Timothy George is dean of Beeson Divinity School of Samford University and chairman of the Colson Center's Board of Governors.
In his 1934 book, The Kingdom of God in America, H. Richard Niebuhr depicted the creed of liberal Protestant theology, which was called “modernism” in those days, in these famous words: "A God without wrath brought man without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross." Niebuhr was no fundamentalist, but he knew what he was talking about. So did Dietrich Bonhoeffer when he named the kind of mainline religion he encountered in 1930s America: Protestantismus ohne Reformation, “Protestantism without the Reformation.”
Sin, judgment, cross, even Christ have become problematic terms in much contemporary theological discourse, but nothing so irritates and confounds as the idea of divine wrath. Recently, the wrath of God became a point of controversy in the decision of the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song to exclude from its new hymnal the much-loved song "In Christ Alone" by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend. The Committee wanted to include this song because it is being sung in many churches, Presbyterian and otherwise, but they could not abide this line from the third stanza: "Till on that cross as Jesus died/the wrath of God was satisfied." For this they wanted to substitute: "…as Jesus died/the love of God was magnified." The authors of the hymn insisted on the original wording, and the Committee voted nine to six that "In Christ Alone" would not be among the eight hundred or so items in their new hymnal.
Modifying hymn lyrics to suit one's taste, of course, is nothing new. The Nestorians in the early church refused to sing Theotokos, preferring the less offensive Christotokos, in their Marian liturgy. More recently, the Universalist leader Kenneth L. Patton kept the "Ein Feste Burg" tune by Martin Luther but replaced "A mighty fortress is our God" with "Man is the earth upright and proud." And then there is the Mormon Tabernacle Choir which sings—and quite beautifully I might add—the Reginald Heber hymn "Holy, Holy, Holy" to the tune of "Nicaea" (!!) but in the first and last stanza changes "God in three persons, blessed Trinity" to "God in thy glory through eternity."
Those who treat the wrath of God as taboo, whether in sermons or hymns, stand in a long lineage too, one that includes Albrecht Ritschl, Faustus Socinus, and the unnamed revisionists in the second century who followed the heretic Marcion. According to Tertullian, they said that "a better god has been discovered, one who is neither offended nor angry nor inflicts punishment, who has no fire warming up in hell, and no outer darkness wherein there is shuddering and gnashing of teeth: he is merely kind." The lure of such a gospel is unmistakable—it explains why neo-Marcionism (God’s wrath in the Old Testament, his love in the New) is still flourishing today not only in popular piety but also among guilded scholars of religion.
Why do many Christians shrink from any thought of the wrath of God? R.P.C. Hanson has said that many preachers today deal with God's wrath the way the Victorians handled sex, treating it as something a bit shameful, embarrassing, and best left in the closet. The result is a less than fully biblical construal of who God is and what he has done, especially in the redemptive mission of Jesus Christ.
Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, just prior to his election as pope, seems to have had this concern in mind in his 2005 Good Friday meditations. One of his texts was Lamentations 3:1-2, "I am a man sorely afflicted under the rod of his wrath." The future pope applied this prophecy to Christ and his sufferings on the cross, which reveals both the gravity of sin and the seriousness of judgment. "Can it be," asked Ratzinger, "that, despite all of our expressions of consternation in the face of evil and innocent suffering, we are all too prepared to trivialize the mystery of evil? Have we accepted only the gentleness and love of God and quietly set aside the word of judgment? Yet as we contemplate the suffering of the Son, we see more clearly the seriousness of sin, and how it needs to be fully atoned if it is to be overcome."
However we account for the work of Christ on the cross—and none of our atonement theories is adequate to explain fully so profound a reality—it surely means this: that God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself, and that this event involved his purposeful “handing over” and “delivering up” of his Son to a cursed-filled death at the Skull Place outside the gates of Jerusalem (2 Cor. 5:19; Rom. 8:32; Acts 2:23). As the early Christians understood Isaiah 53:4-5, Christ was pierced there for our transgressions, smitten by God and afflicted. But far from being a tragic bystander, Christ made there what the Book of Common Prayer calls “a full, perfect, and sufficient sacrifice, oblation, and satisfaction, for the sins of the whole world.” To quote another hymn, not so much in vogue these days, “Bearing shame and scoffing rude/In my place condemned he stood.” The full New Testament teaching about the cross involves both expiation, which means providing a covering for sin, and propitiation, which means averting divine judgment. The semantic range of the Greek words hilasmos/hilasterion includes both meanings. That is why the wrath of God cannot be brushed out of the story without remainder.
The problem comes when we use an anthropopathic term like "wrath" and apply it univocally to the God of eternity. Before long, we have constructed "a god who looks like me," to use the title of a recent book of feminist theology. Then caricatures of divine wrath proliferate: God having a temper tantrum or acting like a big bully who needs to be “appeased” before he can forgive or, as is often alleged with reference to the atonement, practicing cosmic child abuse.
But God’s ways are not our ways, and God’s wrath is not like our wrath. Indeed, in his brilliant essay, “The Wrath of God as an Aspect of the Love of God,” British scholar Tony Lane explains that "the love of God implies his wrath. Without his wrath God simply does not love in the sense that the Bible portrays his love." God's love is not sentimental; it is holy. It is tender, but not squishy. It involves not only compassion, kindness, and mercy beyond measure (what the New Testament calls grace) but also indignation against injustice and unremitting opposition to all that is evil.
Even though you can't find "In Christ Alone" in the new Presbyterian hymnal, you won't have any trouble hearing it sung in numerous churches all over the world. In fact, you can listen to it right now by clicking this link. Keith Getty and his wife Kristyn belong to a new breed of contemporary hymnists who want their music to reflect the reality of a full-sized God, the awesome God of holiness and love.
Robert Murray McCheyne must have also had this in mind when he wrote the great hymn, “When This Passing World Is Done,” in 1837:
Chosen not for good in me, Wakened up from wrath to flee, Hidden in the Savior's side, By the Spirit sanctified, Teach me Lord on earth to show, By my love how much I owe.