The idea of God’s wrath is troubling to many. We’d rather think about God’s love than his anger. But what if we were to consider what scripture says about God’s wrath in light of his love? Would that change anything? This excerpt from my recent book on The Letters to the Thessalonians aims to do just that. The passage under consideration is 1 Thessalonians 1:9-10. Read the whole chapter for free, or check out the book and accompanying videos over at the Seedbed Store.
There’s something we need to admit up front. A lot of people struggle with the Bible’s talk of God’s wrath. We find the idea of an angry deity uncomfortable and off-putting. Who wants to worship a God like that? We’d much rather hear about God’s love than God’s wrath. So, what do we do with passages like this?
What if I told you God’s wrath is necessary because of God’s love? Think about it this way. Love is at the heart of God’s character. God loves the world. He made it; it’s his. And God loves human beings. He made us to embody the beauty of the glory of his image and he has graciously called us to represent him to the world. But there’s an enemy out there. And that enemy is committed to destroying God’s beautiful creation. The enemy is sin. It’s a cancer that corrupts human life. It moves people to vanity, to strive for selfish gain, to manipulate the world, and to use God’s good creation for their own evil ends. Now if God is committed to his creation, and if there’s an enemy bent on destroying that creation, what posture do you think God will take toward that enemy? The answer should be clear: he’ll go after it with everything he’s got; he’ll show that enemy no mercy. And he’ll do it because he loves his world. He’ll do it because he loves us.
That’s what Paul means by the wrath of God. We’re uncomfortable with that language because we’ve all seen or experienced unholy human wrath: an abusive husband or father, a vicious colleague, oppressive dictators, merciless terrorists. When we hear of divine wrath, we take those wicked examples and maximize them by infinite proportion. But that isn’t what Paul means. God’s wrath is not the fury of an angry father or the mad aspirations of a power hungry tyrant. God’s wrath is his opposition to anything that harms his good creation. It’s measured and intentional. It’s right and just—holy and good. And it’s the result of his love. God loves us. That’s why he turns his wrath on sin, because sin attempts to destroy everything God loves.
The problem is that people dig in their heels and refuse to break their alliance with sin. They are committed to the corrupting cancerous power of sin. They don’t want to be free from it. They give themselves to it. And they love it. Paul preached that Jesus died and was raised to set us free from sin. Jesus gave everything to disentangle us from that which seeks to destroy us. God will put everything right. That’s what we’re waiting for.
But waiting doesn’t mean passivity. Paul doesn’t expect believers to hang out and do nothing until God wraps up the project. Waiting for Jesus means actively working to advance his kingdom, engaging in mission, proclaiming the good news, and opposing evil in every form. That’s what Paul calls the Thessalonians to do. That’s what Jesus calls us all to do.
Dr. Matt O’Reilly is Lead Pastor of Hope Hull United Methodist Church near Montgomery, AL, a fellow of the Center for Pastor Theologians, and Adjunct Professor of New Testament and Pastoral Ministry at Wesley Biblical Seminary. He is the author of Paul and the Resurrected Body: Social Identity and Ethical Practice and The Letters to the Thessalonians.