I remember just a few years back (or maybe it was a lifetime ago), reading that a mainline denomination had asked the writers of the song, “In Christ Alone,” whether they could change, the lyric, “the wrath of God was satisfied,” to “the love of God was magnified.” The authors refused, and the song was dropped from the PCUSA hymnal.
Through this incident a budding trend among Christians in America bloomed into full flower.
Over the past ten years, I’ve had multiple conversations with well-meaning Christians who’ve become unable to harmonize the notion of love with the depiction of a wrathful God. Just the other day, I saw someone call Christianity a “death cult” on social media. If such a being as God exists, surely “it” must transcend even our highest moral aspirations. If that being doesn’t, how could it be worthy of our worship? Conversely, if such a being sunk so low morally as to require human sacrifice to make it happy, how could it deserve anything but our disdain?
But the Bible doesn’t just assign moral perfection to its God; the Bible claims that “God is love.” Surely, God, from the wellspring of his very being could love his creatures enough to quash any sort of offense he might feel over our actions! Why would there be needed a violent, brutal execution to supplement divine love? I mean, even out of human imperfection we’ve generated sentiments like, “I love you enough for the both of us.” Can’t God from his infinite supply love me enough for the both of us?
No, he can’t. At least not in the way we think he should.
We’d like to think of God seated in splendor so transcendent as to be unaffected by human slights. But how could such a detached and disaffected being ever claim to love us? From that distance, he could pity us or be amused by us, but he certainly could never love us. Should such a distant deity decide to exact some sort of “wrath,” it could only be out of sadistic narcissism. It’s telling that those who critique the notion of God’s wrath often depict him as a little boy holding a magnifying glass over an anthill. The distance of which I speak is built into the metaphor.
If God loves us, then he must be vulnerable to us. Think of the risk a lover takes the first time they profess their love. To love is to invite someone to hurt us, perhaps to even destroy us. When we love, we offer ourselves in hopes of a response in kind. Should that response not come or should it later be revoked or revealed as sham, then we find ourselves defrauded outright and devalued to the uttermost. Now, think of the utter dismay breaking over heaven’s courts when humankind rejects the overtures of the ultimate, incomparable Source.
So, no, God can’t just love us enough for the both of us. No individual can supply all of the love needed to fill the space between themselves and another. In therapeutic circles, that attempt at “love” is known as codependency or enabling. God’s love must be reciprocated. Anything less scorns him and warps us. Consequently, God’s wrath is a function of his love. If he could love us more, his wrath would only burn all the hotter.
And so, for the love of God, we face future judgment.
Should we believe such a fate awaits us, we might be moved to save ourselves in some way. But how could fear produce love? We might pretend to love God by offering empty affections in the form of fastidious religiosity. Of course that never works. To us, God will always be the rich old man with hands as cold as ice. We might go to church and maintain a moral façade, but our hearts will always long for the other side of town. And we will make forays there in any way we think we can justify. God would join the Eagles in telling us, “You can’t hide your lying eyes.”
What is to be done?
Praise God, what can be done has been done.
The authors of the New Testament knew nothing of our God so “loving” as to need no appeasement. Christ’s beloved John had no trouble weaving the two ideas into one sentence which we can find in 1 John 4:10. For context, here’s the verse with the two that precede it:
Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love. This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.1 John 4:8-10 NIV
“God is love.” It’s a wonderful truth, but we can’t allow ourselves to stop reading there and walk away assuming that the sentiment we feel for those we cherish defines God.
He showed his love among us by sending his Son into the world. Hallelujah! That doesn’t mean that God is defined by the life of a Nazarene carpenter turn itinerant preacher. The bit about Jesus eating with sinners doesn’t nullify the multiple commands to execute sinners in Israel. To get the full revelation of God, we must read on past the tales of Christ’s miracles and the record of his teachings. We must go on into a garden where that same precious One cried out for his life to a silent night sky. We need to glance from a distance as he’s interrogated and violated. Our ears need to ring with the barbaric shouts, “Crucify him!” Our minds must be bent and our hearts must be broken as he cries, “My God, why have you forsaken me?” We must watch as the light of the world is snuffed under a sackcloth sky.
“This is love,” John says.
God loves us enough to appease his own wrath, but not through empty sentiment. No, he did it through a blood sacrifice which he himself provided.