The Good News About the Bad News

One of the most unpopular truths of the Bible is that God is a God of wrath and judgment.

Nikolas Noonan 682178 Unsplash

Many people think this puts the God of the Bible on the same level as the primitive pagan deities who must be appeased with pain and suffering. But when we look closely and think carefully about what the Bible teaches on this subject, a different picture emerges. Paul says in Romans 2:16 that the judgment of God is part of the good news of the gospel: “in the day when God will judge the secrets of men by Jesus Christ, according to my gospel.” The judgment of God is good news! How come?

It’s a truth that enables me to trust God

Rob Bell created quite a stir in 2011 with his best-selling book, Love Wins. In the promotional video he did for the book he said:

Millions and millions of people were taught that the primary message, the centre of the gospel of Jesus, is that God is going to send you to hell unless you believe in Jesus. So what gets subtly sort of caught and taught is that Jesus rescues you from God. How could that God ever be good? How could that God ever be trusted? And how could that ever be good news?

Without dealing with all the strawmen and misrepresentations in this short paragraph,1 let’s look at his question, “How could that God ever be trusted?” The reason a God of judgment can be trusted is precisely because His judgment is against sin. He isn’t like some psychotic bully who inflicts pain for the fun of it. He is a good judge who passes sentence on people for the wrong they have done.

Imagine a child goes to his parents to confess to them about a wrong that he has done or to confide in them about a wrong that has been done to him. He pours out his heart, and his parents just shrug and do nothing. How would that child feel? His confidence in his parents would be shattered. He had done something that harmed others, or others had done something that harmed him, and his parents don’t care. If this is the way his parents are then he will think, “So that’s the kind of people you are? That’s it, I’m on my own. There’s no one for me to turn to.” If, however, his parents took the issue seriously, and either disciplined him for what he had done, or acted to defend him from what was done to him, he will have increased confidence in his parents.

C. S. Lewis wrote about how the sight of suffering in the world troubled him and caused him to think, not that God didn’t exist, but, “So this is what God’s really like.”2 Similarly, if God looked at all the evil and injustice in the world and determined to do nothing about it, what would that tell us about Him? Imagine if the things that outraged you didn’t outrage God; could you trust Him? As Lewis wrote elsewhere, “A God who did not regard this with unappeasable distaste would not be a good being.”3

The theologian, Wayne Grudem, said, “It is helpful for us to ask what God would be like if He were a God who did not hate sin. He would then be a God who either delighted in sin or at least was not troubled by it. Such a God would not be worthy of our worship, for sin is hateful and it is worthy of being hated.”4

The Old Testament prophet, Habakkuk, had a crisis of faith, not because he thought God was a God of judgment, but because he feared He wasn’t. His people were being oppressed by the wicked Babylonians and God was doing nothing about it. Habakkuk prays, “O Lord, how long shall I cry, and You will not hear? ... And justice never goes forth. For the wicked surround the righteous; Therefore perverse judgment proceeds” (1:2,4). God answers his cries by assuring him that He will judge. He is not blind or apathetic. He is saying, in effect, “Habakkuk, you can trust Me, I will judge.”

The god of the deist is a god who winds up the machinery of the universe and sets it in motion and is never seen again. He is a god who is blind to our tears and deaf to our cries. Such a god is not trustworthy.

The god of the liberal is a god who welcomes everyone into heaven and punishes no one for what they have done. Ultimately, what you do doesn’t matter. A man can rape a woman, abuse a child, destroy lives, and the god of the liberal will do precisely nothing about it. Such a god is not trustworthy.

The God of the Bible is a God who takes sin seriously, and will judge it righteously. He tells us not to take vengeance, not because vengeance is wrong, but because we aren’t in a position to administer it properly without it destroying us in the process. He tells us not to take vengeance because He will do it: "Beloved, do not avenge yourselves, but rather give place to wrath; for it is written, 'Vengeance is Mine, I will repay,' says the Lord. Therefore 'If your enemy hungers, feed him...'" (Romans 12:19-20).

"The God of the Bible is a God who takes sin seriously, and will judge it righteously."

Timothy Keller points out, “If I don’t believe that there is a God who will eventually put all things right, I will take up the sword and will be sucked into the endless vortex of retaliation. Only if I am sure that there’s a God who will right all wrongs and settle all accounts perfectly do I have the power to refrain.”5

So is it good news that God is a God of judgment? Think of the alternative! Yes, it’s good news.

It’s a truth that enables me to love God

It may seem counterintuitive to think that the thought of God’s judgment would enable us to love Him. I understand why. Many people have the idea of a god who accepts you into heaven if you are good enough and puts you into hell if you aren’t. I could fear, serve and obey a god like that, but I would honestly struggle to love him. But that’s not the God of the Bible. The God of the Bible says that none of us is good enough for heaven. Each one of us has incurred His wrath and deserves His judgment, yet He loves us anyway, and has made it possible for us to be saved from the judgment we deserve, at infinite cost to Himself.

Where does the common notion of a loving God come from? It’s not something that strikes you as immediately obvious as you look at nature. It’s not something that comes from the “holy” books of world religions. It is something that comes from the Bible, and where does the Bible point us to show us God’s love in action? “But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:8).

Who is the Lord Jesus and why did He die? If He is a creature, whether a mere man or a mighty angel, it would not serve as any proof of God’s love that He died. But the Bible tells us He is not a creature, but the creator. He is God Himself, the eternal Son of the Father. And if He died merely to enter into our pain, or to make us love Him, or to give us an example, it wouldn’t really be a display of love. It would be an unnecessary (and even insulting) act of emotional manipulation. There was more going on at Calvary than anyone could see. At midday the land was darkened. Thallus, a first century historian, said it was an eclipse, but given this was Passover time an eclipse is impossible.6 If Thallus had read the Old Testament he would know what the darkness meant. Repeatedly in the Hebrew Scriptures God says that darkness during the daytime is a symbol of God acting in judgment (see, for example, Deuteronomy 28:29; Isaiah 59:9-10; Joel 2:2, 31; Amos 8:9). The darkness at noon indicated that God was judging, but the judgment didn’t fall on the sinners, it fell on His Son.

God’s greatest act of judgment was His greatest act of love: He “did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all” (Romans 8:32). The demands of God’s justice could not be set aside, but in the giving of His Son, the demands of His justice were satisfied. The Lord Jesus Christ gave Himself as man’s representative to endure the judgment that our sin deserved. He paid the penalty in full, and proved that by rising from the dead. So the truth of God’s love is not undermined by His wrath, it is underlined by His wrath. The Lord Jesus did not merely bear the pains of crucifixion at Calvary – He bore the wrath I deserved.

"So the truth of God’s love is not undermined by His wrath, it is underlined by His wrath."

Many people dispense with the notion of God’s wrath in an attempt to make Him more loving, but it actually makes Him less loving. It means that Christ suffered in a way many others have suffered. But when we think of Him experiencing the torment of God’s wrath we see He suffered in a way no one in this world has suffered.

The gods of religion have sacrificed nothing for you and suffered nothing for you. The God of the Bible has sacrificed Himself and suffered everything for you. That’s a God I can love.

It’s a truth that enables me to hope in God

The Psalms are brimming with hope that God is going to judge. For example:

Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad; let the sea roar, and all its fullness; let the field be joyful, and all that is in it. Then all the trees of the woods will rejoice before the Lord. For He is coming, for He is coming to judge the earth. He shall judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with His truth. (Psalm 96:11-13)

Let the sea roar, and all its fullness, the world and those who dwell in it; let the rivers clap their hands; let the hills be joyful together the Lord, for He is coming to judge the earth. With righteousness He shall judge the world, and the peoples with equity. (Psalm 98:7-9).

Throughout the psalms there is an earnest longing and joyful anticipation for justice to be done. Injustice, cruelty and oppression won’t go on forever. Sin will be expelled from the world; righteousness will dwell (2 Peter 3:13).

As we look around us today we can be glad it won’t always be like this. God has appointed a day in which He will judge the world in righteousness (Acts 17:31).

But before we get too comfortable with the idea of God’s judgment, let’s remember that if it is a righteous judgment then that condemns us all. There is this tension in the Psalms. While it is true that there is a desire for judgment, there is also a dread of it:

If You, Lord, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? (Psalm 130:3)

Do not enter into judgment with Your servant, for in Your sight no one living is righteous. (Psalm 143:2)

God has provided the perfect shelter for us in Christ. He has born the judgment, so all who take refuge in Him, and make Him their only plea for acceptance with God, have nothing to fear from God’s judgment. The Bible gives the wonderful guarantee that, “There is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1).

God’s judgment is coming. The warning of the Bible is to “flee from the wrath to come” (Matthew 3:7). If you flee to Christ He will take in.

Notes

  1. I’ve done that in my book, He that Believeth Not: The Errors of Universalism and Annihilationism Explored, John Ritchie Ltd, 2013.
  2. C.S. Lewis, A Grief Observed, Faber and Faber, 2013, p. 8.
  3. C.S. Lewis, The Problem of Pain, HarperOne, 2001, p. 11.
  4. Wayne Grudem, Bible Doctrine, Essential teachings of the Christian Faith, IVP, 1999, p. 95.
  5. Timothy Keller, The Reason for God, Belief in an Age of Scepticism, Hodder & Stoughton, 2008, p. 75.
  6. See The Extant Writings of Julius Africanus, 18.1.