The God I don’t believe in

In our last issue, it was suggested that the cross of Jesus is being neglected by many modern Christians. In the face of intellectual scepticism, an increasing desire for miracles, and the contempt that is bred by familiarity, the cross is looking worn out. We need to regain our focus on the cross.

For its part, The Briefing will continue to focus on the cross for a few more issues. (This is the second in a series of four articles.) In this issue, we will meditate together on one aspect of the meaning of the cross: God’s anger.

I like to think of God as …

Has anyone ever used that irritating expression in your presence? It is usually followed by a description of a divine being that bears a striking resemblance to the speaker in one of their better moments.

Whatever this God ends up looking like, we can be sure that he won’t be an angry God who judges and punishes. No-one ‘likes’ to think of God that way. We would rather see God as a free-thinking guy, who doesn’t get too hassled over what religious people call ‘sin’ and who, on balance, wouldn’t keep someone like me out of heaven.

This thinking isn’t limited to the man in the street. A large number of Christian thinkers and writers take the same line, although they are a little more sophisticated in how they phrase it.

John Powell, the American Jesuit whose writings are popular not only with Catholics, but with an increasing number of Protestants, dismisses any biblical references to the ‘wrath of God’ as ‘anthropomorphisms’ (that is, attributing human characteristics to God).1 God is love. He is not moved or angered by our sin. Nor does he punish us for our sins. The only punishment we receive is that which we inflict on ourselves as we suffer the consequences of our wrong actions. He quotes with approval the words of Spanish priest Juan Arias who speaks of the “God I don’t believe in”. Many of the attributes of God that Arias rejects are certainly false, but it is interesting to see his attitude to God’s anger or punishment:

No, I shall never believe in:
the God who catches man by surprise in a sin of weakness …
the God who loves pain …
the God who makes himself feared …
the judge-God who can give a verdict only with a rule book in his hands,
the God incapable of smiling at many of man’s awkward mistakes,
the God who “plays at” condemning
the God who “sends” people to hell,
the God who always demands 100 percent in examinations…
the God who says “You will pay for that!”…
the God who prefers purity to love … 2

The interesting point is that we would probably agree with most or all of these statements. But this is because they caricature God’s anger or punishment. The vindictive, pain-loving God portrayed by Powell and Arias is a man of straw, and they have no trouble knocking him down. Since we know that God would never be so nasty, they argue we can be sure that he doesn’t get angry or ‘punish’ us for our sin. He would not be so uncivilized.

This is a widespread perception in our society. Mention the ‘judgement of God’ or the ‘wrath of God’, and people give a half smile and say, “Oh, you mean like fire and brimstone and damnation … l see [chuckle].”

The God who is there

However, regardless of how we ‘like to think of God’ or how vehemently we proclaim our disbelief in certain aspects of his character, eventually we have to face up to the God who is there. God is not a theory that we discuss and refine; he is a person—a living person who does not change, and who tells and shows us what he is like, not vice versa.

The God who is revealed in the Bible is a multi-faceted being. It is inadequate to say that ‘God is love’—as if that is the essence of his nature to the exclusion of other aspects. The complexity of God can be illustrated by looking at some of the other “God is” sayings in Scripture: God is light, God is Spirit, God is a consuming fire, God is jealous and avenging, God is holy, God is faithful and just—and so on.3

If we muffle part of God’s character (perhaps because our modern minds are embarrassed by it), we begin a process of distortion that results in us making other errors. This is where the cross comes in, for in the cross, we see God’s just anger and amazing love side by pierced side. Take away the anger, and you are left with … what? Just what was God doing sending his Son to die?

Some have interpreted it as a supreme example of love and sacrifice, by which God ‘inspires’ us to turn back to him. Seeing Christ’s great love, we are moved to respond and to change our attitude to God. Others have seen the cross as an expression of God’s solidarity with those who suffer and are persecuted. By sending his Son to die on the cross, God was inaugurating a charter of freedom for all those who are oppressed.

How foreign these ideas are when we compare them to the plain message of the New Testament! When, in our great wisdom, we modify God’s character for him and declare what he can and cannot be, it is not surprising that we stray from the truth.

We cannot escape the conclusion that God gets angry, that he hates human sin, and that he punishes it.4 The very fact that we want to escape it is an indication of the pressure we are under from our contemporaries. Modem man does not want a God of light because the light will expose his evil deeds.5 How convenient, then, for God’s anger and passion for justice to be surgically removed and filed away under ‘anthropomorphism’.

Does God have a personality clash?

Even for those of us who try to maintain a doctrine of the wrath of God, it can be uncomfortable. We tend to see God’s just anger at human sin and his merciful love as two attributes that are almost contradictory.

For we humans, love and anger are mutually exclusive emotions. For us, both love and anger are fickle. They are liable to wax and wane, to flare up or explode in moments of passion, and then to subside into long periods of mediocrity.

Not so for God.

God’s anger is settled and consistent. It is an expression of his unchanging antagonism to evil. God, in all his majesty and holiness, is too pure to look on evil.6 It is not as if he is ‘above’ it, like some upper-class, English prig. One thinks of those children who are ‘allergic to the 20th century’—whose metabolism is so delicate that they cannot tolerate the slightest contamination. They live in complete isolation—sometimes in a sterile, plastic bubble. God is not too delicate for evil; he is too pure, too perfect. It is unthinkable that the two could mix.

It is hard for our thoroughly fallen minds to conceive of a being so perfect, so holy, so utterly different from us that evil and sin are genuinely incompatible with his nature. We are so used to accommodating sin—indeed, embracing it—that we lose sight of how abhorrent it is to God. Because of his holiness and his perfection, God cannot tolerate sin, and sin cannot approach God.

This anger of God is not the opposite of love. They are not in the least incompatible. In fact, God’s anger at human evil is the very expression of his love.

How can this be?

Because God loves us, he treats us as people—as responsible beings. He cares about our welfare. He cares about our actions. He is jealous for us when, like an adulterous wife, we get into bed with his enemies. The opposite of love is not anger; the opposite of love is indifference. This is how the Apostle John puts it:

This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers. If anyone has material possessions and sees his brother in need but has no pity on him, how can the love of God be in him?7

If we must compare God’s anger to human anger, says CEB Cranfield, we need to

recognize, first, that … we must look not to the lower, irrational kind of human anger, but to the higher kind, the indignation against injustice, cruelty and corruption, which is an essential element of goodness and love in a world in which moral evil is present; and, secondly, that even the very highest and purest human wrath can at the best afford but a distorted and twisted reflection of the wrath of God …8

Justice done—and seen to be done

These ideas converge in Romans 3:25-26 where the cross is seen as the vindication of God’s justice.

God presented him [i.e. Christ Jesus] as a sacrifice of atonement, through faith in his blood. He did this to demonstrate his justice because, in his forbearance, he had left the sins committed beforehand unpunished, and he did it to demonstrate his justice at the present time, so as to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus.

God’s majesty was so holy and our sin so serious that cheap and easy forgiveness was not possible. God’s anger at our sin was not a fit of rage that would eventually die down; it was a pure and inviolable part of his person. Yet he willed that his people should be saved from sin and brought back into fellowship with him.

This is the ‘problem’ lying behind Romans 3:25: how could God “be just” and yet at the same “justify” those who deserved to be punished? His anger hated our sin. His love desired our salvation. How could this be resolved?

In the person of his own Son, God found a substitute on whose head he could place his anger. The death of Christ propitiated God—that is, it turned away his anger. (‘Propitiation’ is the word used in Romans 5:25.) Moreover, this substitute was no innocent third party; that would hardly be ‘justice’. The substitute came from within God’s own being. God vented his anger upon himself.

This is almost too marvellous for us to understand. By taking our punishment on himself, God satisfied the demands of his anger, his justice and his love. We would do well to think on this long and hard. In the cross, we catch a glimpse of God’s unsearchable wisdom as he acts freely and gloriously to fulfil his plans with all the purity and goodness of his own person.

The God I don’t believe in

In this brief space, we have done little more than touch on these weighty issues. Yet, based on what we have seen, perhaps we could paint our own picture of ‘the God I don’t believe in’.

No, I shall never believe in:
the God who loves us so little that our wrongdoing doesn’t matter to him
the God who is almost as comfortable with sin as I am
the God who smiles at human rebellion and says “Boys will be boys!”
the God for whom ‘love’ is a liberated tolerance of all that we tolerate
the God who hits on the cross as a concession to the unpleasant side of his nature
the God who finds love and purity somehow incompatible
the God who inspires no reverent awe and fear
the God who thinks that needlessly crucifying his Son is an example of love.


1 John Powell SJ, The Christian Vision (Argus, 1984) chapter 7.

2 Juan Arias, The God I Don’t Believe In (St Meinrad, Ind: Abbey Press, 1973) pp. 196-99.

3 See 1 John 1:5, John 4:24, Heb 12:29, Nah 1:2, Josh 24:19, Ps 99, 1 John 1:9 respectively.

4 See The New Bible Dictionary’s article on wrath for a concise summary of the biblical material.

5 See John 3:9-20.

6 Habbakuk 1:13; cf. 1 John 1:5-7.

7 1 John 3:16-17.

8 CEB Cranfield, The Epistle to the Romans, (T & T Clark, 1975).

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