I started writing this on Sunday morning before going off to church. It’s a reflection on a piece by Roger Olson about the difficulties many Christians have in using the language of divine wrath. He had come across a revised version of the song “In Christ Alone”, by Getty and Townend, in which the line “And on the cross where Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied…” had been replaced with “And on the cross where Jesus died, the love of God was magnified…”. You can see what the editor was up to. Coincidentally—and wonderfully—the first song we sang at church was “In Christ Alone”. The unexpurgated version. And I was reminded of one or two other objections that I have to the “theology” of this charming song. You can listen to it live at the Gospel Coalition, with lyrics.
Olson wonders whether the redaction is symptomatic of a widespread tendency among evangelicals to avoid “wrath of God” language:
My question is this: Are we giving up, dispensing with, the concept of “wrath of God” and, if so, is that what we should do?
He understands that many Christians are uncomfortable with the sort of hellfire-and-brimstone rhetoric that has people cowering before an incensed and vindictive deity. But the Bible has a great deal to say about the wrath of God. Are we free simply to ignore it?
Olson finds a solution to the problem in Kazoh Kitamori’s book, Theology of the Pain of God, first written in Japanese in 1958. Kitamori’s argument is that God loves people who, because of sin, are objects of his wrath, and the resulting tension is the pain of God. Wrath is real, but love transmutes it into pain. In other words, the tension between wrath and love is resolved in the cross. Olson writes:
Wrath of God must be interpreted as the expression of God’s love when it is betrayed and rejected. Otherwise we have either a monstrous God or a Janus-like (two-faced) God. God’s essence is love; wrath is not an attribute of God but the form God’s love (and justice) takes in the face of betrayal and rebellion. But the wrath is consumed by God’s love in pain.
This may be tolerable as a theological account—I have reservations about the implication that God suffers on the cross. But we are still a long way from the biblical argument about wrath. Theology always needs to make the case in synchronic, abstract, rational, universally applicable terms. Scripture makes the case in diachronic, narrative, historical, contingent terms.
Mostly in scripture “wrath of God” denotes God’s judgment either of his people or of the enemies of his people. It is not used existentially or metaphysically for a final judgment of human sin. It is not used in the personal sense implied in modern worship songs such as “In Christ Alone”, though obviously individuals are implicated in the political events to their cost. Wrath takes the form of invasion, war, famine, disease, destruction and exile.
This is no less true of the New Testament. When John the Baptist says to the Pharisees and Sadducees, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matt. 3:7), he has in mind something like the Babylonian invasion and the destruction of Jerusalem and temple with immense loss of life—in other words, the wrath to come was to be the war of AD 66-70. When Paul describes the faith of the Thessalonians, who have turned from their idols and are waiting for God’s Son from heaven to deliver them from the “wrath to come” (1 Thess. 1:10), he means the overdue judgment of God against the whole system of pagan imperialism.
As an act of atonement Jesus’ death on the cross saved part of Israel from the wrath of God understood in just these historical terms. The destruction of Jerusalem and the temple in AD 70 was YHWH’s final judgment against his rebellious people under the terms of the Law. If Jesus had not died, that would have been the end of it. But Jesus’ opened up a narrow road of suffering that would lead to life in the age to come, to a renewed covenant according to the Spirit; and the New Testament tells the story of how a small number of Jews, joined later by believing Gentiles, followed him down that path.
Olson argues that Kitamori’s theology of the pain of God solution does not require belief in the cross as “penal substitution”. I’m not sure what his objections to “penal substitution” are, but it seems to me that if Jesus was executed on a Roman cross as a king who opposed Caesar (cf. Jn. 19:12) forty years before thousands of Jews were crucified in sight of the walls of Jerusalem for their defiance of Rome, as the outworking of God’s wrath against his people, it is entirely fitting that we think of his death as pre-empting the punishment that was about to come upon the nation.
So yes, I think that in our worship we should be telling the story of how Jesus died on the cross because of God’s wrath against Israel, and how by his death he prepared the way for a new existence of the family of Abraham in the age to come, no longer subject to the condemnation of the Jewish Law. How exactly we use atonement language to express this idea is a matter for discussion—Olson appears to have problems with the word “satisfied”. But the main point to stress is that we are remembering a historical event, a transformative moment in the narrative of the people of God, not affirming a universally and personally applicable theological proposition.
The basic problem with modern worship songs like this one is that they rewrite Israel’s story as though it were the individual believer’s story. It works up to a point. Some parts make sense, many parts don’t. In this particular case, I don’t think that the eschatological language can be so easily transposed. “Wrath of God” refers, as I’ve said, to historical events. The phrase “No pow’r of hell” presumably alludes to the statement “the gates of hell shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18 ESV). It’s a poor translation. Jesus means only that death (“the gates of Hades”) will not prevail over the church that is built on the rock of Peter or of his confession. The language of Jesus coming or returning has in view, broadly, the deliverance and vindication of his disciples at the time of the historical manifestation of God’s wrath.
So if the evangelical church is going to worship biblically, I suggest that it needs to get over its self-indulgent fixation on me-and-my-relationship-with-God, no matter how moving such worship may be, and learn to retell, lament and celebrate, as the psalmists so often do, the whole story of God’s people.