“Am I Not Merciful?” Why “Wrath of God” Language Can be Misleading

Gladiator is one of my all-time favorite movies. One of the more memorable scenes, for me, is Emperor Commodus (Joaquin Phoenix, pre the infamous Letterman interview), screaming, “Am I not merciful?,”  while threatening his sister and her son with their lives. The dramatic irony is that Comedus is not merciful at all. He is a crazed megalomanic who cannot be trusted–only feared.

Sometimes, when evangelicals speak of the atonement in a particular way, Emperor Comedus pops in my head.

When evangelicals speak of Jesus’ death on the cross as a substitution for our sin and an appeasement of God’s wrath so that God can be reconciled to us, we need to be careful not to make God out to be far angrier and more vindictive than the New Testament’s portrait of God. In my understanding of the atonement, the death of Christ on the cross does not so much appease God’s wrath as remove a barrier between us and God (and in particular, in such a way as to enable us to be reconciled to God. That barrier is our sin–not God’s anger. In Jesus Christ, we see that God has already created the space for his reconciliation with us. Now, how will we be reconciled to God? By the removal of our sin as we embrace the cross and as we are united with God through Christ.

In this respect, Scot McKnight has an insightful post today on a posthumously published collection of lectures by C.H.D. Moule, in which he argues that the New Testament’s “propitiation” language (usually translated as “resolving and pacifying the wrath of God against sinners”) should rather be rendered as “expiation” (the “removal of sin”).

“Substitution” language is central to the New Testament theology of atonement. I affirm this completely. But a very different portrait of God emerges depending on which way you go with this interpretive decision–which should take into account the flow of the gospels and New Testament. When understood as “expiation,” the “problem” that the atonement solves is not so much in God (God’s anger or wrath needing to be satisfied or satiated); rather, the problem it solves is in us (sinners who need to have out sin removed so that we can be reconciled to God)?

“Am I not merciful?”

Yes, God is merciful. But he does not manifest his mercy with a knife at our throats, but with a knife at his own. Thus we see God’s mercy most clearly in Jesus: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (Jn 3:17).

 

 

  • Paul

    Thanks for the thought-provoking essay. And thanks for the effort to maintain the biblical tension between wrath and mercy when too many fall (or jump) off the balance beam on one side or the other.

    I’d offer some push-back at a couple of points.

    The first is in regard to the spring-board for your essay– Scot McKnight’s essay, “The Wrath of God Satisfied.” I think it is unfortunate to leave the reader with the impression that the issue surfaced back in the 1950’s and 60’s and “standard evangelical theology” is rooted in Morris and Stott. I realize Scot knows otherwise and this is just a misfortune of short essays.

    My second “push-back” is regarding the warning to “be careful not to make God out to be far angrier and more vindictive than the New Testament’s portrait of God.”

    I know the intent was not to stake out a Marcionite position with respect to the God of the New Testament. I appreciate the thought behind the use of the comparatives “angrier” and “more vindictive.” (Actually, though it may not be good English to say/write vindicative rather than vindictive, I think the unusual formation of the word might jar the hearer/reader to think of God’s vindicating his holiness and righteousness rather than the mean and ugly notion that your essay is meaning to address constructively.)

    Now, since the N.T. comprises but 23% of the Christian’s Bible, it should not be surprising that the word-count on the subject of God’s wrath would be but a fraction when compared with the First Testament. But, I know you agree that the N.T. is not mum on the subject. (e.g., Rom. 1.18; 2.5, 8; 5.9; 9.22; Col. 3.6; 1Thess 1.10; 2.16; 5.9; Heb. 3.11; Rev. 6.16-17; 19.15).

    Again, I affirm the effort to maintain biblical tension by saying “the ‘problem’ that the atonement solves is not so much in God (God’s anger or wrath needing to be satisfied or satiated)…” However, in the next clause this component might seem to be jetisoned in favor of locating the “problem” in us.

    Of course, the reader of Isaiah 52.13-53.12 will be jarred by the prophet’s claim that in God’s mercy, the wrath of God due to us because of our sin God intended rather to have strike the sinless Suffering Servant who would stand in for us. And the readers of the Gospel accounts will have to take the cross into account. The cross is offensive! But, we what is lost when the offense of the cross is papered over so as not to offend certain sensibilities?

    The cross of the Christ was not the sort of cross one purchases at Kay’s or Tiffany’s, but the Roman instrument of criminal execution described by Wm. Edwards, et al. “On the Physical Death of Jesus Christ,” Journal of the American Medical Association, 256 (21 Mar 1986) 1455-1463.

    Of course, this is what you are saying when you point out that “Yes, God is merciful. But he does not manifest his mercy with a knife at our throats, but with a knife at his own. Thus we see God’s mercy most clearly in Jesus: “For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him” (Jn 3:17).”

    Thanks again

  • Todd

    Thanks Kyle – especially for your concluding comment – “Yes, God is merciful. But he does not manifest his mercy with a knife at our throats, but with a knife at his own.”
    Todd

    • Kyle Roberts

      Thanks, Todd

  • Brian P.

    Why believe in a God who isn’t nice???

    When I hear people witnessing about a God like this… well… I just kinda feel for them.

    What a horrible way to live.

  • Jeremy Forbing

    An excellent post, but let me just nitpick one thing: the name is spelled “Commodus”, not “Comedus.” This is confirmed by both the history the film is (very very) loosely based on, as well as an quick glance at Gladiator’s entry on IMDB. But the scene you use as a central metaphor is extremely apt as a metaphor for the attitude you address here, and this is a well-written analysis of this major problem within Christianity and how it needs to be solved.

    • Kyle Roberts

      Thanks for that, Jeremy. I suppose I should have looked that one up. Thanks for the comment.

  • Pythagoras

    God is brutally wrathful towards those who do not take care of themselves. God apparently demands that WE go through our own purgatorial suffering, to atone for our own sins. This unfortunately is what it means to be Christ – like. Christ did not cancel any debt when on the cross. He was pointing to the necessity of canceling off our own debt. This is also what it means to clear away all idols – making way for God’s overwhelming (it is supposed to be overwhelming apparently) mercy. I know it’s tough to hear!