Twice recently I heard on national radio broadcasts interviews with prominent, well-known authors who in slightly different words proclaimed that God is not “a God of wrath” but a “God of love.” To my ears both displayed a tinge of Marcionism.
Marcion was that second-century heretic who taught that the God of the Old Testament, Yahweh, was not the father of Jesus Christ. Bottom line, Marcion taught that the OT “god” was a Demiurge1 who loved war and killed a lot of people; Jesus was the one who showed the way of love. Consequently, the two could not be related! Yahweh could not be the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ! This false teaching led Marcion to produce a cut-and-paste Bible which excised the entire Old Testament and lots of the New as well. He concluded that those people (i.e., the Jews) who loved the god of the OT were worshipping a god who came from the dark side. Anyone in that category obviously was evil themself. Thus was born what I term theological anti-Semitism.
So, I had to think more about these two radio interviewees and their message. One was the 27th presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church USA, the Most Rev. Michael B. Curry, whose latest best-selling book is titled The Power of Love. He spoke of the church needing to follow Jesus of Nazareth, to love God and neighbor. He said that anyone who does not do this cannot be called a Christian. When asked about how he would define “love,” he said that we see love most clearly in the sacrificial, selfless death of Jesus on the cross, who gave himself freely for all people. Bishop Curry said, "Jesus didn't give his life to appease an angry God - that is not good theology. He didn't die for that, he died because he loves."
Dr. Elaine Pagels was the other person I heard interviewed. Dr. Pagels is an American religious historian best known for her books on the Gnostic Gospels. These are the “gospels” which were written in the early days of the church age but not included in the canon of the New Testament. In the course of her interview she also mentioned the death of Jesus on the cross. The background to her comments on this subject was the story of the death of her only son at age six and then, a year later, the death of her husband in a hiking accident. She said something like, “no father would be so cruel as to put his son on a cross – this is not the answer to Jesus and the cross.” Pagels talks about all of this in her latest book, which she is currently promoting, titled Why Religion? A Personal Story.
To Dr. Pagels’ denial that God would put His Son on the cross, I would counter that the Son willingly went to the cross. In obedience to his Father's will, yes, but not forced. In Gethsemane, Jesus surrendered himself to his Father's will. Jesus earlier said, “I lay down my life for the sheep . . . The reason the Father loves me is that I lay down my life – only to take it up again. No one takes it from me, but I lay it down of my own accord” (John 10: 14b, 17,18).
Regarding Jesus’ giving his life to appease an angry God, another archbishop, Anselm (this one of the eleventh century), wrote in his great book Cur Deus Homo? that God cannot simply forgive us as we forgive others. If we think this, we have not yet considered either the seriousness of sin or the holiness and majesty of God. There are four biblical concepts that must be considered here: “the gravity of sin, human moral responsibility, true and false guilt, and the wrath of God.”2
Rabbis make much of the story of Abraham’s sacrifice of Isaac, referred to as the Akedah or “the binding” of Isaac. They discern that Isaac was probably in his 20s and Abraham well over 100 years old at the time of “the binding” told in Genesis 22. So, Isaac could have easily prevented his aged father from binding him and putting him on the altar! Isaac had to willingly cooperate; he, like Jesus, was a willing sacrifice. Jesus’ willing sacrifice of himself was acceptable to God on our behalf, and vindication came on the third day when God raised him from the dead. The wrath of a holy God had been satisfied in the only way possible – by the willing, obedient sacrifice of “the man Christ Jesus” (1 Timothy 2:5).
How great a Savior!
What were these two prominent church spokespersons missing, I thought as I listened to their being interviewed about their books. How would orthodox teaching about the cross of Jesus, including that in his death Jesus took the wrath of God which I deserved, differ from what I had just heard? The answer lies in these writers’ wrong view of man and of God! Their anthropology and theology are inaccurate. Man is a sinner DESERVING of the wrath of a Holy God! Only by God’s giving His only Son to take to himself the wrath that sinful man deserves could man then receive the righteousness of God. These two writers were right about this: it was because of God's love for humanity that He gave his Son. “For God so loved the world . . .“ (John 3:16).
For sinful humanity, God’s gift of love and Jesus’ willing sacrifice provided the greatest exchange in all of history. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Corinthians 5:21).
- Dr. Theresa Newell
1 A Demiurge was a Gnostic subordinate deity who was thought to be the creator of the material world.
2 Stott, John R.W. The Cross of Christ (Downers Grove, IL. InterVarsity Press) 1986, 87-89.