Getting Wrath Right

It’s holy week: a season of the Christian calendar matched only—and then perhaps not quite—by Christmastide.

It’s the week that commemorates the final and fateful week of Jesus’s historical life, focusing particularly upon Maundy Thursday (the Lord’s Supper), Good Friday (the crucifixion), Holy Saturday (the somber rest of the buried Jesus), and Easter Sunday (the resurrection).

Christmas is about Emmanuel, about the true God taking on flesh and dwelling in our midst.

Holy week is about what Christians sometimes loosely call the atonement: the saving work of Jesus focused especially upon his death, resurrection, ascension, outpoured Spirit, and perpetual heavenly session at the right hand of God the father.

But there is a particular feature of the theology of the atonement, and of the way in which this theology is trying rightly to appreciate a couple of features of the New Testament accounts and expositions of Jesus’s saving work, that is widely misunderstood and causes some disenchantment with the God and father of holy week.

What does divine wrath have to do with holy week?

In my view, quite a lot. But, also in my view, the notion is widely misunderstood.

In the gospel accounts, it is perhaps most explicit in the story of Gethsemane, the night before Jesus is arrested. Jesus asks the father: “Abba, father, for you all things are possible; remove this cup from me; yet, not what I want, but what you want” (Mark 14.36 NRSV). But what is this reference to the cup about? It’s likely an allusion to passages like Jeremiah 25.15–17, where the prophet says that God had asked him to give to the nations a drink of the cup of his wrath. To take the cup and to drink was to assume upon oneself the wrath of God and so to exhaust it.

So the story of Gethsemane, and Jesus’s reference to not wanting to drink the cup [of God’s wrath], provides us with something of Jesus’s own interpretation of the meaning of the coming events. In the gospels, therefore, yes, the crucifixion is, among other things, the place of the outpouring of the divine wrath. But how does this work and what does it mean?

For a lot of Christians, this creates a major theological puzzle and some disenchantment with God the father. On the one hand, it can seem as though the first and second persons of the trinity are not quite on the same page. The son is eager to forgive without death and even to die in our place while the father is only perhaps eager to forgive and then only through the death of someone else. This is a caricature, to be sure, but a caricature with which many Christians live and by which they worship.

There are lots of problems here.

First, wrath.

The Bible is filled with God’s wrath. And that’s a good thing. God, as Love, properly hates evil and all that which wants to destroy his beloved creatures and his beloved creation. But, if we’re not especially careful, as the historical and theological tradition would warn us, we are here as elsewhere in danger of a gross and misleading anthropomorphism.

Of course, in theology, anthropomorphism has its necessary but also necessarily limited place. Unless we are to give full way to apophaticism (the notion that there is no properly positive use of human analogy [anthropomorphism] but only negative use: that is, God is not and cannot be like this or that), some measure of anthropomorphism is necessary and proper if also necessarily limited.

In this case, however, we need to be careful. When we talk about God’s wrath, we’re not talking about a being who is in any literal sense capable of running out of love or patience. He doesn’t literally get angry as a result of his love running dry and/or his patience running thin. Speaking of divine wrath is simply an anthropomorphic way of speaking about the eternal and unchanging holiness of God encountering and necessarily “condemning” (a forensic anthropomorphism!) evil.

And in a proper trinitarian theology, one cannot and should not imagine differential attitudes, postures, or a division of labor or operations among the members of the trinity—as though the father alone were wrathful while the son alone were committed to forgiveness, as though the father alone actively condemned sin while the son alone passively accepted this condemnation within himself.

No. They are of one loving and holy accord.

Moreover, in an atonement theology informed not least by Paul’s letter to the Romans, we see that Paul’s notion of substitution is much subtler than is usually imagined. In Romans 1.18, the wrath of God is unveiled against the ungodliness and injustice of human beings and not human beings as such—though, of course, insofar as human beings get entangled in sin, Paul and other biblical writers can speak of the wrath of God against humans as such. Then, in Romans 8.3, God condemns Sin in the flesh of Jesus and not Jesus as such.

Therefore, as far as the theology of substitution here goes, it is not that Jesus is condemned rather than us but that Sin is condemned in Jesus rather than in us.

It is so important, this week of all weeks, to appreciate the point.

The triune God loves us. He loves us enough to drink every last drop of the cup of his own wrath. His ultimate aim is to condemn Sin, to eradicate evil, and so to give birth to a new world.

And holy week reminds us that we are all invited to join in.

Chris Kugler

Assistant Professor of Theology

Houston Baptist University