This article will be on the subject of God’s wrath and retribution. It is a continuation of a four-part series on the subjects of partial preterism, God’s sovereignty (determinism/Calvinism/Augustinianism), God’s love (free will/Arminianism/Pelagianism), God getting what He wants (apokatastasis/universalism/reconciliation), and God’s wrath (justice/judgment/retribution). There is a separate article (here) that summarizes the subjects in this series if you want something less extensive.

I also suggest that you read the previous articles in this series (linked above), so you won’t be lost. These subjects have a lot to do with my eschatology. But it should be understood that when we talk about eschatology, we are really talking about the character, power, will, and love of God. This series still won’t be exhaustive, but it will be a little more detailed than my summary article on eschatology. If you have any questions or want a more detailed response, you can contact me, and I’ll be happy to chat.

What have We Learned Thus Far?

In short, the previous articles discussed partial preterism, the tension between free will and determinism, and God restoring all people and all things to Himself (universalism). Partial preterism is the theological understanding that most of the NT (New Testament) and OT (Old Testament) prophecies have already been fulfilled in Jesus and in the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD. The word “hell” is in reference to a physical place outside of Jerusalem where the Jews were thrown into the fires of Gehenna (hell) by the Roman Empire. That is why Jesus always used the “hell” language in and around Jerusalem. A literal view of hell would be the physical place and the destruction of Jerusalem.

The tension between free will and determinism is that free will says that God wants to save all, but He can’t, and determinism says that God can save all, but He won’t. Some form of free will is required for love, and God is love. We were made by love to be loved and to love in return. However, free will also means that we can reject God and His agape (selfless love). Some people are offended by the idea of God not getting what He wants because that means He would not be sovereign (all-powerful, all-knowing, and ever-present). I agree! But God controlling us and predetermining certain people to spend eternity with Him and certain people to be destined to spend eternity in torment to fulfill God’s desires is deeply troubling to me and inconsistent with the character of Jesus. Is there another option?

My way of reconciling this tension is called hopeful universalism. I believe that hopeful universalism respects the Scripture, the free will of man, the love of God, the sovereignty of God, the Character of Jesus, and the overarching narrative of the Bible. Hopeful universalism is the confident expectation that all people will ultimately be reconciled to God for eternity so that He will be all in all. There is nothing in Scripture that contradicts this idea, and there are many things in Scripture that celebrate it. This is not a new view. Hopeful universalism was the primary eschatological view for the first 400 years of Christianity. Even if you reject it because of the bias of a particular biblical perspective, there is no denying that there are people who believed in hopeful universalism from no later than 100 years after the completion of Scripture. It was not just present but prevalent. In fact, Gregory of Nyssa, the “father to the church fathers” and the most trusted contributor of the Nicene Creed, was a well-respected universalist. God works within our free will to ultimately accomplish His. Even if that happens in some postmortem fire that refines. Every knee will bow, and tongue confess gladly that Jesus is Lord.

Okay, But what about all of These Wrath and Retribution Passages?

First of all, I want to say that I could write a book about this. People have! One book, for example, is a two-volume and 1500-page work by Dr. Greggory Boyd called “Crucifixion of the Warrior God.” There’s another three-part series by Dr. Brad Jersak. A More Christlike God, A More Christlike Way, and A More Christlike Word. If I had to guess, that series is about 800 pages.

If you read the works mentioned above, you will notice that there’s as much “unlearning” as there is learning. These books spend a great deal of time teaching us what the earliest church believed about the interpretation of Scripture, the purpose of the cross, and the character of God. We have had 2,000 years and a VERY individualistic culture to completely distort the meaning of the words of God. It is not good enough to ask what the Bible says. We must also ask what it means.

Last week, I was doing some writing at a local McDonald’s, and a nice gentleman randomly came up and said (very loudly), “every Republican man, woman, and child needs to grab their guns and make January 6 look like Disneyland if Trump isn’t president by the end of the year! God told Joshua to take their nation by force, and He would want us to do the same!!!”

Hmmm… looks like unicorns aren’t that hard to find anymore. They sometimes find you when you’re not even looking! God help us if we deny that how we teach Scripture matters and if we deny that people REALLY are THAT serious about violence as an appropriate response to not getting their way. Whatever happened to the Sermon on the Mount?

The Hebrew writer says that it is a terrifying thing to be in the hands of God (Heb. 10). If we look in the OT, that becomes abundantly apparent. Was the gentleman at McDonald’s correct? Are there Scriptures that tell us that God’s character sometimes condones unsolicited war, genocide, the killing of children, stoning of people picking up sticks, bears killing some boys who think baldness is funny, fire coming down to devour enemies, people being killed for lying about their giving, etc…..?

And if so, how do we reconcile this with Jesus and the Sermon on the Mount?

Jesus is the Word of God

In Jersak’s book, A More Christlike Word, He writes about his conversation with one of his mentors. Brad was wrestling with this same idea. He loved Scripture and wanted to take it seriously, but he felt like there was a disconnect between some things in the Bible and the character of Jesus, the character of a God who calls Himself “agape.” His mentor responded, “Jesus is the Word of God. And any Scripture that claims to be a revelation of that God must bow to the living God when He came in the flesh.”

Honestly, I could sit here all day and just quote Brad Jersak, Greg Boyd, and Brian Zahnd (Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God…great read). The point is that the Bible is a tool that we should respect, but it isn’t God. The only infallible and inerrant Word of God is Jesus Christ. He is what God has to say about Himself. Take a minute a read what Scripture has to say about the mystery of God revealed in the person of Jesus Christ (John 1:1-5,14-18; 5:37-39; 1 Cor. 2; Hebrews 1; Col. Ch. 1-2, etc.). Nobody has seen God unless they see Him in Jesus.

Brian Zahnd speaks to the fact that there are many “witnesses” of Jesus. I want to talk about that for a minute. The Gospel of John highlights the witnesses of Jesus as well. First, there’s the witness of Scripture (OT prophecy). Second, there is the witness of God’s voice from Heaven. Next, there is the Holy Spirit who descended upon Jesus and revealed the power of the Father in Him. Fourth, His works functioned as a witness of His character and authority. John the Baptist was a witness. Last, the people who Jesus interacted with bore witness to who He was (the apostles and others).

Are these witnesses reliable and inerrant? John the Baptist was not perfect; he was only human. And even he doubted Jesus as the Messiah in the end (Luke 7:19). Miracles are literally the definition of “awesome.” However, we have examples of God’s chosen people abusing miracles. Elijah wasn’t supposed to call fire down from Heaven. Moses received the water from the rock and rod even though it wasn’t what God wanted him to do. The people in 1 Corinthians 12-14 were able to use their power against God’s will. God gave them power and authority, and they abused it. He allowed that to happen even though it did not reveal His will. Many people can do good works. That doesn’t mean they are always right. And even if it looks right, it doesn’t mean that it is. People often do good work with poor motives. The people Jesus interacted with fled from Him in the end. And even after the apostles came back (and even wrote some of our NT epistles), they were not perfect. Paul told the Philippian church that he hadn’t reached perfection. He made it clear in 1 Corinthians that he wasn’t writing God’s literal words (or else God has some MAJOR memory problems). Paul had to call Peter out to his face because of racism and legalism (see Galatians). John made it very apparent that he had trouble forgiving Judas. Peter himself says that Scripture can be really confusing (2 Peter 3:16).

But God bore witness to Jesus in a very audible way. The first time was at the baptism of Jesus. He said, “this is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased.” The second time was on the Mount of transfiguration. Jesus meets with Moses and Elijah. They represent the law and the prophets of the OT. God speaks from Heaven and again says, this is my beloved son, in whom I am well pleased. Listen to Him!” Peter was ready to equate Jesus with Elijah and Moses and build a tabernacle for them. However, God told Peter to listen to Jesus. Ignore Moses and Elijah? God forbid! But Jesus is the exact image of the Father. He is the infallible Word of God. Peter, John, and James fell on their faces in fear of the voice of God. They knew they had made a mistake and were not worthy of His perfect presence. But get this, Jesus spoke to them and said, “Get up and do not be afraid.” They lifted their eyes and saw Jesus alone (Matt. 17:8).

Anything that calls itself a revelation or witness of God must bow down to the person and character of Jesus Christ. You know, the one who says to forgive those who do not ask. The one who says to endlessly show mercy to your enemies and do good to them. The one who shows us the only perfect revelation of who God is!

Why does an overly literalist view of Scripture have to be considered the only way one can be considered to have a “high” or “conservative” view of Scripture? I revere Scripture more than I ever have. I take it seriously! I try to conserve the meaning of the text as much as humanly possible and trust God’s grace and guidance when I fail. I would consider myself to be conservative with the text and have a high view of the authority of Scripture. Jesus had a high view of Scripture too! So did Paul. So did the early church writers! I’m in good company.

Wouldn’t the assumption (even a subconscious assumption) that Scripture is inerrant just because it is God-breathed be a liberal assumption with a low view of the integrity of Scripture? The Bible doesn’t say that about itself! I mean, aren’t we ALL “God-breathed?” Aren’t all Christians, filled with the Spirit, profitable (literally, “useful”) for teaching, correction, training, and conviction? I sure hope so (2 Tim. 3:16)!

Admittedly, I do think that there is a special sense in which the Bible is inspired. I think He did directly speak to people in a way He doesn’t today. I take the prophets and apostles of the NT extremely seriously. But Jesus is my ultimate authority. I won’t chase the rabbit because this is already long enough, and I’ve chased it in previous articles, but the Bible wasn’t in the form that we have it in until an entire “USA” after the destruction of Jerusalem. Let that sink in! However, that never bothered the early Christians between the completion of the book of Revelation and the agreed-upon canon 300 years later. There was good enough evidence to have a general idea as to who wrote what, to whom, when, and for what purpose. Most people could not afford to have their own copies, didn’t have it in their language, lived in an area where it was illegal, and couldn’t read.

The Bible is a collection of books, not a single book. It has various contexts, time periods, genres, authors, and so on. However, collectively, all the books tell a single story. And, as Dr. Pete Enns says, God let His children tell the story. God didn’t fully reveal Himself until He did so in the Word of God, Jesus Christ. Until then, Israel “wrestled with God” (the meaning of the word “Israel”) in their own words. That’s true after then as well (during the time of the apostles). That’s true now in us! (Sidenote: Check out Pete’s books The Sin of Certainty, The Bible Tells Me So, and How the Bible Actually Works)

I think that, at the VERY least, God meets His children where they are and gives them as much as they can handle in their culture. The Jewish law, even from a literalist perspective, is outstanding compared to most law codes during that time period. That’s not universal, but it’s relatively true. So, perhaps God did inspire what we would consider to be vengeful, retributive, and wrathful language to meet them where they were. For example, think of the principle of Jesus telling the leaders that God only allowed divorce laws in the OT because of the hardness of their hearts. Not everything in the law was God’s ideal will. But He made exceptions.

Furthermore, we have to remember that Israel was not only a religious community, but it was also an ethnic and governmental community. Some laws had a symbolic point behind them. Other laws were moral. Still, other laws were so they could function as a country. Perhaps God met them where they were at. We are privileged to be living now. The world is relatively tame, believe it or not. At least compared with the world 3,000 years ago.

Even still, I think that God allowed the authors to bring their assumptions, experiences, context, norms, traditions, and feelings into the text. Sometimes that might manifest itself in hyperbole or metaphor (as some people assume in order to explain the Joshua genocide away). However, many times, we see how a community of inspired writers wrestled with God and even abused their powers and authority in the process.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus explains the intentions behind the law. He gives the Jews what God originally wanted them to have when Moses gave his own “Sermon on the Mount.” He says, “you heard…but I say…” Jesus then goes on to live out the intentions of the law perfectly. He completes the retelling of the law showing us the seriousness of our sinfulness on the cross, yet saying, “God forgive them.” He shows us the seriousness of His mercy and power by rising again and saying, “peace be with you.” Jesus is the exact image of the Father. All Scripture must bow down to the Word of God. He is the ultimate authority. He is the only infallible one. He is truth.

Oh Yeah! I was Supposed to Talk about Wrath!…

I’m sure I’ll write on specific passages and examples in future articles. If you have any ideas, send them to me. And please send questions if you want to contact me and ask for more specifics! For now, I’ll give a few final words on wrath until next time.

  1. Almost every time the word “punishment” is used in the NT, it uses the Greek word “Kolasis.” That word means correction, chastisement, and refining. Not retribution or vengeance. Punishment is a means to an end, not arbitrary and final.
  2. Many times, translators translate wrath “of God” when “of God” isn’t in the text. There are times when the text says, “wrath of God,” but it isn’t often.
  3. “The wrath” was a euphemism in ancient times to reference coming wars, natural calamities, and intense consequences.
  4. Paul shows us clearly that God’s wrath is simply a “giving us over to” the natural consequences of sin. God is life, love, peace, and joy. Sin is the opposite of that. Psalm 7 also gives a good picture of this. The Psalmist is frustrated and spends the first 14 verses saying God is going to bring vengeance. But look at verses 15-17. The vengeance, retribution, and indignation of God are really allowing the free will and evil nature of the enemy to bear the fruit of his actions.
  5. There is a theory I will write on eventually that really gets to the core of this. It is called “Penal Substitutionary Atonement.” It is the idea that Jesus made a transaction with God on the cross for our benefit. Basically, God killed His own son because He was angry and “had to” (What???) for the sake of justice. That was not the primary view of the early church. Is that imagery occasionally used as a metaphor? Sure! Sometimes Paul uses legal and transactional terminology. But PSA is not sound theology. I’ll talk more about that later.
  6. Agape is God’s nature. He IS love. Every other characteristic attributed to Him, even if it’s true, must be under the umbrella of His love for all. The OT talks about God sleeping. He doesn’t literally sleep. These human attributes are anthropomorphisms of God. The writers are speaking of spiritual truth about God in the best way that humans can understand it.
  7. In Revelation 19:11-16, the wrath of the “Word of God” came in the form of Jesus in an already bloodied robe pre-war. And His sword was the words of His mouth. There is a final judgment. There is justice. But it is most certainly not petty bitterness and revenge. It is not retribution in the way we often think of it. It is real, it is severe, and it should be avoided. But it is our own consequences for rejecting the words of life. It is a justice of ultimate restoration.


Jesus is the same God yesterday, today, and forever. That should scare us if we miss the context! But if we read the Gospels, especially the Sermon on the Mount, we see that God is non-violent. We see that His “wrath” is really Him letting the prodigal son learn from his mistakes and come home after he goes through his own hell. We see that His vengeance is the refining fire that restores our hearts from within. God is love! – Jesse

Also See: Being Afraid of a Never-Changing God