A reason why there is asymmetry in the statements “God is love” and “God is wrath” is because God is eternally love—the Spirit often described poetically as the bond of love in the life of the triune God. By contrast, it’s hard to think what it might mean for God to eternally be wrath. Father, Son, and Spirit love Godself; does God wrath himself?
Beyond that basic question, another reason exists for the asymmetry. In the Bible, God reveals himself with human characteristics to make himself understandable. He rescued Israel with a “strong arm.” His nose is long with anger, Scripture says. His foot descends from heaven upon his footstool (the temple) on earth. These metaphors speak truly about God—but God has neither a 100 mile long leg nor a strong arm full of sinew, bone, and vein.
And it is these particular created attributes of humans that lead to what we might call passions. The fear of harm to our body leads to dread; the loss of goods might make us bitter. The tiredness of the body might make us grumpy. Lack of food makes us hangry. Our emotions and hormonal well-being mediates through the bodily experience of life. And to have a created body is to be a creature.
God does not have such a body. He is Spirit (John 4:24). But wrath is associated with internal bodily movements. We feel “hot” when angry. Our heart beats fast. Adrenaline releases. God cannot have experiences, or he would be a creature. To assert such is heresy. God has no body, as all orthodox Christians must affirm.
But then this reverts back to the asymmetry of love and wrath. Love in God we can understand since love is an act of the will, intellectual desire. And intellect (in the old sense) means immaterial. It gets closer to the reality of God’s love than merely saying its bodily desire as we often imply. But wrath in God’s invisible nature means what exactly?
The only answer that seems reasonable, and the answer traditionally given by virtually all and sundry, is that wrath is how we experience the justice of God. God is eternally ordered towards justice; or he orders justice according to his Being. He is Eternal Law. He is just as he is.
And so when we act unjustly, as Provident king he acts justly by restricting, punishing, or correcting us. That experience we might call “wrath” because of we experience, how we feel dread or fear. And also because we often exercise punishment out of wrath, the movement of anger in our bodies with physiological signs of fast heartbeat and so on.
Now, to me, it is completely obvious that God is not wrath. God is love. God is just. But wrath is not an attribute of God. Others disagree. The Bible says God is angry. Yes, it also says God has a finger. The language of the Bible is beautiful, poetic, metaphorical, and true. And just so happen to think that we can understand what it means by what it says.
Over-literalizing Scripture, in my view, leads to unwarranted conclusions. For example, that God has a flesh, bone, and vein body. This view—called anthropomorphitism—has been completely rejected by Christians. But I suppose the same danger applies by asserting that God is wrath, at least when wrath means anything like the commonplace we have for it. If wrath were to mean the settled, rational (i.e. without body), passionless (i.e. hormoneless) execution of justice, then it’s justice, not wrath.
In short, I take God’s “wrath” in Romans 9:22 just as straightforwardly as I take “arm” in Exodus 6:6 in which God says “I will redeem you with an outstretched arm.” And I take Scripture’s identification of God as love in 1 John 4:8—”God is love”—just as straightforwardly as I take his self-revelation in Exodus 3:14 as “I am who I am.”
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