‘The wrath of God was satisfied’

Within churches across the western world, many of us will be singing this line today- from the modern hymn by Stuart Townend, ‘In Christ alone’. The whole verse goes something like this;

In Christ alone! who took on flesh
Fulness of God in helpless babe!
This gift of love and righteousness
Scorned by the ones he came to save:
Till on that cross as Jesus died,
The wrath of God was satisfied –
For every sin on Him was laid;
Here in the death of Christ I live.

It is a great hymn, deeply emotional and soaring in its melody. However I increasingly find the one dimensional nature of it’s theology really difficult. It is this one line about the wrath of God. It conjures up the idea of some kind of unstoppable force of holy hate and destruction in the universe that was narrowly averted only by the torture and death of Jesus.

This is another one of those underpinning assumptions of Evangelicalism that most of us accepted as unassailable truth- Jesus died the horrible death on the cross that was rightfully ours and because of this, God was able to undertake some kind of divine conjuring trick for some of us. This was the only way to overcome the natural forces of justice in the universe. It was the only way to deal with the wrath of God.

For non theologians like me, the fact that this kind of understanding of the atonement of the cross is not the ONLY way of understanding the central drama of the Christian faith might come as a surprise. Recently of course, a number of hugely controversial books have emerged taking a new look at the issue. The authors of these books (Rob Bell, Steve Chalke, Brian McLaren) have often been subjected to the outrage of the faithful.

So, on this Good Friday, I thought that it might be worth examining some of the other understandings of atonement- the other ways that followers of Jesus have attempted to come to terms with the enormity of a God who would come to earth to die such a death.

The name given to the theory of atonement outlined above is ‘Substitutionary atonement’ or sometimes ‘Penal Substitution’. However rather than talk more about I think it would be useful to take a journey through atonement in church history.

Firstly, there is a summary of some of the ideas in this clip by Tony Jones, along with some of his own hard hitting alternatives;

There are other theories of atonement, but here is a quick summary of the dominant ones again;

Moral influence

In this view the core of Christianity is positive moral change, and the purpose of everything Jesus did was to lead humans toward that moral change. He is understood to have accomplished this variously through his teachings, example, founding of the Church, and the inspiring power of his death and resurrection.

This was the atonement theory dominant in the early church in the second and third centuries and was taught by the Church Fathers. It was also popular into the middle ages and beyond.

Ransom theory

Jesus liberates mankind from slavery to Satan and thus death by giving his own life as a ransom. Victory over Satan consists of swapping the life of the perfect (Jesus), for the lives of the imperfect (mankind).

Christus victor

Here Jesus is not used as a ransom but rather defeated Satan in a spiritual battle and thus frees enslaved mankind by defeating the captor. This theory continued to influence Christian theology for a thousand years.


This theory grew from the work of the 11th century theologian Anselm.  Mankind owes a debt not to Satan, but to sovereign God himself. A sovereign may well be able to forgive an insult or an injury in his private capacity, but because he is a sovereign he cannot if the state has been dishonoured. Anselm argued that the insult given to God is so great that only a perfect sacrifice could satisfy and Jesus, being both God and man, was this perfect sacrifice. Here we see the influence of earthly politics projected onto the heavens.

Penal substitution

The Protestant reformers developed Anselm’s theory.  Instead of considering sin as an affront to God’s honour,  rather sin is regarded as the breaking of God’s moral law. Placing a particular emphasis on Romans 6:23 (the wages of sin is death), penal substitution sees sinful man as being rightfully deserving God’s wrath with the essence of Jesus’ saving work being his substitution in the sinner’s place, bearing the curse in the place of man (Galatians 3:13).

A variation that also falls within this metaphor is Hugo Grotius’ “governmental theory“, which sees Jesus receiving a punishment as a public example of the lengths to which God will go to uphold the moral order.

Some would argue that all these theories contain part of the truth, and (in the absence of certainty) I think I would agree with this.

Apart from this thing that we call ‘the wrath of God’.

I would contend that our theological projections of God are always partial, always incomplete and always emerging from our cultural perspective. So it was natural for the children of the modern enlightenment to see God as embodying a force of logical, highly technical justice. It seemed like the elevation of mankind towards democratic freedom mediated by the purity of the law was a process ordained by God, and so this must also be the character of God himself.

God the judge- stern, inflexible, bound by the fine detail of the law, but able to save a narrow few through a technicality.

But today we remember the death of a man Jesus.

The scandal of the cross.

The unreasonableness of the cross.

The injustice of the the cross.

The laying down of all power and majesty, the ultimate vulnerability of the cross.

The end of all our hopes on the cross.

The defeat of the cross.

The humanity of the cross.

And the mystery unfolds within us.

8 thoughts on “‘The wrath of God was satisfied’

  1. I think that if we look at God in terms of ‘wrath’, it’s very easy to be put off and feel totally unworthy of even trying to be ‘Christian’. The whole thing seems unnatainable, as feel personally I could be judged by God about every 15 minutes for just what I think!

    In the old Testament, God was said to show his wrath in many physical ways, yet it’s still said that even when he made threats (eg. Jonah) he quickly forgave the penitent and didn’t carry out his threats (much to the loss of face for Jonah and others). This is how the story tellers and scribes related it to us.

    Amazingly, since Jesus, God has ‘changed his tune’, doesn’t send great thunderbolts with threats of wrath but wants us to forgive to be forgiven too…love your enemy…this can seem impossible and again, unattainable.

    I look at it this way…life can be bad enough without any blatant thunderbolts from God, and it can feel as if there is little justice. I think the hope of justice and peace even if we have to die to get this, is where we can really relate to God in the suffering and death of Jesus.

    When we feel terrible anxiety and have unsolvable problems, and see others in undending physical pain, disease, old age, loneliness, persecuted without any real thought or proper attention from ‘authority’, I can only think about how his mother felt, watching her son being tortured and murdered. She did this and according to whatever records we have, retained some kind of sanity and dignity. Not to mention Joseph, who had had to swallow the ‘annunciation story’ and then flee from Herod etc etc.

    And what about Jesus himself, knowing he was born to die a horrible death, agony in the garden with his closest friends deserting him, asking why even his father had forsaken him? Yet still the dignity and acceptance.

    And what about God, who I think is a ‘personal’ God, who feels pain and also has a sense of humour (or why would we have one), who understands our temptations, furies and weaknesses but wants us to believe we can conquer them..sacrificing his one perfect son..imagine that?
    So I believe God feels wrath but not in a threatening way, but just because he must feel ALOT, ‘what did I do wrong to deserve this?’ (the terrors humanity does to one another).

    When I feel (often) doubt in faith I think about this and reckon this is why Christianity will never die despite all the apathy and blatant opposition to it.

    I’ve recently read ‘Faith in the Darkness’, by Gregg Watts, about Mother Theresa. She had some terrible feelings of emptiness and silence from God but was comforted by her mentors by the same thing; the whole concept of the crucifiction. She may have been a contraversial figure and not everyones cuppa, but she did astonishing things, setting out with just a few rupees and what she was wearing.

    There are many things that can make us question our faith, but this is not a bad thing. Coming through difficult times with the inspiration of what we read and what we see in inspirational figures of faith can make our faith stronger.

    I oten think about those who suffered and died in nazi war camps or the Russian ‘gulags’ and wonder if and how they hung on to faith but remember that God is merciful and can only think that those people have a very special place with him whether they manged to hang on to faith or not (despite what it says in the bible about faith being the major key to heaven).

    Cheers, Nik

  2. Beautifully put Nik.

    I think your distinction between the punishing wrath of God and bad things that happen on earth is an important one- as you say, the later is hard enough without adding a layer of eternal pain on top!




  4. I found your blog via Kevin Nunez. What deeply impacted my view of the atonement was the book “Pierced Through for Our Transgressions” by Steve Jeffery, Michael Ovey, and Andrew Sach.

    My conclusion is that substitutionary atonement is the reason all the other views can also be true. That is, because God’s wrath against me was poured out on Jesus, He can lavish His love and mercy upon me — freeing me from Satan’s power, changing my heart, and so forth.


    Steve Fuller

  5. Cheers Steve- I do not know the book you mention but the view of atonement you mention is familiar to me. I still struggle a little with the idea of a loving wrathful God, and the point of my piece was to point out that the modernist subsitutionary atonement evolved from an understanding of earthly power and kingship, and (like all of our projections of God) is likely to be distorted.

    I suppose that this Easter morning though, whatever the real heavenly processes that were unleashed, we can just know that Jesus died for us and through him, we are risen!



  6. Pingback: Blogging Holy Week; Good Friday… | this fragile tent

Leave a Reply

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

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com 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

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.