The week of Valentine’s Day, I wrote a post saying that God’s a romantic who passionately pursues those he loves. I believe the story of the Bible affirms this. If we read the Bible through, we’ll find countless examples of how God demonstrates love for people. He cares for them, rescues them, defends them, and fights for them. He also shows them patience, kindness, mercy, and forgiveness.
However, if we want an honest and accurate picture of God, we can’t only focus on God’s obvious loving attributes. In the Bible, there are plenty of examples where God demonstrates his love towards people, but there are also plenty of examples where God demonstrates his wrath against people. He responds, with escalating anger, towards those who ignore him, disobey him, and defy him.
Sometimes God blazes against those who threaten or hurt his people. Other times, God blazes against his people because they have disobeyed or forsaken him. And then, in the most mysterious display of God’s wrath, there is the cross of Jesus, where God blazes against his own perfect, sinless Son.
What is all this blazing that God demonstrates? From where does all this fury come from? It apparently comes from inside God, this God whose very nature is love. This God is not just loving and compassionate; he is holy and righteous. This loving God is also an avenger of wrong.
LORD our God, you answered them.
You were a forgiving God to them,
but an avenger of their sinful actions. (Psalm 99:8 CSB)
It doesn’t particularly surprise me that God wants to avenge our wrong. As a human being, when I am wronged, I naturally want the offending party to pay some kind of retribution for the wrong. And the greater the wrong, then the greater the retribution that’s necessary in order for me to feel satisfied.
But what leaves me shocked and gasping is the intensity of God’s vengeance on sin. His sense of offense is on an entirely different level than mine. His righteous wrath is terrifying, and his judgments are unyielding. In the Bible, God displays his wrath through such things as floodwater, hail, fire, plague, pestilence, famine, wild animals, and invading armies. And all those pale in comparison to the threat of utter darkness beyond this life. No wonder Jesus said that the only one we should fear is the one who can send us to hell.
“I say to you, my friends, don’t fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more. But I will show you the one to fear: Fear him who has authority to throw people into hell after death. Yes, I say to you, this is the one to fear!” –Jesus (Luke 12:4-5 CSB)
And I must confess, I cannot comprehend God’s need for vengeance on this scale. It is a mystery to me why God needs to avenge our sin at the intensity that he requires. But there is also a greater mystery, one that swallows up and resolves all my struggles and questions of God’s wrath. That mystery lies in the good news of Jesus Christ, where God himself was willing to absorb the wrath that I deserved, thus rescuing me from hell and putting me on the path to heaven.
God’s love was revealed among us in this way: God sent his one and only Son into the world so that we might live through him. Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. (1 John 4:9-10 CSB)
God is an avenger, but through the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, he becomes an atoning avenger. I don’t fully understand God’s wrath for sin, nor do I fully understand how Jesus was able to atone for that sin and put it to rest. But when I trust God and accept both mysteries together, they resolve themselves. They add up, or maybe it’s better to say they cancel each other out, but the end result is that I understand God’s great love.