A Healthy Struggle with the “Wrath of God”

I was raised up in a fundamentalist (but not all capitalized FUNDAMENTLIST) church. One of the things I learned is that the death of Christ is to turn away God’s wrath. I was told in college that propitiation was the term meaning to turn away God’s wrath. When I became a little more familiar with Greek, I realize that this seems to be more of a “theological interpretation” of the Greek, “hilastērion” and “hilasmos,” rather than an actual translation of the Greek. Still, in the Bible it is pretty clear that the sacrifice of Christ in some ways remove an impediment to the tangible receipt of God’s favor.

I kind of feel like there is nothing wrong with this basic understanding. HOWEVER, my issues has been in the abuse of the idea.

I remember reading “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” by Jonathan Edwards. I have friends who are big fans of Edwards and his Puritan theology. Since I don’t really embrace the Reformed Tradition, I can’t really see the appeal. Nevertheless, the imagery in the sermon of Edwards is quite memorable. I can still picture in my mind’s eye, myself dangling by a thread as if a detestable spider over the fires of Hell with God looking at me with repugnance, ready to drop me to eternal doom.

There are a lot of problems with this. First, it really makes God to look pretty awful. Some may saw that we are not to judge God (whether awesome or awful), but if we are supposed to love God, it would help if we see something in God that is lovable. Second, it seems to perpetuate with Tritheistic view of God. With Tritheism, there is not a unity of God expressed in three persons, but three persons expressed as three Gods. The imagery looks like there is God the Father entirely repulsed and angry at mankind and looking forward to cast well-deserved judgment on all forever, but then Jesus comes in and spoils the show by showing that He took on the judgment. The imagery makes God look double-minded— almost like the overly-simplified view that the God of the OT is angry and judgmental, while the God of the NT is merciful and loving. (Had a friend who tried to reconcile this seeming contradiction by pointing out all the places in the NT where God is angry and judgmental. I feel a better direction is to show all the places in the OT that God is merciful and loving.) But if we accept a Trinitarian understanding of God, then God is not “at odds” with Himself.

And what are the ramifications to a Trinitarian understanding of God as it relates to propitiation (and expiation if you want)? For one, God is apparently not as consumed by wrath regarding sin as we may be tempted to think. This is not suggesting that God approves of sin, or that sin has no divine consequences. However, the “wrath of God” regarding sin and how God “cannot look upon sin” is probably more metaphoric. Why? Because Jesus, ‘in very nature God, lived on earth for 33 years without living in deep anger. There are one a couple of times when Jesus was described as angry and neither was about behavior that we would typically describe as ‘sin.’ The most common emotion noted in the Gospels for Jesus was compassion. Compassion is essentially love and empathy that motivates a behavioral response.

A second ramification of a Trinitarian understanding of God is that the metaphor of justification (the court room with God the Father as judge and Jesus as mediator) is just that… a metaphor. And metaphors always break down when you try to reify them. The Father and the Son (and the Holy Spirit) are not at odds. They are all on the same side. In line with Missio Dei theology, the Father sent the Son into the World, and both sent the Holy Spirit into the World, for our salvation due to God’s love and benevolence.

ἱλασμὸν (Hilasmos), the word that is used mostly for “propitiation” is found twice in the New Testament, both by John. It is found in 1 John 2:2 and 1 John 4:10. (It seems like ‘Hilasterion’ is more commonly translated as ‘expiation.’

Let’s look at 1 John 2:2 for a moment. I would like to start with the Amplified Version.

And He [that same Jesus] is the propitiation for our sins [the atoning sacrifice that holds back the wrath of God that would otherwise be directed at us because of our sinful nature—our worldliness, our lifestyle]; and not for ours alone, but also for [the sins of all believers throughout] the whole world. -1 John 2:2 (Amplified)

Now let’s look at the same verse in the Christian Standard Bible (CSB)

He himself is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not only for ours, but also for those of the whole world. -1 John 2:2 (CSB)

While there are values to the Amplified Bible, I think, I believe you can see here one of the risks. Essentially, the Amplified version tries to force this verse into a theological framework. There is nothing in the verse about the wrath of God, unless one understands the term “wrath of God” as simply a colorful way of referring to “God’s judgment.” The verse doesn’t really have anything to do with sinful nature. In fact, the broader passage is about the call to live obediently according to the will of God. It is possible to surmise that our need for atonement comes from our sinful nature, but it is simply not spoken of in this verse. Frankly, later on the Amplified limits to sacrifice of Christ to all believers. Not sure if the paraphrasers of the Amplified were 5-point Calvinists and so felt that the work of Christ was only done ‘for the elect,’ or whether they were simply trying to avoid people assuming a sort of salvific Universalism. Regardless, it seems to me that the additions to the verse is presumptive at best, and arguably quite manipulative.

1 John 4:10

In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation [that is, the atoning sacrifice, and the satisfying offering] for our sins [fulfilling God’s requirement for justice against sin and placating His wrath]. -1 John 4:10 (Amplified)

Love consists in this: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the atoning sacrifice for our sins. -1 John 4:10 (CSB)

The Amplified version is not so egregious here, but definitely assumes that propitiation is tied to ‘wrath,’ even though it is doesn’t really appear to (unless, again, one is using the term as short-hand for God’s judgment). The Amplified also seems to push for a Penal Substitutionary Atonement perspective of the atonement. I think that is somewhat justified, although I think the atonement is a concept much bigger than what can be fit into one theory/perspective. The CSB avoids the problem the same way it did in 1 John 2:2 where Hilasmos was translated at atoning sacrifice— leaving a lot of room for mystery.

Ultimately, a Trinitarian understanding of Propitiation does not show a God overcome by wrath, needing blood to appease Him. Rather, we find a God overcome by love who seeks to demonstrate that love in a remarkable act of self-sacrifice— providing a way to restoration of God’s favor (expiation) and away from judgment (propitiation).

I noticing that I am spending more time on Propitiation than on God’s Wrath. However, in many of the passages in the Bible that describes God’s wrath, the term seems to be used as a substitute for God’s judgment. In some ways that is not an issue. However, if the term is most commonly used as another way of speaking of God’s judgment, then images such as the one I described from Jonathan Edwards falls apart. God’s judgement does not flow from God’s wrath. Rather God’s judgment is something That God desires not to impose due to His love. If the dominant character of God, according to Jesus is that God is love, that seems appropriate. God’s love doesn’t mean that He may not mete out judgment, but rather that it is never His desire to do so.

<If this post sounds a bit ‘all over the place,’ I apologize. I am wrestling with some theological stuff that is outside of my own specialization. As such, this wrestling is going to be a bit messy. I haven’t settled on a fully reconciled understanding. However, if we take the two NT passages that use Hilasmos, it is clear the focus is squarely on God’s love, not wrath.>

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