Steve McVey, What Is God’s Wrath?
Steve McVey (D.Min., Luther Rice Seminary), is founder of GraceWalk Ministries.
In this interview, Dr. McVey discusses the frequently misunderstood topic of God’s wrath, and its relationship with God’s love.
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MM: You talked before about the love of God, and I agree with you on that, but I wanted to ask you about the other side. Scripture talks about the wrath of God as well. How does this fit in with a God who is love?
SM: People often raise that question, and I will cut to the chase and give the bottom line and then we’ll unpack it. The question suggests that there is a dichotomy between the wrath of God and the love of God, and that would be a mistaken notion, to think that somehow God’s wrath stands apart from his love. Let’s go back to the fundamental essence of God. John said God is love, not God loves, but God is love. Love, agape, is not one of the incidental characteristics of God’s personality. Love is the foundational essence of who he is. If you could break down God’s DNA, what you will find is love. Everything we understand about God has to be understood through the lens of his love, or else we’ve not studied it far enough …
Let’s use a syllogism here. God is pure love. Here’s a certain act that is not an expression of pure love. This act then cannot be God. So let’s take wrath. God is pure love. Pure love can only express pure love. Wrath cannot be an expression of anything less than love if it comes from God. In fact, the wrath of God is an expression of his love.
This is where we get back into this thing of our Western mindset and Augustinian views of theology and all of this. We have had our minds tainted about the subject of wrath through misguided teaching — some of it coming out of Augustinian thought, some of it coming from extra-biblical sources like Dante. For a lot of people, their imagery of hell and the wrath of God is from Dante’s Inferno and not from the Bible. Agreed?
SM: So we’ve got to come back and say, no, wait a minute. Just like I’ve done with other things connected to God and who he is, I’ve had to come back to this subject of wrath and say wait a minute, wrath can’t be God being mad, pouring out hate, because then he wouldn’t be pure love. So I came back to that word wrath in the Bible. You’re a seminary professor, so I’m sure you know this more than most of us. Let’s start with the Greek word for wrath – what is it, teacher?
SM: Right. The Greek word orge, which is the biblical word for wrath in the New Testament, is an interesting word. Again, let me hit the pause button and say, the definition that we use with words sometimes depends on our preexisting concept of who God is. Words can have more than one definition. For instance, I say I love my wife. I love Mexican food. Nobody thinks I hold Mexican food in the same esteem that I hold my wife. The same is true with biblical words, words like wrath.
If you look in the Greek for the definition of the word, and for the average person who’s not a seminary prof, we have to fall back on more simple things — thank the Lord for the internet, because we can go to places like Crosswalk.com or BibleGateway.com and we can click there on certain verses when we want to know a word. Let’s take the word wrath. Go to Crosswalk.com and type in the word wrath and look for it in the New Testament, because we’re going to go to the Greek now.
Find the word, let’s say in Romans, where the word wrath is used a lot. Look it up in the New American Standard Version, or the King James Version, and [after clicking on the verse] when you look beneath that verse you have some options, and one of them is the interlinear version. So you click on “interlinear” and it will put up that verse with every English word with a link to the Greek. When you click on the link, it will take you to Strong’s and it will define that Greek word.
Now we’ve done that, and so we’ve found the word wrath and we want to know what it means. One definition of wrath is going to be “anger.” But if you look down at, I think it’s the second or third definition, you’re going to see that another definition of wrath is “any intense emotion.”
Let’s come back to the Greek word orge. Orge is an interesting word. It’s [often] translated wrath, but it can mean any intense emotion. I’m using this example because I want to make a clear point here. I’m not using it to be crude, but the word orge is the origin of our English words orgy or orgasm. Those are intense words. Those words in mixed company almost make you blush to use them. But I make that point because I want it to be clear that the word orge, which can yield the word orgasm or orgy, in that sense it has nothing to do with anger. It has to do with a very strong passion.
I’m going to come to a pause on this in a minute, but let me finish this train of thought. If you look at the word orge and you go back to the root of that word, because orge is the derivative of the root, and you go back to the root of the word orge, it means to reach out and to strain in a quivering violent way, a shaking way, for something that you long to possess. Having said all that, you know where I’m going.
So the wrath of God…let me put it as a question: What if (and I believe it) the wrath of God is not God pouring out contempt on people in hell, but what if the wrath of God is him pouring out violent love? Grasping, quivering, reaching, shaking, but those who reject it are so adverse and opposed to his love that to them it’s torment. From his perspective it’s not that at all. The love of God is wonderful to those of us who receive it.
It’s like the gospel — it’s a savor of life unto life. But to those who reject it, it’s horrible. It’s hell. It’s the savor of death unto death. James said, “When you love your enemies, it is as if you were pouring out heaping coals of fire on their heads.” I don’t think that the wrath of God is an expression of contempt. I think the wrath of God is a violent expression of God’s love, and people hate it unless they perceive that love.
MM: So God might intend it for good, but they perceive it as bad?
SM: Absolutely. If I can give an example, let’s suppose I see my little grandson out in my back yard and he’s holding a snake. I see that snake coiling, and love rushes up in my consciousness for my grandson. So I run as fast as I can toward him. He’s holding the snake and he looks up and he sees on his granddad’s face this look of horror and rage. He’s going to interpret what he sees through the only paradigm he has. He may not understand the danger of the snake. He sees this expression of rage and anger in my face, and it strikes terror in him. I run over to my grandson, and imagine I pick him up and I shake him and shake him. That little boy is going to think he’s never seen me so angry with him in his lifetime. But I’m not angry with him. I’m trying to shake something out of his hand.
Do you get the comparison I’m making? Daniel, I believe it’s chapter 7:10, talks about a river of fire that flows out of the throne of God. I think that’s the white-hot love of God. And as they say, the same sun that hardens clay melts wax. Same with the love of God.
Can I give you a quote? I don’t want to preach a sermon, but I brought a note here. I don’t want to trust my memory on this. This is Saint Isaac the Syrian, one of the early church fathers. Here’s what he said: “Paradise is the love of God wherein is the enjoyment of all blessedness.” I’ve been going on about hell, here’s what he says about it: “I also maintain that those who are punished in Gehenna are scourged by the scourge of love. Nay, what is so bitter and vehement as the torment of love?”
MM: In Romans 1:18, Paul writes (and this is the first use of wrath in Romans): “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of human beings who suppressed the truth by their wickedness.” He’s saying that the wrath of God is being revealed. Doesn’t that sound like God’s kind of irritated by their refusal to accept what he’s doing?
SM: I have to give you credit. When you use the word irritated in connection with wrath, that’s understating it. I think it’s more than irritated. But again, it depends on the lens you use to interpret the scripture. If you start with the fundamental belief that God is love, again I’ll come back and say we have to interpret the scripture in light of everything that comes from God as being an expression of love, or else there’s an incongruence in God that can’t be explained. There’s a conflict. He’s not pure love if something comes from him that is something other than love.
Some will say, “Well, then, love is just one of his characteristics, love is just part of what God is. He’s part love, he’s part wrath.” Then I would say, “Are you suggesting that God is schizophrenic? He’s love some of the time, he’s hate some of the time?” No. Let’s go back to the passage. I’m not suggesting that the wrath of God is not real. The wrath of God is very real. What I’m saying is it’s possible, and in my opinion probable, that many of us have misunderstood what that wrath is, the nature of that wrath. Let’s look at the passage you read. “The wrath of God is revealed from heaven.” Think of wrath there as an intense, violent expression of love is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness.
Back to the illustration I gave about charging up to my grandson holding the snake. That was wrath. It was an intense expression of love, and it came out as violence because of the contempt that I had in this imaginary story for the snake, but it was love for the child. But the child, if he doesn’t clearly understand my heart, may think that what’s he’s seeing is anger against him, but that’s not what it is.
Notice that Paul talks in Romans 1:18 about the unrighteousness of men who suppress the truth in unrighteousness. For them to suppress the truth, the truth is already in them, or they wouldn’t be able to suppress it. To suppress means to push down something that’s already there, and there can’t be any disagreement about this, because the next verse elaborates: “Because that which is known about God is evident within them.” Not outside them – within them – for God made it evident. God has put this intrinsic knowledge in us, and when we reject or suppress the truth of his love for us, then you know what he does? He expresses wrath. He turns up the fire of his love so that it becomes hotter. You’re not going to beat God’s love, so stop trying, is the way I might say it.
Can I read another quote from Saint Isaac the Syrian that we mentioned earlier? Can I read one more quote from him? I think he does a good job expressing the Orthodox tradition on this. Here’s what he said: “The power of love works in two ways. It torments the sinners even as it happens here when a friend suffers from a friend, but it becomes a source of joy for those who have observed its duties. Therefore, the same love of God, the same energy will fall upon all men, but it will work differently.” It’s just what Paul said, the comparison, the parallel. It’s what Paul the apostle said of the gospel. It’s the savor of life unto life for those who believe, but it’s the savor or stench of death for those who don’t believe. [2 Cor. 2:16]
MM: Okay, suppose these people don’t like God’s love. Why does God insist on doing something that he knows that they’ll find unpleasant?
SM: Because he’s sovereign, and his love is agape, it’s unconditional. He loves whether you love him back or not. He doesn’t love because he anticipates a certain response from us. You see what I’m saying?
MM: He’s going to love whether we like it or not.
SM: He’s going to love because that’s who he is. He’s going to love whether we like it or not, and whether we receive it or not. That’s who he is, he’s God. God is love. For God to do something other than love would be a conflict of who he is. He’d cease to be who he is if he didn’t love.
MM: And you can’t just ignore it.
SM: Well, you can, but it’s hell, buddy. Right? (laughing) It’s hell if you ignore it, if you try to resist it. Let’s play this out a minute. You’re the seminary prof, but I want to play the devil’s advocate, okay? I’m going to walk this out and I’m going to ask you the question that maybe the viewer would. Is God pure love, first of all? The obvious answer is yes.
SM: If he’s pure love, could anything come from him that’s not loving?
SM: No. Does wrath come from him?
SM: So is wrath an expression of his love?
MM: Somehow, it must be.
SM: It’s got to be. You follow down that trail and there’s no other way around it. If God is love, and he is, and if pure love can only do what’s loving, and that’s true, and wrath comes from God, and it does, then it has to be an expression of love or else God is not loving. People grapple with this: “oh, I don’t believe that.” Then what are you going to believe? How are we going to explain the wrath of God unless we say God is not….
Some say, “Well, love is just one characteristic of God.” Really? What are the others? “Well, wrath.” By wrath do you mean hate against sinners? That was the view I held. I thought God hated sinners, reprobates. That’s the viewpoint many hold. “You’re saying God is part love and part hate? At the least you’d have to admit [I’d say to this imaginary critic] that God is not pure love if he’s part hate.”
MM: You need to catch him on a good day.
SM: Exactly. What is agape? Let’s back it up a step. Not only is God not pure love, but he’s not even agape, unconditional love, because if it’s unconditional, then what would make him hate? If this would make God hate instead of love, then the love that’s left is not unconditional, because there was a condition that wasn’t met that caused it to become hate. Am I talking in circles or does that make sense?
MM: It connects with a couple other ideas — but many people think that the wrath of God means that God desires to punish. And that ties in with what you had said earlier about God not punishing Jesus on the cross. God has no desire to punish us — he wants to rescue us.
SM: He has rescued us, in fact.
MM: Oh. Done deal.
SM: It is finished. I heard that line somewhere before. He has rescued us whether we acknowledge it or not.
MM: Continuing in Romans 1, I find it interesting that Paul describes what God does in his wrath. Paul is eloquent about how bad they are, and in verse 24, “Therefore, God gave them over in the sinful desires of their hearts to sexual impurity…” etcetera… In other words, he let them do what they wanted.
SM: Right. What’s the rest of the verse? “So that their bodies would be degraded among them.” What’s sin going to do? Left to itself, what will sin do in a person? Those people or any of us, what will sin do?
MM: It hurts.
SM: It hurts. There’s a penalty. We will spiral downward. The wages of sin is still death. But once we get down to that place of death, now we’re in a great spot, because guess what? Our God’s grace doesn’t make sick men well, our God’s grace makes dead people live. So for God to raise you up, you have to get dead enough. Does God call sin sinful behavior? No. But the grace of God is so big that sin won’t get the last word. Our God says, let sin give its best shot, and when it’s killed you, I will raise you up, because that’s what I do. That’s my thing — resurrection.
MM: In a way, Jesus has already killed sin.
SM: He has. You guys do a remarkable job here at Grace Communion International of helping folks understand the difference between union and communion, objective and subjective. There is the objective reality that exists, and it’s real. Hebrews 9:26 says, “At the consummation of ages he’s been manifest to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself.” Jesus, in the objective sense, he’s dealt with sin once and for all. Here’s the wonderful thing. Sin is not an offense to God. It’s not like sin does something to God. God defeated sin. He vanquished and defeated sin. Sin does nothing to God.
Somebody might say, then why does God care about sin? Does God not hate sin? Sure he hates it. Why? Because of what it does to you and me. We still live in this little box called time/space. The objective reality is he’s dealt with sin, but in this little box we’re living in, called time and space, in the experiential subjective sense, we can still experience the consequence, the penalty, the punishment of sin. God hates it for that reason, because he loves us and doesn’t want to see us hurt. God doesn’t say to us, “Don’t sin because I hate it when people do that. It really just bugs me — I’m holy and righteous and I’m so squeaky clean it just disgusts me to see people do something nasty and dirty and sinful.”
MM: Violating my rules.
SM: Exactly. “You’re offending my sensitivities.” No, that’s ridiculous. God says that same thing he said to Adam and Eve about the tree of the knowledge of good and evil: Don’t do that because it’s going to kill you. Don’t do that, it’s going to hurt you. I love you, and I hate sin not because of what it does to me, God says, but because of what it does to you. I love you and I don’t want to see you hurt. That’s God’s thing with sin today, in this world we live in. It’s not what it does to him, but what it does to us in the subjective world.
MM: That would explain why we should avoid sin even though we’ve already been forgiven.
SM: Right. We avoid sin because sin is drinking poison and God loves us.
MM: What if we like the taste of that poison?
SM: That’s a good question, and the one who would seriously ask that, would reveal that they don’t know their identity in Christ. Because the truth is, we don’t love the taste of that poison. Here’s the thing — that apple tastes good until it gives you a stomachache, and then you realize yuck, the pleasure of sin is, as the Bible says, for a season. It’s got a sweet taste coming in, but boy does it turn sour on my stomach in a hurry.
The picture I’ve given is a guy walking down the road and he looks over here, and here’s the sin house. He hears music and there’s a party going on, and it looks like they’re having a fun time in there. The guy says, “I’d like to live in that place.” He goes in there, and the minute he walks into the sin house with all kinds of things going on, the guy immediately says, “This is as wonderful and exhilarating and thrilling as I thought it would be,” because there is pleasure in sin for a season. It’s gratifying. Not satisfying, but gratifying.
He gets a rush out of it, but then after a while he’s in the sin house and he starts thinking, “This is getting old. I don’t know.” But the thing of it is, he can’t find his way out. The longer he’s trapped in there, the more he hates it, until finally the place that he couldn’t wait to get into, now that he’s in it, he finally, in fact soon, reaches a place where (because it’s not his nature to live in that house), from the depths of his being he finds his heart crying out, “God, get me out of here. I don’t want to be in here.” Why do we like the taste of sin? The answer is, we don’t. We only think we do. It’s got a momentary flavor that appeals to us, but it will quickly turn on you.
MM: The perception is the key element.
SM: It’s not our nature to like sin. Sin is resident in us. Paul said in Romans 7, “So now if I’m doing the thing I don’t want to do, I’m not doing it, but sin which dwells in me.” He said that in two verses in Romans 7, within three verses apart. He was drawing a distinction between his authentic self, his true identity in Christ, and the power of indwelling sin, which he says again and again in Romans 7 is “in my members.” It’s not who I am.
I jokingly tell people the first time I went to London, England, I had a kidney stone, but I never asked anybody to call me Rocky. It was in me, but it didn’t define me. In the same way, there’s the power of indwelling sin that’s in our members, but that’s not who we are. Let me tell you who we are. Who we are is that we’re righteous, called, holy, set-apart people who, if we will get out from under the lie — and how do you do that? You shall know the truth and the truth shall set you free. The truth is a person named Jesus, and when we come to know him, we will understand we don’t want to live a life of sin.
Back to the verse in Titus, “The grace of God has appeared, bringing salvation to all men, teaching us to deny ungodliness and worldly desires.” It doesn’t teach us to sin. Grace doesn’t make you want to sin – grace makes you want to glorify the Lord and say no to sin.
MM: Because of the grace, we desire the divine life more, and these other things aren’t part of the divine life. There’s no attractiveness there.
SM: Right. There’s an inconsistency. There’s a momentary appeal to it. Let’s not talk as if there’s no attraction to sin. But the fact that sin is pleasurable doesn’t say something about our nature – it says something about the nature of sin. That speaks of the nature of sin, not our nature. It’s not natural for us to live in sin because that’s not our nature. I can teach your dog to walk on its back legs, but it will never be comfortable doing it, because it’s not his nature to do it. Peter the apostle said in 2 Peter 1:4, “We’ve become a partaker of divine nature.” We sin, but there’s always this internal conflict when we commit sins, because something deep within us, namely the Spirit, the new man knows that’s not who I am. It might gratify, but it won’t satisfy, because I’m not living out of my core. I’m not living out of my authentic self when I do that.
MM: I wanted to go back to your image of this person trapped in the house of sin. How real is it? They think they’re trapped.
SM: It’s an illusion. They’re not trapped.
MM: It’s a hologram.
SM: It’s like the elephant at the circus. You come outside the circus tent and there’s a two-ton elephant there with a chain this long and he’s hooked to a little post in the ground. That elephant could drag a Greyhound bus down the road, but he thinks that thing’s holding him there. Why does he think that? Because when he was a baby elephant, they put a big chain around his leg and put the other end on something he couldn’t drag, and he lived that way day after day until he began to be conditioned, “I cannot move when this chain is on my leg.” So he becomes this huge elephant, and he could drag a bus down the road, but when they put the chain on his leg he stands there thinking he can’t move.
What holds him in that spot? Is it the chain? No, what holds him there is a lie. A faulty perception holds him there. That’s what keeps people in this imaginary sin house. They think they’re trapped. They believe the lie that they can’t get out. But the truth is, sin has no power over us. When we understand the grace of God, we’ll know what Paul meant when he said, “Sin shall no longer have dominion over you because you’re not under law but under grace.” We understand it when we lock in on what grace really is — unconditional love and acceptance, divine enablement for us to be all that we’ve been called to be and do all we’ve been called to do. Then we can walk out of that house just that quick. It’s a mirage. It’s not real.
MM: A lot of people walk out of that house and kind of want to go back in sometimes.
SM: Then they didn’t stay long enough.
SM: I’m serious. Martin Luther said this: “When thou sinnest, sin boldly.” That green apple didn’t give you a stomachache? Eat three more and watch what happens. They hadn’t hit bottom, in other words. I’m not advocating sinful behavior, but I’m telling you, let sin run its course, and the wages of sin is death, and you won’t want to go back there again.
MM: A little aversion therapy.
SM: Yeah. That’s the good point. We found out that the new man, which is who we are in Christ, does have an aversion to sin. Read Romans 7, verses 16 through the end of the chapter where Paul says, “I don’t understand myself at all. I’m doing the things I hate and the things I want to do I don’t do.” Does that sound like a man who wanted to sin? Not at all. It is our nature, when we understand who we are in Christ, to hate sin. We don’t want to live that way. If we think people are going to do what they want, let them – they’ll hit bottom. I think we’re overly sin conscious in the modern church. If we were as Christ-conscious and taught others to be as Christ-conscious as the Bible says we can be, sin would become a moot point.
Here’s a passage in Hebrews (I love talking about the Old Testament sacrifices). Hebrews 10, starting in verse 1, “The law, since it has only a shadow of the good things to come and not the very form of things, it can never by the same sacrifices which they offer continually year by year make perfect those who draw near” [NASB]. The law cannot perfect, the sacrifices could not perfect people. Look at verse 2, “Otherwise, would they not have ceased to be offered?” Why? “Because the worshipers, having been once cleansed, would no longer have had consciousness of sin.”
Paul, or whoever wrote Hebrews, says that if the old covenant sacrifice had been a perfect sacrifice and those people had been permanently cleansed, they wouldn’t have even thought about sin anymore. He goes on and says in verse 3, “But in those sacrifices there’s a reminder of sin year by year.” The implication is, we come over to the new covenant and Jesus is the perfect sacrifice and we have been cleansed completely, past, present, and future, so we don’t need to live with sin consciousness. We need to live with Jesus-consciousness.
MM: Focus on the positive.
SM: Focus on Jesus. I often tell about how I loved basketball when I was a teenager, and I played every weekend. On Fridays I played till late at night, because I didn’t have to go to school. If you had said the Friday will come, the time will come you can’t play basketball on Fridays, I would have said you’re crazy. But one Sunday I went to church and on Sunday morning in Sunday School a girl came in that I had never seen, and when I met that girl I thought, “I want to ask her out.” I ended up asking that girl to go out on a date, and I went out the next Friday night with her.
The next morning on Saturday my friends came over banging on my door and said, “Where were you? You know we play basketball every Friday night.” I was a 16-year-old boy. I said, “I was with a chick. I didn’t have time for basketball.” I dated that girl every Friday for three years and I ended up marrying her, and I’ve been married to her now since 1973, and I cannot tell you when I played basketball on Friday night. Why? Not because I disciplined myself to give up Friday night basketball, but because I found something I wanted more. That’s the thing about sin. We don’t live with sin consciousness — we fall so in love with Jesus that sin loses its grip over us and we just walk out, because we’re holding hands with Jesus and walk away from it without even thinking about it, without struggling against it.
MM: That is great.
SM: Isn’t it great? I think of the old song we used to sing when I was a teenager — you’re my age, I bet you remember the song we sang that said, turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full into his wonderful face. Do you remember the next part? No? You lived a sheltered life, didn’t you?
MM: I did. I didn’t have TV, didn’t go to church.
SM: You were spared some things and you were deprived of others, and I won’t say which is which, but I’ll let you figure out which one you were deprived of and which one you were spared from, but there’s the old song that says, turn your eyes upon Jesus, look full into his wonderful face, and the things of earth will grow strangely dim in the light of his glory and grace. And that’s it.
God’s not mad — God’s delivered us from sin. Now we are back to what we started with — the wrath of God, even that is an expression of his love. Let’s get it down in our minds once and for all — God is love. If you ever hear, read, see anything that seems to contradict that, then let’s step back away from it a minute and say, wait a minute, I must be misinterpreting what I’m hearing, seeing, or reading, because God is love. Let’s settle that once and for all. Let’s not put God on trial every time something comes along we can’t make sense of and say, is God really love? No. Let’s settle that.
We may not have answers for everything. We won’t, but that’s okay. We don’t have to have answers for everything. Our God is a mystery, so we push up to the edge of our understanding as far as we can push and then we stop and say okay, all I know is that in the fog there beyond what I can see, there’s a God who is love, and we live with that assurance even when we can’t make sense out of it — whether it’s hell, wrath, the sin house, anything else.