How do you feel when you read the terms “wrath of God” and “penal substitution”? Do you feel that something of profound and eternal theological importance has been stated, even if you’re not quite sure what it is? If so, you are probably on the reactionary Reformed side of the theological fence that currently divides modern evangelicalism. Or do you squirm inwardly, wincing at language that sounds distinctly medieval and barbaric? If so, then undoubtedly you are of a more progressive persuasion.
I have argued before and, for the benefit of someone who recently asked me about wrath and the death of Jesus, I will argue again that whichever side of the fence we are on, the theological mindset of modern evangelicalism simply does not allow us to read the New Testament story for what it is. The problem is that neither the Reformed nor the progressive position understands history. In this connection, I recommend Scot McKnight’s multipart response to Samuel V. Adams’ critique of N.T. Wright’s historical method.
Evangelical theologies, whether Reformed or progressive, work with a vertical paradigm: the cross intervenes between God and humanity, and various theories of atonement are proposed to explain the nature of this intervention.
The New Testament, however, gives us a historical narrative, according to which the cross stands between the past and the future, between a story about what has happened to a people and a story about what will happen.
In the Old Testament wrath is the concrete manifestation of God’s anger against serious and persistent wrongdoing. It is directed either against Israel or against powerful nations in the region which threatened or opposed Israel, and very often the two are connected.
So, for example, God “comforts” ruined Jerusalem with the thought that the “cup of his wrath” against the city—a “cup of staggering”—will be taken from her and put into the hand of her tormentors (Is. 51:17-23; cf. Hab. 2:16). God has used the Babylonians to punish his people by the destruction of Jerusalem and exile, but the Babylonians will be punished in turn for their idolatry, injustice, and violence. Repentance may lead to a change of heart of God’s part and the avoidance of wrath, but this happens rarely.
To my narrative-historical way of thinking, the content of the New Testament—the stuff of Christian belief—is generated by exactly this narrative pattern. The boundary of New Testament “theology” can be defined as the ellipse (C) drawn by a loop of string around the two focal points of wrath against Israel (A) and wrath against the pagan nations (B). There is a bigger story about God, creation and humanity beyond this (D), but it is in the background, at the margins. It is important and it has a bearing on the development of New Testament thought, but it is not what the New Testament is about.
In simple terms, first, the whole story about Jesus (birth, ministry, teaching, calling of disciples, death and resurrection) happens because the wrath of God is again directed against Israel.
The Jews are on a broad and easy road leading to destruction within a generation. Jesus warns of a day when Jerusalem will be surrounded by armies: there will be great distress in the land and “wrath against this people” (Lk. 21:20, 23). But he makes available a narrow and painful road leading to life; and if his disciples had not been willing to take up their own crosses and follow him down this difficult road, there would have been no viable future for the people of God.
Then secondly, this story about Jesus and the wrath of God against Israel triggers (A→B) another story about the nations. The resurrection of Jesus and his ascension to the right hand of God is understood to mean that God has fixed a day when he will judge the pagan world (Acts 17:30-31). There will be wrath against the Jew, but also wrath against the Greek (cf. Rom. 2:6-11). The church in Thessalonica was made up of pagans who had abandoned the worship of idols and were waiting for Jesus to deliver them from the wrath to come (1 Thess. 1:19-10). This cannot be reduced to personal salvation: as in the Old Testament it is played out over historical time spans.
The proclamation of coming wrath is accompanied by a call to repentance as a way of escaping wrath. This is true both for Jews and for Gentiles. John the Baptist says to the Pharisees and Sadducees, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance” (Matt. 3:7–8). Paul tells the men of Athens that God now “commands all people everywhere to repent” from their idolatry and the unrighteous practices associated with it (Acts 17:30). In the end, the Gentiles were more inclined to repent of their idolatry, etc., than the Jews were to repent of their stiff-neckedness.
The death of Jesus and wrath against the Jew (A)
I would then suggest that the eschatological narrative of the New Testament works against the theological assumption that the death of Jesus has a unitary meaning.
In the first place, Jesus’ death must be interpreted in relation to the expectation of wrath against Israel (A). The crucifixion of Jesus outside the walls of Jerusalem was a quite striking anticipation of the “punishment” that the Jews would suffer at the hands of Rome. According to Josephus, thousands of captured Jews were crucified in sight of the walls during the course of the siege.
In this respect, it would be a mistake to say that the wrath of God was poured out on Jesus. It would be poured out on Jerusalem. But there is clearly a sense in which, in obedient pursuit of his Father’s purposes, Jesus “fell victim” to the eschatological crisis of the end of the age of second temple Judaism. He was, we might almost say, collateral damage.
The cup of suffering that he accepted in Gethsemane (Matt. 26:39), which his disciples would also have to drink (Matt. 20:23), was in an important sense the cup of God’s judgment against Israel (cf. Ezek. 23:31-34).
Jesus died because the unrighteous leaders of Israel refused to accept his claim to kingship—the right to determine Israel’s future—and handed him over to the Romans to be executed. Jesus died for the sake of a new future for the people of God, and his conviction was vindicated by his resurrection from the dead and exaltation to the right hand of the Father to reign as Israel’s king throughout the coming ages. He embodied in himself the pain and triumph of the eschatological transition.
But the idea was already current that the death of an innocent or righteous person might avert or limit wrath or bring it to an end. Isaiah had envisaged a servant of the Lord who suffers as a consequence of Israel’s sins and whose suffering brings peace and healing for the nation (Is. 53:4-6). The author of 4 Maccabees writes of the martyrs killed by the tyrant Antiochus that they were a “ransom (antipsuchon) for the sin of the nation”; through their blood and the “propitiatory (hilastēriou) of their death” Israel was saved from its afflictions—that is, from the wrath of God—and the “homeland was purified” (4 Macc. 17:21-22).
A straight line can be drawn from here, through Jesus’ death, to Paul’s argument in Romans 2-3. Paul’s critique is directed against Jews who think that they are above the Law, so to speak. Actually, the Jewish Law condemns Israel because the Jews are just as sinful as the Gentiles. Therefore, God is in the right to “inflict wrath on us” (Rom. 2:5). In fact, God cannot judge the world (B) without first judging his own people (A)—the Jew first, then the Greek (Rom. 3:6).
But if God allows his people to be destroyed by Rome, what has happened to the promise to Abraham that his descendants would inherit the world (Rom. 4:13)? The answer, of course, is Jesus; and Paul explains that the righteousness or rightness of God has been demonstrated “through the faithfulness of Jesus Christ”, whose death can be seen as a “propitiation”—an atonement or hilastērion—for the sins of Israel (Rom. 3:25; cf. Heb. 2:17). (If you want to explore this narrative-historical perspective on Romans further, see “How to rescue Romans from the fish tank of Reformed theology and return it to the sea of history” or my book The Future of the People of God: Reading Romans Before and After Christendom.)
In the context of the story about the wrath of God against Israel, therefore, the martyrdom of Jesus is interpreted appropriately in covenantal and eschatological terms. It was a “sacrifice” analogous to the passover lamb or the atonement ritual that made possible a new future for a captive or sinful people. He suffered from the violence that would ultimately destroy the nation. He experienced the wrath of God against his people. He died so that Israel might be purified and have new life in the age to come.
All this could in principle be couched in the language of “penal substitution”, provided we ditched all the existential-forensic baggage of Reformed theologies.
The death of Jesus and wrath against the Greek (B)
In the context of the story of God’s wrath against the pagan world, however, the covenantal language makes less sense. Jesus died because of the coming judgment on Israel. He did not die on account of—or in anticipation of—the wrath of God poured out on the idolatrous nations and the supreme opponent, Rome. On the contrary, wrath came on the Greek-Roman world because Jesus had suffered and had been raised from the dead (Acts 17:30-31).
But this does not mean that the cross was irrelevant for the Gentiles. His death for the sins of his people (cf. Matt. 1:21) opened the door subsequently for the inclusion of Gentiles on equal terms.
Because Jesus’ obedience or faithfulness solved the problem of “wrath against the Jew” apart from the Law, it became possible for Gentiles to be incorporated into the renewed people of God. Both Jews and Gentiles were saved from the coming wrath not by performing works of the Jewish Law but by believing the story of Philippians 2:6-11: that Jesus’ had been obedient to the point of death on a cross, that he had been exalted to the right hand of the Father, and that he had been given authority to judge and rule over the nations. So Paul writes in Ephesians 2:11-22 that his Gentile readers are now members of the household of God because through his death Jesus made the Jewish Law irrelevant.
This is not the whole picture. There are other ways in which the New Testament speaks about the significance of Jesus’ death for the Gentiles. For example, Paul tells the predominantly Gentile church in Colossae that God has cancelled the record of debt against them by nailing it to the cross—an image of forgiveness. The cross, moreover, is the means by which the “rulers and authorities” that governed the ancient world were humiliated and disarmed—supreme authority now lies with the risen Christ (Col. 2:13-15).
We also need to take note of the fact that John already tends to collapse the narrative ellipse into a theological circle: Jesus is the lamb of God who “takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1:29); he is the “propitiation (hilasmos) for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world” (1 Jn. 2:2).
Nevertheless, I think the basic argument holds. Jesus died because of God’s wrath against Israel, and his death is interpreted in terms appropriate to that narrative. That death for Israel, as a solution apart from the Law, had the further effect of opening the door of membership in the covenant community to Gentiles. But in this context the language associated with Jewish martyrdom—the language of wrath, punishment, substitution, atonement—does not have the same direct narrative relevance.
If we ask, finally, how we are to speak of Jesus’ death today, I suggest that we simply need to tell the whole story—and, of course, believe it. By that we will, in the end, be justified.