The wrath of God satisfied?

by Tom Stuckey

One of today’s most popular hymns has the line  ‘The wrath of God was satisfied’.

Many want to change the words because they do not fit into their understanding of God as love.  In our sanitized society we have forgotten that the cross is meant to disturb and be offensive.1 The apostle Paul speaks of ‘the lunacy of the cross’ and stretches its scandalous nature to the point of obscenity by saying God made the Messiah ‘to be sin’ (2 Cor.5.21). Of course one can say ‘that’s Paul! Jesus did not see it in this way.’ Didn’t he? Jesus, as the servant of the Lord, will have pondered the violent words of Isaiah:

We esteem him stricken, smitten by God and afflicted. (v.4)

The Lord hath laid on him the iniquity of us all. (v.6)

Yet it pleased the Lord to crush him: he hath put him to grief (v.10)

The theology here is equally victimising and offensive. I suggest that God reveals himself in this way not only to trouble our feelings but to attack our minds. The cross is deliberately scandalous because it curses proud intelligence, shames every human desire to dominate and exposes our flawed minds. In the cross God is holding up a mirror to us and it reflects the darkness which can hide within the human person.

The terrible events in Syria give evidence of this darkness yet surely we are not like that? Giles Fraser suggests that we protect ourselves from our own capacity for violence by describing evil as something alien and foreign to us.2

The wrath of God

Paul does not explain God’s wrath in a causal mechanistic way. Neither does he think of it in terms of human anger since even our righteous anger is compromised and produces outcomes which are not necessarily good. God’s wrath is ‘indignation against injustice, cruelty and corruption, which is the essential element of goodness and love in a world in which moral evil is present’.3 Paul in Romans 1.18 does not take responsibility away from God but suggests that he ‘hands us over’ to our own self destruction. Divine wrath is God’s personal act of trashing our idolatry.

The Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf from his personal experience of the horrors of the 1990s Balkans conflict says ‘I used to think that wrath was unworthy of God. Isn’t God love? My resistance to the idea of God’s wrath was as a casualty of war in the former Yugoslavia, the region from which I come… How does God react to such carnage? … By refusing to condemn the bloodbath? Though I used to complain about the indecency of the idea of God’s wrath, I came to think that I would have to rebel against a God who wasn’t wrathful at the sight of the world’s evil. God isn’t wrathful in spite of being love. God is wrathful because God is love.’ 4

The refusal to use coercions and to inflict harm or damage is really a refusal to enforce boundaries. The student who is warned by his professor that he will fail the course if he does not do the required assignments cannot blame the professor if he fails. Such are people of the covenant. It can be argued that the Exile in Babylon was God’s desperate attempt to get Israel to return to their covenantal vocation. God’s wrath has little to do with retributive justice and everything to do with restorative justice.

Demanding satisfaction

I would argue that in post Apartheid South Africa, The Truth and Reconciliation Commission made ‘satisfaction’ part of the process of enabling victims and oppressors to live together. Oppressors and victims had to face each other in a public place and listen to one another’s stories. The ‘satisfaction’ required was that the ‘truth’ had to be declared and the stories acknowledge by both parties.

‘Satisfaction’ is part of the process of righting wrongs, publicly acknowledging accountability, making restitution if necessary and healing memories to enable a deep and lasting reconciliation. It is about love being demonstrated corporately through justice being done and being seen to be done.

We must think of satisfaction not in terms of a legal requirement but in terms of a covenant relationship between God and his people. Without some act of satisfaction in a fractured relationship, enmity becomes frozen, making it hard for both parties to let go and move on into a new future.

 

  1. J.B.Green & M.D.Baker. Recovering the Scandal of the Cross. IVP Academic, 2000.
  1. Giles Fraser, ‘The Easter of Hawkes, Doves, Victims and Victimisers’ in Consuming Passion: Why the killing of Jesus really matters, edited by S.Barrow and J.Bartley, Darton,Longman and Todd, p.12.
  1. C.E.B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, Vol., Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1973, p.109.
  1. M. Volf, Free of Charge: Giving and Forgiving in a Culture stripped of Grace, Michigan: Zondervan, 2005, p.138f.
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7 thoughts on “The wrath of God satisfied?”

  1. 1) I am always wary of someone who still quotes KJB, it shows someone stuck in the past
    2) I do not know the God of Wrath & saying that we sanitize it is nonsense!
    3) Only the elite were sent into exile, not the ordinary people, obviously they had not upset God. It is only Nehemiah when he comes back who exiles those who have intermarried or will not accept his new Faith! That’s where Samaritans come from.
    4) The God of Wrath is an OT idea of what God is like. What does God do when we kill him on the cross? No wrath, just forgiveness! He didn’t change only our idea of what God is like changed!

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  2. One final point, the wrath of God was satisfied? This done by his Son being killed on the cross? How come he wouldn’t even let Abraham do This? Secondly if we believe in the Trinity, then God is satisfying his own wrath by killing himself on the cross? God is then either mad or it is nonsense! God loves us whatever, fact!

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  3. There is all the difference in the world between fighting against injustice and being angry and resentful about what has been done to you personally or because your rules have been broken. The basic problem with the sentence in the hymn and with the penal substitution theory which it represents is the implication that God cannot forgive unless there has been violent retribution (even if it is against himself). It is the opposite of the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission which was about reconciliation – not satisfaction. In the days when there were over 200 capital offences in this country and people flocked to a good public hanging, a God who needed someone to be tortured to death to satisfy his sense of justice made sense. These days, when the majority in this country think capital punishment is barbaric, it is an out of date theory. The implication is that only Christians who espouse this theory are acceptable to God and that God is in a state of unforgiveness and judgement towards all the rest – and likely to resort to eternal torture against them. That is bad news not good news. It is a God to obey from fear of the consequences if you don’t, but is it a God to love?

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  4. The line in the hymn referred to is quite absurd, a grave misrepresentation of the God who is father of our Lord Jesus Christ. Essentially it means that the God who in Jesus calls on us to forgive 70 x 7 is incapable of doing so himself.

    The line is in the context of penal, substitutionary atonement theory that has really had its day. Jesus is on the cross dying for our sins indeed, satisfying our wrath. With the words “Father forgive” he breaks the cycle of revenge, taking the sins of those who sin against me upon himself. Jesus pays the price to me for the harm, hurt and injustice done to me (my country, my race, my gender, my poverty, injustice etc.) so saving me from the need to retaliate and seek revenge. We pray “Hallowed by thy name” in protest against this type of theology.

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  5. One problem with the “Once and for all” atonement theories is that they can lead to complacency: “Jesus has done what is necessary on my behalf; I’ve believed in him and accepted him; and so now I’ll go to Heaven and I’ll be looked after in this life.” Where does “Take up your cross and follow me” fit into this kind of theology?
    “Take up your cross and follow me” implies rather that reaching out in self-sacrificial love is a continuing process. It is part of authentic discipleship and we can expect God to be alongside us as we undertake that role. It was needed in the Balkan civil war and in South Africa, to use your examples, Tom, but it was also demonstrated more recently by people like Alan Henning. Martin Luther King Jnr, Mahatma Gandhi and Nelson Mandela raged against injustice but they didn’t seek vengeance or insist that someone had to be punished for the wrongs that had been committed.
    What was demonstrated on the cross was not the satisfaction of God’s wrath but the immensity of God’s love. How can we talk about Jesus’ act of love overcoming hate and defeating death and then preach that the vast majority of the people who have ever lived will be condemned. What a great pity that these lines in this beautiful hymn didn’t reflect that! It could be done with a simple change like: “And on that cross as Jesus died, the love of God was glorified / verified / magnified”

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  6. It seems as though previous comments have somehow missed the point of Tom Stuckey’s original post. I don’t read anything of penal substitution there. The problem is, perhaps, that the line of the hymn from which it begins is assumed by other comments, probably rightly, to come from an understanding of atonement as about penal substitution; whereas Tom Stuckey wants us to be open to an alternative interpretation which takes the idea of God’s wrath seriously. Rather than view this discussion from the stand point of the problem with penal substitution, perhaps it would be more helpful to ask whether an attempt to hold together a theology of a God of wrath with a theology of a God of love can work. Miroslav’s Wolf’s work, coming as it does our a deep reflection on appalling human conflict, deserves serious attention.

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  7. “Many want to change the words because they do not fit into their understanding of God as love.” I do want the words changed, or won’t sing those particular words, but not because they don’t fit with a God of love (I can perfectly understand, as Volf argues, that a God of love cannot be anything but wrathful towards the hatefulness and violence that humanity directs towards humanity and the wider creation). Rather, I think they’re bad theology, and confuse concepts in a way that is entirely unhelpful. When the concept of satisfaction was introduced into the Church’s consideration of atonement by Anselm of Canterbury, it was not God’s wrath that concerned him but God’s honour. The term “satisfaction” relates directly to the honour system at the heart of the Mediaeval European understanding of justice. To transfer such an term to either the penal model upheld by some, or the work being undertaken by the Truth & Reconciliation Commission in South Africa is to misunderstand and misuse what Anselm was talking about. (Of course, whether Anselm himself was right or wrong is another matter!) I also think that it’s unhelpful theology, and here I likely argue with the broad sweep of historical theology, especially Protestant theology, to tie the work of God’s wrath, reconciliation and atonement to one single moment. I much prefer to consider that such work was being carried out, is carried out, in the entire incarnation, from Annunciation to Ascension, rather than one single moment of pain and death. Alternatively, the 20th Century Roman Catholic theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar’s work on atonement seems more greatly to focus on Holy Saturday as the lynch pin, in which Christ’s descent into Hell is explored as a metaphor for the moment in which the Trinitarian persons of the Father and Son are most separated from one another, held together only by a Holy Spirit stretched almost to breaking point. To precis the previous: wrath is not something which is satisfied, so the sentence makes no sense in that way, and whatever it is that is going on with regards God’s wrath in the incarnation is tied solely to humanity’s inhumanity to the man Jesus, and within that humanity’s inhumanity to God. That the cross is an emblem of God’s love is startling enough, without needing to focus God’s wrath too tightly upon it. In other words, I have no issue with Tom’s over-all point about needing to consider a God of love and wrath, but I do have an issue with where he starts his argument – an all too often arguments begun in the wrong place end up in the wrong place too.

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