The Cross and the Wrath of God

So in imagination let’s go to the cross and watch Jesus die. First of all, did He really die? The soldiers were surprised to find he was already dead. Crucifixion was usually a very slow way of dying. Evidently something else had happened. Is it true that Jesus was dying the death of a sinner, to show us how the sinner really dies? That’s what we find in 2 Corinthians 5:21: “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin” (RSV). So Jesus died the death of a sinner. And what caused Jesus to die? As you watch him dying on the cross, is God killing His Son? Is he torturing his Son to death? Is God pouring out His wrath on His Son; something the Bible so often pictures God doing toward sinners for whom there is no further hope?

Well it all depends on the meaning of wrath. What does the Bible mean when it talks about God’s wrath? One of the clearest explanations is in Romans 1. The entire chapter is worth reading, but let’s at least look at the following four verses:

For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men who by their wickedness suppress the truth . . . . Therefore, God gave them up . . .For this reason God gave them up . . . And since they did not see fit to acknowledge God, God gave them up. (Rom 1:18, 24, 26, 28, RSV)

The “truth” Paul is talking about in 1:18 is the truth about God. Three times it states in Romans 1 that God’s wrath is simply His turning away, in loving disappointment, from those who do not want Him anyway. God’s wrath is leaving them to the inevitable and awful consequences of their own rebellious choices. Is that what happened to Jesus on the cross? Was Jesus given up? Look at Romans 4:25: “. . . Jesus our Lord, who was put to death for our trespasses” (RSV).

There is nothing in the Greek, actually, that says He was “put to death.” The Greek word translated “put to death” is actually paredothê, exactly the same word translated “gave them up” in Romans 1:24, 26, 28. Translators ought to leave them the same to show that Jesus died under the wrath of His Father. But the real meaning of God’s wrath is His turning away, leaving sinners to the inevitable and awful consequences of sin. And this concept was not new with Paul. It’s all through the Old Testament, most dramatically in Hosea, chapter eleven: “My people are bent on turning away from me . . . . How, oh how can I give you up, Ephraim! How, oh how, can I hand you over Israel!” (Hos 11:7-8, Phillips).

Did Jesus understand that this was the experience He was passing through? Did Jesus know He was being given up as Hosea and Paul describe it? What did Jesus cry just before He died? Did He say, “My God, my God, why are You beating Me up? Why are you torturing Me? Why are you killing Me?” No! “Why have you forsaken Me?” (Matt 27:46; Mark 15:34). In other words, “Why have you given me up?” Jesus knew.

This part of Jesus’ journey began in Gethsemane. There He began to demonstrate the truth about God’s gracious but awful warning, that the wages of sin is death. There Jesus fell to the ground, dying. And the angels were watching too. Was God killing his Son in the Garden of Gethsemane, or did Jesus feel the unity with His Father breaking up? There He began to feel the awesome loneliness of being given up. Had Jesus died in the Garden of Gethsemane, could anyone say that the Father had killed the Son? Jesus Himself made that clear earlier in John 10:18: “No one takes My life from Me. No one can. I lay it down of Myself. I have the power to lay it down and I have the power to take it up.”

The angels knew who Jesus was. They knew that He was God. And they knew the meaning of His words when He said, “No one takes My life from Me.” The angels knew that was the truth. And if Jesus had died in the Garden of Gethsemane, it would not have been because His Father had killed Him. Instead, the Father was giving Him up, and both of them suffered together. As in Hosea the Father was crying, “How can I give you up?” The Son who had assumed humanity was the One who died. And so two questions were answered in Gethsemane. Is death the result of sin? Indeed it is. Is it because God kills his wayward children? No, He did not lay a hand on His Son.

10 thoughts on “The Cross and the Wrath of God

  1. Rob Randall

    Right on Jon!!! So glad to have found your web site. Refreshing and a blessing. My studies and journey thrologically have taken me in the same direction. God bless you

  2. Stephen Warren

    What an awful diagnosis it would be if our Creator diagnosis one of His children this way. God gave them up. To be disconnected from the very Source of life, that’s the true definition of the “unpardonable sin”

  3. Jill Hill

    If the angel was sent from God to deliver the plagues, can we say this was a passive act. Does God never actively behave to punish?

    A quick question re Revelation 13. A long standing church member suggests that the 42 months occur after the healing of the deadly wound because John writes in that order. How would you answer that. Your writing has blessed us beyond words thank you

    1. Jon Paulien Post author

      Dealt with the other on Facebook, here a comment on “punishment.” God certainly does intervene when the first death is at stake. His judgments serve two purposes, to deliver the righteous and to wake up the unrighteous. When it comes to second death, the only model we have is the cross. God did not kill Jesus, sin did (with a helping hand from the Romans, etc. God’s very presence is fatal to sinners, but not because God hates them or is angry with them. Here’s the core of the issue: In many parts of the Bible God’s active interventions are qualified with the language of “giving up.” Rom 1:24-28 is a good example. Are those a model for the ones that are not qualified or is God sometimes active and sometimes passive. Therein lies the debate. The plagues certainly sound active, yet God in Rev is the restrainer (7:1-3) and Satan is the destroyer (9:11), so there is room for both interpretations to be true.

  4. Jill

    I’ve recently read N T Wright’s thoughts on justification by faith. Dr Duda has mentioned this seeming to say he has new light on the subject. I had a wonderful sense of peace and acceptance as a teenager on hearing that Jesus’s righteousness was His gift. Having been to a Catholic school I was plagued with feelings of never good enough. Dr Wright’s interpretation of this takes me back to that same place. Have I misunderstood him.

    1. Jon Paulien Post author

      Jill, I suspect so. I find him super encouraging. But sometimes we read through filters from the past and have difficulty getting past that. Perhaps N T Wright is not a place you can learn from right now. God will provide what you need at every step. See my series on Stages of Faith at the Armageddon web site.


    I am daring to ask for further clarification Dr. Jon. I know you are busy and understand if time precludes an answer. However, feel I need to explain a little more of my concern. Wright denies the imputation of Christ’s righteousness “If we use the language of the law court, it makes no sense whatever to say the judge imputes, imparts….transfer his righteousness to the plaintiff…” Wright’s view is that the believer’s faithfulness to Jesus leads to a final justification in the future. This seems to deny the imputation of Christ’s righteousness by faith alone. Is this not the mindset of Papal Rome being infused into evangelicism? Where is the assurance of the Gospel. Knowing my own frailties so well how can I ever find any assurance in the gospel with the threat of my own failures and sinful heart await judgement because the robe of righteousness is not adequate? I have read Thomas Schreiner who gives me hope that N. T. Wright’s views raise some serious questions.
    I would value you words should you have time.
    In gratitude to you for your work.

    1. Jon Paulien Post author

      We need to keep in mind that we are dealing with metaphor rather than reality here. God meets us where we are. He uses law court metaphors, banking metaphors, healing metaphors, house-cleaning metaphors, etc. We get in trouble when we try to take a single metaphor too far and make it the measure of other things we believe. I am not familiar with the specific issues you raise (Wright has written more than 100 books so one can only taste his work). Generally I find myself in agreement with him and wonder if in this matter both he and Schreiner are right, but are coming at the issue from a different angle (like the blind men inspecting an elephant.


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