Theories of atonement are several. Sometimes they overlap, i.e., there is certainly victory in the penal substitutionary death of Christ. But various atonement theories are opposed to one another and irreconcilable. Whether they are irreconcilable with one another is of less concern than whether Scripture supports them.
One also has to be careful to note that quite often, people hold to elements from more than one theory, to parts of a theory but not the whole. Some advocates of penal substitutionary atonement, for example, insist that it is ipso facto, an affirmation of limited atonement. Most would say that is not a necessary entailment. All of this to say that in the following, there will be some generalization, but the question I want to address is to what extent an atonement theory can provide an adequate explanation of the death of Christ if that theory negates the wrath of God.
I think it’s fair to say that much of the angst, and in some cases, disdain for atonement theology comes in against penal substitutionary atonement, for it is this theory that includes the satisfaction of God’s wrath. The arguments against God’s punishment of the Lord Jesus are often framed as “God is Love, to punish his own son would be vindictive and petty. It amounts to divine child abuse.” A variation on this theme is that wrath is wholly incompatible with a God who is love. The issue for those who hold this is that they cannot see how it is possible for God who, in love, gave his Son to die for us—an act of supreme and selfless love—to likewise be capable of wrath. The way to reconcile these two things seems to deny the one, or at least to minimize the wrath of God such that it has no meaningful part in the atonement.
Without wrath, why did Jesus need to die?
It’s beyond question that the Scripture contain expressions of God’s wrath. God has wrath against rebellion and sin in his creatures, indeed, not just against sin, but sinners. Some have explained this away as saying that it’s divine accommodation, or that wrath is the natural consequence when God withdraws himself from a situation, from humanity. Greg Boyd may be the most notable proponent of this theory today. His Crucifixion of the Warrior God, and the shorter version of it, Cross Vision: How the Crucifixion of Jesus Makes Sense of Old Testament Violence, are where he sets this forth. I’ve read Cross Vision, and blogged about the shortcomings of his understanding. What Boyd says, I find others also saying.
It begins with seeing the cross as the key to understanding everything else in Scripture. This is not a bad place to start, provided one accurately portrays what happened at Calvary. Boyd does not. His depiction is one-sided, and flat. It is an expression of God’s love only, not his wrath. He does leave room for the vengeance of man, but God’s wrath as a component of both why Jesus died, and what the cross accomplished, is absent. Boyd engages in an awful lot of hoop-jumping to avoid this, and I’ve seen others who reject God’s wrath as legitimate do the same.
The idea of propitiation is unintelligible, apart from wrath. In other words, the cross is not just expiation of sin, it is indeed propitiation, such is the word Scripture uses. Propitiation necessarily involves the appeasement of wrath. A person can say they are uncomfortable with God’s wrath, they can say they find it distasteful, but they cannot in honesty say Scripture does not present this as a reason why Jesus went to the cross. If what happens at the cross has nothing to do with God’s anger, with propitiating his wrath, we may rightly ask, why then did Jesus die? What did it accomplish? The vengeance of man, or human anger directed against the Son of God would do nothing to bring our atonement. It provides no explanation at all for how Christ’s death is in any way atoning. A wrathless atonement leads to a death that in no way accomplishes anything of an atoning sacrifice.
New Testament Wrath
As the subtitle of Boyd’s book says, he focuses on Old Testament violence. This is a frequent target of criticism for those who object to anger and wrath being part of God’s character. But what about the New Testament descriptions of wrath, and God’s wrath in particular? In Matthew and Luke, there are 7 occurrences of the phrase “weeping and gnashing of teeth.” They are all spoken by Jesus. The sphere of it is either outer darkness or the fiery furnace. It’s hard to avoid Jesus is speaking of judgment and punishment. The warnings about hell as a place of torment are numerous in the gospels, as well. To cite but one of several examples, Jesus in Luke 12 warns his hearers who they should fear. “I tell you, my friends, do not fear those who kill the body, and after that have nothing more that they can do. But I will warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he has killed, has authority to cast into hell.” Luke 12:4-5. It isn’t man’s wrath, or even Satan, that is behind this casting into hell. It is God who alone has such authority.
But one of the clearest passages about wrath belonging to God is in 2nd Thessalonians, and I found it significant that Boyd never addresses this. Paul writes, “since indeed God considers it just to repay with affliction those who afflict you, and to grant relief to you who are afflicted as well as to us, when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with his mighty angels in flaming fire, inflicting vengeance on those who do not know God and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus.”
God, not man, will inflict vengeance, and the vengeance is directed at those who do not know God. The recipients of this wrath are those who have not had their sins atoned for. Scripture promises no wrath for those who’ve had their sins purged. Unless one is willing to write off as fanciful what Paul says here (and I know several will) it represents a promise of wrath from God.
Some explanations of God’s wrath dismiss it as culturally conditioned, as reflective of ancient cosmology or other now outdated ideas. That is one perspective, but it raises the question of why we should accept the depictions of Jesus’ self-giving love in going to cross, and reject his own words about wrath—both of which appear in the same documents?
If you are a parent, you have likely been angry with your child. Do you not love that child? Of course you do, but this is a dim reflection of how a holy God can be both loving, and have anger at sin. I don’t know anyone who rejoices in God’s wrath. But a theology denying the fact that Scripture presents wrath accomplishes nothing. Indeed, there is an awful lot that’s lost.