We modern believers often feel a need to take care of God – or at least God’s reputation. We have our ideals, and God had better live up to them.
One of our ideals is that anger (or, in its more primitive guise, wrath), is highly uncouth. We humans are not supposed to be angry. God is certainly not supposed to be angry. God is love. God’s love precludes anger.
One branch of American Presbyterians has recently rejected the popular modern hymn, In Christ Alone for its reference to the satisfaction of God’s wrath. Here is how that stanza of the hymn reads:
In Christ alone, who took on flesh
Fullness of God in helpless Babe
This gift of love and righteousness
Scorned by the ones He came to save
Til 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
In plain language (if there is such a thing when dealing with theology), the hymn is saying that God’s wrath was satisfied when Jesus died on the cross. If this means that God is a cosmic bully who beat up Jesus to get his anger out, then sure, I’d have troubles with that line also. That reading of the language is where the feminist theologians see the atonement as divine child abuse: Dad’s angry, let’s beat up the kid. Though some may want to read the text that way, I don’t believe such a reading is necessary.
Looking at the issue from the bottom up, let’s consider God’s attitude toward sin. What does God see when looking at sin? From what I see in the Bible I’d say that God at least sees rebellion, rejection, brokenness – and a waste of the good potential offered to humans. God looks at sin and is broken-hearted for what it’s doing to people and to creation. God is angry that sin is so destructive, angry that people choose it over blessings, not just once or twice, but over and over. In Ezekiel 33:11 God pleads with Israel, “Turn, turn from your wicked ways! Why will you die, O House of Israel?”
Given this context, the satisfaction of God’s wrath/anger in Jesus’ crucifixion is not that God has gotten his (we have to use the masculine pronoun for God here, since this view of anger is often seen as a particularly masculine sin) anger out by torturing Jesus on the cross. Rather, Jesus, not only described by the tradition as “the only begotten Son,” but also as “God incarnate,” had taken all sin upon himself and absorbed all the evil the world could throw at him. “He who had no sin, became sin for us so that we might become the righteousness of God.” Sin, that force which so provoked God’s wrath, had tried its best – going so far as killing Jesus. But God, in the resurrection, declared that sin did not get the last word.
I’d argue, then, that God is rightfully described as wrathful. I might expand what the hymn says by expanding the “satisfaction” of that wrath to include the resurrection. I’d surely, however, see this wrath as subsumed under the category and activity of God’s love. God’s anger is always and only a subservient expression or attribute of God’s love.