The wrath of God. The phrase shouts at us.
You might as well write it in capital letters. The WRATH OF GOD.
Probably God’s single most alienating feature. Nobody wants to hear all that about fire and brimstone, damnation and hell. Do you? Sure, sinners deserve punishment, but don’t you find it hard to respect a God who loses his temper at the drop of a hat? Who sets the standard so high no one can reach it, and then condemns us for failing to please him?
Or are you one of those who know God is good and loving, yet have a hard time wrapping your mind around the absolute wildness of divine retribution?
No, God’s wrath is not an easy subject and while we may avoid it for a lifetime, something inside tells us we will face it in the end. Oh, what will we do then?
I can’t help but think we’re missing something.
Scripture indeed portrays God’s wrath as fire. Fire rained down on Sodom and Gomorrah. Fire consumed Aaron’s sons who mishandled sacred objects. Fire destroyed the grumblers on the outskirts of Israel’s camp in the wilderness. Jesus presented a horrifying picture of hell: the fire of Gehenna, Jerusalem’s garbage dump, roaring day and night for years on end. The Bible’s ultimate image of the wrath of God is the eternal burning of the Lake of Fire.
Actually, it isn’t just wrath. Scripture shows God himself as a holy fire. He accompanied newborn Israel out of Egypt as a pillar of fire. Fire descended on Mount Carmel and burned up Elijah’s sacrifice. Three young Hebrews met God in a fiery furnace in Babylon. The Holy Spirit rested as a tongue of fire on each believer at Pentecost.
From this we may conclude one thing: when Bible characters saw the wrath of God in action, they were simply experiencing his unrestrained being. As Paul put it, God dwells in unapproachable light. Moses spent forty days on the “mountain that couldn’t be touched and that was burning with fire” but not even he could look upon God’s face and live.
Fire is the ideal picture of the holiness of God, the white-hot purity of absolute rightness of being. Eternal, infinite, sovereign. Omniscient, almighty, transcendent. Faithful, wise, loving, and just. Righteous Father, Begotten Word, Spirit of Holiness. God is perfect—complete and unflawed. And the core instinct of his being is to preserve his own perfection, to magnify his excellence, to manifest his beauty.
Now, in this perfection we live and move and have our being. Think about it. Everything that has been made—from the incomprehensible vastness of the cosmos to the infinitesimal energy strings holding space-time together—everything exists within the greater reality that is God. Like an unborn child in its mother’s womb, the universe abides in the depths of its Creator.
But the creation is far from perfect. Disease and decay taint what he has made. God warned his people many times, “Be holy for I am holy,” because the relentless resolve of holiness is to seek out and destroy the unholy. That’s the essence of wrath: holiness on the loose, conforming all things to itself. God’s response to ungodliness and corruption is as sure as hitting the ground follows stepping off a ledge.
So how is it that we are not consumed?
Because in his great love, God restrains holiness. Every day. Morning after morning we awaken in the womb of God, in the place where deep love and mercy, compassion and tender affection, shield us and nurture us while we grow in godliness. The endless rhythm of the dawn beautifully showcases this truth. God covenanted in the long-ago days of Noah that while the earth remains, day and night would not cease. Mercy will never fail.
Mercy is that movement in the heart of God that would protect what he has made, even from himself. Like Moses on Mount Sinai, the hand of God protects his chosen. For now, sweet but mighty mercy guards us, like a cleft in the rock, from a holy storm.
Another day is coming, though, a dreadful day when God’s mercy will no longer hold back the burning fire of holiness. When God appeared on Mount Sinai, the earth shook. Fire and thunder filled the air. His people fled in terror, and rightly so. Once more, Hebrews tells us, he will shake not only the earth but also the heavens.
Think about what that means. Not just the ungodly will meet God face to face but all creation. Oceans and mountains, stars and trees. Saints and sinners, the saved as well as the damned. The fire of his presence is coming when every person, place and thing will be laid bare before his holy being. As Scripture puts it, we will see the great I Am as he really is.
Yet the day when holiness goes hunting is a day of hope. Oh, thank God, he made a way for holiness to recognize itself in us! How? By becoming one of us. He grew up as a creature just as we do. He learned obedience and he suffered death. There on the altar of Calvary, he offered his righteousness to atone for our sin.
Imagine the next scene. Having departed the flesh, the spirit of Jesus stood in the midst of the Holy Fire and looked his Father in the face. He stands there still, an everlasting plea for his brethren creatures. Bearing the blast furnace of God’s fierce anger. Turning it aside from all who hide their lives in him. So great was his glory in that moment that life returned to his crucified and buried body.
Then God did what he’d aimed at all along. He poured out his creature-tinged Spirit, a little smidge of the Holy, to inhabit all who come to him by faith. Holiness looks the same in us as it does in him. God’s excellence is at the center of his affections and ours. The Holy Spirit, the dynamic love between the Father and Son, is at work within us, wooing us, centering our hearts on the splendor of his Majesty as we learn to abide in Christ. Thus he increases our godliness. Thus he makes us holy.
This I call to mind, and therefore I have hope.