There are at least two errors that Christians can fall into when it comes to the wrath of God. The one is to focus inordinately on the judgment of God, so much that the mercy and patience of God enter the background and the judgment of God is all or almost all you think about when you think about God. The other error is to ignore the wrath of God, to reject preaching about it, to abolish it from your picture of God’s character, convinced that it is not compatible with a loving God or that its preaching is abusive and psychologically damaging. Both these errors should be avoided because both of them can be spiritually fatal. Also, they may be interdependent in many circumstances. The first error easily leads into the second one. If you commit the first error, if you become neurotically and inordinately focussed on God’s wrath and your day-to-day life becomes a business of appeasing that wrath, terrified that a stray thought, or an ill-considered action will bring down all the fury of the Almighty on you, then you must realize that things cannot go on that way. It is not sustainable. You are heading for a crisis or a breakdown of some sort and it is when that crisis hits that the Deceiver will get to work on you. He will tell you that this is the inevitable outcome of biblical Christianity or orthodox Christianity. He will tell you that you need to apostatize or embrace heresies in order to escape your prison of fear. After all, do you want to live in a perpetual panic attack for the rest of your life? Do you want the stern face of a being before whom you are helpless to torment you forever? Don’t waste your life like that. Look, it’s not even true. Look at all those reasonable objections. Oh, you don’t want to abandon Christianity? You know those depictions of God’s wrath in the Bible? Well, it was really just a primitive time back then and people didn’t know what love really looked like. You know in your heart what love looks like. Go with that. That’s all you need.
What causes people to become fixated on God’s wrath in this way? Some people may just have a neurotic temperament and just happen to fixate on one danger rather than another. Wrong beliefs about the character of God or biblical truths that have been wrongly applied to your personal life as a Christian, can be a source of this anxiety. These wrong beliefs can work their way very subtly into your devotional life. One of the prime strategies of the Tempter is to pervert your concept of God’s character. This is what he did to Eve in the Garden of Eden, by subtly questioning God’s motivation for forbidding the fruit of the Tree and suggesting that it was illicit. He said that God “knows” that when they eat of the tree they would become like Him, seeming to imply that God was withholding something good for selfish reasons (Genesis 3:4-5). The demonic has won when you are terrified of God or when you think he’s devoid of anger, that whatever you’re doing he’s just smiling and nodding encouragingly, because both of these roads are spiritual dead-ends. The picture of God as unconditionally pleased with you is, if you think about it, at the end of the day, unnerving. It is so clearly a creation of the imagination, a wooden two-demensional figurine who just does what you wish when you wish it. No independently thinking agent would behave that way toward you and definitely not a holy God, morally perfect and perfectly unlike the thoughts and ways of people. We can and we should think that God is pleased with us as a result of what Jesus has done on the Cross, but that is not unconditional, and there are ways that that we can forfeit that mercy (though apostasy and unrepentant immorality).
Martin Luther famously struggled with intense anxiety about God’s judgment which resulted in extreme acts of devotion as a monk. This makes it unsurprising that the Cross, the greatest display of God’s mercy, later played such an important role in his theology. There is a scene early in the movie Luther (2003) which depicts Luther’s guilty torment about his sins. He is counselled by an older monk. The character of Luther (played by Joseph Fiennes) suddenly shows a contempt for God in the middle of all his fear of God’s judgment. The elder monk responds, “God isn’t angry with you. You are angry with God.” It may well be that someone who is intensely afraid of God doesn’t believe that God is on their side. Maybe they don’t really believe he wants what’s best for them. He’s actually an enemy, a very powerful enemy, one that you cannot hope to be victorious against and therefore you must, at all costs, placate, much like you would placate a cancel culture mob, with profuse but ultimately ineffective apologies and grovelling. What is the natural, automatic attitude that you have toward a perceived enemy? It will be anger and contempt that hides beneath your fear, which is why apostasy is the natural reaction to a deeply held belief that God is your enemy. And that is also why you don’t believe your grovelling and psychological self-flagellation does any good, because if God is not on your side, then they won’t do any good.
If you are trying to pay for your own sins by punishing yourself through humiliation and grovelling, then you are not fully believing the gospel. The forgiveness of God must be accepted through faith. If you reject that forgiveness out of fear of God’s judgment, and instead resort to psychological self-flagellation in order to redeem yourself, then you will never feel like you’ve done enough, because you never have done enough. If you want to take the road of punishment by rejecting the free offer of forgiveness, then no punishment you can inflict on yourself is sufficient. When you have done something that you think you need forgiveness for, and you ask God for forgiveness, there may be a moment of panic, as though you’re suddenly suspended in mid air and you feel like nothing is supporting you. Is this really enough? Is this all I need to do? The temptation then is to grasp for support instead of trusting that you’re being held up by God. The way that you would grasp for support, to attempt to hold yourself up, instead of allowing God to do it, is to punish yourself in some way or another or by continuing to ask for forgiveness. By asking for forgiveness again, you are showing that you don’t have faith that your first request had any effect. Every time you repent, there is a new leap of faith that you have to take. But if you don’t have faith in the Cross, you will just continually ask for forgiveness. Someone who is constantly asking for forgiveness is begging and grovelling, but it does not do any good. It may only increase the anxiety. What is required is not more requests for forgiveness, but faith.
As mentioned earlier, intense anxiety about God’s judgment will lead to a crisis point. Unfortunately, this may lead people to abandon their faith or to embrace a type of progressive Christianity which either constitutes apostasy or will lead into it soon enough. You should never reach the point where you are willing to do anything at all to find relief from fear and anxiety, to the point where you would abandon your faith in God to get relief from fear. You may think you have gotten relief from the fear, but since you have allowed your fear to alter your view of God, to determine your belief in God’s truth, and therefore your obedience to God, you are actually now fully in its clutches. You have surrendered yourself to it. It is now your god, the thing you obey without question. Your belief and obedience to the true God is now contingent upon your primary allegiance to fear. But God doesn’t take second place. He is either first or he is absent. Revelation warns that the “cowards” and the “faithless” are destined for the lake of fire (Revelation 21:8). It is in ways like this that cowardice leads to that Lake. It is when we allow our fear to determine our view of God, such as when we become so terrified of God’s wrath that we refuse to admit it anymore into our theology and reject any truth that references it (or when we are too afraid of people to obey God). When fear starts to determine whether we believe God’s word and do his will, then we can expect that we are destined for wrath. Ironically, it is when we will do anything, including disobey God and disbelieve his truth, to avoid the thought, even the possibility, that God might be angry with us, that we make ourselves targets of his anger.
So if you are living in a prison of fear as a result of your faith, it’s important that you realize that it’s serious and that it’s not supposed to be that way. It’s also important that you realize that an honest reading of the Bible or orthodox Christian doctrine is not the problem. The problem is habits of thinking about God or the way that you’ve applied Christian doctrine to your daily life that’s the problem. Identify what causes your panic about God’s judgment and then deal with that. It could be that this problem, of how people should relate to God’s wrath in their devotional lives, has not gotten enough attention. If you look at progressive (or theologically liberal) Christianity, it is so often the wrath of God and the desire to avoid it that creates the heresies of that movement. Think of the contempt progressive Christianity has for Substitutionary Atonement ( the idea that the Atonement saves us from God’s wrath), the denial of hell, the new Marcionism and the contempt for the Old Testament God and his judgments. All of this may suggest people who are running away frantically from the idea of divine retribution, at all costs. The desperate desire to avoid facing the God of judgment may well be the thread that draws many of the heresies of the progressive Christianity movement together. Certainly, there are at least some ex-Christians and “exvangelicals” who are in a similar boat. The temptation is to believe that God is unconditionally one way or the other way and this is done for a powerful reason, that certainly underlies some instances of idolatry as well: uncertainty. Uncertainty creates fear, especially when you are dealing with an all-powerful God who cares about what you’re doing and before whom you are completely helpless. Even the god who is always accusing you, who is quick to anger and slow to forgive, may in some sense be more comforting than the mysterious God. We want a god who is easily predictable, not a God who is mysterious and in an important sense unknowable. If you think that God is unconditionally for you, that there is absolutely nothing you can do that can make God your enemy, including a life of unbelief and persistently unrepentant sin, then there is no uncertainty, and hence, no fear. Fear and the cowardly response to it is an important source of idolatry.
We must never come to believe that God is unconditionally for us or unconditionally against us. God is for us, and very near unconditionally, but not ultimately unconditionally. It is both easy and difficult to forsake God. It is easy, because there are so many ways that Christians can go astray. The way is broad and the road is easy that leads to destruction (Matthew 7:13). But it is also difficult to forsake God, because God doesn’t easily let go of his sheep. The Sheperd will pursue the straying sheep (Luke 15:1-7). He comes to “seek and save that which is lost” (Luke 19:10). So he will follow the straying sheep down the rocky crevices where it wanders, heedless of the dangers that are lurking in the shadows, eager to devour it, but for the presence of the one following it. In order to be a “successful” apostate, you have to be determined to stay out of God’s arms. God’s discipline may be severe for those who forsake his way, but the Shepherd is constantly calling their names.
How should we think about God’s wrath?
It may be worth guiding people more on how to think about God’s wrath in the context of their day-to-day spiritual lives, so that it does not become a snare to them. Perhaps you see God primarily as a prosecutor, not a judge. In your mind, God is looking for an opportunity to accuse you. He is trying to find something with which to “nail” you. In your mind, he is not looking for an opportunity to bless you and be merciful to you (which is the truth) but for an opportunity to punish you. You must know that this is not the character of God, but of his enemy. You don’t see God as patient and merciful, but as quick to anger and slow to forgive, when he is exactly the opposite! You see him as delighting to punish rather than delighting in showing mercy (Micah 7:18). The Bible says repeatedly that God is slow to anger and great in steadfast love (Psalm 103:8, Exodus 34:6, Numbers 14:18, Psalm 86:15, Psalm 145:8, Jonah 4:2, Joel 2:13). This passage is key to someone struggling with obsessive fears of God’s wrath. It identifies precisely where someone who struggles with anxiety about God’s wrath has gone wrong. God doesn’t want you to live in terror of his judgment and he doesn’t want you to grovel and beg for forgiveness. He wants you to come with confidence before the throne of grace (Hebrews 4:16). He wants you to realize that as a result of what Jesus has done for you on the Cross, you have been adopted as a son or daughter of God (Romans 8:15). A good employer will have patience with an employee, but just think about the attitude of patience a good father has toward his children. You need to emphasize that God is slow to anger, not that his anger does not exist. When God’s anger does come, it is terrible. That much the Bible is clear about. But it does not come easily. It is slow, sometimes frustratingly so for people who are eager for evil to be wiped away. There are times (in the Bible) when the judgment of God is immediate for a particular wrong, but mostly, it takes persistent and unrepentant disobedience or apostasy for the wrath of God to come in full force. Confront your fears of God’s wrath with the Cross. Say that you do deserve God’s wrath but that your sins are covered by the blood. Your trust in God’s mercy, in the Cross, must be stronger than your fear of God’s wrath.
The primary emphasis of a Christian’s devotional life must be the love and mercy of God. Why is that? We are vessels of mercy (Romans 9:23). The mercy of God as displayed in the Cross is our identity and our foundation. We trust in that mercy for salvation, for provision and for satisfaction for any sin. You can know that as a result of what Jesus did for you, you are in God’s “good graces”. He is pleased with you because the righteousness of Jesus is yours through the Cross. His “smile” is on you as a result of what Jesus did. To focus primarily on God’s judgment in your devotional life is to reject that you are a vessel of mercy and to believe instead that you are a vessel of wrath. When you start to live in terror of judgment, you must reaffirm God’s mercy as displayed in the Cross. You must remember how much God must have loved you, how much he must want you to succeed and how little he wants to punish you, if he sent his son to die for you to avoid that eventuality. Think about that. Meditate about it.
For when we were still without strength, in due time Christ died for the ungodly. For scarcely for a righteous man will one die; yet perhaps for a good man someone would even dare to die. But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us. Much more then, having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him. For if when we were enemies we were reconciled to God through the death of His Son, much more, having been reconciled, we shall be saved by His life. And not only that, but we also rejoice in God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have now received the reconciliation.
We might just consider dying for someone who is good. After all, if they’re good people, then saving their lives is a good thing? But Jesus dies for sinners. Paul is trying to highlight what a staggering thing it is for God to have sent his son to die for us, his enemies, and how great his love for us must be.
There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus, who do not walk according to the flesh, but according to the Spirit.
On the other hand, if you are getting spiritually complacent or there is unaddressed sin in your life, it is worth thinking more of God’s judgment. If you are reading the Bible, it is impossible not to think about it at least a little bit. But it may be worth reaffirming that you are not completely immune to it, and that if you continue, you are in danger of encountering God’s rod, and, if you don’t listen to God’s discipline, you will finally encounter his wrath. The point here is to avoid a state of “presumption” where you are making God’s mercy into a license to sin, and to avoid a state of fearful hyper-vigilance, or “legalism”, or “scrupulosity”. You must rest in God’s mercy without making it a platform from which to sin, or a blanket to keep you warm but not a rag that you trample.
There are sometimes things in the Bible which are not clear, or it may simply be unclear how to apply what the Bible says in different circumstances. This may also be a source of anxiety. Seek counsel then make a decision to the best of your ability, being biased neither in favour of nor against your own preference of what to do. Make a decision, trust in God’s mercy for the rest and don’t agonize about it. A heart full of religious anxiety may also become trapped by legalisms. Such a heart makes rules, extra-biblical rules, always with the belief that the extra-biblical rules help you keep God’s word or are implied by God’s word in some way or another. But perhaps the rules never come to an end. Such a heart continues producing more and more rules, and may try to hold others accountable to them as well, because something is driving it to do so. Until that motivation is addressed, it will continue. But this is not a sustainable spiritual life either. Eventually, you will reach a crisis point of some sort, when the regulations you’ve created crush more and more of what’s good and enjoyable in your life. And again, some people will choose to abandon it all rather than doing to the harder work of sifting through the wreckage and keeping what was part of God’s word all along.
Discipline or Judicial Wrath?
It’s important that you remember that as a Christian it’s very difficult for you to become subject to the judicial wrath of God. In fact, while you are a Christian, it is impossible (Romans 8:1). You need to apostatize or become involved in clear habitual immorality that you are refusing to repent of (which is the same as apostasy). Even then, God will discipline you before you end up under his wrath. Usually, the only “wrath” that a Christian can expect to face is God’s discipline (Hebrews 12:5-13). It’s reasonable to expect that every Christian will be disciplined by God at some point or another and it may be an inevitable part of the process of sanctification. The discipline of God isn’t something to fear, because you can trust that it is the best thing for you, that it is motivated by God’s love and goodwill toward you, even though it won’t be pleasant. Even so, it is best not to make assumptions about whether God is attempting to discipline you with a particular event of suffering, even though there should always be an attempt to hold yourself accountable to God’s word.
Fear of the Lord
The phrase “fear of God” is often endorsed in the Bible. But what does it mean exactly? Does it refer to reverence for God and his decrees? It is true that the fear of the Lord does mean reverence to some extent, but some passages cannot be adequately explained as merely being about reverence. For example:
And do not fear those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul. But rather fear Him who is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.
So here the normal type of fear that we think about when we hear that word is clearly being referenced, because Jesus is referring to negative consequences which we tend to be afraid of (being killed or suffering). This is fear in the normal sense of a self-interested dread of unpleasant things. It’s difficult to see how “reverence” is the appropriate interpretation of the “fear” being referred to here. But does that mean that God wants us to panic and be terrified of his judgment? No, because that conflicts with the rest of Bible’s emphasis on anxiety as something to be rid of and to “cast” on God (1 Peter 5:7). We are told that we should “be anxious for nothing” (Philippians 4:6-8). To have an attitude of anxiety and panic about God’s wrath seems to conflict with God’s many injunctions to his people to not be afraid. It also seems to conflict with the attitude of assurance and confidence we have as adopted sons and daughters of God (which we’ve already looked at). We cannot cower before God and at the same time have confidence in his love and mercy, in the Cross. I think it makes most sense to think about the “fear of the Lord” to consist in a practical attitude of taking seriously a potential danger and planning accordingly. There is a level of fear that is healthy, not a panic and a terror, but a sober-mindedness about the consequences of disobeying God. For example, when you drive your car, you realize that getting into a car accident is a very real threat. You don’t spend your time in the car in fear and panic as a result of that. However, you allow the reality of the danger to inform your actions while you’re in the car. You’re careful. You check your blind spots. You obey the rules of the road. You don’t drive too fast etc. In the same way, you should allow the danger of God’s judgment to inform your actions. That, it seems to me, is a healthy fear of God. A hardened heart, a rebellious heart, is incapable of doing that. It cannot treat God’s judgment as a danger.