Is God’s Wrath Active or Passive?

I apologize for the long silence. There has been so much going on I haven’t had the “bandwidth” to focus on the blog. But publishing the below is necessary as a background to discussion I am having with followers of the Facebook Commentary.

 

When Revelation speaks of the wrath of the nations (Rev 11:18) and the wrath of the dragon (Rev 12:12, 17), it is not a compliment. It represents irrational fury grounded in hatred and diabolical desire to destroy both lives and the environment. To then turn around and apply the same term to God can be unsettling (14:10, 19; 15:1, 7; 16:1, 19; 19:15). Can God be irrationally destructive too? Does God have a dark side? Why is the book of Revelation so full of divine wrath? How can we reconcile God’s wrath with the idea that God is love?

Regarding the wrath of God, I can think of at least six circumstances in which God’s wrath is invoked in the Bible, some of them actively and others passively. First, God sometimes speaks of destructive things Satan or the nations do as if He Himself had done them. In other words, He takes responsibility for actions that He simply allows to happen. A good example of this is the destruction of Jerusalem by Nebuchanezzar. God speaks of it as an active judgment, but then makes clear that He is simply allowing Nebuchanezzar to do what he wants to do. God withholds His protection from His people because of their rebellion against Him (Jer 20:4-5; 21:2-10; 25:1-11). Second, the “wrath of God” in the Bible is often His sadly turning away from people who don’t want Him, allowing them to reap the consequences of their own decisions and actions. This is illustrated in Romans 1:18-28 where the wrath of God against human rebellion (Rom 1:18) is explained as God “giving them up” to the consequences of their rebellion. Third, wrath is sometimes use to describe God’s aggressive action to deliver His people, as in the Exodus from Egypt (Exod 15:7). Fourth, God sometimes acts aggressively to restrain evil when it is in danger of getting out of control, as in the Flood story. Fifth, God sometimes acts aggressively in order to get people’s attention. Sixth, God sometimes acts or doesn’t act in order to reveal the characters of Satan or of Satan’s followers. The big question here is, which of these motivations lies behind the wrath of a loving God in Revelation 16? How do you reconcile the seven last plagues with the love of the God who is most clearly revealed in the gracious, forgiving and self-sacrificing actions of Jesus Christ?

The seven last bowl-plagues at first glance seem to be direct actions of judgment on God’s part. Each of the plagues results from an action that originates in the heavenly sanctuary. The Exodus background of the bowl-plagues reminds the reader of God’s direct intervention in Egypt. The purpose of that intervention was to deliver God’s people from slavery. Read in this way, the seven bowl-plagues would be interventions of God to deliver His people from end-time Babylon. Allusions to the ancient fall of Babylon in the sixth and seventh bowls would support the same theme. A loving God acts to deliver His faithful ones from their oppressors.

The bowl-plagues fall on the earth after the close of human probation (the empty temple in heaven—Rev 15:7-8). If they are, as the text seems on the surface to suggest, active interventions of God, what is the point of such plagues if human beings are no longer willing to repent? It would be to expose the reality of their characters. In spite of the final proclamation of the gospel (Rev 14:6-7), in spite of desperate threats (Rev 14:8-11), in spite of everything in their lives going wrong (the bowl-plagues), the wicked ones’ defiance toward God and stubborn refusal to repent only increases (Rev 16:9, 11, 21). The bowl-plagues demonstrate that the character of those who oppose God and His people has become hardened in unrepentence. No amount of time or effort will win them back. A loving God does not force people into relationship with Him. If they stubbornly refuse to repent, He eventually lets them go to reap the consequences of their choices.

Sigve Tonstad offers another way to read Revelation 16. He sees it as an end-time revelation of Satan’s character. Tonstad admits that at first glance Revelation 15:7 – 16:1 implies that God is about to do something terrible. But rather than simply accept a surface reading of the text, he suggests that in the seven bowls God is permitting Satan to take nearly total control of this earth and to thereby demonstrate what his government of the universe would be like if he achieved his goal to “be like the Most High” (Isa 14:14, KJV). He points to Revelation 16:13-14 as direct evidence that demonic activity lies behind the fearsome plagues of the chapter. The surface current of Revelation reads as if the seven bowls-plagues were active, punitive judgments of God on the unrighteous after the close of human probation. But the demonic undercurrent of the book may be more important in this chapter than most commentators have allowed in the past.

Tonstad points to the clear parallels between the seven bowls and the seven trumpets. The seven trumpets also read, at first glance, as active judgments of God. But there is abundant evidence in the seven trumpets that it is the operation of Satan that is the cause of the destruction, not God (Rev 8:10-11; 9:1-5, 11, 14-15). God releases His tight control over Satan to allow him to reveal his destructive character. Tonstad reasons, from the strong parallels between the trumpets and the bowls, that they also should be read in terms of divine permission for the “Destroyer” (Rev 9:11) to reveal his destructive character. Both the trumpets and the bowls are completing a process that begins with the crisis in the heavenly council over the character and government of God (Rev 15:2, 7, cf. 5:1-5). The deceptive and destructive character of the one who slanders the character of God must be exposed (Rev 16:14) that the true character of God may be revealed (Rev 15:3-4). In the larger scheme of things (the cosmic conflict), God loosens His restraint of Satan in the trumpets and bowls so that the character of Satan can be fully revealed. A loving God wants His creatures to know the character of their adversary, so they will not place their trust in his leadership or in the words that he speaks against God. The images of Revelation can be disturbing at times, but from the perspective of the cosmic conflict, they are consistent with the actions of a loving, other-centered God.

In conclusion, the love of God is essential to His character. It has been there from eternity past. Wrath is not essential to God’s character, it is a reactive force grounded in God’s love. As one who cares deeply about the welfare of His creatures, God is distressed when His creatures hurt each other and hurt themselves by their behavior. But He does not force constructive behavior, instead he persuades; sometimes by intervention and sometimes by allowing sin to take its course. But even his aggressive interventions are grounded in His other-centered character that desires what is best for His creatures, but does not force them to adopt His ways of thinking and acting. As we approach the close of earth’s history, the book of Revelation seeks to arrest the attention of the world by demonstrating the consequences of rebellion and self-centeredness. Whether one sees the seven last plagues as active or passive judgments, a loving purpose lies behind.

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