The Wrath of God and the Cross

Cross with LighteningIn the classes I have been teaching (Ephesians and Johannine Epistles), discussion has come up about the nature of Jesus’ act on the cross. This pot has been stirred with my recent blog attempt to explain the statement of Jesus on the cross, “My God, my God, why have your forsaken me?” My take on this is that Jesus is quoting Scripture in his great anguish and pain, and that we misunderstand if we believe that somehow God has turned his back on Jesus. To draw this conclusion is both unjustified by anything in the text and causes an intolerable strain on any coherent doctrine of the Trinity. It is a philosophical conclusion imposed on the text based on theological presuppositions.

A similar theological mistake is found in the common folk theological belief that somehow Jesus was an object of God’s wrath on the cross. This theory would say that God’s anger/wrath over human sin was diverted entirely to Jesus as he died on Calvary, and that with his death, this wrath of God was quenched or extinguished, leaving a loving and gracious God who accepts believers into a safe haven where they need not fear his wrath.

Some of this can be boiled down to the interpretation of a single Greek word found a few times in the New Testament. It is the word  ͑ιλασμός (hilasmos), translated in the NIV2011 as “atoning sacrifice.” This translation is fine with me, because it reflects the Old Testament usage of this word as the Greek equivalent of “atonement” in the Hebrew expression, “Day of Atonement.” It is the “kippur” in Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement (see Leviticus 25:9). But controversy has raged for centuries over the exact implications of this word. We can simplify this controversy to say that it is a question of whether the word means “propitiation” or “expiation.” Before I explain this a little, it is worth noting that this word occurs only in 1 John 2:2 and 1 John 4:10, although a related term may be found in Romans 3:25. It does not occur in the Gospels or in any New Testament discussion of the crucifixion event.

Here is a basic way of understanding the difference between these two ways of understanding hilamos:

  • Expiation: This has the sense of wiping out sins. You “expiate” sins. This lies behind the translation “atoning sacrifice” we find in the NRSV and the NIV.
  • Propitiation: This has the sense of satisfying God, You “propitiate” God. This is the translation used in the KJV, the NASB, and the ESV.

A great lesson of biblical interpretation is the danger of doing theology based on the meaning of Greek words, so it seems unwise to me to let our interpretation of this little word, which occurs two or three times in the NT, to determine such a crucial theological point. Instead, let me wrap this up by making three points that are worth pondering concerning this matter.

1. If Jesus’ time on the cross is an occasion for the outpouring of God’s wrath, we are again at a point of intolerable tension within the Trinity. Are we to understand that the persons within the Godhead are angry with one another from time to time?

2. I think the whole idea of the wrath of God in this context is usually a very human concept unworthy of the Creator of the Universe. God’s wrath is much more substantial and comprehensive than any human analog. This mistaken concept of God’s wrath is more akin to a family who is expected to feel release when the murderer of their daughter is executed.

3. Reading the book of Revelation in particular and other NT books in general does not give the idea that the wrath of God has been quenched. In fact, Revelation 6:16 combines the wrath of God with the wrath of the Lamb, and makes the point that there is no human way to escape this judgmental wrath. Wrath still awaits those who are disobedient (Colossians 3:6).

So I do not think the time of Jesus’ crucifixion was a display of God’s wrath. I think, if anything, it was a time of sorrow and pain for the Father who watched sinful men crucify the Lord of glory (1 Corinthians 2:8). God’s wrath was not quenched. If anything, his heart was broken. This is still “my beloved Son in whom I am well pleased.”

Mark Krause
Nebraska Christian College