Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life, but whoever rejects the Son will not see life, for God's wrath remains on them. (John 3:36)
A common view among evangelicals is that we are saved not only by God (through Christ) but also from God. One verse used to support that is John 3:36, in which the wrath of God is said to remain on those who reject Christ. It is assumed that if one needs to be saved from the wrath of God, one therefore needs to be saved from God himself. I have addressed the wrath of God in other posts, particularly about how Paul understood God’s wrath. Simply put, it is not God’s retaliation against the wicked but God giving the wicked over to their own devices, not for the purpose of retribution but that they might repent and be restored.
We may understand the wrath of God in John 3:36 in the same way. If we follow this chapter from the beginning, we can see that the wrath of God is not for the purpose of condemnation. We find this particularly in the middle section:
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God's one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil. Everyone who does evil hates the light, and will not come into the light for fear that their deeds will be exposed. But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light, so that it may be seen plainly that what they have done has been done in the sight of God. (John 3:17-21)God did not send Christ to condemn us. He sent Christ to rescue the world from condemnation. Those who reject Christ were already condemned before Christ came. But what was the nature of that condemnation? It was not a matter of some eternal decree or because God damned them or was unforgiving toward them. It was because they loved darkness rather than Light, so they turned away from the light. God did not withhold the Light from them; they simply did not want it. That was the state of condemnation they were in: they preferred darkness rather than the Light. God’s verdict did not decree that they should therefore be condemned. It simply pointed out what was true of them: they did not want the Light.
The “wrath” of God in verse 36, then, is that verdict concerning those who reject the Light of Christ. They love the darkness, so God leaves them to it. They will continue in darkness until they turn to the Light. And until they do, the Light will be a torment to them, for it exposes the evilness of their deeds. We can just as well say that the wrath of God is the Light of Christ shining in the darkness — not as a decree, or as a retaliation, but as a grace. For the Light of Christ is a manifestation of God in his love. We are saved by God, not from God.