I received the following question via email:
Hello, Bob. Lately on your radio program you have said when the Bible uses the word “wrath,” you think it’s talking about TEMPORARY punishment in this life.
But look here in John 3:36: “He that believeth on the Son hath everlasting life: and he that believeth not the Son shall not see life; but the wrath of God abideth on him.”
The questioner seems to think that John the Baptist was saying that the wrath of God will forever be poured out on unbelievers. But that is not what he said.
John the Baptist said that “the wrath of God abides on him,” that is, on the unbeliever. He did not say “the wrath of God will abide on him.” He used a present tense there, not a future tense. John the Baptist was saying that the unbeliever lives under God’s wrath here and now. He is abiding in it. That is his sphere of existence unless and until he comes to faith in Christ.
The issue in John 3:36 is that the believer has everlasting life right now and that by contrast the unbeliever has wrath right now. Of course, it is true that the believer will always have everlasting life since that is what the life is. But in terms of wrath, the unbeliever is not promised eternal wrath. If he comes to faith, he will no longer be living in the sphere of wrath at the moment of faith, and if he begins to walk with Christ in His light, he will not abide in God’s temporal wrath. In addition, I do not believe that the lake of fire is an expression of God’s wrath. I think it is an expression of God’s justice. People reap what they sow. God’s wrath will end when He puts down the rebellion at the end of the Millennium.
Carson writes, “Believers already enjoy the eternal life that will be consummated in the resurrection of their bodies at the parousia; unbelievers stand under the looming wrath of God that will be consummated in their resurrection and condemnation” (John, p. 214).
I should note that commentators routinely suggest that while John 3:36 refers to the present experience of wrath, they see it as potentially extending forever (i.e., if one dies in unbelief). I would disagree. This is the only reference to God’s wrath in the Fourth Gospel, and it refers to the present experience of wrath. Of course, that will continue this entire life unless the unbeliever comes to faith. But whether eternal condemnation is the experience of wrath forever is a separate question. There is certainly nothing in John’s Gospel that says that. In my opinion, there is not a single reference to God’s wrath anywhere in the Bible that indicates it is eternal.
When people see references to God’s wrath in Scripture, it is important that they consider the context. Too many people assume that God’s wrath refers to eternal condemnation. It rarely—if ever—does. John 3:36 is an example where people often read into the wrath of God an eternal component that is not found in the text.