Christ the Wrath Bearer?

27 02 2011

Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things, that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and deliver all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong slavery. (Hebrews 2:14-15, ESV)

No doubt we have all heard the following in sayings or songs: “Christ died for me.” “Jesus paid the penalty for my sins.” “He took my place on the cross.” The question is, what do they actually mean? Did Jesus really take a divine hit that I deserved? It is my purpose here to make the case that this is NOT what happened on the cross. In other words, it does not seem correct to say that the Atonement achieved by Christ’s death was about Him receiving, on our behalf, God’s righteous wrath.

Now, of course, the idea that the Messiah is getting a punishment from God that we deserve seems to be an obviously Scriptural notion. For example note: Isaiah 53:4-5, “Surely He has borne our griefs And carried our sorrows; Yet we esteemed Him stricken, Smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; The chastisement for our peace was upon Him, And by His stripes we are healed.” OR Romans 5:9 “…having now been justified by His blood, we shall be saved from wrath through Him.” (Note what Paul is saying before and after this, however.) OR Ephesians 2:3 where Paul refers to us as “children of wrath.” (It is important to read on to the next two verses where Paul states: “But God, who is rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, even when we were dead in trespasses, made us alive together with Christ”).

The bulk of the New Testament verses on God’s wrath seem to be referring to God’s wrath at the end of time or the Great Judgment and are not connected with the Atonement (to see this, have your Bible program pull up all the verses with “wrath” in them from the New Testament).

So, read me very carefully, I am NOT attempting to deny the existence of God’s righteous wrath or that He deploys it now and again. But I am pleading that we who are the inheritors of a Western, Medieval interpretation of Scripture seek to place the emphasis of the Atonement on a syllable other than Divine punishment. This emphasis has been so overwhelming that it wasn’t until I was in seminary and was reading Robert Webber’s Ancient-Future Faith that I encountered for the first time how Jesus had defeated Satan, Sin, and Death by his death and resurrection. I am thankful that I learned this seminal truth of the Gospel before I began preaching every week, but it is sad commentary on the preaching and teaching I had been sitting under for the previous twenty-four years! I’m sure such I ideas were mentioned– but that was precisely the problem, they were never more than mentioned. All the while the Evangelical mantra: “Jesus took our place on the cross and died for our sins so we could go to heaven” was relentlessly propounded.

That Evangelical message may have played well for a certain stretch in our history– a stretch where many grew up with some level of understanding of human sin and Divine judgment, etc. But take note: that message now falls on ears who find them utterly irrelevant. The good news is that we don’t need to change or water-down the Gospel in order to connect with and persuade the post-modernists in our midst. We just need to reclaim a more ancient emphasis. One that tells the story of Satan’s domination over the human race through the power of death (a domination that we have freely chosen, by the way). A story that includes a daring rescue borne of an undying Divine love. A story whose ending is certain, but in which our place in it depends on our choices– shall I choose the darkness or the Light, death or Life, captivity or Liberty?

Once again, in order to bring light to this discussion, I’d like to present the instruction of Athanasius concerning the Atonement, from paragraph 20 of his On the Incarnation:

We have dealt as far as circumstance and our own understanding permit with the reason for His bodily manifestation. We have seen that to change the corruptible to incorruption was proper to none other than the Savior Himself, Who in the beginning made all things out of nothing; that only the Image of the Father could re-create the likeness of the Image in men, that none save our Lord Jesus Christ could give to mortals immortality, and that only the Word Who orders all things and is alone the Father’s true and sole-begotten Son could teach men about Him and abolish the worship of idols.

But beyond all this, there was a debt owing which must needs be paid; for, as I said before, all men were due to die. Here, then, is the second reason why the Word dwelt among us, namely that having proved His Godhead by His works, He might offer the sacrifice on behalf of all, surrendering His own temple to death in place of all, to settle man’s account with death and free him from the primal transgression. In the same act also He showed Himself mightier than death, displaying His own body incorruptible as the first-fruits of the resurrected. . . .

The Body of the Word, then, being a real human body, in spite of its having been uniquely formed from a virgin, was of itself mortal and, like other bodies, liable to death. But the indwelling of the Word loosed it from this natural liability, so that corruption could not touch it. Thus it happened that two opposite marvels took place at once: the death of all was consummated in the Lord’s body; yet, because the Word was in it, death and corruption were in the same act utterly abolished. Death there had to be, and death for all, so that the due of all might be paid. Wherefore, the Word, as I said, being Himself incapable of death, assumed a mortal body, that He might offer it as His own in place of all, and suffering for the sake of all through His union with it, “might bring to naught him that had the power of death, that is, the devil, and might deliver them who all their lifetime were enslaved by the fear of death.” (Heb. 2:14ff)

Again, nowhere does Athanasius bring into the discussion the need to deal with the righteous wrath of God. Yes, Jesus took our place on the cross. BUT he did it to pay the death-debt incurred in Eden, and NOT to deflect or absorb the fiery flames of God’s righteous anger. To some, this may seem like a nuance with which we should not occupy our time. But I would strongly argue that this distinction is crucial if we are going to walk steadily in the Father’s holy love– something we will struggle to do if we have misconceptions of Him. And certainly the Enemy of our souls seeks largely to convince us of wrong pictures and narratives of the Father.

Do you hear the difference between Athanasius’ narrative (which I believe to be the Biblical one), and the narrative borne out of Medieval Europe? In the first one, we have a loving and holy Father-Creator who allowed Adam and Eve to freely embrace or reject Him; and when they chose wrongly He allowed them to suffer the natural consequences– the biggest one being death. He did not, however, abandon them utterly to this curse. The story of the Old Testament is the painful tale of God’s unrelenting love and grace offered again and again to those whom He had created (which was, again and again, rejected!). Yes, God did have entire populations of men, women and children put to death. But I would argue that these rare acts of wrathful judgment are equally acts of mercy and grace, for the Lord cut short the years of horrendous evil that these populations where perpetrating upon one another and those around them. In those cities, God lovingly brought to an end murder, rape, child abuse, torture, child sacrifice, and worse! Our Creator-God could have allowed us to continue on indefinitely under the curse of death– we certainly deserved it. Instead, in the fullness of time, He sent His eternal Son to take on our human flesh in order that He could fulfill and put to an end the punishment of death.

In the second narrative (the false one), we seem to have a heavenly Father who is continually building up a righteous wrath that will one day be unleashed upon humanity– unless He sends His one and only Son and then lets loose upon Him instead. Here, Jesus had to save us from His Father, our Creator, instead of from Satan and death. Here, we have a God whose wrath must be appeased. (This is never the case even in the Old Testament, where we routinely see Yahweh relenting, or “repenting” as the King James has it, from his intentions to send forth His judgment– as with Nineveh, for example). Here is a God whom I will always fear in an unhealthy way, and whom I will strive to please out of that fear rather than out of love and adoration. Here is a heavenly Father that I will likely come to loath. As a consequence the joy, peace, and abundant life that Jesus promises will always be far from me– all because I believed a lie.

Personally, I have, in fact, believed a similar lie. I struggle continually to be free of the false narrative which describes God my Father as a harsh task-master, to whom I had best be grateful for even the smallest crumb from the meager store of blessings that He only sparingly dispenses. He must be harsh, for my good, you understand. Otherwise I may become soft and spoiled and incapable of growing up to maturity. This is NOT the Father Jesus depicts in the parable of the Prodigal Son. This is NOT the Father of Jesus who eagerly awaits to pardon, restore, and reward those children who turn in His direction.

It is no longer a theological curiosity for me– this business of the Atonement and what Jesus was doing on the cross. I MUST reject, as false, the idea and narrative of a wrath-full, heavenly Father who will have his vengeance doled out– either upon His eternal Son or us! This is a lie of Satan’s liking. God did not send Jesus to save us from Himself! He sent Jesus to save us from the dark clutches of the Enemy of our souls who owned us because of our sin and rebellion. May the light of Christ, who willingly gave himself up to death to set us free from death, shine brightly upon our false pictures of the Father so that we can all know the freedom and joy of loving the One, true God and Father of all.




One response

28 02 2011
Rich Wollan

For comments on this topic that are likely stated much more clearly than mine, please read the following from Frederica Mathewes-Green:

“THE EVIL ONE. Everyday Christians pray ‘deliver us from evil,’ not knowing that the Greek original reads, ‘the evil,’ that is, ‘the evil one.’ The New Testament Scriptures are full of references to the malice of the devil, but we generally overlook them. I think this is because our idea of salvation is that Christ died on the cross to pay His Father the debt for our sins. The whole drama takes place between Him and the Father , and there’s no role for the evil one.”
“But for the early Christians, and as we will see in the Canon [of St. Andrew], the evil one was a very real and malevolent presence. Temptation coaxes us toward sin, and sin leads to sickness and death, and ultimately confinement in the realm of the evil one. The devil’s main purpose is not to scare us, in a horror-movie way; when we’re scared of him we’re alert to him, and that might undermine his plans. Instead, he wants to quietly, subtly lure us into stepping away from God. Sin leads to death, but death also leads to sin. Hebrews 2:14 explains that the evil one has always controlled the human race through fear of death; death is what most deeply terrifies us and makes us grab at earthly security. But ‘whoever would save his life will lose it’ (Matthew 16:25). That’s the bitter trick. Desperate selfish clutching at life lands us in the realm of death.”
“But God sent Christ to rescue us; He took on human form (showing us that these humble human bodies can bear the presence of God, like the Burning Bush bore His fire), lived a sinless life, went into the realm of Hades like all human flesh, and then blasted it open by His power. Death could not contain Him, because He is Life. When we join ourselves to Him and begin to assimilate His Life, we too are freed form the control of the evil one.”
“This is not a ‘ransom’ paid to the Father; the Father wasn’t holding us captive. It is an offering, but not a payment. Look at it this way. Christ suffered to save us from our sins in the same way a fireman suffers burns and wounds to save a child from a burning home. He may dedicate his courageous acts as an offering to the Fire Chief he loves and admires. He may do it to redeem the child from the malice of the arsonist who started the fire. But his suffering isn’t paid to anyone, in the sense of making a bargain. Likewise, God redeemed His people from the hand of Pharaoh when He rescued them in the Red Sea. But He didn’t pay Pharaoh anything. He Himself was not paid anything. It was a rescue action, not a business transaction, and our redemption by Christ is the same.”

–First Fruits of Prayer, from the “Introduction”, pgs. xvi – xvii

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