The Wrath of God

January 4th, 2011

God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:9). Here we are at the heart of Christian faith, the source and motivation for our worship and Christian discipleship. And Paul goes on to speak of being “saved from God's wrath through him” and therefore “reconciled” to God (Romans 5:10-11). But how are we to understand this language of “wrath"?

Christians learn their theology from the hymns and songs they sing more than from what they read or what they are taught. So it is very important that what we sing expresses a theology which is balanced, mature, and true. The consequences of superficial thought or distortion of truth can be serious.

Here are lines from two hymns currently popular among those with whom I worship in the United Kingdom:

“…On that cross as Jesus died / the wrath of God was satisfied.”

“…God, the just, is satisfied / to look on him and pardon me.”

God's wrath must be understood in relation to his love. Wrath is not a permanent characteristic of God. Whereas love and holiness are part of his essential nature, wrath is present only where sin exists.

The Underlying Theology

The inspiration for these hymns is a theology that understands the atonement something like this: The holy God, who longs to be in relationship with human beings, is angry with us because of our sins. Because sinful humanity cannot achieve the sinless perfection without which we are unacceptable to God, God himself has provided a solution. He sent his son to bear his punishment in our place, so that if we believe in him we are freed from that punishment and are reconciled to God.

If that is the way in which this theology would be popularly expressed, the theologian or biblical commentator might explain it by appealing to Paul's argument in Romans. In Romans 1:18-2:11, Paul has spoken at length about the wrath of God against all humanity. The inevitable outcome of human sinfulness is God's hostility towards it, leading to his condemnation of sinners at the final judgment. So when Paul comes in Romans 3:21-26 to describe how Christ brings salvation, his description must necessarily include the good news that Christ has turned away that wrath of God which hung over us. That good news is expressed in Romans 3:25. Here the phrase “God presented him as a sacrifice of atonement” (NIV) means, “God presented him as the one who would turn aside his wrath” (or, in the more technical language of KJV, “God set [him] forth to be a propitiation”).

Although such an interpretation has an honorable pedigree, I want to question it and to argue for a different understanding. So what is wrong with this way of thinking and preaching about the atonement?

It drives a wedge between God the Father and the Son in such a way that many Christians have an image of the Father as angry and distant, and of Jesus as kind and forgiving. Or, as someone once summarized to me the teaching she had received, “So Jesus came to save us from God?”

It speaks of God's hostility to humanity in a way that goes beyond the evidence of the New Testament, which never speaks of God's need to be reconciled to us, only of our need to be reconciled to him (e.g., Romans 5:10-11; 2 Corinthians 5:18-21).

It carries implications that make the gospel an offence for the wrong reasons in our contemporary world. Most obviously, in a world that is all too familiar with the practice of child abuse, this understanding of atonement suggests to many a picture of God as child-abuser: a God whom they would not wish to get to know.

Most importantly, it is not quite what the New Testament says.

Let us look more closely at how Paul speaks of wrath and atonement.

“Wrath” in the Letters of Paul

The term “wrath” itself presents a problem. It is not used in ordinary contemporary English, and hence has become a religious technical term, used only in the context of God and his judgment of humanity. The Greek word is the normal word for “anger,” but Bible translators shrink from using a word that suggests an aggressive and unpredictable emotion in God. Key points about its meaning are:

God's wrath must be understood in relation to his love. Wrath is not a permanent characteristic of God. Whereas love and holiness are part of his essential nature, wrath is present only where sin exists. Wrath is not the opposite of love, as though two emotions were in conflict within God. It is what happens when the love of God is met by hatred and indifference towards God and neighbor (Romans 2:8).

Wrath occurs both within history (Romans 1:18-32) and at the final judgment (Romans 2:5; 5:9). Just as eternal life is already present in the experience of believers (Romans 6:4, 11-13), the wrath of the last day is already experienced by those who resist God's purposes for humanity.

Wrath represents not so much a feeling or emotion within God as an action of God—his judgment on sin. When, for example, Paul refers to a future “day of wrath” (Romans 2:5), he is thinking of God's final judgment on sinners, rather than of God's revulsion towards sin (which would surely be expressed in the present, when the evil is being done).

The wrath of God is experienced not as a penalty imposed on sinful people “from outside,” but as a spiritual condition of alienation from God. Paul says of those who refuse to enter into relationship with God that “God gave them up” (Romans 1:24, 26, 28). God allows people to experience the consequences of their refusal to live in relationship with him. Refusing the transforming influence of God in their lives, they allow their values and choices in life to be shaped by this-worldly goals and become separated from Christ.

“The wrath of God,” therefore, does not mean that God is angry with sinners. It refers to the consequences of human sinfulness that are experienced in separation from the life-giving Christ. In other words, Paul sees divine judgment not as God's anger bearing down on people or God imposing punishments for their sins, but as God allowing people to experience the consequences of their choices and actions. He understands salvation and condemnation in terms of relationship and non-relationship to God. If this is true, we must now explore how it affects our perspective on the atonement.

This understanding of the work of Christ does not drive a wedge between the Father and the Son, as the language of “Jesus turning away God's wrath” is almost bound to.

“Saved from Wrath”

When Paul declares Jesus Christ as the solution to the human condition in Romans 3:21-26, he uses the imagery of sacrifice: “God presented him as a means of atonement, through faith in his blood” (verse 25). He sees the Jewish practice of animal sacrifice as foreshadowing the way in which Christ finally and completely deals with the consequences of human sin.

Strangely, perhaps, the Old Testament nowhere offers explanations of how the ritual killing of animals was believed to deal with sins. It simply reports that this is what was done and gives instructions about how to perform sacrifice correctly (particularly in Leviticus). But if we try to understand how Paul understood the significance of sacrifice, two points are important:

The understanding of the atonement that I have criticized tends to work with the assumption that, when a sacrifice was offered, God's wrath against the sinner was seen as being transferred to the animal. But there is no specific biblical evidence for this interpretation.

In Romans 3:25, since God is the one who provides the sacrifice it is difficult to think that the main function of the sacrifice of Jesus here is to turn away God's wrath. It would be extremely paradoxical to say that God turns away God's wrath. It would be more natural to say that God provides a sacrifice that deals with the sin and thereby brings forgiveness to the sinner. In other words, Paul's key point is that Christ in his death cancels out sin by absorbing it into himself, not that he turns away God's wrath from the sinner— though of course the effect of his canceling sin is that the sinner needs no more to experience the wrath. In Christ's death, sin itself is destroyed so that the sinner is free from its consequences and its destructive power.

Christ, then, entered into and bore on our behalf the destructive consequences of sin. In him God took responsibility for the world's evil and absorbed the pain and destructiveness of it into himself. This understanding of the work of Christ does not drive a wedge between the Father and the Son, as the language of “Jesus turning away God's wrath” is almost bound to. And it makes clear that atonement is achieved not by the Father transferring punishment from all humanity to an innocent victim—which in any other context would seem immoral—but by God taking upon himself the destructive consequences of sin.

One Story, Many Angles

This discussion has been difficult, not because I wanted it to be so but because getting something right sometimes involves being ready for complexities. Finally, let me make some more down-to-earth points that matter to me as a preacher.

We will go seriously wrong if in thinking about the atonement we focus exclusively on Jesus' death. His death was the climax of a whole life of obedience to his Father, and his resurrection demonstrated the Father's approval (Philippians 2:6-11).

We will go wrong, too, if we separate what Jesus did then from how it affects us now. The significance of his death and resurrection then becomes real as we “die and rise” with him now. It is striking how frequently Paul puts together the language of “then” and of “now.” For instance, “He died for all, that those who live should no longer live for themselves but for him who died for them and was raised again” (2 Corinthians 5:15).

Just as theology is remembered through hymns and songs it is vividly expressed through stories that often have a powerful emotional impact. For this reason, it is important that the stories through which we convey the meaning of the atonement do not express a distorted theology. I am uneasy about the kind of story which suggests that the atonement was a transaction whereby, for example, a judge imposes a fine on the person accused in court, and then pays the fine himself. If the thrust of this article is true, then the kind of story that will express it might be the story of a mother who sticks by her wayward son despite his reckless lifestyle, shares his shame in the presence of the local community and absorbs into herself the hurt it causes her rather than abandon him to self-destruction.

When no story we can think of seems adequate for the greatness of the truth we want to express, we can do no better than simply tell the big story of Jesus' passion as it appears in the Gospels—through words, music, drama, or film. Never underestimate the power of that story itself to inspire and to change people.


Stephen Travis is Vice-Principal and Director of Research, St. John's College Nottingham in Nottingham, England. This article originally appeared in Circuit Rider magazine.

comments powered by Disqus