An Angry God?

Is God angry with us?  Is he mad at us?  Are we truly ‘sinners in the hands of an angry God’?

If you’re a parent – when your child does something wrong, how does it make you feel?  Upset.  Let down.  Maybe angry.  But are you angry at the child, or, angry that they’ve made an unwise decision?  Maybe sometimes it’s a mix of both…

It is often said that Jesus died to save us from God’s anger, God’s wrath.  In other words, if it weren’t for Jesus, God would be ready to pounce, angrily and happily casting us all into hell.

So did God need to save us from himself?  Parents like that usually have their kids taken away and a restraining order put on them.

Perhaps, rather, God needs to save us from ourselves

As a parent, I may tell my kids to behave a certain way, or avoid certain things, but it would be to save them from themselves, not to save them from me.  They have my unconditional love from the start, even if they perpetrate acts of rebellion or whatever against me.  I certainly would not be angry enough to kill them (or if I were, it would be because of my own sinfulness and brokenness – not a picture of my ‘perfection’).  Further, I don’t need to torture and kill one of my sons so that the other ones can be forgiven.  Yet if I were to choose to undergo suffering – even death – to demonstrate my love for them – that might be different.  I don’t need someone to pay so that *I* can be appeased – what kind of a father would that make me?  I forgive because of my love.  But rebellious actions still have consequences, and they can still choose to reject my efforts of love and live apart from it.  But that is their choice, not mine.

The idea of a bloodthirsty god who must be placated with a human sacrifice seems to represent an ancient pagan understanding of the gods more than the God of love we find in Jesus.  Is God portrayed that way from time to time in the text?  Perhaps, but that may represent the culture of the time more than God himself.  Maybe the point of Jesus’ death was not because otherwise God would destroy us all, but to show us the extent of God’s love and to show us another way to live, and absorb the anger and sin and hate and injustice of the world.  In other words, not to save us from God, but from ourselves.

Brian McLaren notes that some questions are helpful to ask on the issue of propitiation: (below is his quote)

1. Who was the primary audience for the suffering and death of Jesus? Was it intended to bring about a change in God, or in us?

McLaren: Since I don’t think God needs to change, but rather we do, I’d vote for the latter.

2. Where do we centrally locate God the Father on good Friday – in and with the political and religious leaders, condemning and torturing Jesus? Or in Jesus, suffering injustice *with* and *for* us?

McLaren:  Again, I’d vote the latter.

3. Does Jesus, in some mysterious way, absorb/redirect the hostility of God towards us, or the hostility of us towards God?

McLaren:  Again, I’d vote for the latter. (I think this is what C. S. Lewis was after in his idea of “the perfect penitent.”)

Summary:  In each case, perhaps a case could be made for the former; there are ways we could say there is truth in the former. But I think the weight of meaning is found in the latter option. Many people see everything from within the conventional narrative and so they can’t even imagine Jesus being important apart from it, and that’s a major reason why, I think, they are so adamant in defending it.

Some of you are asking, what about texts that talk about God’s wrath against us?  The question is – what is the nature of that wrath?  I wonder if perhaps God, as any parent, hates to see his children acting in ways that disregard him and hurt themselves.  And I wonder if God created such a world in which when we act in such ways, there are consequences for those actions, and those consequences reflect his anger or hatred (for those actions).  In other words, God’s wrath is what happens indirectly when I sin – the consequences are built in.  This is a passive anger rather than an active anger.  In other words, an anger not just for the sake of being angry, or not a self-righteous anger – “How dare you sin, don’t you know who I am?” (which I hope God is above), but rather, an anger rooted in sorrow over how we have separated ourselves from him and are only hurting ourselves.

Could it be then, that Jesus dies on the cross absorbing the full extent of that wrath?  In other words, the full extent of the results of human sin – rejection, mistreatment, and ultimately, an undeserved death.  And by taking all of that wrath upon himself (wrath = negative consequences), Jesus broke the cycle of human rebellion against God by showing us the extent of God’s love for us – that he would suffer with us and even for us – not to save us from God, but to save us from ourselves.

Again, I could be wrong, and I am trying to honestly wrestle through this as many others are.  But to simply say, God’s wrath = God’s direct, active hatred or anger against us seems to violate God’s nature as loving, even as just.

I would prefer to think of God’s justice in terms of a parental/relational model rather than a judge/legal model.  The former implies relationship, involvement, love.  The latter implies something else – like “I’m so angry that if someone doesn’t pay, someone’s going to die!”  The former says, “Because my love for you is so great, and my sorrow over sin so wide, I’m going to come and live with you, and among you, and as one of you, bearing the full consequences of that sin even though I don’t deserve to.  I love you that much.

When Paul says in Romans 1 that God’s wrath is being revealed, I think he’s talking about the present consequences of sin now…

I don’t have it figured out, but I am encouraged by many who want to have a constructive dialogue about it all, and most of all, who want to continue to live into the love of God as expressed in Jesus, and want to share that love in and with our world.

(this was a follow-up to Christy’s post: To Hell With It)


15 thoughts on “An Angry God?

  1. Bryan,
    I wonder what your background is. I must admit, I didn’t read any background on you or your site, but I posted Angry God on google and got your blog, which I found quite excellent and really theo-logically based. I mean, why believe in something just because we are told to by the Presbyterian or Catholic church leader of the day, when it doesn’t make emotional, spiritual or parental sense. I hope you are well and keep this going.


  2. What do you think about God wiping out most of mankind in the Flood? How about his judgment on Sodom and Gomorrah? What about his sending the angel of death to wipe out the firstborn of Egypt, taking the lives of little boys and men together?
    Or how about his command to the Israelites to go into the land and wipe out the inhabitants – men, women and children, because of their abominable idolatrous practices?
    Is that anger? Sound like anger to me. In fact, it seems that God made a repeated and sustained effort through the Bible to reveal his anger or wrath – as well as his love and mercy.

    You can try to bring God down to a human level, but that is a fool’s errand, sir. We do not have the holiness or hatred of sin that God has. He is not like any of us in that regard. If you don’t God is angry enough about sin and rebellion against his sovereign authority to execute eternal judgment and punishment upon anybody, what do you make of Satan and the fallen angels?

    The Gospel is the Gospel – good news – because it is, first and foremost, deliverance from the deserved wrath of God. If God is not angry at sin, what was the purpose of the Cross?

    “In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins.” – 1 John 4:10.


    1. Hi John-
      Thanks for your thoughts. There are certainly many difficult texts to wrestle with, and I agree that the Bible notes the reality of God’s wrath in various places. The question, I think, is whether that wrath is directed toward sin, or toward the people themselves…

      If the Good News is good primarily because we’re being rescued *from* God, *by* God, well, it seems a bit confusing. Not to mention that he could have just cut out a step there…


  3. Thanks, guys, for some thought-provoking stuff. I wrestle with this a lot. And like you, have to say “not sure about some things.” From my personal experience…and from my studies of Scripture…and better students than me. There is, in my life perspective, more conclusion than in my speculating…and here I come out pretty much where you are, Bryan. An interesting thing that has played around in my head lately (remember we drove to and from LA, a somewhat mindless task) is thinking about the resurrection. I love your thoughts on the resurrection; my first funeral was a Nam vet in ’68. I stand at the grave, reminding folks that it is that we hold out for…that we are waiting for. But maybe it’s just me waiting (or us alive). Waiting is a function of time (one of the functions I’ve never liked very much). So….when does the resurrection happen for this guy lowered in the grave (oh…”when” is a function of time, too.) So maybe this guy is “already” resurrected (from my perspective in time)? Hey, it’s past my bedtime.


  4. Amen!

    Anyone who thinks they have it all figured out is fooling themselves. Indeed, there are difficult things in God’s Word that may never be fully comprehended (God’s sovereignty and human freedom for example). Thanks for your thoughtful pondering and high regard for God’s Word. It’s quite a journey we are on, isn’t it?


  5. Hi Vern-
    I think our hope after this life is the resurrection, and that we can anticipate life with God in the new heavens and new earth. I have my suspicions that a disembodied, purely ‘spiritual’ heaven is not what we have to look forward to, but rather as NT Wright puts it – life after life after death. Those who reject God will be allowed to have what they’ve asked for – and that is separation from him and isolation, and it will not be fun. For how long and how painful – that is God’s business. I would say, as Christy noted, that the idea of God actively sending someone to eternal conscious torment makes the worst crimes ever committed by humanity look like a walk in the park, so I wrestle with that, but it doesn’t mean I have a definitive answer on it, and I do understand that there are texts that seem to indicate something like that. In any case, I’d encourage someone to choose God because he is worth choosing, not because you’re hoping to avoid something horrible. People would do just about anything to avoid something horrible, and love or faith may well have nothing to do with it.

    How all those details work out – I’ll leave that to God, though I do try to study the text, and listen to the wisdom of those who have come before, and be as faithful as I can.

    I really do think asking questions, and viewing things from different angles (as I was attempting in this post) is an OK and even healthy thing (even for pastors!), and that we should pursue these things in humility and in community.


  6. Hi Bryan,

    I appreciate your thoughtful considerations of the language and the challenges of interpretation. I realize your blog addresses “Why did Jesus die?” But certainly, our understanding of hell is central to that discussion.

    Could you please share your understanding of what happens to people after they die. As you correctly stated the Hebrews had no understanding of an afterlife. The Greeks did. Who got it right? What should we believe in this day and age?


  7. Vern-
    Thanks for your thoughts.

    My post didn’t really address hell so much as why did Jesus die. I agree that there are consequences for sin, and that God allows us to choose separation from him (hell).

    I also agree that the Word should be our first concern – and I try as hard as anyone to be faithful to the text and to understand the text in its context. We are separated historically, culturally, geographically, linguistically, and in many other ways from those ancient words, and our presumption to know ‘what it means’ often clouds our ability to read it or see what is actually there.

    What do the words mean, and what did they mean when they were written? This is of crucial importance. The word hell is an English word that carries with it all the connotations of Dante and medieval literature, which as NT Wright notes, fashions our ideas of hell much more than the Bible does.

    In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word sheol means “the state, or place, of the dead,” and is usually translated as “grave” (see Ps. 6:5 for example). Because there is not literally any such place, it could also be translated as “gravedom.” The Hebrews recognized that man is an integrated being who is either alive or dead (to us, this is obvious). They understood that man does not have a soul, but rather that, as per Genesis 2:7, man is a living “soul” (nephesh), that is, a living person. When he dies, he is then a dead soul, that is, a dead person.

    In contrast to the teaching of the Old Testament, most Greeks believed that man has “an immortal soul,” which they saw as the non-corporeal essence of his being that was trapped in the temporal, fleshly prison of his body until the wonderful moment when his body “died” and his “soul” could freely wing its way to Mt. Olympus, the land of Shades, or somewhere else.

    Because of this belief, the Greeks had no word that corresponded with the idea expressed by the Hebrew word sheol. The closest thing they could find was hades, and that is what those who produced the Septuagint (a translation of the Old Testament from Hebrew to Greek) chose as the counterpart to sheol. As they do with sheol in the Old Testament, some English versions of the Bible unhelpfully translate the Greek word hades as “hell” in the New Testament.

    The impact of translating sheol as hades is pretty serious. In sheol, everyone is dead, but in the Greek language and culture, everyone in Hades is alive. Thus, by the stroke of the pen of the Septuagint’s translators, all the dead (in sheol) were granted life after death in hades. The Greek-speaking Hebrews, reading their Greek Bible, would naturally come to believe that “the dead are alive” (it was, after all, in their Bible).

    Gehenna is the Greek word for the Hebrew “valley of Hinnom,” which I’m sure you know was the city dump outside of Jerusalem. When Jesus used this word to refer to the place of the future destruction of the wicked, all who heard him knew exactly what he meant. I think we have to use caution when such obvious metaphors are used, that we don’t immediately literalize them, and then enshrine our literalizations.

    The point is – separation from God stinks, it’s ugly, and God has made a way for you to be reconciled.

    But my article here is dealing more with the nature of God, and does God need to resort to violence to accomplish his ends (killing his son), or does he rather choose to give up his power, endure the effects of sin and brokenness with us, and respond to violence with love, to injustice with grace and forgiveness, thus “disarming the powers and authorities [note: not disarming God], by making a spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross.”


  8. Hi Bryan,

    I appreciate your openness concerning your struggle with the “traditional view” of God’s wrath and how you tie your own experience with your children to God’s dealing with us.

    Yet, as a leader in the church, our final authority must come from God’s Word and not our feelings. If we stray from the Word, then we stray from the Word Incarnate, Jesus Christ. Our struggles concerning the wrath of God are nothing new. Paul addresses that struggle in Romans 9.

    We simply cannot ignore the many references concerning the torments of hell.

    The Word calls it “the Lake of Fire,” Rev. 20, “15 If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire.”

    Jesus, Himself, calls it “eternal punishment” in Matthew 25 “46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

    And “eternal fire” in Matthew 25:41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire.”

    And “the fiery furnace, where there is weeping and the gnashing of teeth” in Matthew 13, “40 “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. 42 They will throw them into the fiery furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. 43 Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. He who has ears, let him hear.

    (Note all New Testament references)

    I struggle with this horrific picture of hell myself, but I cannot ignore it. If hell isn’t a reality, the One who came to show us God’s love certainly had a funny way of explaining God’s love. On the other hand, if hell is real, and Jesus came not only to warn us about it, but also to rescue us from it, then I see a God who really loves.

    Reducing the hell Jesus painted for us to mean only the present suffering from our sinful choices, seems to diminishes the urgency of His gospel. My only motivation for doing good is to be like Jesus.

    On the other hand, accepting the reality of the hell Jesus paints intensifies the urgency of His gospel. My new motivation is to thank Jesus, with a life of gratitude for what he saved me from and to lead others to Him

    We have to be so careful in handling God’s Word. We need to wrestle with it, especially when it paints a picture we don’t like. Adam and Eve didn’t like God’s Word that they couldn’t eat from the one tree in the middle of the garden. So they ever so slightly looked at the tree from a different point of view and sin and death entered God’s good creation.

    One last thought. You make the distinction between “active wrath” and “passive wrath.” Which ever it is, the end result is the same, death. Death is separation, separation from God. God didn’t separate Himself from us. We separated ourselves from Him. Hell then is ultimately the place where we are totally separated from God and all His graces. Everything we attribute to God as a gift (friendships, family, love) will be absent. That’s the price we pay for walking away from God and we all have walked away.

    The good news is Jesus never walked away from His Father, he never sinned. Yet He in his death, He experienced that separation from His Father, heard in His cry, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?”

    I think God does want us to focus on His love that saves us from His wrath (passive or active). But we cannot fully appreciate His love without first accepting the picture He paints of His wrath in His Word.


  9. I have trouble with the basic question of an “angry God.” It doesn’t make sense to talk about God being angry. Even among humans, anger is a secondary emotion generally used to cover more elemental feelings like fear. If God is genuinely the divine One, I don’t think emotions are a part of the equation. It seems to me the threat of an angry God has been ued by preachers to coerce obedience out of parishoners. George Whitfield’s gift to the American Church was an antidote to Jonathon Edwards’ threats. Whitfield offered a loving (not sure about that emotion either, but anyway) God offering salvation and waiting for us to “fall into his loving embrace.”


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