6. We Don't Disregard Our Roles (1 Peter 3:1-12)Related Media
1 Peter: Suffering Precedes Glory (part six)
Peter wrote this letter to Christians who were mistreated by unbelievers simply because they were followers of Christ. Peter reminded them that love should define their relationships within the Christian community. But surrendering our wills should define our relationships with people outside of the Christian community. Suffering includes submitting our will to those who mistreat us. Peter summarizes our role this way: do good, suffer unjustly, and endure mistreatment. Not a popular message. Sometimes it may feel like God is the only one on our side. Is that enough for you? "For the eyes of the Lord are upon the righteous and his ears are open to their prayer."
God, Evolution, and Morality, Part IIRelated Media
Part II (Click Here for Part I)
In 1982, I lived in Thailand for seven months supervising a feeding program in a Cambodian refugee camp named Sakaeo. My charge: 18,250 Khmer refugees who had escaped the holocaust perpetrated on Kampuchea by the Khmer Rouge after the fall of Phnom Penh in 1975.
The first-person accounts told to me of the slaughter that took place were mind-numbing. Even children relayed stories of unthinkable brutality. By 1979, nearly two million Cambodians had perished, almost half of the population. It was the greatest act of genocide ever inflicted by a people on its own population.
It’s virtually impossible for any thoughtful human being to countenance such barbarism—such innocent suffering, such inhumanity to man—without recoiling from the wickedness, the depravity, the unmitigated evil that took place there.
Surprisingly, though, atrocities like the Cambodian carnage provide an unusual opportunity for the theist and a striking liability for the atheist.
The Brighter Side of Evil
The problem of evil is a daunting one for Christians, to be sure, yet ironically it places us on very solid footing to make the case for theism. The very same problem, though, puts atheism on the ropes. To make this point during debates, I ask two questions of my audience after I describe, in gruesome detail, the events of the Khmer crisis.
First, what is their assessment of the behaviors I just recounted? It’s a rhetorical question. To a person, they judge the savagery profoundly evil. Second—and this is the important question—what are they describing when they call these acts evil? Do they mean to be describing the actions themselves—the cruelty, the torment, the injustice—or merely their own feelings or beliefs about the actions?
If the actions themselves are evil—if the wrongness is somehow in the behaviors regardless of what people think or feel (remember, the Khmer Rouge had no moral qualms about what they did)—then the evil is objective. If the wrongness is only in the mind of the subject—the person or group making the assessment—then the evil is merely subjective and relativistic. In that case, the atrocities were only wrong for those who object, but would be right for those who approve. The behaviors themselves would be morally neutral; Pol Pot would be off the hook.
Here’s the take-away: The problem of evil is only a problem if morality is objective, not subjective. Relativistic morality is not sufficient grounds for the complaint about human suffering. Only objective morality will do. As it turns out, though, objective morality supports theism and undermines atheism.
The theist must rise to the challenge of evil, to be sure. But for her, the problem turns out to be an ally. It fits her worldview like a glove. First, genuine wickedness depends on the existence of good in the same way shadows depend on the existence of light. One cannot have the first without the second. The theist accounts for that good by grounding it in the character of God. Second, the biblical view of reality doesn’t merely explain atrocities like the Cambodian massacre; it actually predicts them. It is precisely what you’d expect if the biblical take is true.
The very same problem of evil, though, undermines atheism. The atheist must also take his turn offering his own explanation for evil, but he faces a complication the theist does not encounter. How can anything be ultimately evil or good in a materialistic universe bereft of a transcendent standard that makes sense of the terms in the first place?
When an atheist bemoans real evil—not the relativistic “evil” that evolution fooled us into believing or the actions violating a social contract that serves our cultural purposes for the moment—he must explain how objective evil could exist in the first place to make room for his protest. He must account for the objective, transcendent moral standard that has to be in position before moral judgments of any kind can be made. His complaint would be unintelligible without it.
So, the atheist who challenges Christianity by asking how God can exist in a world with evil faces a bigger challenge than the theist. The atheist must account for the problem of evil and the problem of good. The difficulty is, there is nothing in his worldview that allows him to ground—to make sense of—vice or virtue in the objective sense. There is nothing in atheism proper that allows him to say anything meaningful about morality other than that our current moral convictions reflect either our evolutionary adaptations or the fashion of the moment—which is to say nothing meaningful about morality.
No, the atheist has not gotten rid of the problem of evil by rejecting God. He has compounded the problem.
At this point, there are only two ways out for the atheist who is determined to cling to his conviction. First, he can try to deny objective evil, dismissing it as illusion or useful fiction. This would be a difficult pill to swallow, though, since his certainty that evil was real (and not a fabrication) launched his protest to begin with. Simply put, the atheist knows too much to go down this road with ease.
Second, he can cast about for an alternate explanation for our universal experience of morality. The current main contender is Darwinian evolution.
In the last issue of Solid Ground,1 I showed why that route is a dead end. I argued that since the moral argument for God is based on the existence of objective morality, only a successful naturalistic accounting of the same—objective morality—would be sufficient to undermine it. However, evolution is not capable—even in principle—of delivering to us anything but relativistic morality.
If Darwinism is only capable of explaining our feelings of morality—if the definition of good and bad is simply subjective and “up to us” in some sense (biologically or culturally)—then objective evil is reduced to a fiction after all and the complaint against God based on the existence of evil vanishes into the relativistic mist with it.
If, on the other hand, our indignation against evil is well-founded, then one’s objection against God is at least intelligible. Atheism then becomes the casualty, however. One cannot have it both ways.
Good without God?
Some atheists are not convinced, however. It’s clear to them they can be good without any belief in God at all. Just ask them. “I’m as good as any other religious person, pretty much,” Michael Shermer has pointed out, “and I don’t believe in God.” The defense rests.
In the same vein, New Atheist Christopher Hitchens consistently fired off this famous salvo during debates: “Name one moral action performed by a believer that could not have been done by a nonbeliever.”2
Of course, this is not really the issue, is it? Careful theists do not claim that belief in God is necessary to do good, but that God is necessary for any act to be good in the first place, that without Him morality has no ultimate objective foundation at all. The question is not whether believers and non-believers can perform the same behaviors—of course they can—but whether any behavior can be objectively good in a materialistic world bereft of God.
For a simple rejoinder to Hitchens’s challenge, point out that an atheist can mimic many things Christians count as good—he can feed the poor, love his neighbor, even sacrifice his life for others—but he can never do the summum bonum, the highest good. He can never love God with his whole heart, mind, soul, and strength. He cannot worship the One from whom all goodness comes, and who therefore is worthy of our deepest devotion and unerring fidelity.
Of course, atheists would likely dismiss the point with a sniff and a sneer, but they mustn’t miss the deeper implication. At bare minimum, the response demonstrates that regardless of who is right on the God question, the entire moral project is altered significantly when He is added to the equation. Simply put, the atheist and the theist do not share the same morality.
The difficulty goes deeper, though, and Hitchens and those like him have missed the larger concern entirely. It’s what philosophers call “the grounding problem.”
Goodness and Grounding
Long before scientists hammered out the details of gravity, ordinary folk could still predict how objects moved under its influence. They knew that something caused (for example) fruit to fall, and they could calculate how it worked, to some degree. But they didn’t know why things behaved that way in the world.
The “why it works” issue is called the “grounding” question. What is it that accounts for things being the particular—and sometimes peculiar—ways they are? It applies in science. It also applies in morality.
Moral facts are odd kinds of facts. They are not merely descriptions—how things happen to be. They entail prescriptions, imperatives—how things ought to be. They have incumbency, a certain obligation to them. What explains these unusual features? What is their foundation? What “ground” do they rest upon? What—or who—actually obliges us and why should we obey?
It’s true that any sane, reasonable person can know the difference between right and wrong. But why there is a right and wrong to begin with is a different kind of question. Why do objective moral obligations exist? Why do they seem to apply uniquely to humans? And why do we go astray so often and so consistently? 3
If one’s worldview is going to be comprehensive, it’s got to account for the things that really matter in the world. Objective morality is one of them. Atheists may know the right thing to do—and even do it consistently. That alone, though, does not bring them any closer to answering the grounding question.
An illustration might be helpful at this point.
Readers and Writers
Imagine I handed you a copy of Vanity Fair (a periodical Hitchens frequently published in) and asked you to read it. Could you? Sure. So could I. Reading requires only that we possess a certain set of skills mastered well enough to allow us to comprehend the meanings of the words on the page.
Notice that, strictly speaking, for this simple act of reading no additional beliefs about authors or publications or editors or typesetters or newsstands or delivery boys are necessary. You don’t need to believe in writers, etc., in order to be able to read, but you would never have a text to read unless there were writers in the first place. That’s because the existence of authors is logically prior to the skill of reading.
What’s required for someone to read, then, is very different from what is required for things like magazine articles to exist in the first place. Being able to read and having something to read are two completely different things. If you didn’t believe in authors, you could still read books. If, however, your belief were true and authors did not exist, then books would not exist, either. Books, then, turn out to be evidence for authors.
That’s why readers who deny authors sound silly. Sure, they can say they don’t need to believe in authors to be good readers, and they’d be right. They can challenge you to show them one article you can read as a believer (in writers) that they can’t read as unbelievers, and you’d be hard-pressed. Yet neither retort will rescue them from their foolishness. Articles are, by nature, the kinds of things that require authors.
Objective morality is the same way. The issue is not whether we can follow an objective moral code or not, or even know what its obligations are, but rather what accounts for something like a transcendent moral code to begin with. Denying God because you think you could be a fine chap without Him is like denying authors because you fancy yourself a first-rate reader and lover of literature, nonetheless. Morality is evidence for God in the same way that books and articles are evidence for authors.
One more detail: Morality entails obligation, and obligations—like contracts—are held between persons. If there is no one to whom we are obliged, then there is no obligation. Only a person can make a demand or issue a command, and only the right kind of person—one with proper standing and appropriate authority—can do so with legitimacy. The presence of a water-stained rock outcropping by the side of the road with the image “Keep Right” weathered into its face signals no obligation for motorists, nor does a ten year old waving a “Buy Lemonade” sign.
The only adequate grounds for transcendent moral law, then, is a transcendent person who has proper authority over the universe He commands.
Consequently, when atheists claim, for example, “We can be moral without God’s threats,” they’re simply missing the point. When they ask me, “If there were no God, would you still be good?,” it’s like asking if I’d still be faithful to my wife if I weren’t married. Clearly, the question is meaningless.4
Science as Morality
In The Moral Landscape,5 New Atheist and best-selling author, Sam Harris, 6 promises a way out of this predicament. Harris thinks the choice between Darwin and the Divine is a false dichotomy. There’s a third option.
Harris is not a relativist. He understands that moral obligations are real and require objective criteria. Yet the grounding need not come from God. Science can do the job:
Questions about values—about meaning, morality, and life’s larger purpose—are really questions about the well-being of conscious creatures. Values, therefore, translate into facts that can be scientifically understood….Morality should be considered an undeveloped branch of science.7
The tools to accomplish this, Harris says, are found in neuroscience and psychology.
The argument…rests upon a very simple premise: human well-being entirely depends on events in the world and on states of the human brain. Consequently, there must be scientific truths to be known about it. A more detailed understanding of these truths will force us to draw clear distinctions between different ways of living in society with one another, judging some to be better or worse, more or less true to the facts, and more or less ethical.8
Harris’s approach is straightforward. First, human morality is (obviously, to Harris) about human flourishing. Second, the means to accomplish that end are scientifically quantifiable (science can measure things that relieve suffering, increase satisfaction, etc.). Science, then, can provide objective standards for human morality.
Harris’s approach has advantages. For one, he aims to escape the relativism trap his colleagues have fallen into by appealing to empirical criteria. Second, he acknowledges the role of human flourishing in the ethical equation. I lack space for a thorough critique here (others have already given that9), but I do want to briefly point out two serious drawbacks with Harris’s project.
Harris stumbles first when he identifies the flourishing of conscious creatures, especially humans, with the good. Two problems here.
One, Harris has either simply equated the two by definition, creating an unhelpful tautology, or human well-being is already good in itself (it isn’t identical with the good, but it is an example of something that’s intrinsically good).
If the first, Harris has made no progress. Tautologies are mere repetitions telling us how words are used, not how the world is.10 They are conventions and therefore arbitrary. Why define human flourishing as “good” rather than, say, fern flourishing?
If the second, Harris is still dead in the water. If human flourishing is intrinsically good to begin with, then he has simply assumed at the outset what his project is meant to explain—objective morality. He has not grounded the good, but has smuggled it into the front end of his enterprise. One can always ask, “What, then, makes human flourishing good in the first place?”11
Here’s the second problem. The concept of flourishing is ambiguous. What, or who, defines human well-being? It’s easy to imagine a culture “flourishing” (according to some definition) in the midst of all sorts of things others consider evil.
Some want to live fast, die young, and leave good-looking corpses. Others seek a life of service rather than self-pleasuring. Some champion human rights, others ethnic cleansing. By what standard does Harris arbitrate between these options without presuming at the front end that humans were designed for particular moral ends to begin with—assuming, once again, the morality he’s obliged to explain?
Bait and Switch
Second, Harris’s approach is not ethical, strictly speaking, but consequentialist. It merely provides, through science, the most effective way to get the desired results (consequences). Whether those results are morally good or not is an entirely different matter.
This problem is easy to miss, since there are two entirely different ways for a thing to be “good,” and Harris bounces back and forth between them without warning.12 Behaviors that are morally virtuous are called “good.” However, the word “good” can also signal an effective way to accomplish a goal, irrespective of its moral content.
To make this distinction strikingly obvious, consider this: The Nazis stumbled upon the scientifically “good” way—the best, most efficient way—to kill Jews: zyklon B. Any liquidation of innocent people, though, is morally wrong, and the “better” you get at doing it, the more evil the act becomes.13
It’s hard to overstate the significance of this problem for Harris. Morality is not just an end, but a certain kind of end. Science is clearly capable of determining the most effective means to accomplish certain goals. However, just because science can provide objective criteria does not mean science can give grounds for objective morality. That must be established separately, and this Harris has not done.
In The Moral Landscape, Harris’s “objective standards” are nothing more than pragmatic criteria for accomplishing Harris’s vision of the good. His use of words like “good” or “right” simply identify the most effective means to an end, nothing more. Science is descriptive, not prescriptive. Nothing Harris has said changes that. His “moral objectivism” is just utilitarianism, in this case, a sophisticated form of relativism.
Clearly, the kind of robust morality necessary to both parry the moral argument and to ground the atheist’s complaint about evil is impossible on a materialist take on reality.
What moral provision is there in atheism itself—not in the individual views held by atheists, but central to atheism—that precludes genocide or that endorses, for its own sake, specific acts of genuine virtue? What are the moral dictates generated by atheism per se that guide us here? Where are the great acts of humanitarianism or self-sacrifice done in the name of materialism? What authentic virtues follow from a physicalistic view of the world?
No, atheism does not—and cannot—provide these things. It does not have the resources. Theism alone gives the only reasonable foundation for morality.
This was Part II of a II part series on God, Evolution, and Morality. For Part I, Click Here.
1“God, Evolution, and Morality: Part I,” Solid Ground (May 2014), available at str.org. [http://www.str.org/publications/god-evolution-and-morality-part-1#.U2vxKlx5qp0]
2 For a lucid response to Hitchens’s challenge, see Amy Hall, “Hitchens’s Challenge Solved,” at str.org. [http://www.str.org/blog/hitchens-s-challenge-solved#.U2vm21x5qp0]
3 Note the distinction here between the epistemic issue—how we know moral truth —and the ontological issue—how we account for morality’s existence.
4 Frankly, if God did not exist, my actions would be different in lots of things. What those differences would not be, though, is immoral.
5 Sam Harris, The Moral Landscape—How Science Can Determine Human Values (New York: Free Press, 2010).
6 See Sam Harris, The End of Faith: Religion, Terror, and the Future of Reason (New York: Norton, 2004), and Letter to a Christian Nation (New York: Knopf, 2006).
7 Harris, The Moral Landscape, 1, 7.
8 Ibid., 2-3.
9 See, for example, William Lane Craig, “Navigating Sam Harris's The Moral Landscape,” reasonablefaith.org [http://www.reasonablefaith.org/navigating-sam-harris-the-moral-landscape#sdfootnote1anc] or Tom Gilson’s “Unreason at the Head of Project Reason,” in Gilson and Weitnauer, True Reason (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 2013). [http://www.amazon.com/True-Reason-Christian-Responses-Challenge-ebook/dp/B007J71S62]
10 “Bachelors are unmarried males” is an example. The statement tells you about definitions, but nothing about the world. If neither bachelors nor males existed, the statement would still be true, but trivially so.
11 For those concerned that this challenge puts the theist at risk also, see my treatment of Euthyphro’s Dilemma in “Who Says God Is Good?” at str.org. [https://www.str.org/Media/Default/Publications/DigitalSG_0312_New-1.pdf]
12 Resulting, in Harris’s case, in the fallacy of equivocation.
13 That Harris does not consider genocide to be consistent with human flourishing is beside my point. I’m simply showing here that the word “good” can be used in two entirely different ways—a detail critical to my critique of Harris.
7. We Don't Suffer without Purpose (1 Peter 3:13-22)Related Media
1 Peter: Suffering Precedes Glory (part seven)
Our suffering is not meaningless. There is purpose to our suffering. We prefer to know specifically why, but sometimes it is nice at least to know that there is a "why." Obviously, if we suffer due to our own sin we're only getting the consequences we've earned. But good deeds can lead to mistreatment by those who are threatened by Christ and His followers. And when we suffer unjustly, doors for the Gospel open up. Our hope despite pain gets the world's attention. And most importantly, God is pleased when Christians suffer well for Jesus. Like Jesus who was exalted after suffering unjustly, so His followers will be rewarded for being mistreated in His name.
Lesson 61: Overcoming Faith (John 11:17-27)Related Media
June 29, 2014
How do you deal with grief? If you haven’t had to deal with it yet, you will, because, as George Bernard Shaw put it, “The statistics on death are quite impressive: one out of one people die.” So how will you deal with it? How should you deal with it?
In her famous 1969 book, On Death and Dying, Elisabeth Kubler-Ross identified five common stages of grief. While not everyone goes through all five stages in order or in equal intensity, often grieving people encounter one or more of the stages when they face a significant loss: (1) denial; (2) anger; (3) bargaining; (4) depression; and, (5) acceptance. Although these stages have been challenged and misapplied, most of us can identify with some of them if we have lost a loved one. But what’s missing, as we should expect from a secular source, is an eternal, God-centered perspective: How should believers in Christ deal with grief?
Some Christians think that since we’re to be filled with joy and praise, we shouldn’t grieve much, if at all. On my 36th birthday, I conducted a funeral for a 39-year-old man who had died of cancer, leaving a wife and two children. Two and a half years later, I conducted the wife’s funeral after she also died of cancer. But at his funeral, I was consoling the weeping wife when their former pastor from another community where they had lived came bouncing up with a big smile on his face and exclaimed, “Praise the Lord! Scott’s in glory now!” He was implying that this grieving widow should stop crying and start praising God! I wanted to punch him! But many Christians think that if you have really strong faith, you won’t grieve much, if at all. Put on your happy face and praise God!
On the other extreme, some believers grieve just as unbelievers do, who have no hope. They just can’t come to terms with their loss. Paul wrote to some relatively new believers (1 Thess. 4:13), “But we do not want you to be uninformed, brethren, about those who are asleep, so that you will not grieve as do the rest who have no hope.” He went on to tell them about the coming of the Lord and the resurrection of the dead in Christ when He comes. His point was that while believers do grieve, their hope in Christ’s coming and the promise of the resurrection should make our grief different than the world’s grief.
Our text relates the interview between Jesus and Martha after her brother Lazarus died. In her characteristic, take-charge manner (see Luke 10:38-42), when Martha heard that Jesus was coming she went out to meet him, while her sister Mary stayed in the house. The sisters and their deceased brother must have been a prominent family, since many of the Jews had come to console them over their loss. As Martha and Jesus talk, Jesus makes a tremendous statement about being the resurrection and the life. Then He pointedly asks Martha (11:26), “Do you believe this?”
James Boice points out (The Gospel of John [Zondervan], 1-vol. ed., p. 736) that Jesus did not ask her, “Do you feel better now, Martha? Have you found these thoughts comforting? Do you feel your old optimism returning?” Then Boice observes, “According to Jesus it was not how she felt that was important, but what she believed.” Jesus wanted this grieving woman to come to a higher level of faith in who He is. He knew that faith in Him is a major component for us in dealing with our grief and with other major trials.
I’m calling this “overcoming faith,” because it enables us to overcome grief and loss. After the apostle Paul mentioned tribulation, distress, persecution, famine, nakedness, peril, and sword (Rom. 8:35), he added (8:37), “But in all these things we overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us.” Implicit in that overwhelming victory is overcoming faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
God wants us to face life’s overwhelming trials with overcoming faith in the Lord Jesus Christ.
There are seven qualities of overcoming faith here that will help us work through life’s overwhelming trials and losses so that we grieve, but not as unbelievers who have no hope:
1. Overcoming faith takes overwhelming trials to the Lord.
The setting for this miracle (11:17-20) presents us with an overwhelming situation: Lazarus was dead and had been in the tomb four days. His body was beginning to decompose, as Martha pointed out to the Lord when He ordered that the stone be removed (11:39). There were no human solutions for this situation. The sisters had been on track when they had sent word to the Lord that Lazarus was sick. But when He delayed coming for two days, Lazarus had died. So now things were beyond all human hope.
We all know that God is the author and giver of life and that He alone has the power to raise the dead physically. But we also know that both in the Bible and in human history, resurrections from the dead are rare. There are a few in the Old Testament (1 Kings 17:17-24; 2 Kings 4:17-37; 13:21). The Gospels record that Jesus raised three people from the dead: The widow of Nain’s son (Luke 7:11-17); Jairus’ daughter (Luke 8:41-56); and Lazarus. Notably, He did not raise John the Baptist when he was martyred at a fairly young age. The Lord didn’t raise James, the brother of John, when Herod executed him. Peter raised Dorcas and Paul raised Eutychus (Acts 9:35-41; 20:9-12). So we can’t know why God raised a few and not others, even though He has the power to raise anyone He pleases.
But the rare examples that we have are pictures of what God does spiritually every time He saves a sinner. Paul says that all of us by nature were dead in our trespasses and sins, but that God graciously made us alive together with Christ (Eph. 2:1-5). The salvation of a sinner is no less a miracle than the raising of a dead body. It requires the same power that God used when He raised Christ from the dead (Eph. 1:19-20). And if God can do that, then He can come to our aid and work according to His sovereign purpose when we are in overwhelming situations. So, we should follow the example of these friends of Jesus by taking our need to Him.
2. Overcoming faith trusts that God is in control of all our circumstances.
Martha and Mary both said the same thing to Jesus (11:21, 32), “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died.” Commentators differ over whether the sisters were complaining or expressing strong faith by their comments. They obviously had faith in Jesus’ ability to heal their brother, if only He had been there.
But mixed with that faith is some unbelief. Surely Martha and Mary had heard how Jesus had healed the royal official’s son from a distance (4:46-54). Jesus didn’t have to be physically present to heal Lazarus before he died. So the sisters’ comments reflect a failure to recognize that God was in control of where Jesus was when Lazarus got sick and how quickly or slowly Jesus responded when He got the news.
But most of us have thought just as Martha and Mary thought in this trial: If only things had been different! We replay in our minds: “If only I had not done what I did, the accident would not have happened!” “If only the timing had been different, the tragedy would not have happened!” But it’s really a contradiction to say, “Lord, if only things had been different.” If He’s the Lord, then He is in control of all our circumstances. Surely, He wasn’t asleep or distracted when our tragedy happened!
The Bible repeatedly affirms that God is in control of all things, including tragedies (Job 42:2; Ps. 103:19; 115:3; Isa. 46:10; Eph. 1:11). Psalm 135:6 declares, “Whatever the Lord pleases, He does, in heaven and in earth, in the seas and in all deeps.” It goes on to talk about mist and lightning and wind all over the earth and then moves on to the plagues of Egypt and the conquering of the Canaanites. In other words, from relatively minor processes of nature to major, nation-changing events, God is in control.
I trust that most of you believe that, but there are some who claim to be evangelicals, but they deny that God is sovereign over evil or tragedies that happen. Their view is called “open theism.” (At least one Flagstaff church holds this view.) John Sanders, an open theist, has written (The God who Risks: A Theology of Providence [IVP], p. 262; cited by John Piper, The Hidden Smile of God [Crossway Books], p. 24):
God does not have a specific divine purpose for each and every occurrence of evil…. When a two-month-old child contracts a painful, incurable bone cancer that means suffering and death, it is pointless evil. The Holocaust is pointless evil. The rape and dismemberment of a young girl is pointless evil. The accident that caused the death of my brother was a tragedy. God does not have a specific purpose in mind for these occurrences.
In my estimation, that view not only denies what the Bible repeatedly affirms, namely, the absolute sovereignty of God. Also, it robs believers of the comfort of knowing that God is in control of all our circumstances, even when we can’t make sense out of them. As we’ve seen, Jesus was in control of Lazarus’ death. He deliberately remained two days longer where He was, resulting in Lazarus’ death, so that this miracle would display God’s and His own glory and so that His followers would grow in their faith (11:4, 15). So even though we often don’t understand the reason for our trials, we can know that the Lord wants us to trust Him and to gain a bigger view of His glory.
3. Overcoming faith does not limit God.
Martha’s opening comments to Jesus are a bit mixed up, although true to life when someone is grieving (11:21-22), “Lord, if You had been here, my brother would not have died. Even now I know that whatever You ask of God, God will give You.” In verse 21, she limits the Lord’s ability to heal by His physical presence and with regard to time (He could have done something, if only He had been there four days sooner); but in the next verse she affirms His ability to ask God for anything and receive it.
At first glance, verse 22 seems to indicate that Martha believed that even now Jesus could ask and God would raise Lazarus from the tomb. But 11:23-24 & 39 indicate that she was not thinking of that. Those verses may reflect the fluctuating emotions of a woman bouncing between grief and hope (William Hendriksen, John [Baker Academic], p. 148). Or verse 22 is probably a more general affirmation that in spite of her brother’s death, Martha has not lost her faith in Jesus and His intimacy with the Father (D. A. Carson, The Gospel According to John [Eerdmans/Apollos], p. 412).
It’s often hard to know how to pray in a trial because we don’t know God’s sovereign will. It may be His will to heal miraculously or it may be His will to be glorified as we trust Him during and after our loss. But we can and should pray (in line with Eph. 3:20), “Lord, I know that You are able to do far more abundantly beyond all that I can ask or think. If it’s Your will, I ask for healing [or, whatever the need]. But in any case, I ask that You will be glorified in this difficult situation.”
So, overcoming faith takes overwhelming situations to the Lord, realizing that He is in control. Also, it does not limit God.
4. Overcoming faith trusts in the promises of God regarding eternity.
After the Lord tells Martha that her brother will rise again (11:23), she replies (11:24), “I know that he will rise again in the resurrection on the last day.” Although she missed the drift of Jesus’ promise to raise Lazarus that very day, Martha did express her faith in God’s promises regarding eternity. There are several Old Testament promises regarding the future resurrection of the dead (Ps. 16:9-11; 17:15; 49:15; 73:24, 26; Job 19:25-27; Isa. 26:19; Dan. 12:2). And the New Testament even more clearly affirms that the dead will be raised (1 Cor. 15). Jesus taught (John 5:28-29), “Do not marvel at this; for an hour is coming, in which all who are in the tombs will hear His voice, and will come forth; those who did the good deeds to a resurrection of life, those who committed the evil deeds to a resurrection of judgment.”
The Bible is clear that all wrongs will not be made right in this life, but they will be made right in eternity. Herod could execute the godly John the Baptist and go on living in luxury for a few years. But Herod died and faced judgment, whereas John went to be with the Lord. Years ago, I read about a godly family that was heavily involved in the cause of world missions. One evening, their adult daughter went to a Southern California mall to buy a gift for a friend’s upcoming wedding. She was abducted by two thugs who raped and murdered her. The only way to get through that kind of tragedy is to trust in God’s promises regarding eternity.
5. Overcoming faith personally applies God’s truth in the present.
As we’ve seen, Martha should be commended for believing God’s promises regarding eternity. But Jesus meant for her to apply that promise to the present situation. He wanted her to believe that He could and would raise Lazarus that very day.
General faith for the future is easier than specific faith for the present trial. It’s easier to believe that someday God will work all our trials together for good than it is to believe that He is presently working this trial for good. C. H. Spurgeon (Metropolitan Tabernacle Pulpit [Pilgrim Publications], 30:494-495) tells about a poor older French couple who had framed on their wall a note worth 1,000 francs. A traveler saw it and asked about it. They said that they had taken in a dying French soldier and he had given them that little picture when he was dying as a memorial of him. But they didn’t realize that it was worth a small fortune if they would take it to the bank. Spurgeon applies it by exclaiming, “Oh that we had grace to turn God’s bullion of gospel into current coin, and use them as our present spending money.”
6. Overcoming faith centers in the person of Jesus Christ.
Jesus said (11:4) that this miracle would result in “the glory of God, so that the Son of God may be glorified by it.” Jesus revealed His glory both by showing His power in calling Lazarus from the tomb and also by His words to Martha (11:25-26): “I am the resurrection and the life; he who believes in Me will live even if he dies, and everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die. Do you believe this?” This is the fifth of Jesus’ “I am” statements in John. It is clearly a claim to deity; no one other than God in human flesh could say what Jesus says here. He does not merely say that He can impart resurrection and life, which would be amazing enough. He says that He is the resurrection and the life. Those qualities are part and parcel of His being.
In claiming “I am the resurrection,” Jesus was referring to what He said in 5:28-29, that one day He will speak and all the dead from all times will arise, some to eternal life and others to judgment. Jesus further explains this when He adds (11:25), “he who believes in Me will live even if he dies.” “Live” has the sense of, “come to life” and refers to “the final resurrection of believers at the last day” (Carson, p. 413).
Jesus’ words, “I am … the life” are further explained by the clause, “everyone who lives and believes in Me will never die.” Jesus does not mean that believers will never die physically, since He just referred to believers dying. Rather, He means that those who believe in Him will never die spiritually. They receive eternal life from Jesus. In 5:21, Jesus said, “For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son also gives life to whom He wishes.” This eternal life begins the instant we believe in Jesus and is not interrupted by physical death. Rather, death ushers us into the presence of the Lord, where we will await the resurrection of our bodies when Christ returns.
Martha already had believed in Jesus as the Christ, the Son of God (as she goes on to affirm in 11:27). But Jesus challenges her in her time of grief to believe specifically in Him as the resurrection and life (11:26): “Do you believe this?” In other words, “Do you believe these specific truths about Me?” Faith that overcomes life’s trials must have specific doctrinal content about the person and work of Jesus Christ. It’s not enough to have a vague, general faith in Christ. You need to know Him as He is revealed in all of God’s Word. That kind of faith will sustain you in a time of trial.
Overcoming faith takes overwhelming trials to the Lord. It realizes that God is in control of all your circumstances, including the present trial. It does not limit God. It trusts in His promises regarding eternity, but also it applies those promises to the present trial. It centers in the person of Jesus Christ. Finally,
7. Overcoming faith believes what it knows and grows from there.
Martha affirms her faith in Christ (11:27): “Yes, Lord; I have believed that You are the Christ, the Son of God, even He who comes into the world.” This is a tremendous confession of faith, on a par with Peter’s great confession (Matt. 16:16), “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” Martha realized that Jesus was the promised Messiah. “He who comes into the world” clarifies or re-emphasizes His messianic role.
We can’t know for sure how much theological truth Martha, Peter, John the Baptist (John 1:34), and Nathaniel (1:49) knew when they confessed that Jesus was the Son of God. At the very least, they were connecting it to God’s promise to David, that God would be a Father to his sons and that they would sit on his throne forever (2 Sam. 7:13-14; Psalm 2:7). But as John’s Gospel shows, “Son of God” depicts “a unique relation of oneness and intimacy between Jesus and his Father” (Carson, p. 162) that is ontological, not merely messianic. Martha was believing what John wants his readers to believe, that “Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God,” so that we might have life in His name (20:31).
But while Martha’s confession was solid and deep, she probably didn’t yet understand fully that Jesus was eternal God in human flesh. Her reply does not seem to relate directly to what Jesus affirms in 11:25-26. In her grief, she probably couldn’t immediately sort out what Jesus was claiming about being the resurrection and the life. But she affirmed what she did believe and from there she probably later did grow to understand what Jesus had told her. She knew what she believed, confirmed that, and grew from there.
In a time of overwhelming trials, come back to what you know for sure: Jesus is the Messiah promised in the Old Testament, He is the eternal Word in human flesh who died for your sins, and He was raised from the dead. Camp on those truths and you can overcome your present difficulties.
Alan Redpath wrote (Victorious Christian Living [Revell], p. 166):
There is nothing – no circumstance, no trouble, no testing – that can ever touch me until, first of all it has gone past God and past Christ, right through to me. If it has come that far, it has come with a great purpose which I may not understand at the moment. But as I refuse to become panicky – as I lift up my eyes to Him – and as I accept it as coming from the throne of God for some great purpose of blessing to my heart, no sorrow will ever disturb me, no trial will ever disarm me, no circumstance will cause me to fret – for I shall rest in the joy of what my Lord is. That is the rest of victory.
That is overcoming faith! The Lord wants each of us to look through our grief and tears to Him as the resurrection and the life and answer His question: “Do you believe this?”
- How can we know if our grief is within biblical bounds versus grieving as those who have no hope? Does Redpath’s quote (“no sorrow will ever disturb me”) go too far?
- Why is it important to affirm God’s loving sovereignty over all our trials? What is lost if we deny this?
- Should we always pray for divine healing? How can we know if God’s purpose is for His power to be perfected in our weakness (2 Cor. 12:9)?
- Some Christian counselors say that to tell a hurting person to trust God is “worthless medicine.” Is it? Cite biblical support.
Copyright, Steven J. Cole, 2014, All Rights Reserved.
Unless otherwise noted, all Scripture Quotations are from the New American Standard Bible, Updated Edition © The Lockman Foundation
8. We Don't Escape Change (1 Peter 4:1-11)Related Media
1 Peter: Suffering Precedes Glory (part eight)
Our God specializes in life change. He delights in changing us from the way we were to the way He wants us to be. But that's not enough for Him. After He's begun to change us, He wants to use us as agents of change in others' lives. We're doing what we were designed to do when we are being used by God to serve others. And nothing in this life can bring us the same measure of joy. But that's still not enough for God. While He's using us to change others, He's continuing to fashion us through the experience. God rarely uses an instrument without changing it in the process. And of course, God receives all of the glory for engineering and executing the marvelous plan.
Editor's Note: The last 8 minutes were caught off in the video version due to a technical difficulty during recording. To finish the message it is recommended that you switch over to the audio version at that point-- which is complete. We apologize for this inconvenience.
31 Bible Reflection Tips
Open my eyes, that I may behold wondrous things out of your law. Psalm 119:18
1. Emphasize: Pause on each word of a verse, emphasizing it as you read it, and unpack it. (“I have stored up your word...” Personally accountable, deliberate, not dependent on others. “I have stored up your word…” Habitually, ongoing.)
2. Read and Pause: Pray. Then start reading until the Holy Spirit causes you to pause and reflect.
3. Opposites: Consider the opposite of what the verse is saying. (“I have stored up your word in my heart, that I might not sin against you.” opposite: WHEN “I have [NOT] stored up your word in my heart, [ I find I more readily ] sin against you.”
4. Inclusive/Exclusive: When you find words like all, every, never, none see them as yield signs and ponder what that includes or leaves out. (“I will never leave you or forsake you” NEVER? not even when I run away from you? NEVER? not even when I feel alone?)
5. Various English Translations: Read in various translations to get a fresh or nuanced perspective.
ESV: For we are the circumcision, who worship by the Spirit of God and glory in Christ Jesus and put no confidence in the flesh
ERV: But we are the ones who have the true circumcision—we who worship God through his Spirit. We don’t trust in ourselves or anything we can do. We take pride only in Christ Jesus.
MSG: The real believers are the ones the Spirit of God leads to work away at this ministry, filling the air with Christ’s praise as we do it. We couldn’t carry this off by our own efforts, and we know it—even though we can list what many might think are impressive credentials.
NLT: For we who worship by the Spirit of God are the ones who are truly circumcised. We rely on what Christ Jesus has done for us. We put no confidence in human effort, )
6. Other Language Translations: If you read in another language, read the Scriptures in that language.
7. Rewrite: Rewrite a verse or passage from your own thoughts and words.
8. Personalize: Read a verse or passage and put your own name in where there are names or pronouns. (Isaiah 41:13 “‘For I hold you by your right hand— I, the Lord your God. And I say to you, ‘Don’t be afraid. I am here to help you.” Personalized: “‘For I hold Carol by her right hand— I, the Lord Carol’s God. And I say to Carol, ‘Don’t be afraid. I am here to help Carol.”
9. Question: Ask yourself questions about the passage. (Who is involved in this story? Where else did Jesus say something similar? Who is this being said to?)
10. Threads: Find other verses that speak along the same lines. (What else did Jesus say to the Pharisees? Where else do the Psalmists recount God’s actions among His people? What is Paul’s salutation and closing in each of his letters? What does Proverbs say about what the fool does, thinks, says?)
11. Patterns and Rhythms: Look for literary or construct patterns. (e.g. What are common “triplets” or “couplets” in the NT? Faith, Hope, Love; Grace and Truth, etc)
12. God-Man: In the Gospels, wherever “Jesus” is mentioned, read the passage as “God”. (“Jesus returned to the Sea of Galilee and climbed a hill and sat down. A vast crowd brought to him people who were lame, blind, crippled, those who couldn’t speak, and many others. They laid them before Jesus, and he healed them all.” Read as: “[God] returned to the Sea of Galilee and climbed a hill and sat down. A vast crowd brought to [God] people who were lame, blind, crippled, those who couldn’t speak, and many others. They laid them before [God] , and [God] healed them all.”)
13. Join the Cast: Take on one of the characters in the story and walk through the story as that person. (Zacchaeus: Why do you want to see Jesus? What do you feel when Jesus says he is going to your house? What might you be afraid of or excited about?)
14. Attributes: Tie what you are reading to an attribute or characteristic of God. (Matthew 19:14,15: “But Jesus said, ‘Let the children come to me. Don’t stop them! For the Kingdom of Heaven belongs to those who are like these children.’ And he placed his hands on their heads and blessed them before he left. ATTRIBUTES: Kind, Humble, Generous…)
15. Listen: Read the passage aloud or listen to it recorded.
16. Memorize: Verses and passages. Tackle a longer section as a month-long or annual goal. (Suggestions: Psalms 19, 23, 51, 103; Ten Commandments; Beatitudes, Sermon on the Mount; Book of Philippians; John 14-17).
17. Pray: Transform the passage into a prayer. (Psalm 23: “Lord, thank you for being my Shepherd and providing all I need. When you put me in places of refreshment and rest, help me to enter into them fully. Help me remember that it is your righteousness, not my own, that guides me, and it is your name alone that deserves any glory….”)
18. Sing: Sing Scriptures that have been made into praise choruses, or make up your own tunes to passages.
19. Do’s and don’ts: Reframe teachings of the Psalmists, Jesus, Paul, etc into lists of things to do and things to avoid doing. (Ephesians 4: DO: Walk in a manner worthy of calling; bear with one another; maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. DON’T: walk like people who don’t know God; don’t become callous, don’t be given to sensuality or greed.)
20. Define: Use a dictionary or thesaurus to look up words, even if you already know the definition, to help expand your understanding of the meaning.
- compassionate or kindly forbearance shown toward an offender, an enemy, or other person in one’s power; compassion, pity, or benevolence: Have mercy on the poor sinner.
- the disposition to be compassionate or forbearing: an adversary wholly without mercy.
- the discretionary power of a judge to pardon someone or to mitigate punishment, especially to send to prison rather than invoke the death penalty.
- an act of kindness, compassion, or favor: She has performed countless small mercies for her friends and neighbors.
- something that gives evidence of divine favor; blessing: It was just a mercy we had our seat belts on when it happened.
forgiveness, indulgence, clemency, leniency, lenity, tenderness, mildness
21. Jot: Read a passage and jot down the key or main thought. Reflect on what you captured.
22. Meditate: Review a passage over and over in your mind throughout the day or as you go to sleep.
23. Word Study: use a Concordance to look up all the passages a word is used then look for patterns or how the various passages expand your understanding. (Wisdom-208 instances in ESV. Here is a selection.)
1 Kings 4:30 (ESV) so that Solomon’s wisdom surpassed the wisdom of all the people of the east and all the wisdom of Egypt.
Acts 6:10 (ESV) But they could not withstand the wisdom and the Spirit with which he was speaking.
Colossians 2:3 (ESV) in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.
1 Kings 4:34 (ESV) And people of all nations came to hear the wisdom of Solomon, and from all the kings of the earth, who had heard of his wisdom.
Proverbs 4:7 (ESV) The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever you get, get insight.
1 Corinthians 2:5 (ESV) that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God. Wisdom from the Spirit
Proverbs 8:1 (ESV) Does not wisdom call? Does not understanding raise her voice?
Proverbs 24:3 (ESV) By wisdom a house is built, and by understanding it is established;
Ephesians 1:8 (ESV) which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight
24. Diagram: Take a passage apart and diagram it according to parts of speech. What are the subclauses? What is dependent on what?
25. Repetition: Note when a word or phrase is repeated in a passage. (John 1)
“And the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, and we have seen his glory, glory as of the only Son from the Father, full of grace and truth... For from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. For the law was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ.”
26. Journal: Read a passage and write your personal reflections, prayers, questions, insights, etc.
27. Commentaries: Read what Bible teachers and Scholars have said about the passage. Classic Commentaries are found free online: Matthew Henry, Calvin, Luther, etc. http://www.biblestudytools.com/commentaries/
28. Greek and Hebrew: Look up the meaning of words in a Greek or Hebrew Dictionary. http://www.biblestudytools.com/interlinear-bible/
29. Poetry: Write a passage as a poem.
30. Dialogue/Contrast: Read a page that has various characters with voices from the characters. (John 11: Jesus said. Mary, Martha responded.) (Psalm 78 God did. People of Israel responded.)
31. Themes: Follow a specific concept, term or person throughout a book or passage. (Read all accounts of the Birth of Jesus. Where do you see the Holy Spirit? Read Matthew or Luke and write down every accusation the Scribes or Pharisees mutter about Jesus.)
Related Topics: Women's Articles
The Wrath Of God In The Old Testament: “The Law Brings Wrath”Related Media
Down here on earth as it is now in its sinful state, you can’t have love without anger against evil and injustice.
What’s with all the wrathin’ and a-smitin’ in the Old Testament?
That’s what many people ask.
I’m a radical believer in the radical grace of God. But if I don’t explore this topic, some people may accuse me of hiding unpleasant truths and focusing on feel-good, sugarcoated doctrines alone.
Let’s get started.
In Rom. 4:15, Paul has a profound insight that is often overlooked because it is so brief and tucked away in numerous other profound truths: “the law brings wrath”; in that verse the law is the Torah or Law of Moses.
One way to check out his insight is to look at the common (and not so common) Hebrew words for anger, wrath, fury, indignation, and so on.
The law was thundered from on high on Mt. Sinai, beginning in Exodus 19. God shows wrath on his own people, after the law was given, when they violated it.
I intend to explore this thesis:
The law brings wrath.
This insight is tied to the Old Covenant, for law and covenant go together in the OT. Two parties, God and man, entered into an agreement or covenant. The lesser party (humankind) must fulfill certain obligations; the law guides people as to how to carry out their agreement, and the law promises benefits for upholding the covenant (Deut. 28). God, the major party, benefits his people. But when one party (people) breaks it in bad faith over centuries, the aggrieved party (God) has the right to take action against the covenant breakers and lawbreakers. They can even be punished. That action and punishment is called wrath in the OT. We could call it judicial (legal) or covenant wrath against lawbreakers or covenant breakers.
Let me discuss the study method and limitations.
I don’t offer the meaning of the words in this study all the time, because they mean anger, wrath, fury, and so on. But I note it when in some contexts they mean zeal, nostrils, discord, sorrow, and so on. Generally those are not counted, unless they’re metaphors for or actually mean wrath and anger in some verses.
I did not factor in the word vengeance and its cognates, which are a form of God’s wrath. Except for four times, I did not look at jealousy, which also has a connection to anger.
It is not known when Job lived, but the book was written after the law was given, so this judicial wrath theology influences the book.
I counted the enemies of David in the Psalms as those who lived under the Sinai Covenant because he is likely talking about his enemies at court. But this wrath in the Psalms against his enemies happens so few times that the major results are not affected.
It was sometimes difficult, but not impossible, looking at a Hebrew-English concordance, to tell whether the context clause was about God or humans, so sometimes I looked up the reference to make sure. Nonetheless, I couldn’t look up every one, so the below totals are close approximations.
Chosen people and covenant people: For this study, the people whom God favored will be called the chosen people before the Law of Moses was given in Exod. 19, because they did not yet have the Sinai Covenant. After the law, they are called his covenanted or covenant people; they did have the Sinai Covenant, though it’s not as if they lost their chosen status – or a remnant did not.
Thus the “chosen people” and “covenant people” are used only for convenience before and after the law, respectively.
This study, as all studies using raw word counts, must be used judiciously. Sometimes an important theme in the Bible has few words, e.g. Sonship of Christ appears only 16x in Paul’s epistles, but it’s still very important. A pound of gold is worth a lot more than a ton of gravel. So this study is intended to reveal sinful people’s relationship to the law, the Old Covenant, and wrath, so that eventually the gospel can be preached and deliver people from the wrath of God, but only after they’re in the New Covenant.
Our hypothesis will help us navigate through the biblical data. We’ll use it to reach conclusions about the thesis. The hypothesis is in two parts.
(1) The key Hebrew words will rarely appear against his chosen people before the Law of Moses was given;
(2) The Hebrew words will appear against his covenanted people most often after the Law of Moses was given.
Those who know the Bible can already figure out the outcome, but many don’t know Scripture. Plus, what’s important is how to interpret the data.
In that light, we also examine additional evidence of similar sins committed by the Israelites before the law was given and similar sins after the law. The differences in punishments are remarkable.
Finally, we keep track of what happens to those outside of the covenant or chosen status (pagans), who act as a comparison.
Let’s see if we confirm or deny the hypothesis by looking at the evidence. If it is confirmed, then the thesis is also confirmed.
Linguistic and Textual Evidence
1. Ap: 207: before the law was it is not used of God except in Exod. 4:14, when the anger of the Lord burned against Moses – the lawgiver – and in 15:7, when the blast of God’s nostril (anger) threw the Egyptian army into the sea.
Of the 207 times, the word appears, meaning wrath or anger (not nostrils, etc.), 167 times it refers to God, after the law was given, except Exod. 4:14 and 15:7, as noted.
167 of 207
155 of 167 against his covenant people
1 of 155 on his chosen vessel, Moses, before the law was given
2. Za’am (both verb and noun): 28: it is not used of God before the law was given; it is appears 27 times for God’s wrath after the law was given.
27 of 28
18 of 27 against his covenant people
3. Ḥēmah: 110: before the law was given, it does not appear for God’s wrath. After the law was given, it appears about 88 times for the wrath of God.
88 of 110
78 of 88: against his covenant people
4. Ḥārah: 92: it appears that many times for anger, fury, and sometimes burned, as in the anger of the Lord burned. But I did not count fret. It appears about 48 times for the wrath of God. It is used potentially of God’s anger through angels against Abraham (Gen. 18:30, 32), though God did not actually get angry. It also appears in Exod. 4:14: the anger of the Lord burned against Moses. Except for those 3 times, it appears only after the law was given.
48 of 92: (twice in Gen. 18:30, 32 and once in Exod. 4:14)
46 of 48: against his covenant people
2 of 26 potentially on Abraham, God’s friend, but the wrath never actualized or happened
5. Ḥārȏn: 39: it is used 39 times of God. It appears in Exod. 15:7, in Miriam’s song, for God’s burning anger. All other times it appears after the law was given.
39 of 40: once in Exod. 15:7, on the Egyptians
33 of 39: against his covenant people
6. Ḥorî: 6: it is used 2 times of God, after the law was given.
2 of 6
2 of 2 against his covenant people
7. Ka’as (verb): 54: it is used 40 times of God’s anger and always after the law was given.
40 of 54
40 of 40 against his covenant people
8. Ka’as (noun): 15: sometimes this is translated as grief or sorrow, but those verses were omitted from the total count. It is used 5 times about God, and all of these verses come after the law was given.
5 of 15
5 of 5 against his covenant people
9. ‘ābar (denominative verb): 8: 5 of these words are used of God, and all occur after the law was given.
5 of 8
5 of 5 against his covenant people
10. ‘ebrah: 31: 24 are used of God, and all of them appear after the law was given
24 of 31
17 of 24 against his covenant people
11. Qin’ah: 4: this word is usually translated in the NIV as jealousy, but 4 times it refers to God’s jealous anger, and all occur after the law was given.
4 of 4
4 of 4 against his covenant people
12. Qātzap: 34: it is used of God 25 times, and all the verses appear after the law was given.
25 of 34
23 of 25 against his covenant people
13. Qetzep: 28: it is used of God 27 times, and all occur after the law was given
27 of 28
25 of 27 against his covenant people
14. Rāgaz; rōgez: 2: both are used of God and come after the law was given.
2 of 2
2 of 2: against his covenant people
Interpreting the Numerical Data
These totals are close approximations.
The words wrath, anger, fury and their synonyms appear 658 times, whether about God or humans.
Of the 658, God shows wrath 499 times.
So humans have wrath or anger 159 times.
Of the 499, God shows his wrath against his people 448 times after the Law of Moses was thundered down.
On his chosen people before the law and covenant: 3 times. Of those three, Abraham did not actually experience it because God through his angels accepted his questions. So it was used only once, against Moses, the lawgiver.
God shows wrath against individuals outside of his covenant (pagans). The key Hebrew words appeared only once before the law was given – against the Egyptian army. But after the law was given, the bulk of the occurrences of the Hebrew words are in national contexts: God’s wrath and anger are to be poured out on nations that crushed Israel, like Assyria and Babylon. Isaiah took care to speak those prophesies.
After the law was given, God’s wrath on people outside of the covenant (pagans), whether national or individualistic, works out to be 51 times.
Here are the totals for the key Hebrew words:
God’s wrath: 499
God’s wrath after the law: 495
God’s wrath against the covenant people: 448
God’s wrath against his chosen people before the law and covenant: 1 (and potentially 2 more times)
God’s wrath on people outside the covenant (pagans) before the law: 1
God’s wrath on people outside the covenant (pagans) after the law: 51
God’s wrath before the law, either on his chosen people or pagans: 4 (or 2)
Percentage against his covenant people after the law: 90%
Percentage against people outside the covenant (pagans) after the law: 10%
The low number against pagans is startling because it seems that God would direct his wrath towards them more often than against his chosen or covenant people. However, as we will note in the next section, Additional Evidence, this sheer number needs to be interpreted in the bigger context of story, like Sodom and Gomorrah and the ten plagues.
Also, one would expect the law to guide his covenant people towards righteousness, so God would not have to show his wrath on their unrighteousness. Just the opposite happened. His wrath intensified after the law because their sin increased. Recall that Paul argues that the holy law stimulates sin in unholy humans (Rom. 3:20, 7:15-13); sin must be justly punished (wrath); so “the law brings wrath.”
Therefore, our two-part hypothesis is confirmed:
(1) The key Hebrew words rarely appeared against his chosen people before the Law was given;
(2) The Hebrew words appeared against his covenanted people most often after the Law was given.
Therefore, Paul’s insight that “the law brings wrath” is also confirmed.
Though most of those Hebrew words do not appear before the law was given, God’s wrath in action – without the words – can be seen, for example, in Adam and Eve’s punishments (Gen. 3); in the flood (though the text speaks specifically of grief that motivated God); on Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 19); and the ten plagues on the Egyptians (Exod. 7:14-11:19; cf. Ps. 78:49). This all happened to pagans.
However, it must be said that God’s chosen people in those examples were spared from wrath, except Adam and Eve. Noah and his family were saved in the ark; Lot and his family were rescued from the two cities; the ten plagues were not intended for the Israelites. Thus, they were spared his wrath, even though they were not sinless and morally perfect, before the Law of Moses was given.
Therefore, the numbers revealed in the previous section need to be interpreted properly. God favored his chosen people or merely corrected them before Exod. 19, while pagans were punished severely when they broke the moral law or sinned in some way. This is wrath without explicitly saying the key words.
But it must still be emphasized that the key Hebrew words were never used, while after the law the words are used freely, indicating a shift in divine attitude about his covenanted, law-centered people. That’s still remarkable.
Now let’s see what happens in Genesis, after the creation story. Abraham, Sarah, and Jacob committed recorded sins, but they did not explicitly suffer wrath. Abraham lied to the Pharaoh, but God inflicted disease on the Pharaoh, not on Abraham. God spared his chosen man, but not pagans. God restored them, however (Gen. 12:10-20).
Next, Abraham and Sarah laughed at the promise of God that they would have a son, but they were only rebuked, not punished. They still had Isaac (Gen. 17:15-22, Gen. 18:10-15, Gen. 21:1-6).
Further, Jacob stole Esau’s birthright (Gen. 27), but he was still blessed with revelations (Gen. 28:10-21). He wrestled with an angel and got a name (character) change, but this is not explicitly stated as the wrath of God (Gen. 32:22-32). He and Esau reconciled, and Jacob got to carry on with the birthright privileges (Gen. 33 and Gen. 49).
One could say that God favored them because they were his chosen people and he had a bigger plan. But it’s not as if they got off scot free. They were corrected or rebuked in some way, but never do the key words for wrath appear, while they are used freely after the law on Mt. Sinai.
Let’s turn our attention to Exodus before the law was given in Exod. 19 and the corresponding passages in Exodus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy after the law. In a side-by-side comparison the differences in punishments are remarkable.
In Exod. 15:22-27, before the law in Exod. 19, the children of Israel are out in the desert. They found no water, and the water they eventually discovered at Marah was bitter. They complained. God performed a miracle without wrath explicitly stated. In Exod. 17:1-7, they camped at Rephidim, still in the desert, and could not find water. They complained again, but God’s wrath is not stated. Instead, Moses struck the rock, and water came out. In contrast, in Num. 20:1-13, after the law was given, the Israelites complained about not having water, and this time God told Moses to speak to the rock, and water would gush out. Instead, Moses disobeyed and struck the rock. Though “wrath” is not explicitly stated in Num. 20:1-13, Ps. 106:32 says, “By the waters of Meribah they angered the Lord, and trouble came to Moses because of them.” God judged Moses, so the lawgiver was not permitted to lead the people into the Promised Land (cf. Num. 20:24, Num. 27:14; Deut. 32:51).
In Exod. 16, before the law, the Israelites grumbled about not having food, so God provided them with manna and quail. But nowhere does the text say that God poured out his wrath on them for their sin of complaining. In contrast, in Num. 11:4-35, after the law was given, the people complained about having nothing but manna. God became “exceedingly angry,” but provided them with quail, anyway. He also judged them with a plague because they apparently ate it raw. An image of a riot is possible. This severe punishment is wrath.
Num. 21:4-9 further combines complaining about food and water. God sends snakes to bite them. Though the keywords are not mentioned, the snakes are a severe punishment, and that’s the same as wrath.
In Exod. 16:23-30, before the law, Moses told the people not to gather the manna on the seventh day, the Sabbath, because that is day is holy. But they disobeyed and gathered it anyway. Moses rebuked them, and they did it right the next time. No wrath is stated, and no one died. However, in Exod. 20:8, after the law, God commanded the people to keep the Sabbath (the Fourth Commandment). He further orders that if they don’t keep it, they shall be executed. In Num. 15:32-36, they actually put a Sabbath breaker to death.
Next, as soon as the Ten Commandments were given, the second of which says not to form or make idols, the people, led by Aaron, made the golden calf (Exod. 32). They made no calf or another image before then. In Exod. 32, God would have destroyed all of them (v. 19), but instead only 3,000 were killed because Moses intervened (v. 28). Maybe it was passages like these that inspired Paul to note that the law stimulates sin (Rom. 7:7-13). (Incidentally, about 3,000 got saved at Pentecost [Acts 2:41]).
Most intriguingly, Abram was promised with the blessing of children. He believed God, and his faith was credited to him as righteousness. A covenant was cut (or made), the Abrahamic Covenant, which is built on faith (Gen. 15). In Num. 25:7-8, 13, Phinehas threw a spear through a man and woman who were having some kind of relations before Moses and the assembly at the tent of meeting. Ps. 106:28-31 says this act of judgment was credited to the priest as righteousness. Abram’s covenant of faith came before the law, while Phinehas’s covenant of an everlasting priesthood came after the law, through divine wrath and judgment. Jesus took up this priestly covenant and turned it into mercy and love (Heb. 4:14-5:10; 8:1-13), so we can now be part of the royal priesthood (1 Pet. 2:4-5)
Interpreting the Additional Evidence
Genesis has 50 chapters, and we’re counting the first 19 chapters in Exodus, totaling 69. Of course the vast majority of those Hebrew words appear in chapters after those 69, because there are a lot more chapters. But what’s startling is how few times the words appear in the 69 – and only once on God’s chosen vessel – Moses, the lawgiver.
However, all of those passages in the Additional Evidence section reveal a startling before-and-after comparison. Before the Law was thundered on from on high at Mt. Sinai, the chosen people were rebuked for their sins, but the key words for wrath are never mentioned. The people never died. After the law was given, God’s wrath was poured out for the same sins on his covenant people. Often the people were struck with plagues or the sword or bitten by serpents and died.
Next, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and his sons deserved wrath on some occasions, but never got it as such, certainly not with the same intensity as his people will receive it after the Law of Moses was given.
All of this leads to the conclusion that the kind of wrath before the law is not as heavily emphasized as it was afterwards. Even the flood was motivated by divine grief, and Sodom and Gomorrah could have been spared if ten righteous had been found. Also, these passages are about punishments on pagans. This is unlike the wrath poured out on God’s covenant people, which is heavily emphasized and widespread after the law, while, surprisingly, the pagans do not bear the brunt of it very much after the law. They were not held to such a high standard.
Maybe that’s what Paul meant when he finishes Rom. 4:15: “where there is no law [of Moses] there is no transgression” against the Mosaic Law that had not yet been given. He also wrote: “in his forbearance he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished” (Rom. 3:25). Accountability and punishment before the law was not as stringent and severe as it was after the law.
Thus, the thesis (“the law brings wrath”) and the two-part hypothesis are further confirmed.
What Wrath Is and Is Not
We are now in a better position to interpret the wrath of God in the entire sweep of the OT.
Paul’s insight goes deeper than just a raw data word count or these stories.
Paul says in Romans there is something flawed with the mixture of religious law (which is holy), covenant (a beneficial relationship), and unholy human nature (the fatal flaw). Law stimulates sin in sinful human beings (Rom. 7:7-13). With the law, people become conscious of sin (3:20). This law-sin connection is also tied to the covenant, which involves two parties, God and man. Humankind breaks its end of the agreement; therefore the aggrieved party, God, has the right to take action and correct the covenant breakers. That action and correction is called wrath.
That’s the first half of Paul’s great insight (and even more on that, below). The second half is discussed in the Conclusion, below.
Moreover, God expressing wrath is not like a human losing his temper. God does not flash with anger and throw an unsuspecting, nearby angel across the universe before God can think straight. “Sorry, I lost my temper! I reacted without thinking!” No, he does not lash out. is crude literalism and human-centered thinking. Instead, there’s a logic and consistency to it. Laws were in place. The people violated them. They had to suffer the consequences, sometimes quickly when major and sacred transitions were happening in Israel’s long history (2 Sam 6:3-7; cf. Exod. 25:12-15; Num. 4:5-6, 17; and 2 Kings 2:23-25; cf. Lev. 26:21-22), but mostly they underwent wrath only after centuries of lawbreaking. Punishment for lawbreaking is called the wrath of God – his judicial or covenant wrath.
God would not be the God of justice if he let wrongs slide by undealt with, just like a parent would be derelict if she let her children get away with everything. Her giving them a timeout or even a spanking without losing her temper is a (weak) equivalent to God’s perfect, unmistakable, error-free wrath.
God’s wrath is never mysterious, irrational, malicious, spiteful, or vindictive. It is predictable because it is aroused by injustice, lawbreaking, and evil – and that alone.
This is why he shows wrath, to punish wrong and evil:
The Lord is slow to anger and great in power;
the Lord will not leave the guilty unpunished. (Nah. 1:3)
I will discipline you but only with justice;
I will not let you go entirely unpunished. (Jer. 30:11)
Bigger Historical and Biblical Perspective
We must look at God’s wrath in the larger historical and biblical perspective.
As noted, covenant is tied to law and justice in the OT. Two parties voluntarily entered into an agreement. The privileged partner (God) promised to keep them safe and bless their agricultural life, their resources. He also instituted the priesthood to teach them how to keep the law, and he set up the sacrificial system administered by the priests to restore the people when they sinned. The righteous party (God) forgave their sins over and over again, for centuries. He sent prophets to warn them and remind them of their agreement.
But sometimes the human party to the covenant went so far in their bad faith, they broke the law so egregiously for centuries, the aggrieved party (God) took action. He judged and punished them, but not in his full wrath and not to destroy them. And after this painful judicial process – painful to him – he still forgave and loved them. He was merciful to his chosen lawbreakers. This is the perfect blend of mercy and justice. This is the story of God’s wrath in the OT, in a nutshell.
Thus, God’s wrath is linked to his judgment over a long history. He is like an in his red robe, white collar, ribbon tie, and white wig. He systemaaaaaaaatically and methoooooooodically and slooooooooowly gathers the evidence and then renders his verdict, after sifting and weighing the evidence. What kind of human judge would it be if he simply let the guilty go without paying a fine or spending time in prison? God instituted justice – including punishment against lawbreakers – down here on earth because it reflects his just character.
Further, while it is true that the Hebrew words for wrath appeared 448 times against the people of the covenant, this verse is repeated again and again in the OT:
But you, O Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness. (Ps. 86:15; cf. Exod. 34:6; Num. 14:18; Neh. 9:17; Ps 103:4; Ps. 145:8; Joel 2:12; Jonah 4:2; Nah. 1:3)
Though those verses do not appear as often as wrath does, they are a pound of gold compared to one hundred pounds of iron.
And these verses talk about God’s mercy and forgiveness and his restraining his anger against his disobedient, law-breaking people:
Yet he was merciful;
he forgave their iniquities
and did not destroy them.
Time after time he restrained his anger
and did not stir up his full wrath.
He remembered that they were but flesh,
a passing breeze that does not return. (Ps. 78:38-39)
Most importantly, the word counts for favor (grace), love, salvation, forgiveness, redemption, and compassion (and their various forms) add up to about 1220 times, the vast majority of which are used of God after the law was given, and, indeed, throughout the entire OT. That’s well over twice the number of times the occurrences (499) of wrath and anger and fury (and so on) used of God at any time or against anyone, chosen or covenant people or pagan, in the OT.
Therefore, wrath is not central or fundamental to God’s character. God is more than a judge. He is love. Wrath is a response to something outside of himself in the world; his love always is. Before he created the heavens and the earth and perfect humans who fell and continue to do wrong, he was always love in eternity past. And he will always be love in eternity future, in a new heaven and new earth, when evil has been wiped out, and he no longer must pour out his wrath on it (i.e. punish it).
That’s the more accurate biblical picture that must be taken into account.
We discussed the first half of Paul’s great insight at the end of the Summary section, above. It says the law, covenant, and humans are a toxic mixture. The holy law stimulates sin in sinful humans who persistently break the covenant (Rom. 7:7-13); sin must be justly punished (wrath); so “the law brings wrath” (Rom. 4:15).
The second half of Paul’s insight provides a way out.
The goal (among several) of Romans is to teach us how to avoid the wrath to come. The way out is through the gospel by faith in Christ. “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith’” (Rom. 1:17).
Then we are set free from God’s wrath. “Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!” (Rom. 5:9). Paul carries forward into the New Covenant the themes – no, the reality – of favor (grace), love, salvation, forgiveness, redemption, and compassion, which he observed in the Old.
Paul’s solution is for his fellow Jews to come out from under the Law of Moses, and certainly not to make Gentiles submit to it as the advocated, a law which is part and parcel of the Old Covenant; instead, all peoples, Jew and Gentile, should come to faith in Christ and walk in the Spirit within the New Covenant, which Christ paid for and ratified with his blood.
But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under law. … The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Gal. 5:18, Gal. 5:22-23)
On the cross, Jesus Christ took our earned, merited, and deserved wrath. Now he gives us God’s love and grace, which for our part is unearned, unmerited, and undeserved.
For More Study
This article has a companion piece: . It concludes that God never shows wrath against his blood-washed, Spirit-filled church as a whole. However, an individual Christian who (God forbid) commits a crime and is arrested by the authorities, who are agents of God’s wrath (Rom. 13:1-5) – well, that’s another matter. Click on the link to read more.
That article teaches us how shallow it is to criticize justice and punishment (wrath) for wrongdoing. God’s justice and love and wrath are linked. But his love is fundamental in a way that wrath is not. I used that article for some of the ideas in the section, What Wrath Is and Is Not.
That link gives a much briefer overview of the topic.
This article explains in more depth how we personally may escape God’s wrath through the one and only way of salvation that He provided in Jesus Christ.
Please cite this article, especially for print books, as follows:
James M. Arlandson. “The Wrath of God in the Old Testament: ‘The Law Brings Wrath.’” Bible.org. 2014.
The Wrath Of God In The New Testament: Never Against His New Covenant CommunityRelated Media
Down here on earth, as it is now in its sinful state, you can’t have love without anger against injustice and evil.
I’m a radical believer in radical grace. But I have to deal with the topic of God’s wrath that puts everyone on edge. If I neglect it, some readers will accuse me of sugar-coating the whole counsel of God and covering only “feel-good, self-help” biblical truths. However, I’m committed to the plain teaching of Scripture, wherever it may lead.
I must admit, however, that I hesitated to deal with this topic. But now that I have, I’ve learned a lot. It was not as difficult or nerve-wracking as I thought it would be.
So let’s get started on this study and see if I can do it without scaring or scarring people.
God’s wrath is part and parcel of his judgment against wrongdoing, injustice and evil. A few times his judgment and justice was administered quickly (Acts 5:1-11; Acts 13:8-12). However, you should picture God like an who wears a red robe, white collar, ribbon-tie, and white wig. He systemaaaaaaaatically and methoooooooodically and slooooooooowly gathers, sifts, weighs the evidence and then renders his verdict. What kind of human judge would it be if he simply let the guilty go without paying a fine or spending time in prison? God instituted justice – including punishment against lawbreakers – down here on earth because it reflects his just character. That is called the judicial wrath of God.
Therefore, God expressing wrath is not like a human losing his temper. God does not flash with anger and throw an unsuspecting, nearby angel across the universe before God can think straight. “Sorry, I lost my temper! I reacted without thinking!” No, he does not lash out. is crude literalism and human-centered thinking.
Rather, God would not be the God of justice if he let wrongs slide by undealt with, just like a parent would be derelict if she let her children get away with everything. Her giving them a timeout or even a spanking without losing her temper is a (weak) equivalent to God’s perfect, unmistakable, error-free wrath.
This is why he shows wrath, to punish wrong and evil:
The Lord is slow to anger and great in power;
the Lord will not leave the guilty unpunished. (Nah. 1:3)
I will discipline you but only with justice;
I will not let you go entirely unpunished. (Jer. 30:11)
Therefore, God’s wrath is never mysterious, irrational, malicious, spiteful, or vindictive. It is predictable because it is aroused by injustice, lawbreaking and evil – and that alone.
Old v. New Covenants
Paul had an interesting, and I say profound, insight that is hidden away in his epistle to the Romans; it hardly gets noticed. Rom. 4:15 says, “The law brings wrath”; the law here is the Law of Moses or the Torah. So I set out on a study of how that’s true.
I concluded that of the 499 that God showed wrath in the OT, he shows it against his people 448 times after the Law of Moses was thundered down on Mt. Sinai, beginning in Exod. 19.
On his chosen people before the law and covenant in Exod. 19, he showed it 3 times. Abraham potentially could have experienced it twice, but did not because God through his angels showed him mercy (Gen. 18:30-32). So actually it was used only once against Moses, the lawgiver, in Exod. 4:14.
Law and justice are tied to covenant in the OT. Two parties voluntarily enter into an agreement. The powerful partner (God) promised to keep them safe and bless their agricultural life, their resources. He also instituted the priesthood to teach them how to keep the law, and he set up the sacrificial system administered by the priests for when the people sinned. The righteous party (God) forgave their sins over and over again, for centuries. He sent prophets to warn them and remind them of their agreement.
But sometimes the human party to the covenant went so far in their bad faith, they broke the law so egregiously for centuries, the aggrieved party (God) finally took action. He judged and punished them, but not in his full wrath and not to destroy them. And after this painful judicial process – painful to him – he still forgave and loved them. He was merciful to his chosen lawbreakers. This is the perfect blend of mercy and justice. This is the story of God’s wrath in the OT, in a nutshell – and we haven’t discussed what kind of lawbreaking they did, acting like the unwholesome (to say the least) nations around them.
After my long study, Paul’s thesis was confirmed: the Law of Moses brings wrath.
That’s still puzzling, however. Why did God’s law bring wrath against his covenant people? Paul says in Romans there is something flawed with the mixture of religious law (which is holy), covenant (a beneficial relationship), and unholy human nature (the fatal flaw). Law stimulates sin in sinful human beings (Rom. 7:7-13). And sin within a covenant accompanied by laws amounts to lawbreaking. And lawbreaking must be judged and punished. As noted, that’s called God’s judicial wrath. It must be noted that God is not an unfeeling android when he shows judicial wrath. When his human creation rebels and commits evil and injustice, he feels sadness and pain at having to correct them (= wrath).
Now what about his people in the New Covenant?
One goal (among several) of Romans is to teach us how to avoid the wrath to come. The way out is through the gospel by faith in Christ. “For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith’” (Rom. 1:17).
Then we are set free from God’s wrath. “Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him!” (Rom. 5:9). For Paul, all peoples, Jew and Gentile, should come to faith in Christ and walk in the Spirit within the New Covenant, which Christ paid for and ratified with his blood.
18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. … 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Gal. 5:18, Gal. 5:22-23)
So in the New Covenant, God has not destined his Spirit-filled, blood-bought church for his wrath.
His wrath is tied to eschatology, which means a shift towards the new era of salvation that came with Christ’s death, resurrection and glorification and the outpouring of his Spirit at Pentecost. Eschatology also means a movement towards the Last Days. It is in this context that his New Covenant community and church (the same thing) is not destined for wrath.
Jesus … rescues us from the coming wrath. (1 Thess. 1:9-10)
For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thess. 5:9)
Wrath on Individuals
However, in a few contexts we will discover that God evaluates an individual as he walks with God. Sometimes the individual has such a deep character flaw and sins so egregiously that he must go through a “dealing” from God. For example, he will show anger – evaluating you and concluding you need correction – when you refuse to show mercy and forgive, though you were shown both. Next, one time Jesus showed indignation (personal reaction that opposes wrong behavior) against his disciples who tried to block children from seeing him. Finally, God institutes law enforcement and the courts, and they are agents of God’s wrath. If a Christian commits a crime, then his arrest and incarceration is God’s wrath.
Remember, wrath means judgment against injustice, wrongdoing, and sin. Specifically, judgment is an evaluation and correction in your personal life. In a court of law it is trying the facts and reaching a verdict and then sentencing the guilty and punishing him. In the Old Covenant, wrath means judging lawbreakers who violate the Law of Moses within the covenant. But in your personal life it just means God scanning your soul and disciplining you (Heb. 12:5-11).
Wrap Up So Far
To repeat this important point, the Spirit-filled, blood-washed church as a whole, in an eschatological context, is not destined for the wrath of God that is falling on the world because of its lawbreaking, sin, and evil. They are not in Christ and his protection, but we are.
So the two contexts are micro (an individual) and macro (the church v. the world). God shows wrath on the world, but not on the church as a whole in the macro. In the micro, in your personal life, where there is evaluation and correction, there is always forgiveness and restoration.
Thus God’s wrath for the individual believer in Christ has turned into correction (Heb. 12:4-11). This is one more reason why the individual must belong to a church. There is protection in a Spirit-filled, loving community, mainly protection from his own sin nature. Outside of the church he risks a sinful lifestyle and eventually severe correction from God himself or through Satan (1 Cor. 5:5; 1 Tim. 1:20), but always with the redemptive purpose of restoring him. We hope and pray that restoration is indeed always the result as well, but sadly, from 1 Corinthians11:30 we know that sometimes this is not the case.
Finally, I talk about the bigger biblical perspective in the conclusion section, below. Love and mercy and grace and forgiveness and redemption are much more predominant themes in the entire Bible, both Old and New, than wrath is – much bigger themes.
But let’s focus on the topic at hand.
Biblical Definitions and Texts
Remember, in this study we’re talking about God’s wrath, not ours; yes, the Bible speaks about human anger and sometimes favorably (Eph. 4:26). Jesus is included in this study, since he represents God, and in two instances Peter and Paul represent God too, in their special calling.
Definitions and Word Counts
Orgê (noun, 29 times): the g or gamma in Greek is hard, like ego, and the e with the accent over it is pronounced like the vowel sound in eight; this noun is the most common and the standard word for anger or wrath.
Orgizô (verb, 3 times): it is related to orgê and means to become or get or be angry. The accent over the o means it is the long o or the “omega.”
Aganakteô (verb, 1 time): this means to be or become indignant. I see this verb as meaning being personally upset and opposing wrong and meanness, usually against people who should know better. Their mean behavior was unexpected and unworthy of them.
Thumos (noun, 8 times): this is often used of humans in very strong, often bad sense; it is used of God only as a synonym for orgê very few times or in the Revelation. A few times the NIV translates it as fury in Revelation.
Prosochthizô (verb, 2 times): this is to provoke or be provoked to anger
Grand Total: 42 times, used of God
I use the Q & A format.
1. Who Earns God’s Wrath?
A. Religious Oppressors and Self-Righteous Hinderers
John the Baptist speaks judgment-wrath on this class of people. The coming wrath means that it’s on its way, at the advent or coming of the ministry of Jesus, who will lay an axe to the roots and make people decide yes or no about his gospel. It is eschatological in the sense of the new era being inaugurated with Christ. And there is no reason why it can’t envelope the Final Judgment, if people persist to resist.
7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You offspring of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? [orgê]? (Matt. 3:7; cf. Luke 3:7)
Jesus was angry at religious people who stopped – or tried to stop – the fullness of the kingdom, which included healing (and still does) – from reaching people.
2 They watched Jesus closely to see if he would heal him on the Sabbath, so that they could accuse him. After looking around at them in anger [orgê], grieved by the hardness of their hearts, he said to the man, “Stretch out your hand.” He stretched it out, and his hand was restored. (Mark 3:2, Mark 3:5)
B. Rejecters of Christ and His Gospel
Many people rejected the gospel, but here is a verse that says wrath remains on them. Wrath of God remaining on them means that they live within the sphere of his evaluation and correction or discipline – he would like to correct them by bringing them to the gospel of his Son. Will they see it? Will they come and have eternal life?
36 The one who believes in the Son has eternal life. The one who rejects the Son will not see life, but God’s wrath [orgê] remains on him. (John 3:36)
C. The Ungodly and Wicked
In the next passage, the word wrath is not mentioned, but it is about a judgment and punishment. It is ironic that Elymas believed he could point people towards the truth. Not so. Elymas was spiritually and morally blind, so he was blinded. Let’s hope Elymas repented after the time of blindness was up. However, since wrath as such is not mentioned, you don’t have to include this passage in the discussion.
8 But the magician Elymas (for that is the way his name is translated) opposed them, trying to turn the proconsul away from the faith. 9 But Saul (also known as Paul), filled with the Holy Spirit, stared straight at him 10 and said, “You who are full of all deceit and all wrongdoing, you son of the devil, you enemy of all righteousness – will you not stop making crooked the straight paths of the Lord? 11 Now look, the hand of the Lord is against you, and you will be blind, unable to see the sun for a time!” Immediately mistiness and darkness came over him, and he went around seeking people to lead him by the hand. 12 Then when the proconsul saw what had happened, he believed, because he was greatly astounded at the teaching about the Lord. (Acts 13:8-12)
In the next verse the clause is being revealed is in the present tense. There’s a sense in which God’s judgment-wrath is currently and gradually being revealed in ungodly and wicked men’s lives. But he is also leading them to repentance by showing them kindness (Rom. 2:4).
18 For the wrath [orgê] of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of people who suppress the truth by their unrighteousness (Rom. 1:18)
Note the day of God’s wrath in the next passage. That’s the Final Judgment. Once again wrath and judgment are connected.
5 But because of your stubbornness and your unrepentant heart, you are storing up wrath [orgê] against yourself for the day of God’s wrath [orgê], when his righteous judgment will be revealed. 6 God “will give to each person according to what he has done.” 7 To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. 8 But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath [orgê] and anger [thumos]. (Rom. 2:5-8)
Paul uses the rhetorical “we” and “our” here:
5 But if our unrighteousness demonstrates the righteousness of God, what shall we say? The God who inflicts wrath [orgê] is not unrighteous, is he? (I am speaking in human terms.)
Living a self-centered and lustful life, we used to be under wrath:
… All of us also formerly lived out our lives in the cravings of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and the mind, and were by nature children of wrath [orgê] (Eph. 2:3).
Persisting to do the next sins and resisting God on a continuous basis will land you in trouble.
5 For you can be confident of this one thing: that no person who is immoral, impure, or greedy (such a person is an idolater) has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ and God. 6 Let nobody deceive you with empty words, for because of these things God’s wrath [orgê] comes on the sons of disobedience.
The coming wrath and the present wrath in Paul’s writings means that God is evaluating and correcting people today, but eventually his evaluation will be final, and he will incarcerate people in hell, like a judge incarcerates the guilty in prison.
5 So put to death whatever in your nature belongs to the earth: sexual immorality, impurity, shameful passion, evil desire, and greed which is idolatry. 6 Because of these things the wrath [orgê] of God is coming on the sons of disobedience. (Col. 3:5-6)
D. Old Covenant Opponents and Rejecters of the Gospel
It’s one thing not to accept the new gospel; it’s quite another to actively oppose it and persecute those who do. A certain class of Old Covenant people, usually leaders, showed active hostility against Jesus and his gospel and his disciples. They sometimes persecuted the new believers. Also, in this section the epistle to the Hebrews refers back to the ancient Israelites who broke God’s laws and rebelled back in the OT.
In the Parable of the Wedding Banquet, Jesus’ opponents resisted and held back others who wanted to follow a new way. He is probably talking about the entire nation as represented by its leaders who did not accept his message and persecuted the new messengers.
5 But they were indifferent and went away, one to his farm, another to his business. 6 The rest seized his slaves, insolently mistreated them, and killed them. 7 The king was furious [orgizô]! He sent his soldiers, and they put those murderers to death and set their city on fire. (Matt. 22:5-7; cf. Luke 13:34-35; Lk. 21:20-24)
As a nation, the Jews of Jesus’ day had time to repent (cf. Luke 16:19-23). If not, they were to have the axe laid to the roots. In the next passage, the word wrath is not used, but I include it here because it speaks of judgment in much the same way that the two banquet parables do, above and next. But if you don’t want to include this passage in a discussion about wrath, skip over it.
6 Then he told this parable: “A man had a fig tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. 7 So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, ‘For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?’ 8 “‘Sir,’ the man replied, ‘leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig around it and fertilize it. 9 If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.’” (Luke 13:6-9)
The Parable of the Great Banquet says the same thing as wedding banquet. Only the poor and expendables and unclean are welcome to the banquet, if the self-satisfied and the “too busy” believe they don’t need the kingdom feast. These are the complacent religious leaders. The master sized them up and disqualified them for the feast; that sizing up is called judgment against wrongdoing and refusal, which is called wrath.
21 So the slave came back and reported this to his master. Then the master of the household was furious [orgizô] and said to his slave, ‘Go out quickly to the streets and alleys of the city, and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.’ (Luke 14:21; cf. Lk. 13:34-35; Lk. 21:20-24)
This is Jesus’ prediction about the destruction of Jerusalem.
20 “But when you see Jerusalem surrounded by armies, then know that its desolation has come near. 21 Then those who are in Judea must flee to the mountains. Those who are inside the city must depart. Those who are out in the country must not enter it, 22 because these are days of vengeance, to fulfill all that is written. 23 Woe to those who are pregnant and to those who are nursing their babies in those days! For there will be great distress on the earth and wrath [orgê] against this people. 24 They will fall by the edge of the sword and be led away as captives among all nations. Jerusalem will be trampled down by the Gentiles until the times of the Gentiles are fulfilled. (Luke 21:20-24)
I believe Ananias and Sapphira lived under Old Covenant law, even though they were caught up in the new Jesus movement. It is not clear to me that they experienced salvation in their hearts (and yes, salvation needs to go into the heart). Anyway, the word wrath is not mentioned, but this is a sudden judgment because God’s Spirit can evaluate matters instantly. (But if you don’t want to include this passage in a discussion about wrath, skip over it.) Also, this is not the Final Judgment, the macro; this is judgment in the micro. Yet, this passage has an eschatological feel to it too because Pentecost has opened up a new era; God apparently couldn’t let anything like lying to the Spirit disrupt this inauguration, somewhat, but not exactly, like security using deadly force if a madman aims a weapon at the president during his inauguration.
1 Now a man named Ananias, together with Sapphira his wife, sold a piece of property. 2 He kept back for himself part of the proceeds with his wife’s knowledge; he brought only part of it and placed it at the apostles’ feet. 3 But Peter said, “Ananias, why has Satan filled your heart to lie to the Holy Spirit and keep back for yourself part of the proceeds from the sale of the land? 4 Before it was sold, did it not belong to you? And when it was sold, was the money not at your disposal? How have you thought up this deed in your heart? You have not lied to people but to God!”
5 When Ananias heard these words he collapsed and died, and great fear gripped all who heard about it. 6 So the young men came, wrapped him up, carried him out, and buried him. 7 After an interval of about three hours, his wife came in, but she did not know what had happened. 8 Peter said to her, “Tell me, were the two of you paid this amount for the land?” Sapphira said, “Yes, that much.” 9 Peter then told her, “Why have you agreed together to test the Spirit of the Lord? Look! The feet of those who have buried your husband are at the door, and they will carry you out!” 10 At once she collapsed at his feet and died. So when the young men came in, they found her dead, and they carried her out and buried her beside her husband. 11 Great fear gripped the whole church and all who heard about these things. (Acts 5:1-11)
Paul reviews the plan of God for his ancient people, and how his new people, the Gentiles, relate to it. God was patient with the Elder Brother, Israel. But even he has his limits.
22 What if God, choosing to show his wrath [orgê] and make his power known, bore with great patience the objects of his wrath [orgê]—prepared for destruction? (Rom. 9:22)
These fellow Jews of Paul resisted and stirred up trouble for him. They wouldn’t let others follow his gospel.
15 They displease God and are hostile to all men 16 in their effort to keep us from speaking to the Gentiles so that they may be saved. In this way they always heap up their sins to the limit. The wrath [orgê] of God has come upon them at last. (1 Thess. 2:15-16)
The author of the epistles to Hebrews quotes or reviews Old Testament passages.
10 That is why I was angry [prosochthizô] with that generation,
and I said, ‘Their hearts are always going astray,
and they have not known my ways.” (Heb. 3:10)
11 So I declared on oath in my anger [orgê], ‘They shall never enter my rest.’ (Heb. 3:11)
17 And with whom was he angry [prosochthizô] for forty years? Was it not with those who sinned, whose bodies fell in the desert? (Heb. 3:17)
3 “So I declared on oath in my anger [orgê], ‘They shall never enter my rest.’ “(Heb. 4:3)
E. Final Enemies of God in the Last Days
This is God’s worldwide eschatological judgment-wrath as he wraps up the (im)moral universe and final accounts are settled. This is the Last Judgment.
It is disconcerting and ironic that the Lamb meek and mild has wrath.
16 They [people] called to the mountains and the rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who sits on the throne and from the wrath of the Lamb! 17 For the great day of their wrath [orgê] has come, and who can stand?” (Rev. 6:16-17)
The twenty-four elders around the throne prophesy in heaven:
18 The nations were angry;
and your wrath [orgê] has come.
The time has come for judging the dead,
and for rewarding your servants the prophets
and your saints and those who reverence your name,
both small and great—
and for destroying those who destroy the earth. (Rev. 11:18)
I let the following verses speak for themselves.
9 “If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, 10 he, too, will drink of the wine of God’s fury [thumos], which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath [orgê].” (Rev. 14:9-10)
19 The angel swung his sickle on the earth, gathered its grapes and threw them into the great winepress of God’s wrath [thumos]. (Rev. 14:19)
1 I saw in heaven another great and marvelous sign: seven angels with the seven last plagues—last, because with them God’s wrath [thumos] is completed. (Rev. 15:1)
7 Then one of the four living creatures gave to the seven angels seven golden bowls filled with the wrath [thumos] of God, who lives for ever and ever (Rev. 15:7)
1 Then I heard a loud voice from the temple saying to the seven angels, “Go, pour out the seven bowls of God’s wrath [thumos] on the earth.” (Rev. 16:1)
19 The great city split into three parts, and the cities of the nations collapsed. God remembered Babylon the Great and gave her the cup filled with the wine of the fury [thumos] of his wrath [orgê]. (Rev. 16:19)
15 He treads the winepress of the fury [thumos] of the wrath [orgê] of God Almighty. (Rev. 19:15)
2. How Does the Law of Moses Relate to the Wrath of God?
As I discussed in the introduction, Paul is very clear about this. As he scanned the entire history of the OT people, his fellow Israelites, he concluded that sinful humans could not keep all of the law, which by definition means they were lawbreakers. Breaking the law for centuries elicited judgment-wrath. Therefore, the holy law – passing through the sinful human heart – brings wrath.
14 For if those who live by law are heirs, faith has no value and the promise is worthless, 15 because law brings wrath [orgê]. (Rom. 4:14-15)
3. Does God Show Anger towards Any of His New Covenant People?
There is one passage that seems to say that God shows anger at an individual disciple: the Jesus follower who shows no mercy and refuses to forgive, even though he was shown mercy and forgiven. The punch-line or application is in v. 35. Is Jesus being rhetorical and not literal? After all, the Father does not throw us in a literal, physical prison to be tortured. On the other hand, one can sense God’s displeasure if he shows us mercy or forgiveness but we show none.
32 Then his lord called the first slave and said to him, ‘Evil slave! I forgave you all that debt because you begged me! 33 Should you not have shown mercy to your fellow slave, just as I showed it to you?’ 34 And in anger [orgizô] his lord turned him over to the prison guards to torture him until he repaid all he owed. 35 So also my heavenly Father will do to you, if each of you does not forgive your brother from your heart.” (Matt. 18:32-35)
Jesus was perfectly divine and perfectly human. He showed indignation towards any of his individual disciples who prevented children from approaching him. Jesus loves the little children. He took them in his arms and blessed them. Be careful about blocking people from the full gospel. You risk falling into the same trap that the religious leaders did, when they persecuted Jesus and his apostles (see Question 1D, above).
13 Now people were bringing little children to him for him to touch, but the disciples scolded those who brought them. 14 But when Jesus saw this, he was indignant [aganakteô] and said to them, “Let the little children come to me and do not try to stop them, for the kingdom of God belongs to such as these. 15 I tell you the truth, whoever does not receive the kingdom of God like a child will never enter it.” 16 After he took the children in his arms, he placed his hands on them and blessed them. (Mark 10:13-16)
So, in the New covenant for the individual believer, God's wrath has been transformed into loving correction.
For one more possible context in which God might show wrath to an individual follower of Jesus, see Question 5.
4. How Else Does God Show Wrath?
In this verse Paul tells us to leave revenge in God’s hands. In this verse wrath seems to mean that he will fight for us.
19 Do not take revenge, my friends, but leave room for God’s wrath [orgê], for it is written: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay,” says the Lord. (Rom. 12:19)
He will probably use the legal system to achieve his justice or the proper authorities if there is a conflict on the job. But God does not tell us how he will do this. Christians should pray for justice.
5. What Is the Most Common Way God Shows His Wrath?
The main and most common way that God shows wrath today is by the authorities, both law enforcement and the courtroom – the legal system – when it’s functioning properly. Once again, wrath is connected to law and judgment. If (God forbid) a Christian commits a crime, God’s wrath will fall on him. This can happen when a Christian gets a ticket for speeding, for example. But typically the legal system is for unbelievers, or so we hope.
3 Do you want to be free from fear of the one in authority? Then do what is right and he will commend you. 4 For he is God’s servant to do you good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath [orgê] to bring punishment on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore, it is necessary to submit to the authorities, not only because of possible punishment [orgê] but also because of conscience. (Rom. 13:3-5)
The next time a police officer gives you a ticket for speeding, tell him, “Thanks for being an agent of God’s wrath. I deserve this ticket.” Nowadays cameras at intersections might get you a ticket. Call it photographic judgment-wrath. Better still, you (the lawbreaker) are undergoing God’s special love-wrath while you are being fined (Heb. 12:5-11).
So wrath and love are connected and are two sides of the same coin, down here on earth in its current sinful state.
6. Does God Use Natural Disasters Today as an Expression of His Wrath?
God would have spared Sodom and Gomorrah if he had found even ten righteous in those two towns. And when he did destroy it, the Hebrew words for wrath are never mentioned as his motive. Today, we have lots of righteous people living in the New Covenant throughout the world, so I believe God does not use natural disasters. Even in the last of the Last Days, God is never said to be their direct cause (Mark 13:24, Luke 21:10, and Luke 21:25). They instead are part of the natural world. Nature is doing her thing, and in the last of the Last Days, nature is severely running amok. But even if, hypothetically, God were to directly cause a natural disaster today, he does not tell us that he is doing it with any specific one. We just don’t know. And when we don’t know something, we should not make major announcements in the news media.
The New Covenant is here. The new era of salvation has been ushered in. It’s the kindness of God that leads you to repentance (Rom. 2:4).
As noted in Question 5, however, God uses law enforcement, when it is functioning properly, to express his wrath – his judicial wrath.
7. Who Is Free from God’s Final Wrath?
Everyone in Christ is free from it. He inaugurates the New Covenant, bought and paid for with his precious blood.
8 But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. 9 Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath [orgê] through him (Rom. 5:8-9)
These next verses from 1 Thessalonians also say Christ is the answer. The church as a body is not subjected to the wrath of God in Final Judgment. Rather, Christ paid for our sins. Therefore, he welcomes all of us into his eternal realm with open arms of love.
9 They tell how you turned to God from idols to serve the living and true God, 10 and to wait for his Son from heaven, whom he raised from the dead—Jesus, who rescues us from the coming wrath [orgê]. (1 Thess. 1:9-10)
9 For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath [orgê] but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thess. 5:9)
As a whole, the church universal – everyone found in Christ – will not be on the receiving end of God’s wrath in the Last Judgment.
That study was not so hard, after all. I didn’t feel emotionally warm while doing it, but it was necessary. I’m glad I did it because I learned a lot.
God never shows wrath towards his Spirit-filled, blood-bought church as a whole, who lives in the New Covenant. This is not true for the ancient people of his Old Covenant, for he did show wrath at their egregious sins, as a whole.
So a big shift has happened.
The difference is the law that they lived under, contrasted with the eternal once-and-for-all sacrifice of Christ and Pentecost that we live in. We walk in the fullness of the Spirit – or we’re supposed to. As noted in the introduction, above:
18 But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. … 22 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Gal. 5:18, Gal. 5:22-23)
Even still, we need a bigger biblical perspective on the OT and NT.
In the OT, this verse is repeated again and again:
But you, O Lord, are a compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness. (Ps. 86:15; cf. Exod. 34:6; Num. 14:18; Neh. 9:17; Ps 103:4; Ps. 145:8; Joel 2:12; Jonah 4:2; Nah. 1:3)
Additionally, the word counts in the OT for favor (grace), love, salvation, forgiveness, redemption, mercy, and compassion (and their various forms) add up to about 1220 times, the vast majority of which are used of God (his wrath occurs 499).
Remember, the NT is a lot smaller than the OT. In the NT those same words and their various forms appear 673 times, the vast majority of which are also used of God. And yes, God’s people are called to show those positive traits as well. The various words for wrath occur only 42 times when used of God, as we saw in this study.
Clearly, the God of the entire Bible is more interested in favoring, loving, redeeming, forgiving, saving, and being merciful and compassionate to people than he is in evaluating their sins and rendering his verdict after a careful sifting and weighing of all the evidence (i.e. judgment against injustice and evil = wrath).
Thus, wrath is not central or fundamental to God’s character. God is more than a judge. He is love. Wrath is a response to something outside of himself in the world; his love always is.
Before he created the heavens and the earth and perfect humans (who fell and continued to do wrong and break the law for centuries), he was always love in eternity past. And he will always be love in eternity future, in a new heaven and new earth, when evil has been wiped out, and he no longer must pour his wrath on it (i.e. judge and punish it).
On the cross, Jesus took our deserved, earned, and merited wrath. And now he shows and showers us with God’s love and grace, which for our part is undeserved, unearned, and unmerited.
Therefore God does not think of you with anger in his heart. Thanks to Jesus, you do not start with a deficit, in a hole, with shackles on your legs. He lifts you out of it and takes them off so you can begin again, in and with him. He thinks about you with love in his heart.
For More Study
That article teaches us how shallow it is to criticize justice and punishment for wrongdoing (wrath). God’s justice and love and wrath are linked. But his love is fundamental in a way that wrath is not.
That Evangelical dictionary entry gives a much briefer overview of the topic.
This article explains in more depth how we personally may escape God’s wrath through the one and only way of salvation that He provided in Jesus Christ.
Please cite this article, especially in print media, as follows:
James M. Arlandson. “The Wrath of God in the New Testament: Never against His New Covenant People.” Bible.org. 2014.