I recently observed a discussion on the subject of the wrath of God. It was sparked by the hymn “In Christ alone” – some parties to the discussion objected strongly to the lines, “And on the cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied”, one person describing it as “bad theology”. I was uncomfortable with the discussion, but for reasons I couldn’t entirely put into words, and so I simply observed and didn’t participate. Ever since, I have been thinking about why it made me so uncomfortable.
The nearest I could put it into words was that there are some things that make me very angry – things in the world around me, things in society and even in myself. I sincerely hope they make God angry, too – otherwise the idea that He is holy, or even minimally just, is meaningless. If I thought God could look at the victims of Jimmy Savile’s vile predation and then contemplate Savile’s behaviour with benign indulgence, I would be outraged. If I thought he could observe without rage the senseless and wanton destruction of precious human lives in Syria, I would never pray again. I want a God who sometimes feels wrath. But this in itself did not fully explain my unease at the discussion – I doubt whether any of the participants would disagree with me this far.
While researching this article, I came across another blog (http://troyhochstetler.wordpress.com/2008/07/07/if-i-could-change-the-lyrics/) which also quoted this hymn and proposed, as an alternative wording, “the love of God exemplified”. This, for me, raised more questions than it answered. If the cross is an atonement, it must be the way in which the sin which, I hope, angers God in this world, is dealt with. Otherwise, it isn’t an atonement. And if we don’t see the cross of Jesus in terms of atonement, it leaves us with a problematic view of God’s character.
Firstly, how can sin be forgiven, removed, done away, without being atoned for? Imagine a judge who smiled on and pardoned every offender without ever demanding that they pay for their crimes in some way, or provide some kind of justice for their victims. We wouldn’t see such a judge as loving and good so much as unjust and lazy.
Secondly, if the cross was not an atonement which satisfied the wrath of God against human sin, if it was simply God’s love exemplified, if God could forgive us without requiring that kind of atonement, then it might have been very nice of Him to identify in this way with our human plight, but it wasn’t strictly necessary. And we would have to have very disturbing doubts about a father who allowed his son to suffer the things that Jesus suffered if it wasn’t strictly necessary. Surely if there had been any other way at all for our sin to be removed and for us to be reconciled to God, He would have taken it?
These are the implications that we have to think about when we want to remove the idea of the wrath of God. Please don’t misunderstand me. I don’t believe God is judgemental, even though I believe He is a righteous judge. I don’t believe God is a God of punishment, even though I believe justice demands that sin is punished. I believe that God is actively looking for opportunities to shower His grace on us, that He is not willing that any should perish, and that there will be vastly fewer people in hell than the average evangelical upbringing might lead you to expect.
I think that, paradoxically, God is far more aware than we are of the enormity and vileness of our sin, those little character traits which we’re not proud of, which we try to explain away as the result of tiredness or stress; and yet he takes a far more kindly and understanding view than we do of our failings, does not condemn us when we condemn ourselves, knows our frame and remembers that we are dust.
Since the discussion was a few weeks ago, why am I blogging about it now? I have just been to the funeral of a much-loved aunt, taken from us too soon. She had anticipated her death, though I don’t think she realised how soon or how suddenly it would come, and had planned her own funeral, including hymns and Bible readings. She had chosen the offending hymn which started the discussion. She had also chosen “Before the throne of God above”. She had exemplified the calm trust with which a lover of Jesus, who knows herself also to be His beloved, slips gently into His direct presence without fear or doubt. Letter upon letter had been received by her family from neighbours who had been on the receiving end of her kindness and practical help.
As I thought about the example of her life and her death, and with the words of scripture and hymns still ringing in my ears from her funeral, I began to see afresh the wonder of exactly what Jesus accomplished for us by His death. I stood in a crowded place today, looking at a sea of faces, people who, by and large, are probably unaware of God’s tender heart of compassion for them, unaware of the way in which their own sinfulness places a barrier between them and Him, unaware that He did the only thing He could to sweep that barrier away and sacrificed His own Son in an atoning death that dealt with all that keeps them away from Him.
I wanted to stand up and sing at the top of my lungs,
“Because the sinless Saviour died,
My sinful soul is counted free,
For God the just is satisfied
To look on Him and pardon me.”
Instead I prayed that God will send such an outpouring of the Holy Spirit that hearts all over this nation, indeed this world, will open to His love and forgiveness. And I resolved to lose no opportunity to share His love with those who come within my reach every day – neighbours, friends, Big Issue sellers, and anyone else whom He sends my way.