as I was studying the Bible and studying the blog. I read it twice. And currently I’m reading Exodus in my daily reading. God told Moses, before he even went back to Egypt, that he would kill the firstborn of Pharaoh. This was like a preview of God’s plan. He didn’t give it in detail to Moses, but right at the beginning he told him the end: He said he would kill the firstborn of Pharaoh and free God’s people. 

I don’t think Moses ever thought before it took place that “the firstborn of Pharaoh” meant “the firstborn of every family in Egypt”, but then Moses didn’t have the full picture. He had some of the truth but he didn’t know the details. 

That led me to think that the prophecies in the apocalyptic literature might be just a small part of the truth; that we don’t see the whole picture and that therefore it’s impossible for us to understand and to be confident in interpreting it. We have to wait until it starts unfolding before our eyes and only then can we apply the things that are happening now to the end. We know for sure that the end is the end of evil but the details are not for us: 

 For this time I am going to send all My plagues on you and your servants and your people, so that you may know that there is no one like Me in all the earth. For had I now put out My hand and struck you and your people with plague, you would then have been eliminated from the earth. But indeed, for this reason I have allowed you to remain, in order to show you My power and in order to proclaim My name throughout the earth. Still you exalt yourself against My people by not letting them go. (Exodus 9:14-17)

These verses seem to me to show clearly that Pharaoh is a type of Satan. It is more understandable that the wrath of God and all the doom that the Bible talks about is directed at Satan, not at human beings. This is a different picture from what I used to see. I now think he is talking to Satan directly; that Pharaoh represents Satan, and God is telling him he is going to hit him (Satan) so hard he will know that there’s nobody like him (God), and banish him from earth. 

I don’t know if you see it that way but to me this is a challenge from God to Satan. However, we understand that God has given Satan a long time, from the fall until today (and God knows how much longer) only to show his power through Satan. Revelation 16 supports this idea and shows all these flags that will be repeated, and they will be against Satan as well. Because at the end, the remnant will be saved. 

I know I’m wandering all over the place. But the study was very broad. It included verses from Revelation 11 and 16 and the passage from Romans quoted above. Isaiah especially shows that the word “remnant” means the good people who are saved at the end, whereas from Isaiah 10:22 the remnants are the bad people, the unbelievers, who will be coming back to the Lord, which tells me everybody will be coming back to the Lord at the end. 

God’s wrath will be only on Satan. The lake of fire is where Satan and his angels will meet their end. I don’t think all the doom that we read about, I don’t think that God’s wrath, is targeted against man, even though many references suggest otherwise. Maybe it is all just a warning to us, but with the grace of God and the Holy Spirit and God’s mercy on everyone we can see a little bit better the picture that the wrath of God is not for Man. 

But there is support for both sides of this argument. So there’s still a lot to study.

C-J: I think the reference to Pharaoh’s first son is a thing that we see throughout the entire book that we refer to as the Bible. And the reference from where I was taught in my understanding is that it is about inheritance—what Pharaoh and his children would inherit compared to what the Hebrews would inherit. And both of them had the same commandment: Repent, and the blood, which is the covering of sin, on the door post where you enter into your faith, when we become new Christians, whether it’s from a time we were born into that tradition, or whatever flavor might be in the Christian faith, we have to enter into it. 

It is a relationship, and it hopefully continues to grow, based in Scripture, based in community and practice, not just to ritual, but practicing right choices based on the Word of God, that laundry list that Michael referred to: “You can’t do this, you must do this, you should not do that.” Because sin is its own reward.

Michael: It’s a very hard question. How you choose to answer it really describes your entire faith toward God and toward everything alive, whether you decide that the end is going to be the wrath of God or the grace of God, the outcome is very personal, and your choice I think really decides your entire faith towards everything in life, how you view the world, how you view God, how you view people.

David: I agree that God’s “anger” is directed ultimately at Satan—at evil. But I still have a problem with the very notion of the end of evil, because without it there’d be no balance—and then what? “God’s power and name” would no longer be “spread throughout the world.” Essentially, that passage in Exodus says that God is letting evil persist so that people will recognize goodness, i.e., recognize God. So if he destroys evil, there will no longer be any recognition of God and we’re back to square one: The void.

But all is not lost! 🙂 because that happens to fit nicely with the Omega Point Theory of Frank Tipler by way of Jesuit priest Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, where God is Alpha and Omega and there is a cycle of beginning and end, of creation and destruction. This is a theory I personally find very appealing.

Reinhard: The free will that God bestowed on Man cannot last forever. It must stop when God wins the battle against Satan and Judgment Day arrives, at the end of time. I think the targets of God’s wrath are the wicked people, the evil ones; not the righteous people, who will be resurrected whether or not they live to see the global apocalypse or merely suffer there own apocalypse—they die. 

I don’t think the righteous people who are still alive at the Second Coming will have to suffer the terrible plagues hurled down by the angels, just as the Israelites were not affected by the plagues visited upon Pharaoh. Revelation to me is a summary of what is going to happen; it doesn’t have all the detail. The important thing that should concern us right now is what happens if we die tonight, not whether we will be alive at the End Time. 

I believe we have to keep our faith strong. Question number one for us is: Are we ready? If we are ready, we don’t have to worry about the consequences. The second question is: Are we going to be saved? The answer depends on what we do in our lifetime, right now. The Holy Spirit will teach us what we have to do and guide us to achieve it. Paul said we will be saved by faith, not by works, but if we have the faith we will automatically obey the commandments and fulfill the work that God wants us to do. 

Life now is what is important. What we do now is important, That is what is going to bring us to the life after.

Donald: Another component of this conversation is the state of the dead. I guess we’re talking about the end time in relationship to the world, as opposed to one’s personal, human, death. The common understanding is that the soul moves forward but the body remains. 

Bryan: To me, if you choose to believe that God is love, then the wrath of God is the absence of love. Of the two ends to the Revelation scenario, one is good and one is evil. So if God withdraws his love, withdraws his grace, what you have left is the absence of that which is, in my mind, evil. 

If we define the end of time as the cataclysmic destruction of this world and a rebirth, the recreation of a new earth where those who choose to be with God, who have chosen to live a Christ-like life here, we get the opportunity to live with him forever. 

So evil is then vanquished forever, it is gone. There is no rebirth of evil. That is something to look forward to. The end of time is a cataclysmic event—we don’t know what’s going to happen, what the events will hold, how we’ll get there—but for me, the wrath of God has to be rationalized by a God who is not wrathful but chooses—against his own will—to withdraw his love and protection from those who have rebelled against him.

David: I just don’t see how pure love or pure goodness can ever be angry.

Don: You don’t see a picture of anger in God’s wrath. You see a picture of great reluctance, great passion in trying to woo back and to pursue those who are hell bent—bent on going to hell. In the story of Hosea and Gomer you get the picture of God going to great extremes, even mortgaging his entire fortune, to try to redeem those who are wayward. So I don’t think you see a picture of God stoking the fires of hell. 

God’s wrath is a misnomer as we understand it. We equate it to our own wrath and our own anger. But in God’s case, it’s almost entirely the opposite. I think he does save us from evil, anyone who looks at the serpent that is lifted up, anyone who is willing to wear the robe of righteousness at the wedding feast… these are all saved in the end. As noted in Revelation 7, the number of people saved is huge. It means that it is much more difficult to be lost than to be saved. 

The love of God and the grace of God are manifest in God’s wrath in the sense that he redeems that infinite number of people. There’s always room for one more, and that’s a result of his everlasting grace, as they say when they sing around the throne of the Lamb. 

We’ll talk next week about the apocalypse as a new beginning, as opposed to the end. 

* * *

* Ashtaroth is the Great Duke of Hell in the first hierarchy with Beelzebub and Lucifer; he is part of the evil trinity, according to Wikipedia.

** See that discussion here: 

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