Few cultures are as individualistic and man-centered as American culture. I remember watching commercials for Time Warner Cable where the tagline was “Rule Your Kingdom”. In the commercial, a homeowner is depicted speaking and acting like a powerful king commanding their servants – high speed internet, digital cable, and phone – to do their bidding. This summarizes the American view of the individual as the completely sovereign ruler of their own existence with numerous and ever-expanding rights and fewer responsibilities and demands.
This view is everywhere. In entertainment, films like The Adjustment Bureau tell us we are masters of our fate and films like Sucker Punch tell us we define our reality. In law, retribution gives way to rehabilitation; instead of punishing crimes we attempt to fix broken individuals. In marriage, relationships serve individual happiness; if one isn’t happy no fault divorce laws quickly terminate the marriage. In politics, government serves the individual by guaranteeing their right to a job, decent wages, food, home ownership, education, health care, abortion and on and on. In religion, individuals mix and match elements of different religions into a custom-made faith of which they are the high priest.
It is this man-centered individualism that makes the love of God so popular and the wrath and justice of God so unpopular. The love of God is easy for us because we believe we are so darn lovable! That is why Joel Osteen is the most popular preacher in America ignoring sin, wrath, and hell but declaring, “You are [God’s] prized possession.” It’s why Rob Bell’s book Love Wins is a best seller on Amazon; it preaches a view of God’s love that is so man-centered He is obligated to get every individual into heaven no matter what. This culture cannot believe in a God who is not bound by the rights of individuals and who is not as obsessed with them as they are with themselves.
Some will protest – the Bible says God is love! It does; but God is not only love. The Bible also says God is a consuming fire (Deut. 4:24), gracious and merciful (2 Chron. 30:9), a righteous judge (Ps. 7:11), king of all the earth (Ps. 47:7), holy (Ps. 99:9), an everlasting rock (Is. 26:4), spirit (Jn. 4:24), and light (1 Jn. 1:5) But in our culture, one particular “God is…” phrase from the Bible – God is love – has drowned out all the others. I’m not picking on Francis Chan’s book “Crazy Love”, but could you imagine Christians rushing to buy a book called “Crazy Wrath” or “Crazy Holy”? God is all of the above characteristics and more. He can’t be reduced to just one word. When God acts he does so as a whole God with all of his character, love and wrath, mercy and holiness, sovereignty and grace.
God’s wrath is not like human wrath. As the Evangelical Dictionary of Theology states: “It is not an emotion or an angry frame of mind… it is the settled opposition of his holiness to evil.” It is the result of His perfect justice. So what happens when you throw out the wrath of God?
First, you destroy the love of God. Sin and we who do it demolish God’s good creation. If God truly loves His creatures He must hate and punish what is causing them harm. How can it be said God loves an abused child, oppressed slave, rape victim, or drug addict if He simply sweeps the sin of the abuser, oppressor, rapist, and drug lord under a big cosmic rug for the sake of forgiveness? That may be a sentimental pat on the head, but it is not love. Like the wrath of a loving father who finds his child has been molested, God’s wrath is a necessary companion to His love and the result of His perfect justice.
Second, you destroy the glory of God. If an enemy badly dents my 1996 Toyota, I probably won’t have much wrath. Why? While it was a great car fifteen years ago, it’s a tin can with an engine now. We are enemies of God (Rom. 5:10) and all of our sins are ultimately against him (Ps. 51:4). We broke His laws, despised His authority, trampled His creation, and rejected His love. If God does not have wrath for godlessness (Rom. 1:18) than it implies He is of lesser value, like my Toyota. If God is great and glorious, our offense demands justice for God and requires His wrath as punishment. If our sin against Him is simply brushed aside, it suggests we are the glorious ones to whom God must accommodate Himself.
Third, you destroy the cross of Christ. Without the wrath of God folks opt for one of two explanations of the cross. The first is “Christ our example” – on the cross Jesus was our example of suffering for the sake of love. That is true, but if it is all He did why a political execution that only set free Barabbas, a criminal? Could he not have been our example suffering for the children of Calcutta like Mother Teresa? The second is “Christ our victor” – that on the cross Jesus conquered sin, death, Satan, and hell. That is true, but if it is all He did why not have a glorious victory descending from the sky and frying His enemies with laser beams from His eyes like Cyclops from the X-Men? The beauty of the cross is there was no better way to do it. At the cross, God’s love and wrath collide. God loves sinners but His justice demands they receive His wrath. So instead He pays the price for their sins by pouring out His wrath on Himself. God achieves justice for every evil deed and at the same time rescues hopeless sinners! (Is. 53, 2 Cor. 5:21, Rom. 3:23-26)
Don’t buy into a culture that enthrones the individual and reduces God to vague, sentimental love that exists to serve the happiness of that individual. Our God is infinitely glorious and His love is fierce, demanding justice for the wrongs endured by Him and those He loves. He secures that justice at the cross where the wrath of God meets the love of God and sinners who deserve hell find glorious rescue.