Gaddafi in death, courtesy of InformationNigeria.org
By Spencer D Gear
Is the death of Muammar Gaddafi an example of the wrath of God in action? In the brief article from Nigeria, ‘Muammar Gaddafi is dead??‘, there was a comment, ‘Any tongue dat shall rise against Nigeria shall be destroyed in Jesus name. So I advise our politicians to beware bcos d wrath of God can fall on any one who does not want PEACE for Nigeria’. There was a Nigerian news item from Information Nigeria, ‘Fleeing Gaddafi forces, officials stray into Northern Nigeria’.
The exact date of Gaddafi’s murder is not known, but the British Guardian newspaper reported, ‘Muammar Gaddafi is dead says Libyan PM‘, on Thursday, 20 October 2011. This is an example of some of the horror that happens in our human world. But is it the wrath of God in action?
As we shall see, this is a dangerous view to state that the wrath of God can be experienced by those who do not want peace with Nigeria. The wrath of God contains much more substance than this fleeting comment by a letter-to-the editor, following the death of this dictator, even though he was known for his violence and injustice. We need to get it clear that God’s wrath is serious and not associated with peace for Nigeria. It is associated with peace between rebel human beings and God. Why would I call all people rebels? A rebel is ‘one who refuses allegiance to , resists, or rises in arms against the established government or ruler’ (The Macquarie Dictionary 1997:1776). All human beings are rebels against the law of God.
It’s a biblical fact:
Now we know that the law is good, if one uses it lawfully, understanding this, that the law is not laid down for the just but for the lawless and disobedient, for the ungodly and sinners, for the unholy and profane, for those who strike their fathers and mothers, for murderers, the sexually immoral, men who practise homosexuality, enslavers, liars, perjurers, and whatever else is contrary to sound doctrine (1 Tim. 1:8-10)
Jeremiah 17:9 affirms that ‘The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it?’ Remember Jonathan Edwards famous sermon preached in 1741 , ‘Sinners in the hands of an angry God‘?
What is the wrath of God?
Do we have a description of the wrath of God and have we seen it in action historically? It is important to understand that the wrath of God is as essential an attribute of God’s nature as his love and justice.
We know from 1 John 4:8 that ‘God is love’. ‘God’s love means that God eternally gives of himself to others’ (Grudem 1994:198).
What about God’s justice?
In English, there are two different words for righteousness and justice, but in the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament there is only one word group to cover the meaning of ‘righteousness’ and ‘justice’ (Grudem 1994:203). Remember how Moses described God’s actions? God, ‘the Rock, his work is perfect, for all his ways are justice. A God of faithfulness and without iniquity, just and upright is he’ (Deut. 32:4). Abraham made a successful petition to God’s character (attribute) of justice: ‘Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?’ (Gen. 18:25). God himself stated, ‘The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart’ (Psalm 19:8a) and ‘I the Lord speak the truth; I declare what is right’ (Isa. 45:19b).
The wrath of God is as much an outworking of the nature of God as God’s righteousness/justice.
When I speak of the anger/wrath of God, I mean that God ‘intensely hates all sin’ (Grudem 1994:206) and acts towards such sin in his own unique way. We see evidence of the outworking of God’s wrath in the Scriptures when God’s people sinned against God. When God saw the idolatry of the Israelites in Moses’ day, the Lord God said to Moses,
“I have seen this people, and behold, it is a stiff-necked people. Now therefore let me alone, that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them, in order that I may make a great nation of you” (Ex. 32:9-10).
Another example is in Deut. 9:7-8,
Remember and do not forget how you provoked the LORD your God to wrath in the wilderness. From the day you came out of the land of Egypt until you came to this place, you have been rebellious against the LORD. Even at Horeb you provoked the LORD to wrath, and the LORD was so angry with you that he was ready to destroy you.
The wrath of God is not only an attribute of God that is demonstrated by OT actions, but we have this warning from the NT, ‘ Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him’ (John 3:36) and ‘For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and unrighteousness of men, who by their unrighteousness suppress the truth’ (Rom. 1:18).
Therefore, all who do not experience eternal life through Jesus Christ, the Son of God, will experience the wrath of God. Therefore, since Gaddafi, who to my knowledge did not experience salvation through Jesus Christ alone, he will now be experiencing the wrath of God. However, we do not know what Gaddafi decided to do in the last minutes and seconds of his life. Only God knows that.
This experience of the wrath of God applies to ALL who have not committed their lives to Jesus Christ for salvation. John 3:36 is definite: Eternal life (Christian salvation) is experienced only by those who continue to believe in Jesus Christ alone for salvation. Acts 4:11-12 could not be clearer:
This Jesus is the stone that was rejected by you, the builders, which has become the cornerstone. And there is salvation in no one else, for there is no other name under heaven given among men by which we must be saved.
What’s the difference between the essence of God and the attributes of God?
How do we determine what is an ‘attribute’ of God? The attributes of God have a foundation, and that is the nature of God. Formerly, this was called the ‘essence’ or ‘substance’ of God. Essence and substance are used synonymously here. I prefer to use the term ‘nature’ of God as synonymous with essence/substance. Thiessen defines God’s essence as ‘that which underlies all outward manifestation; the reality itself, whether material or immaterial’ and the attributes are an outworking of this essence (1949:119). So, an attribute is an action that is a manifestation of the essence of some thing or person.
However, there are times when attributes look like essence. H. B. Smith noted this when he recognised that some things that are labelled as attributes, could be, ‘strictly speaking’, a different aspect of the divine substance (in Thiessen 1949:119).
In this aspect of the essence of God that some see as not referring to attributes but essence, we are speaking of God’s spirituality, his being immaterial and incorporeal (without a body), invisible, alive and a person. Other aspects of God’s essence are his self-existence, immensity, and eternity (Thiessen 1949:119-123).
It is important to note that God’s attributes are a permanent outworking from His nature. ‘The attributes are permanent qualities. They cannot be gained or lost. They are intrinsic…. God’s attributes are essential and inherent dimensions of his very nature’ (Millard Erickson 1985:265).
While this differentiation is helpful, there is a fundamental aspect of the essence of God that needs to be clarified as a foundation. This is the fact that ‘God eternally exists as three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and each person is fully God, and there is one God’ (Wayne Grudem 1994:226). Grudem summarises this aspect of the essence of the nature of God as a Trinity:
- God is three persons.
- Each person is fully God.
- There is one God (Grudem 1994:230).
Since God’s wrath will be experienced by all who live in unrighteousness and die without experiencing Christ’s salvation, there is no way to know whether Gaddafi did not repent and turn to Christ in the closing days, hours and minutes of his life. Only God knows this. However, we do know that all who do not repent of their sins and turn to Christ alone for eternal salvation, will experience the wrath of God.
How can the wrath of God be appeased before death for any individual? To appease means to be brought to a state of peace with God so that the wrath of God will not be experienced?
God’s wrath & Jesus Christ’s propitiation
There are frequent Bible verses that speak of the wrath of God against sin. See Rom. 1:18; 2:5, 8; 4:15; 5:9; 9:22; 12:19; 13:3-5; Eph. 2:3; 5:6; Col. 3:6; 1 Thess. 1:10; 2:16; 5:9. So when Paul speaks of Christ’s hilasterion, he can’t be only referring to the covering for sin and cleaning the corruption of human beings (an idea conveyed by expiation), but Christ’s sacrifice needed to appease the God who stated:
There are six things that the LORD hates,
seven that are an abomination to him:
haughty eyes, a lying tongue,
and hands that shed innocent blood,
a heart that devises wicked plans,
feet that make haste to run to evil,
a false witness who breathes out lies,
and one who sows discord among brothers (Proverbs 6:16-19).
This word, ‘propitiation’, is not one that we hear very much from the evangelical pulpits in my part of Australia. Why? Propitiation is not a common word in the Australian English language. My observation is that not much doctrine of this nature is preached from our pulpits.
The Macquarie Dictionary (1997:1712) defines the verb, ‘propitiate’, as ‘to make favourably inclined; appease; conciliate’. We would most often use conciliation rather than propitiation or appeasement in everyday conversation. How can there be conciliation between sinful, rebellious human beings and the absolutely pure and just God Almighty, ruler of heaven and earth who states of Himself, ‘The Lord has established his throne in the heavens and his kingdom rules over all’ (Psalm 103:19).
However, for anyone to enter God’s presence, it cannot be done without God’s appeasing all unrighteous thoughts and actions towards Him. How can this occur? The NT is very clear:
For all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith. This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus (Rom. 3:23-26).
Since the wrath of God is one of the attributes that is an outworking of the nature of God, it is God also who should decided how the wrath towards all human beings can be conciliated, appeased, propitiated so that we can enter God’s presence. God has been very clear about this. It is only through belief in, acceptance of salvation through Christ’s shed blood.
That is why the doctrine of propitiation is so important to the believer. Christ’s blood sacrifice on the cross appeased the wrath of God as indicated in Rom. 3:25-26; Heb. 2:17; 1 John 2:2; 4:10. This propitiation is being weakened by some theologians today who want it to mean expiation. For example, the NIV translates Rom. 3:25-26; Heb. 2:17; 1 John 2:2; and 4:10 as sacrifice of atonement, atonement or atoning sacrifice.
Many evangelical Christians have not accepted the idea that propitiation = expiation. It was back in 1935 that C. H. Dodd (1935:82-95) opposed the doctrine that Jesus bore God’s wrath against sin. The basic idea of theological liberals is that propitiation may have been common with the pagans but it is foreign to the teaching of OT and NT writers. They assume that because God is love, it would be contradictory for God to love the human beings he created but then inflict His wrath on them. Therefore, they denied propitiation as consistent with the nature of God and used the replacement term, expiation, which means ‘an action that cleanses from sin’ that does not include the teaching on appeasing God’s wrath (Grudem 1994:575 n13).
Dodd’s argument was that the Greek verb, hilaskomai, and its cognates from the LXX could not be applied to Rom. 3:25. Instead, according to Dodd, the meaning in Rom. 3:25 is that of expiation and is contrary to the view of most translators and commentators who are wrong (Dodd 1935:94). Instead of God’s wrath being appeased by the death of Christ, Christ’s sacrifice was to cleanse or cover a person’s sins and uncleanness. One of Dodd’s arguments is that God is almost never the object of the verbs that describe the atonement in the LXX. His view was that ‘the LXX translators did not regard kipper (when used as a religious term) as conveying the sense of propitiating the Deity, but the sense of performing an act whereby guilt or defilement is removed’ (1935:93).
A. G. Hebert supported Dodd’s view:
It cannot be right to think of God’s wrath as being “appeased” by the sacrifice of Christ, as some “transactional” theories of the atonement have done … because it is God who in Christ reconciles the world to himself…. It cannot be right to make any opposition between the wrath of the Father and the love of the Son (in Erickson 1985:810).
If we check Hellenistic Greek writers such as Josephus and Philo, uniformly the OT word means ‘to propitiate’. This is also true if we check the Apostolic Fathers of the NT era. Leon Morris is pointed in showing that the ‘expiation’ translation is a recent invention: ‘If the LXX translators and the New Testament writers evolved an entirely new meaning of the word group, it perished with them, and was not resurrected until our own day’ (Morris 1950-51:233).
There are actually three places in the LXX where the word, exhilaskesthai, is used in the sense of appeasing the wrath of God, as propitiation. These are in Zech. 7:2; 8:22 and Mal. 1:9. Dodd’s (1935:233) promotion of the view that there is something exceptional about this view of these three references failed to convince Ladd.
While it is true that the verb, exhilaskesthai, is used in the OT with God as its object, ‘it is equally true that the verb is never followed by an accusative of sin in the canonical Scriptures of the Old Testament’ (Ladd 1974:430).
This is the most significant emphasis: While it is true that the OT does not speak of appeasing the wrath of God, it is true that the context for the thought, where the word is used, is appeasing the wrath of God. ‘In many places atonement is necessary to save life that otherwise would be forfeited—apparently because of the wrath of God’ (Ladd 1974:430).
Therefore, I agree with Erickson (1985:811) that C. H. Dodd’s conclusions, although they have been prominent, are inaccurate because Dodd may have had an inaccurate view of the Trinity, as seen by his failure to present the opposition to his expiation view in relation to Zech. 7:2; 8:22; and Mal. 1:9. Dodd’s kind of emphasis is shown in Bible translations such as the RSV, NRSV, NIV, NEB, REB, NET, Wycliffe, CEV, God’s Word translation, Good News Bible, Darby, and Young’s Literal where ‘expiation’ or ‘sacrifice of atonement’ is favoured over ‘propitiation’ in critical verses such as Rom. 3:25-26. For a ‘propitiation’ view of these two verses, see the ESV, NASB, English RV, ASV, KJV, NKJV, Douay-Rheims Catholic Bible, Holman Christian Standard Bible, Amplified Bible, and J. B. Phillips.
There are passages in Paul’s letters, such as Romans 3:25-26, which cannot provide a satisfactory interpretation outside of this understanding of propitiation – appeasing the wrath of God. When Jesus is the hilasterion (propitiation, not expiation), ‘this proves both that God is just (his wrath required the sacrifice) and that he is the justifier of those who have faith in Jesus (his love provided the sacrifice for them)’ (Erickson 1985:811).
Harold O. J. Brown has rightly stated that ‘the history of the church is the history of heresies’ (1969:165). We need to understand the unorthodox theology of people like C. H. Dodd in relation to the doctrine of propitiation (appeasing God’s wrath against sin). See especially Roger Nicole’s (1955) refutation of Dodd’s view.
God’s communicable attributes
The Hebrew word, kaphar, is rendered as exilaskomai, meaning to propitiate or appease, in the Septuagint (LXX), the Greek translation of the OT. However, the word, exilaskomai, does not appear in the NT. Instead, verb, hilaskomai, is in Luke 18:13 and Heb. 2:17. The noun hilasmos is in 1 John 2:1; 4:10, and the adjective hilasterion is used twice in Rom. 3:25 & Heb. 9:5. The wrath of God is a teaching in John 3:36; Rom. 1:18; 2:5; 5:9; Eph. 5:6; 1 Thess. 1:10; Heb. 3:11 and Rev. 19:15.
The Greek words for ‘propitiation’ signify what Christ’s death does to conciliate / appease the wrath of God. Evangelical theologian, Wayne Grudem, defines propitiation as ‘a sacrifice that bears God’s wrath to the end and in so doing changes God’s wrath toward us into favor’ (1994:575). He places the wrath of God in ‘the communicable attributes of God’.
In an earlier generation, William G. T. Shedd, wrote,
‘By the suffering of the sinner’s atoning substitute, the divine wrath at sin is propitiated, and as a consequence of this propitiation, the punishment dur to sin is released, or not inflicted upon the transgressor. This release or non-infliction of penalty is “forgiveness” in the Biblical representation’ (in Thiessen 1949:326).
There is abundant biblical evidence that the wrath of God is an essential attribute of our Almighty God. We praise God that his wrath is in his nature as much as his love, patience and forgiveness.
A good exegetical case can be made for the doctrine of Christ’s propitiation, appeasing the wrath of God. The wrath of God is experienced by all who do not believe in Christ’s sacrifice on Calvary. The wrath of God is not limited to tyrants like Gaddafi and despots like Hitler, Idi Amin and others who authorised genocide. ‘But God shows his anger from heaven against all sinful, wicked people who suppress the truth by their wickedness’ (Rom. 1:18 NLT). The apostle Paul understood that the death of Christ was propitiatory – Christ died to appease the wrath of God against sin. This is stated beautifully in 1 John 2:1-2:
My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous. He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
For more of my articles, see ‘Truth Challenge’.
Brown, H O J 1969. The protest of a troubled Protestant. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.
Dodd, C H 1935. The Bible and the Greeks. London: Hodder & Stoughton.
Erickson, M J 1985. Christian theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Book House.
Grudem, W 1994. Systematic theology: An introduction to biblical doctrine. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing House.
Ladd, G L 1972. A Commentary on the revelation of John. Grand Rapids, Michigan: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
The Macquarie dictionary 1997. NSW Australia: Macquarie University.
Morris, L 1950-51. The use of hilaskenesthai in biblical Greek. Expository Times 62, 227-233.
Nicole, R 1955. C. H. Dodd and the doctrine of propitiation. Westminster Theological Journal, 117-157. May, Vol. XVII.
Thiessen, H C 1949. Introductory lectures in systematic theology. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
 The ‘enslavers’ are those who take someone captive in order to sell them into slavery (based on the ESV footnote). All biblical quotes in this article are from the English Standard Version.
 The same definition is at dictionary.com: http://dictionary.reference.com/browse/propitiate (Accessed 22 October 2011).
Copyright © 2011 Spencer D. Gear. This document last updated at Date: 12 June 2018.