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Millions of children over many generations have been taught to pray to “gentle Jesus, meek and mild.” Gentle? While the Bible symbolically calls Jesus “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world,” it also speaks bluntly about “the wrath of the Lamb” (John 1:29; Revelation 6:16).

The word wrath is a good synonym for “anger.” In Scripture, both terms have tough relatives, such as indignation and fury.

So, an indignant, angry God? A furious, wrathful Jesus? How can those ideas coexist with the idea of a gentle Jesus?

Gathering the evidence

From Genesis, the first book of the Bible, it’s apparent that God hates evil, which is why He cast Adam and Eve out of the Garden of Eden. The second book, Exodus, says plainly that “the Lord’s anger burned against Moses” for his hesitancy about bringing the Israelites out of their Egyptian bondage (Exodus 4:14). A little further on, the book of Numbers depicts the Lord as becoming “exceedingly angry,” and later it speaks of “the LORD’s fierce anger” (Numbers 11:10; 25:4). Such references continue frequently throughout the Old Testament, even in the Psalms, where the Hebrew poet asks God, “Will you be angry with us forever?” (Psalm 85:5).

Cambridge Bible scholar J. C. O’Neill observed that the nouns wrath and anger and the phrases “to be angry” and “to hate” are used in the Bible with God as the Doer of the actions, either expressed or implied (Deuteronomy 11:17; Hosea 9:15). God is also said to be jealous, that is, displeased with people for what they do (Exodus 20:5). The wrath of God is directed both at sinners and at their sins.

Such ideas are clearly present in both the Old Testament and the New Testament. There are actually scores and perhaps several hundred biblical references to divine wrath. Psalm 7:11 says that God “expresses his wrath every day,” and in Hebrews 12:29 we read that “our God is a consuming fire.”

What about Jesus and His teachings?

It is essential to read the whole Bible and note carefully all of the teachings of Jesus. He was meek and mild, true; but He also demonstrated fearless moral strength. When He saw the temple courtyard in Jerusalem, crowded with people exchanging ordinary money into temple currency and others selling birds and animals for use in the daily sacrifices, He was incensed. The Gospel of Matthew states that He “drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves.” And He said, “It is written, . . . ‘My house will be called a house of prayer,’ but you are making it a ‘den of robbers’ ” (Matthew 21:12, 13). The Gospels of Mark and Luke recount the same event in vivid language (Mark 11:15–18; Luke 19:45–47).

When the temple area was cleared of the money-making rabble, a new crowd gathered quickly: “The blind and the lame came to him at the temple, and he healed them” (Matthew 21:14). The religious authorities did not take kindly to the threat Jesus posed to their trading system. What He said and did made them even more determined to kill Him. Thus, Jesus’ anger at sinful behavior was one of the causes of Calvary.

The significance of Jesus’ actions is much more fully explained in His teachings. For instance, in His parable about a landowner who rented his vineyard out to some tenants, Jesus said that the tenants seized a landowner’s servants “beat one, killed another, and stoned a third,” and finally they killed his son. Jesus’ listeners declared that the landowner would “bring those wretches to a wretched end” (verses 35, 41), and Jesus did not disagree with them. This is especially significant in view of the fact that the landowner represents God and His attitude and ultimate action toward wicked people.

In fact, the best-known text of the Bible, John 3:16, says that we humans are challenged to choose between two stark alternatives—whether we will perish or will have eternal life.

Dilemmas for Christians

How nice it is to sing, “Amazing grace, how sweet the sound.” But we cringe when we hear the apostle Paul describe Christ returning to earth “in blazing fire with his powerful angels,” punishing all “those who do not know God and do not obey the gospel” with “everlasting destruction” (2 Thessalonians 1:7–9).

Imagine a God who was totally passive about evil, allowing it to continue without ever lifting a finger to help those who are injured by it. It’s important to understand that God’s moral character requires Him to abhor evil as well as to love good. He is opposed to every form of evil; and the Bible writers express this by speaking of God’s wrath.

On the other hand, some Christians so emphasize God’s grace and Christ’s saving power that they claim all human beings, without exception, will eventually attain salvation. We call those who believe this doctrine “universalists.”

Who wants an angry God?

The truth is that many people want an angry God. Where was God, they ask, when drunk drivers killed our children? Where was God when tornadoes destroyed our houses? Where was God when we came down with cancer? These people are angry about what happened to them, and they want a God who is just as angry about it as they are.

A cat can be in the same room with a husband who beats his wife or a mother who whips her child mercilessly, and the cat will sleep through the whole affair. That’s because cats aren’t moral beings. But the God of the Bible is a moral Being. He Himself has given the human race laws to guide us in our moral behavior. He says that it’s wrong to kill, to commit adultery, to steal, and to tell lies. Since God is a moral Being, how can He not be angry at the evil in the world? Who wants a God who will passively dismiss the atrocities of a Hitler, an Idi Amin, a Pol Pot?

The anger that arises within us when we see people being harmed by evil is one of the best evidences that we are moral beings. Our anger motivates us to intervene when we see people being harmed by evil. And this is as true for God as it is for us.

The Bible is explicit that God will banish evil from the world someday. We call it hell, a place where evil and evil people will be destroyed forever. In place of the evil that now grips our world, God promises “a new heaven and a new earth” where there will be “no more death or mourning or crying or pain” (Revelation 21:1, 4).

It’s a world all of us can look forward to, a world in which anger will no longer be necessary.

Understanding the Angry God of the Bible

by Arthur Patrick
From the January 2012 Signs