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How a believer understands the atonement of Christ has a significant impact on how they respond to tragedy. In this post, I explain how a Biblical understanding of God's wrath is essential to understanding and resting in the sufficiency of God's love.

God's Wrath

Although the idea of a wrathful God has fallen on hard times in post-modern theology, there can be no question that God’s wrath and anger against sin are a fixture in scripture.  In Ezekiel 7:8 God says to Israel, “I will soon pour out my wrath upon you, and spend my anger against you.”  Here is just a partial list of O.T. verses that articulate God's wrath against sin.[1]  You will likely have one of two responses after you go through this list.  You may decide to begin to reject the idea of a righteous, holy, unchangeable God (as many have), or you will find yourself more deeply committed to the idea that God is holy and because of his holiness, He must have complete wrath toward sin. 

Humans Tend to "Humanize" God's Wrath

When we humans think of God's wrath, we tend to think of it in human terms, e.g., unhinged, vindicative retribution.  But God’s (the Trinity's) wrath toward sin is rooted in His holy, righteous character, not his emotions.  He must have wrath because He is perfectly holy.  Remember Newton's third law of motion?  It states that for every action there is an equal and opposite reaction.  In like fashion, God's immutable (unchangeable), holy character means that the Trinity's automatic response to sin is wrath toward that sin (Colossians 3:5-6).  Our sin deeply offends God, and the wrath of God is the existential result.

 John 3:36 says, “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God remains on him.”  So how will this wrath be removed?

Penal Substitutionary Atonement in Post-Modernist Thinking

The penal substitutionary atonement is the view that Jesus - as our substitute - took the penalty of our sin and appeased God's wrath. For a growing number of theological/academic thinkers (most recently in my research of thinkers from Princeton and George Fox), this view of the atonement is deeply loathed.  These thinkers do not want to see penal substitutionary atonement as the primary view of the atonement.  In a culture where child abuse is not uncommon, they don’t want to hold to a view of the atonement where a father punishes his son.  But as horrific as child abuse is, culture and our personal experience ought not to shape our theology.  God does not change who He is based on what humans feel and experience.  These thinkers misunderstand (or do not wish to accept) the unique Father-Son relationship inside the Trinity.  Their views are shaped by the resurrection of anthropomorphism during the Enlightenment.  For them, God is primarily “one of us” (echoed by Joan Osborne and Alanis Morissette) and is always all-loving (in an all-affirming sort of way).  Through the naturalistic ideas of Neitzche, Hume, Freud, Jung, and others, the attributes and nature of God are reconceptualized in christian postmodernism as human-like:  for example: Jesus’ relationship with the Father is human-like (in reality, it is not: Jesus and God the Father are equal and of the same substance): God’s anger/wrath is like ours (It is not; His wrath is different because He is perfectly holy); in post-modern theology, God’s love is an "all-affirming" love (it is not; God’s love, at its core, is sacrificial, faithful and rooted in His holiness). 

Post-modern theologians downplay divine transcendence while emphasizing divine immanence. For them, the weak and vulnerable God exists in a dynamic, mutually dependent, and pantheistic relationship with creation.  They reject an immutable, strong, faithful, holy God who has wrath against sin.

Jesus Bore God's Wrath & Punishment:  Penal Substitution in Scripture

Penal substitution takes seriously the fact that the triune God is alone independent and self-sufficient.  In scripture, Jesus bore our punishment and dealt with the wrath of God so that the “loved” would no longer be under condemnation or the objects of God’s wrath.  

We can’t merely “proof text” the Trinity pouring out wrath on the God the Son in Scripture.  This is because it is embedded into the fabric of the Bible, and is a key element in the storyline of redemptive history.

Image courtesy of

Image courtesy of

To understand how Jesus bore the wrath of God at the cross, we must read Scripture in its immediate and overall context.  To begin, it will be helpful to consider “hilastērion”[3] (propitiation) in Romans 3:25 - a reference to the OT “mercy seat,” the cover over the Ark of the Covenant where God appeared (Lev. 16:2), and on which sacrificial blood was poured. This is the usage of hilastērion its one other NT occurrence (Heb. 9:5), as well as in the vast majority of its Septuagint (LXX) occurrences.  The LXX translators could have chosen the word “lid” in Romans 3:25, but they did not.  Instead, they chose the ancient Greek word hilastērion [4] which had nothing to do with the concept of a “lid.”  In ancient Greek it meant satisfying the wrath of the gods and the act of making amends or reparation for guilt or wrongdoing. 

According to Leviticus, the high priest is to enter the “Holy of Holies” once a year and sprinkle on the mercy seat (= LXX hilastērion) the blood of a sacrificial victim (e.g., a lamb), and make atonement. In the OT and Jewish tradition, this “mercy seat” was the place of atonement; it is the place where the Trinity's righteous wrath was satisfied.  Not because the Trinity is blood-thirsty, but because the Trinity is set apart and holy.  By referring to Christ as this “mercy seat” in Romans 3:25, Paul equated Jesus Christ as this “place of atonement”.  In other words, Paul is explaining that Christ IS the atonement, the mercy seat where the Trinity's wrath is finally resolved.

A God Above all gods

In Christ's penal substitutionary atonement, the Trinity takes its own wrath upon itself through the Person and Work of Jesus.  What kind of God does this?  It is WE that deserve God's wrath!  We humans are “by nature the children of wrath” (Eph. 2:3), and all unbelievers have the wrath of God abiding on them NOW (John 3:18; 36).    Instead of bearing God's wrath, our iniquity and God's wrath are bore by the Lamb of God (Isaiah 53:6) at the mercy seat.  What kind of God does this?  There is no other God (false god) in space and time that is not only perfectly holy but also takes the punishment of those who hate Him on Himself.  This truth is shocking to the skeptics and to the adherents of all other religions.

No one can deny that Romans 3:25 is built into the foundation of God’s wrath against sin that Paul sets in Romans 1:18, and Romans 2:5 (both verses reference God’s wrath against sin, and chapters 1 and 2  focus on the horrific nature of man’s sin).  God is patient, but His wrath is being stored up against us!  Who would be able to bear it?  Only one:  Jesus, our propitiation, the God-man who satisfied God’s righteous requirement for a sinless sacrifice.  The doctrine of propitiation is precisely this: that God loved the objects of his wrath so much that he gave his own Son to the end that he by his blood should make provision for the removal of his wrath (John 3:16, 18, 36, 17:2, 9; Matt. 11:25, 27). Christ dealt with the wrath of God so that the “loved” would no longer be the objects of God’s wrath.  He canceled the record of debt (χειρόγραφον) that was owed, Colossians 2:14. The wages (compensation; death was reckoned to your account, putting you in debt to God) of sin is death (Romans 6:23), but the gift of the Trinity is eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

The Depth of God's Love in Tragedy

One cannot grasp the nature and depth of God’s love without grasping the lengths to which the Trinity went to reveal what Godly love is. The God-Man Jesus bore the Trinity's wrath on himself.  Meditate on this deeply. He did this because of God is love (1 John 4:7-10 is a remarkable treasure!).

One cannot fully grasp the meaning of suffering and tragedy until one comes to grips with the fact that the God-Man experienced a tragedy that eclipses imagination...that passion night, the sins[5] of countless people were laid upon after name, yours, mine, from each and every person who has lived for thousands of years. That night, he bore the sin and took the wrath that was stored up for each person upon Himself.  

The undeserved physical abuse he suffered at the hands of the Romans was horrifying, but it was nothing compared to the undeserved spiritual weight of sin that caused Him to sweat drops of blood (Luke 22:39-48).  Yet no one else in flesh could bear this weight and the wrath that accompanied those sins.  No one else would be found worthy to open the scroll. [7]

When the suffering Christ-follower realizes that God’s love is not an all-accepting love that turns a blind eye to sin, but is a love that is so eternally concerned for sin that God Himself - in the Person of the Christ - bore the full weight of the terrible wrath of the Trinity, they become emptied of themselves.  Before, their circumstances consumed them.  Now they see themselves and their situation in Christ, the Suffering Servant.  In suffering, tragedy, and loss, they can say with the Apostle Paul, “that I may know him…and share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death."  Philippians 3:10 reveals that in Christ, our tragedy and suffering cannot define us. Christ defines us as we lift our eyes to the reality of what he bore for us.

A Treasure that Transcends Our Afflictions

God's terrifying wrath against sin and His boundless love through the penal substitutionary atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ come together in a single word:  grace.  Paul understood the incredible heights of God's holy wrath that Jesus took on Himself, and this helped him understand God's grace in suffering.  

In 2 Corinthians 4:7-12, 15, Paul writes about his suffering:  "We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be manifested in our bodies. For we who live are always being given over to death for Jesus' sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death is at work in us, but life in you.  15 For it is all for your sake, so that as grace extends to more and more people it may increase thanksgiving, to the glory of God."

In the light of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Corinthians 4:6), Paul saw beyond the veil of his afflictions and was able to see them as light and momentary.  He saw them as serving a greater end than his grief, sadness, sense of failure, personal fulfillment, etc.  He saw that his afflictions were working life in others so that the heart cry of his mission to spread the Gospel - to the glory of God - was being fulfilled. 

In Christ, God was not distant from human suffering, but on the cross became part of it.  Because Jesus bore the wrath of God, his love is sufficient to sustain us through any and all issues of life.  In this you can turn your eyes to Jesus and find rest for your soul in any tragedy or trial. 


[1] This is a partial list of the verses in Scripture that reference God's anger or wrath:  Exodus 15:7-10; Exodus 32:10-11; Numbers 11:1-2; Numbers 32:13; 2 Kings 13:3; Deuteronomy 6:15; Deuteronomy 9:8; Deuteronomy 31:17; Job 4:9; Psalm 7:11; Isaiah 13:6-10; Isaiah 26:20; Isaiah 51:20; Isaiah 63:1-6; Jeremiah 7:29; Isaiah 13:11; Jeremiah 30:23-24; Jeremiah 32:29; Lamentations 2:6-7; Nahum 1:2; Habakkuk 3:12; Joel 2:10-11; Zephaniah 1:15, 18; Zephaniah 2:2-3; Malachi 3:2; Exodus 15:7-10; Exodus 32:10-11; Numbers 11:1-2; Numbers 32:13; 2 Kings 13:3; Deuteronomy 6:15; Deuteronomy 9:8; Deuteronomy 31:17; Job 4:9; Psalm 7:11; Isaiah 13:6-10; Isaiah 26:20; Isaiah 51:20; Isaiah 63:1-6 Jeremiah 7:29; Isaiah 13:11; Jeremiah 30:23-24; Jeremiah 32:29; Lamentations 2:6; Nahum 1:2; Habakkuk 3:12; Joel 2:10-11; Zephaniah 1:15, 18; Zephaniah 2:2-3; Malachi 3:2;Matthew 3:7;Luke 3:7;John 3:36;Romans 1:18;Romans 2:5;Romans 5:9;Romans 9:22;Romans 13:4;Ephesians 2:3;Colossians 3:6;Hebrews 4:3;Revelation 6:16-17;Revelation 12:12;Revelation 15:17;Revelation 16:19;Revelation 19:15.

[2] In Matthew 18:23–35, Jesus tells a parable about a debt that was owed.  In this parable, Jesus is teaching that forgiveness ought to be in direct proportion to the amount forgiven. The first servant had been forgiven all, and he in turn should have forgiven all. A child of God has had their entire debt of sin forgiven by faith in Jesus Christ, and should forgive others, Ephesians 4:32, Matthew 18:21-22.


[4] See  Adolf Deissmann showed that hilastērion usually means “means of propitiation” in ordinary ancient Greek and other ancient literature.  In Paul’s day, this word would have meant appeasing the wrath of the gods.

[5] We would do well to consider the breadth of sins referenced in Scripture,  all bore for us by Jesus Christ:  adultery, anger, arrogance, bitterness, blasphemy, boasting, brutality, brother going to law against brother, clamor, complaining, conceit, coveting, cowardice, deceit, defrauding, denying Christ, desiring praise of men, disobedience to parents, divisions, divorce, drunkenness, eating the bread or drinking the cup unworthily, effeminacy, enmities, envy, evil thoughts, false witnessing, fathers provoking children to wrath, fearfulness, filthiness, foolishness, foolish talking, fornication, greed, lust, haters of God, hatred, homosexuality, hypocrisy, idolatry, immorality, impurity, jealousy, foolish jesting, judging, knowing to do good but not doing it, laying up treasures on earth, living for pleasure, loving oneself, loving another person more than Jesus, lusting after a woman, lying, malice, murder, murmuring, complaining,  pride, reviling, sensuality, slander, sorcery, speaking against the Holy Spirit, stealing, strife, quarreling, swearing an oath, swindling, theft, and treachery. 

[7] Revelation 5.