The Wrath of God

A natural question arises: given that I’ve just previously described the love of God and how we experience it in either heaven or hell, what are we to make of the wrath of God? Our Western understanding of “wrath” has to do with someone’s premeditated, perhaps malicious, action towards another. However, in theological language, the “wrath of God” doesn’t describe God Himself, but a state of being in which one is opposed to God. God is love (1 John 4:8), and He never changes, but when we put ourselves in a position of opposition to God’s love, we experience wrath. Christianity cannot exist without wrath because it is an element of holiness itself, which the God of Israel and Father of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, is (Is. 6:3; Rev. 4:8).

When you and I are wrathful, we act with passion. When we read of God’s wrath, we have to think of His righteousness, or “justice” as the word would be more appropriately translated in Paul’s Roman letter—at least in my opinion. We, sadly, have come to think of God’s wrath much as preached in early America by such men as Jonathan Edwards who said,

The God that holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours.[1]

Edwards, and American Christianity as a whole, have begun with the premise that God, first, “abhors you.” This is the sort of notion to which most of us have grown up under, accustomed to being hated by our Creator. One might wonder what this does to the psychological makeup of a person.

In the gospels, we have the perfect Revelation of God in the person of Jesus. He is not portrayed as acting with hatred towards humanity, but with love and compassion. Picture it this way, to borrow a metaphor from Maximos the Confessor: the rays of the sun shine on the earth. To clay, it hardens, but to wax, it softens. The goodness of God shines on all humanity: to some, it hardens, and to others, it softens. If we are hardened, we become like Pharaoh and experience wrath. If we soften as wax, we may receive the stamp of divine realities upon us and become “in spirit the dwelling-place of God” (Eph. 2:22). We, therefore, must turn to God with love in faith and be “saved from wrath” (Rom. 5:9), which is “divine consent to our own self-destructive defiance.”[2]

Bowls of Wrath 

What we mustn’t forego is the conclusion that the trumpets were calls to repentance (cf. Rev. 9:20–21), but the bowls are final. Once more, we have in the first three bowls parallels to plagues God visited upon Egypt (Rev. 16:2–4)—the first of which identifies who is to bear such wrath, and they are those who bear the mark of the beast and worshipped his image. Reminiscent to Exodus, when the angel of death passed through Egypt, the blood of the Lamb over the doors of those who feared God preserved them from wrath. Similarly, those who bear the seal of the Lamb are protected from wrath because they do not carry the mark of the beast. Remember that the mark of the beast would have been the documents with the appropriate seals granted by the Concilia to those who worshipped the image of the Emperor. This enabled them to transact business and engage in the economy throughout the empire, so the Christians would have been forced to either join in or create their own black market.

By the time we come to the third bowl, we note something hitherto foreign to most: that one angel pours the bowl of wrath upon the waters, and the angel of the waters praises this action (Rev. 16:4). Second Temple Jewish thought held that angels were given superintendence over various features of the physical world (Jub. 2:2; 1 Enoch 20:2), so the angel charged with waters praised the Lord’s wrath upon his domain. Then, from beneath the altar, the martyrs praise the judgments of the Lord in vindication for their earlier cry for justice (Rev. 16:7; cf. 6:9–11). Unrepentant, the fourth bowl, unlike any of the plagues, was to increase the heat of the sun, and those who lacked penitence blasphemed the name of the Lord (Rev. 16:8–9). Whereas Daniel’s young companions refused to worship the image set up by Nebuchadnezzar, they were preserved from fire while these who refuse to repent will suffer from intense heat. The fifth bowl led to further blaspheming by a darkness that could obviously be felt (Rev. 16:10–11).

The Battle of Armageddon 

A lot of fanciful tales have emerged from this one-time-referenced phenomenon. With the pouring out of the sixth bowl, the Euphrates is dried so that the kings from the east (Parthian Empire) may travel westward, similar to how the Jordan was dried up for the conquest of Israel. Many rivers would dry up here or there, but the Euphrates wasn’t known for such, which may illustrate the dreadfulness of the time of God’s wrath. With Jewish thought pointed toward invasion when they hear of a river drying up (Josh. 3:14–17; 4:23–5:1), the stage was set so much so that the one might think that imperial propaganda led to the moment of the battle (Rev. 16:12–14). Jesus speaks up, and the one who is watchful and keeps his garments would be prepared for the moment. The words of Christ here in verse 15 are believed to speak to a Jewish tradition of keeping watch at the temple. When a guard was caught sleeping, he was beaten the first time. The second time, his clothes were burned, and he was left to depart naked to his shame.[3]

The place where the forces were gathered was Armageddon—literally, “the hill of Megiddo.” This isn’t some cryptic event or location, but well known to the Jews. It only appears here in Rev 16:16 and is geographically located in the city of Megiddo on a spur of Mt. Carmel, where Elijah faced the prophets of Baal. The plain of Megiddo boasted intersections of trade routes that linked Egypt with the Fertile Crescent as well as Palestine with the Phoenician coast. It was here that Deborah and Barak defeated Sisera (Judg. 5:19–20); Josiah was slain here by Pharaoh Neco (2 Kings 23:29).

A renowned area of conflict is what’s in mind because there is no literal “hill” or “mountain” of Megiddo. It’s plain. Furthermore, no “battle” is mentioned, but when the place is referenced, “battle” is always assumed, given the history of this area. What also is believed is because it’s referred to as the “battle of that great day of God Almighty” that this is something physical and no spiritual. Notice the spiritual elements in the sixth bowl about unclean spirits, false prophet, and demons who would lead earthly powers astray. The concept is more in mind than a real, historical event. God does battle with the enemy, and as soon as it was underway, the seventh bowl of judgment is poured. Just as the seventh trumpet presented cataclysmic events to conclude, so too does the seventh bowl. Even here, the hardened hearts do not permit repentance, but blasphemy persists (Rev. 16:17–21)

[1] Jonathan Edwards, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God,” (accessed July 28, 2020)

[2] Brian Zahnd, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God: The Scandalous Truth of the Very Good News (New York: The Crown Publishing Group, 2017) 16.

[3] Keener, Revelation, 396 n. 17; Farley, Apocalypse, 175.

Author: Steven

Minister at Glendale Road Church of Christ (Murray, KY)

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