Is wrath really essential to proclaiming the Gospel? Or can we set is aside, leaving it for a later date, lest we lose people before they even enter the church door?
Why do we Need a Savior?
I am currently in the middle of a sermon series going through Jesus’ Olivet Discourse in Matthew 24, so the doctrine of a wrathful God has been on my mind frequently. Though this discourse directs our attention to the destruction of Jerusalem in AD 70, it foreshadows that last day when God will pour out His wrath upon unrepentant sinners. Biblically, there is no arguing that God’s wrath is what sinners need saving from.
So why are so many Christians afraid to share this truth when witnessing to unbelievers? Either the word “wrath” is softened to mean something else, or it is left out altogether.
The Separation Gospel
There is an evangelistic method that is often employed, which I have coined the ‘separation gospel’. In this method, God is described as being too holy for sin to be in His presence. Therefore, a sinner is separated from God. That separation becomes eternal after death unless the sinner repents and believes in Jesus. In a nutshell, ‘separation’ is how God’s wrath is described.
While there is some truth in this method, it is not without its flaws. Many mistakenly think that if a sinner came into God’s throne room, then God would become tainted in some way. The example I have often heard is a drop of cyanide into a cup of water. A better analogy would be of a filthy rag into a raging fire. The fire is unaffected, yet the rag is destroyed.
God’s holiness cannot get tainted. A sinner may enter His presence. Yet that sinner cannot enter and live. Think about Isaiah being swept up into God’s throne room (Isaiah 6). Isaiah was in a state of ruin, for he had seen God’s glory. Yet the burning coal that touched his lips cleansed and atoned for his sins. Only this atonement allowed Isaiah to stand before God. God’s Holiness was not affected by Isaiah’s presence in the throne room, rather it was Isaiah who was the one affected by a holy God.
John writes about the lake of fire, which is also called the second death, in Revelation 20:14. It is a place where God pours out his judgment for all eternity. Hell is not an eternal absence from God’s presence, but rather the devastation of sinful creatures under the full weight of God’s wrath.
The Biblical Word Pictures
(I was told by my editor, that this portion of the article might not be of interest to some, so feel free to skip ahead to the next section if Biblical languages don’t interest you.)
In the Hebrew there are two words used for wrath… אַף (pronounced ‘af’) and חֵמָה (pronounced ‘khay-maw’). אַף (Af) has three meanings… nostril, face and anger. Context of the passage will determine its use. When this word is translated as wrath, a good concept to think of is a raging bull snorting from its nostrils.
חֵמָה (Khay-maw) can mean hot fever, venom or a burning anger. Again, context will give the meaning. When it is defined as wrath, one might picture a person who is so angry, that his face turns hot and red. This person has his anger stored up and is about go off in a fury.
In the Greek, two different words are employed as well. The first is ὀργή, pronounced ‘or-gay’. It means to teem, such as a fruit that is teeming, swelling with juice. When it is used to describe anger, the idea is that it is swelling up from within. This wrath is slowly building, ready to be released.
The second Greek term is θυμός, which has the imagery more of a passionate anger, or a drunken anger. It is swift and quick, but will subside just as quickly.
To say that God’s wrath is one way (cold and calculated) or another (hot and unbridled) is incorrect thinking. His wrath contains many aspects. This is why the Biblical authors use these different word pictures to describe it.
In the world of missions, particularly that of Southeast Asia, the concept of wrath is often avoided. The reason given is cultural sensitivity. In many Asian cultures, anger is seen as one of if not the greatest of sins. To describe a good God in such terms, would be confusing and not winsome. In order avoid misperceptions and to see more converts, wrath is fully dropped from any presentation of the gospel.
But does such confusion exist because the concept of a wrathful God cannot be accepted by certain cultures? This just simply is not the case. Just because a concept is difficult at first, should not mean that the listener does not have the ability to understand. Though goodness and wrath may seem like polar opposites at first glance, when God’s holiness and greatness are explained, many of the misconceptions disappear. The burden of clarification is upon the evangelist. He or she must make known what the Bible says in a clear way. This is true contextualization.
And if that truth offends the cultural senses, does it make it any less true? Who is to blame, God’s Word or the culture that rejects such notions? Yet time and again the truth is obfuscated for the sake of ‘winning souls’.
Bait & Switch
The argument is also made that wrath is not important to the saving message and can be avoided until a later time during the discipleship process. Yet if one looks closely enough at the gospel message, wrath is unavoidable. To claim that Jesus saves a person from their sins implicitly demands a wrathful God. Why should a person even worry about their sins if not for God’s wrath?
In truth, this topic cannot be pushed to the curb unless a false gospel is being proclaimed. And if that is the case, then false converts are the result. And if the wrath of God is taught at a later date, the ‘convert’ will for the first time be confronted with the truth of their sin and will either fall away or finally be brought to true repentance and faith in Jesus. But if God’s wrath is forever swept under the rug, then this could lead to the most tragic outcome of all… a false convert living out their days under the notion that they are saved, when in reality they lack faith in the one true God.
This is a challenge for the modern missionary. What will take prominence in your evangelism; the truth of God’s Word or cultural capitulations? Will you trust in the message that Christ has given us, even though it may result in ‘lower numbers’? Are you willing to become an offense to those who are perishing? If you want to preach the true Gospel, the wrath of God is unavoidable. Without the bad news about God’s wrath against sin, the good news of rescue from sin and judgment just doesn’t make sense.
 Interestingly enough, Jesus never used the word wrath in this discourse, though the concept is there in spades.