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God Isn’t Mad at Us, and He Never Was

Updated: Apr 21



The other day, a student joked with me when I made a mistake in my teaching, “To the devil you must go!” We both laughed, but it’s an idea that has seeped into our western culture: a wrathful God waiting to drop the hammer, because we’re sinful. And the only thing holding God back is his son Jesus, who is not wrathful because he loves us.


Growing up in the church, I would hear people say, “I pray to Jesus, but I’m scared of God (the father).” Or, “Jesus loves me; God is mad at me.”


Is God actually mad at us (humanity), or was he ever mad at us? For those of us who seek to follow God, it’s an important question. In the past, I put these questions away, because I reasoned that because of Jesus, he was no longer mad at ME. It was a self-centered theology, and it worked for a while.

 

If you grew up in the evangelical church, you were taught the doctrine of Penal Substitutionary Atonement or PSA. Maybe you weren’t taught it by name (it’s a mouthful), but it’s in almost every sermon, song, and youth group conversation. 


Here’s a concise and fair definition: “Jesus reconciled sinners to God by being their substitute punishment. He absorbed in his person God’s righteous wrath against us, because of our sin, that we might be free from sin and its penalty and liberated to enjoy such a person forever.” (italics mine).*


In other words, PSA teaches that God the Father is angry at us because of our sins (or sinful state). Jesus steps up (or down, I suppose) and says, “I’ll take your punishment.” And God, needing to punish someone for the sake of justice, heaps his wrath on Jesus, our substitute, in the form of the cross.


This teaching is that God sent his son to save humanity from Himself. Not just from sin, death, or ourselves, but from God’s wrath.

Although there are some passages that seem to describe Jesus's death as an atonement to an angry God, these are most likely metaphors to help individuals understand God has forgiven sin and destroyed death by Jesus’s death and resurrection.


What you weren’t taught is that PSA is one of many “atonement theories” attempting to explain why Jesus died and HOW his death saves us. Atonement theories are based on a synthesis of Biblical passages, but no theory is perfect.


Although alluded to by Anselm in the 11th century as a “satisfaction of honor,” it wasn’t until the 16th century reformation of Luther and Calvin that Penal Substitutionary Atonement attempted to explain what Jesus did on the cross. This means that for 1500 years, Christians didn’t lean on or didn’t necessarily believe in Jesus taking the punishment of God’s wrath.


Problems with PSA

There are many problems with this theory, some more serious than others. 


First, it really doesn’t remove God’s wrath, it just redirects it toward his Son on the cross. God’s wrath remains, and it remains especially for those that have not been chosen or who have not accepted Jesus as their sacrifice. God’s wrath is still waiting for them when they die or when Jesus returns. Yikes.


Second, PSA brings God down to our human level when it ascribes Him with the human need for restitution, punishment, and even revenge. It makes God guilty of something humanity struggles with, the need for punitive justice or the need to see someone punished for wrongdoing. Throughout the gospels, Jesus illustrated forgiveness without punitive justice. It’s imperative to note that all of these forgiveness incidents occur before Jesus “pays for sins” on the cross:

  • In Mark 2, some friends of a man who cannot walk lower him through a roof where Jesus is preaching. Jesus’s first words to him are, “Your sins are forgiven.” No punishment, no conduit for wrath needed. Jesus (who is God) just… forgives. Jesus tells the teachers of the law that he has authority to forgive sins, not that his future sacrifice will give him authority. Jesus possesses the authority right then and there.

  • In John 8, Jesus forgives a woman her “sin” without any punishment needed: “‘Then neither do I condemn you,’ Jesus declared. ‘Go now and leave your life of sin.’”

  • Jesus forgives the thief on the cross without any repentance, and certainly without the “redeeming sacrifice,” because it hadn’t yet happened: “Then he (the thief) said, ‘Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.’” (Luke 23:39-43).


Maybe the object of God’s wrath has been misplaced by us. Perhaps his wrath is against our SIN, and not against US. God wants to rescue us and the world from sin, whereby we hurt ourselves, others, and our world. 

I believe Jesus came to rescue us. He came to rescue us from our brutality, from our self-destructing tendencies, from our hate, and from our sin. He did not come to rescue us from God’s wrath.


In fact, this seems to be the greatest hurdle for PSA: God’s Wrath. For one to accept the wrath of God AND the love of God, one has to accept one of three propositions:


  1. God has two faces or two personalities – double mindedness, or even a split personality. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only son,” but God is also angry with us, so someone has to die. God and his wrath is satiated only by the punishment of sin. He lays this punishment on his Son. John 3:16 in this case would read, “For God so loved (and hated) the world that he gave his one and only son to rescue it from HIMSELF.” This makes no sense in light of Jesus’s declarations, “I and the Father are one.” (John 10:30). And later, Anyone who has seen me has seen the Father.” (John 14:9). PSA divides the trinity of God pitting the Father against the Son.


  1. God is impotent or powerless. God is under compulsion to punish us because of our sin. It’s as if God is under contract to kill us, so his hands are tied. According to PSA, God is answering to a HIGHER authority than himself, the authority of Retribution or Justice. He HAS to do it. The only trouble is that he wrote the contract to kill us. He’s not just our executioner, he is the one who has called for execution. This makes God, well, not God, because in this scenario he is a participant (willing or unwilling) instrument of death. He can’t (he’s unable to) forgive without there being a payment for the sin. It’s confusing, and one reason why many people walk away from a faith that holds such a doctrine.


  1. “God’s love IS his wrath.” I’ve heard this before. It goes something like this: Because God loves us so much he wants us to be perfect. If he accepted anything less than perfection, he would not be wanting our best, which is love. Besides feeling a bit on the abusive/gaslighting side, there’s a whiff of God-manipulation and doublespeak that even believers of PSA rarely buy.


The Bible describes Jesus’s death in various ways:

  • Jesus paid the penalty for sin (Romans 3:25).

  • We were bought back by Jesus’s sacrifice (Mark 10:45).

  • Jesus conquered sin (Colossians 2:13-15, Hebrews 2:14).

  • We were healed from the disease of sin (1 Peter 2:24).


So which is it? For 2000 years, Christians have argued WHAT Jesus’s death did. More specifically, HOW Jesus’s death dealt with our sins. The Bible uses all of these illustrations to describe the indescribable reality that Jesus died for us, a truth around which our minds can’t begin to wrap.


And so “atonement theories,” or HOW Jesus death saves us were created from these passages. Christus Victor, Ransom Theory, Penal Substitutionary Atonement all attempt to illustrate the meaning of Christ’s death. All of these theories are mere glimpses into the fabric of eternal wisdom to help us grasp the ungraspable. They are pictures of the mystery of God to help us understand what cannot be fully known. “For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.” (1 Corinthians 13:12)


Do I think that the creator of the universe made a human sacrifice of his son? 

No. But in a world where human sacrifice was common, it was a powerful metaphor to explain the seriousness of sin and the cosmic idea of Jesus dying for us. (Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory).


Do I think Jesus’s death was the literal purchase price to buy us back from being enslaved by sin? 

No. But in a world where human slavery was familiar, it was a clear picture to explain how much God loves us and is willing to give everything for us. (Ransom Theory).


Do I think there was an actual battle between Jesus and death (or Satan) itself? 

No. But in a world where battles for dominion were frequent, it was a clarifying method to explain how Jesus dying for us somehow conquered sin and death universal. (Christus Victor).


Throughout church history, theologians have tried to synthesize Biblical verses to explain HOW Jesus’s death saves us by creating atonement theories. Maybe we should call them “Atonement Metaphors.”

Why It Matters?

For me, the most disturbing thing about PSA is the reason some are drawn to it. Some – not all - but some NEED a wrathful God. For them, if a Christian doesn’t agree with this doctrine then perhaps they aren’t really a believer. When we follow a wrathful God, it can justify our own wrath. It creates a permission structure for vitriol, punishment, and retribution against those we know and groups we don’t know.


And if we worship a God of wrath, we’re in danger of becoming a follower of wrath.

But for many, the discovery of a loving God can be the most freeing truth after being ensnared by a destructive lie. When we embrace that Jesus is the perfect representation of a loving God, we can truly be free and empowered to love.



*Williams, Jarvis. “Penal Substitutionary Atonement.” Desiring God, 19 February 2013, https://www.desiringgod.org/interviews/penal-substitutionary-atonement. Accessed 15 March 2024.


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