Tag Archives: the wrath of God

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.

SDA Fundamental Belief Number 3 (Father)

God the eternal Father is the Creator, Source, Sustainer, and Sovereign of all creation. He is just and holy, merciful and gra­cious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness. The qualities and powers exhibited in the Son and the Holy Spirit are also those revelations of the Father. (Gen. 1:1; Deut. 4:35; Ps. 110:1, 4; John 3:16; 14:9; 1 Cor. 15:28; 1 Tim. 1:17; 1 John 4:8; Rev. 4:11.)

The only change outside of some rearrangement of the texts was replacing the word “revelation” with the word “those.” Rather than saying that the actions of Jesus and the Spirit are revelations of the Father, the focus is on the equality of the three.

A crucial text in relation to the character of God is Exodus 34:6-7. What kind of God does this text portray? The passage piles up all the words in the Hebrew language that express the idea of grace in its various applications to the human condition. It expresses that God is love in the inmost aspects of His being. The text begins by saying that the Lord God is “merciful and gracious.” The Hebrew word for “merciful” (rachum) is related to the Arabic opening of the Qur’an, where Allah is described as merciful and compassionate (rachman ir-rachim). God is also described as “long-nosed” which is often translated “slow to anger.” The Hebrew word for anger is related to the nostril, since anger is often expressed in heavy breathing. If the nose is long, it expresses the basic idea is that it takes God a long time to get angry.

There is a disturbing picture (for many) in the latter part of this passage, the idea that negative judgment would fall on four generations, one of which would be at most children at the time of the offense being considered. Our discussion noted several aspects of the larger context. For one thing all four generations would have lived in the same compound (super-extended families), so there are corporate aspects in the actions of a family’s leaders. The three or four generations is, however, in contrast with the thousands of generations to which God’s expresses love and mercy. So even when He is making threats, God leans far in the direction of mercy.

The text goes on to say that God forgives “wickedness, rebellion and sin,” but will by no means “leave the guilty unpunished.” First of all, the same word for forgive (naqqeh) is found in both sides of the expression. Literally, God forgives wickedness, rebellion and sin, but does not forgive the guilty (pôqêd). How is it that the guilty are somehow less forgivable than the “guilty.” Aren’t they all guilty? Here it is helpful to note that the “guilty” are those who are outside the covenant, in other words, outside of a relationship with God. To be outside the covenant is not something people stumble into, it is the consequence of their own choices. So the dark side of this text is not a threat to be feared. Rather, the text implies that there is lots of latitude for those who are in relationship with God. The key is not the type of sin but whether or not the person is in covenant relationship with God. Perhaps the words of Ellen White are appropriate here that it is not the occasional good deeds or misdeeds that counts, but the larger trend of the life (Steps to Christ, 57.2).

In ancient times the gods were very wrathful and arbitrary. In that context it may not have been possible for Israel’s God to gain the respect of the people without some thunder and threats. But in texts like Exodus 34, John 3:16 and 14:9, we see a picture that cuts against the grain of the violent picture of God that ancients and many moderns have held. The Bible is often more ambiguous than we would like. But ambiguity in our understanding of God is not a weakness, it is a strength, helping us to maintain humility, and humility is one of the core values of Loma Linda University.

This Fundamental Belief clearly soft-pedals the harsher aspects of how God’s judgments are sometimes portrayed, and the above examination of Exodus 34 is supportive of how the topic was handled. Adventism at its best has a beautiful picture of God.

My colleagues and I reflected on the sacrifice of Isaac and God’s strange request in that situation. Is it appropriate that a child suffer in behalf of another? Clearly God had no intention of Isaac ever being sacrificed, as he intervened the moment Abraham came close. But why then the experience? I sometimes wonder if Abraham might not have been more obedient if he had simply said “no” to God on this one. He certainly does something like that in debating with God over the fate of Sodom, and God seems to have approved of him doing so (Gen 18:25-26). Similarly, Moses argues with God in Exodus 32-34 that it is not appropriate for God to wipe out Israel and replace them with Moses and his descendants (Exod 32:11-14). Perhaps God would have been glorified even more had Abraham said no. He would be held up as an example of reasonable faith, a faith that trusts God enough to challenge what appears to be an irresponsible request. God is OK when His friends challenge Him.

Since Abraham said yes, God used the story as a beautiful illustration of how much He would be willing to sacrifice in order to win back the human race. In the prophets on the other hand, especially Ezekiel 18, we see a more straightforward sense that everyone is responsible for their own choices. So Israel’s understanding of God seems to have shifted by the time of the prophets, anticipating the enhanced revelation of the New Testament.

At Loma Linda University there is a strong focus on God as the creator and sustainer of the world. In the mission of healing, we are continuing the creative and sustaining mission of God, who experiences the pain of His creatures along with them. In the earthly experience of Jesus, that ministry of healing was most clearly seen. Many patients come to Loma Linda with a negative view of God as one who is punishing them for their sins with sickness, accidents or chronic disease. It is very healing for them to learn about the union of love and purpose between the Father and the Son. If the Father had come done to earth instead of Jesus, He would not have been any different than Jesus was. It is a healing theology that lays out the complete unity within the godhead, and the gracious character of the Father.

Much of my life I have had something of a good cop/bad cop view of God. The Yahweh of the Old Testament was tough, judgmental and often scary and intimidating. The Jesus of the New Testament was gracious, kind and accepting. The two views of God kind of played off against each other. But I realize now that that picture was based on a misreading of Scripture. Jesus came to show us what the Father is really like. And what the Father is like is Jesus. There is no difference between the two. That is a strong Adventist contribution to Christian theology.