Posted by: Philip Rushton | March 11, 2013

The Wrath of God Was Satisfied?: Rethinking our metaphors of the cross

While preparing to preach on the crucifixion story last week I spent a lot of time thinking about how we talk about the cross. Some of the metaphors we use to explain the atonement trouble me. When I was growing up the story of the cross often sounded something like this: God is so wrathful and angry with us that he sent his son to get punished in our place by dying on the cross. I have heard metaphors used to describe the atonement that make it sound that God was very abusive and hateful. Someone would hold up a glass to represent humanity and then God would be depicted as a hammer that was going to come and crush us for our sin and then at the last minute a pan would come between the hammer and the glass and take the beating.

Some of the songs we sing reinforce this image. The song “In Christ Alone,” which, for the most part, is wonderful song, has one line that says: “And on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.” This line seems to suggest that the main purpose of the cross was to appease the wrath of God. In this version of the story it sounds like Jesus came to save us from God. N.T. Wright comments on the song saying that it makes one think that John 3:16 actually reads, “God so condemned the world that he sent his one and only son,” instead of saying, “God so loved the world that he sent his one and only son.”

To be sure, one of the major metaphors used in the New Testament to explain the cross is the idea of Jesus being a substitutionary sacrifice. The passage I looked at in John makes clear allusions to Jesus being like the passover lamb. In John 1:29, John the Baptist says, “Look the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world.” Therefore we cannot avoid this aspect of the cross. We need to understand that Jesus took on our sin and put it to death. We need to talk about the seriousness by which God deals with sin. We need to understand that sin does trouble and anger God and he felt the need to provide a way to extinguish it.

We cannot, then, espouse the naive and overly simplistic idea that God is just a loving guy that doesn’t care about sin. This actually would not be very loving at all. I, for one, am glad that God is angered by things like child abuse and the bombing of innocent people. God’s anger and love are not mutually exclusive. He is angry about sin precisely because he loves us.

That being said, we can’t swing to the other extreme by presenting an overly simplistic image of the cross that makes God out to be hateful and abusive. N.T. Wright puts it this way:

“People present over-simple stories with an angry God and a loving Jesus, with a God who demands blood and doesn’t much mind whose it is as long as it’s innocent. You’d have thought people would notice that this flies in the face of John’s and Paul’s deep-rooted theology of the love of the triune God.”

As we tell this story of how Jesus death on the cross atones for our sin there are some things we need to keep in mind. First, we need to remember that Jesus did not come to save us from God, but to save us from sin. We need to remember that God is not just an irrational wrathful God that is just angry for anger’s sake. God is grieved by the problem of sin and has come to atone for it.

Secondly, we need to remember the doctrine of the trinity. When Jesus hangs on the cross he is not simply revealing the nature of the Son but also the nature of the Father. In the gospel of John we discover that one of the things Jesus sets out to accomplish is to reveal or explain who God really is (John 1:18). Jesus suggests that this will be accomplished on the cross. In John 12:27-28 ” it was for this very reason I came to this hour. Father, glorify your name!” What this means is that Jesus the son and God the Father are one. So if we come away from the story of the cross with the idea that Jesus came to save us from God we have not told the story correctly. If the dominant image we use is that God is a hammer who has come to crush us, I think we have missed the complexity of the cross.

N.T. Wright suggests an that we edit the song, “In Christ Alone,” by singing: “And on that cross as Jesus died, the love of God was satisfied.” I tend to agree.


  1. I also tend to buy into the notion that we need to be saved more from ourselves and our sins than from the wrath of God. Jesus didn’t just die for our sins–as John Dominic Crossan and Marcus Borg put it, He died BECAUSE of our sins as well. Jesus as a substitute for us is a later theological development that is difficult to ascertain in the Gospel accounts of the Crucifixion. Christ dies to try to save us from ourselves, and God resurrects Him to prove that we will never have the last word when it comes to life and death.

    Some very compelling sentiments from you, Wright, et al. on this!

  2. Just when I started to feel bad about my favorite praise song, you ‘redeemed’ it for me. Thanks! Excellent writing, well thought out. I certainly need to be saved both from my sins and from myself. ……….Paz………..

  3. I have read the sermon by N. T. Wright and i find no link between the line in that hymn and the misunderstandings (“caricatures”) of the atonement theory he laments. He suggests a changed line to reflect a “more deeply true” meaning.
    To me it seems that he thinks there is something more profound that should be shown in the lyrics which is different from thinking them being at fault, or wrong (which would be the case.if he would see the hymn lyrics as representing the views of the caricatures).

    “Face it: to deny God’s wrath is, at bottom, to deny God’s love…”

    “To deny this [ The hate of God against and his condemnation of sin ], as some would do today as they have for hundreds of years, is to deny the depth and weight of sin and the deeper depth and heavier weight of God’s redeeming love.”

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: