The Cross and the Wrath of God
In May 1944, just before the liberation of Paris in World War II, a French play about hell written by the existentialist philosopher Jean Paul Sartre was performed. He titled it “Huis clos”—which is the French equivalent to the legal expression in camera that refers to discussions behind closed doors—but was mostly translated into English as “no way out.”
In this play, Sartre described the destiny of three damned souls—Garcin, Ines, and Estelle—that are brought into hell by a mysterious valet. They all know that medieval-like punishments and tortures await them for eternity because of their sins but are surprised when they find themselves led to a plain room furnished in Second French Empire style. As time passes, they realize, however, that this is really hell. The constant lies, manipulations, threats, and betrayals become unbearable. They simply hate each other but cannot escape. There is simply no exit and no place to escape to. Death is not an option either. As much as they attempt it, they cannot kill the others or themselves because they are already dead. So they are stuck forever with each other.
As contradictory as it may seem, this play suggests that heaven would be hell for wicked people. If this is true, then God will show His love for the wicked by destroying them forever. The basic insight of this play is true from the point of view of the biblical teaching of the wrath of God.
The Bible teaches that Jesus died under the wrath of God in the cross. Divine wrath is a relational concept. Scripture relates both the “highest good” of Israel and the ultimate penalty for sin with God’s presence. So God punishes His people by forsaking them (Hosea 1:9), withdrawing His presence (Isa. 1:15), or hiding His face (Deut. 31:17, 18), which results in catastrophes and defeat (Jer. 7:29). Note the following lament: “How long, O Lord? Will you hide yourself forever? How long will your wrath burn like fire?” (Ps. 89:46, italics supplied).1
Jesus’ and Paul’s description of the penalty for sin included both aspects. Jesus described the punishment for sin both as a breaking of a relationship—the wicked will be rejected and debarred from the kingdom and left in outer darkness (Matt. 7:13, 14)—as well as retribution (Luke 12:46–48) and destruction (Matt. 3:7–12). Similarly, Paul described divine wrath in terms of the breakdown of the relationship between God and sinners and destruction. Romans 1:18 to 32 affirms that the wrath of God results from humankind’s suppression of the truth (vs. 18) and that, as a result, God gives them up (vs. 24) to the lusts of their hearts, to their degrading passions, and to a debased mind (vss. 24, 26, 28). Wrath, then, is a life devoid of God, given over to sin, whose final destiny is complete exclusion from a relationship with God (Rom. 9:3). Paul also described this punishment as the total extinction of sinners at the end of the world. The wicked, he warned, would die (Rom. 6:21, 23), perish (2:12), and be destroyed (Gal. 6:8). They would never come back, for their destruction was to be “everlasting” (2 Thess. 1:9). Thus, the profoundest manifestation of God’s wrath is the termination of a relationship that results in destruction.
This relational understanding of the wrath of God helps us understand how divine punishment is at the same time both the normal consequence of the evil deeds committed as well as an act of God. Though it is true that the final, eternal punishment is God’s abandonment of the sinner that results in destruction, this abandonment is the result of the sinner’s previous abandonment of God. Notice both aspects in Isaiah’s lament: “Why, O Lord, do you make us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so we do not revere you? Return for the sake of your servants, the tribes that are your inheritance. . . . No one calls on your name or strives to lay hold of you; for you have hidden your face from us and made us waste away because of our sins. (Isa. 63:17; 64:7, italics supplied). Therefore, God, by destroying sinners, honors the liberty of people in choosing to be without Him forever. Death is the penalty for sin (Rom. 6:23) because it separates from God, the source of life, those who have separated themselves from Him.
Scripture asserts that Jesus died under the wrath of God. Jesus was hanged on a tree (the cross) which, according to Deuteronomy 21:23, meant that God cursed Him. Jesus described His death at the cross as a “cup” He had to drink (Matt. 26:39). The Old Testament authors often described God’s judgment upon the wicked as a cup He gives them to drink: “In the hand of the Lord there is a cup with foaming wine . . . and all the wicked of the earth shall drain it down to the dregs” (Ps. 75:8, NRSV). When God confronted Israel because of her unfaithfulness and wickedness, He warned her that she would drink the cup of His wrath (Eze. 23:32–34). The Gospels also say that Jesus was “rejected” (Mark 8:31), delivered over “to the Gentiles” (10:33), mocked at the Cross, forsaken by God (15:34), left in total darkness (vs. 33), and finally destroyed (John 19:34), all of which were signs of the wrath of God in the Old Testament.
But why did Jesus die as a convicted criminal under the judgment of God if He never committed any sin (Heb. 2:17, 18)? Because He suffered God’s wrath in our place. For Jesus, the Cross was the dreadful moment in which God’s wrath on Israel’s and humanity’s sin would be poured on Him without mercy. According to Paul, Jesus redeemed us from the curse “by becoming a curse for us” (Gal. 3:13). He was referring to the curse upon those who broke the covenant (Deut. 27:26) and the curse upon humanity and creation as a result of Adam’s sin (Gen. 3:16–19). He also says that Jesus became sin so that we might “become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor. 5:21) and be saved from His wrath (Rom. 5:9, 10). According to Scripture, Jesus bore the ultimate penalty for sin in our stead (2 Cor. 5:21) and experienced in our place the eternal punishment reserved for the wicked (1 Tim. 2:5, 6). Ironically, this action of bearing our sins reveals the divine identity of Jesus, because in the Old Testament only God can bear our sins. He is the only one who can forgive because He bears our sin (Ex. 32:32).
There is, then, salvation for those who accept Jesus’s sacrifice on their behalf. For those who reject God, there is a respect of that decision: God abandons them, which results in destruction. This is in the end an act of mercy: “Satan sees that his voluntary rebellion has unfitted him for heaven. He has trained his powers to war against God; the purity, peace, and harmony of heaven would be to him supreme torture” (italics supplied).2 Eternal destruction is in the end a rejection of torture.
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