Several weeks ago I read that the Presbyterian Church (USA) decided to drop the modern hymn "In Christ Alone" from its hymnal. The offending line was this: "Till on the cross, as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied." The hymnal committee asked the writers if they could change it to "Till on the cross, as Jesus died, the love of God was magnified." The writers said no.
I realize that this involves an objection to a specific theological understanding of the atonement. But more broadly, it reflects a discomfort with the very idea that wrath is a part of God's character. I can understand why people object to the idea of a wrathful God. The thinking goes that God (if he or she or it exists), is a God of love. He loves everyone, and wrath is incompatible with that. This is superficially satisfying, but if you scratch the surface you quickly realize it's incoherent.
A God who only loves is not loving at all. When someone says that they believe God simply loves and that's all there is to it, they think they're being tolerant and open-minded. But I hear the ultimate expression of cultural chauvinism and sheltered privilege. Their idea of God is so monstrous they don't even believe it themselves if pressed to think about it.
We hate and murder and destroy, and God just loves us. We rape and maim and kill, and some vague notion of cosmic love will carry us through and set things right. Racism and oppression run rampant, and our God looks down with indulgence on us all. That is not just myopic; it is disgusting. Does anyone really even believe it, or is it just something we say because it sounds nice? If you really believe a wrathful God is an offensive idea, then why do you get angry at injustice?
If the thought of the wrath of God has never been a great comfort to you, you may have led a sheltered life. If an indulgent, loving God has been sufficient for you, you have yet to explore the depths of your own nature. The Bible says things like, "God is angry with the wicked every day." This is not an embarrassing passage for us modern folks to gloss over. It ought to be comforting! It legitimizes the wrath and longing for justice that we feel. It tells us that God feels it along with us.
(For skeptics, yes, we're now treading close to the problem of evil, another discussion for another time).
And in the Gospel we learn that we're all the same. To put it in absurd yet true terms, none of are so different from Hitler. If a wrathful God is appropriate for history's greatest monsters, through the Gospel we begin to see that it is appropriate for us too. And maybe that's what we have the greatest problem accepting. We don't believe in a wrathful God because we haven't come to grips with who and what we are. We don't believe that we, personally, deserve wrath. That's for the murderers and rapists and slave-traders, not for us. The Gospel pushes back against our self-justification and insists: we're all the same.
Don't get me wrong. God is love. It's just that his wrath helps me to see that.