>Just before Spring Break I spoke on God’s Anger/Wrath at Cru. I was handed a couple of really good questions yesterday from that talk. The student was paying close attention, raised some good questions, and even caught me in what I’d consider a theological misstatement. They gave me permission to post my email response here. Thanks.
First, you asked “If God doesn’t change, how can He not be wrathful before and wrathful now (sin was there before us in Lucifer? I am assuming that is a question brought on by my comments that God has not always been nor will he always be wrathful. Wrath/Anger is an expression of his holiness in response to sin. I agree that God has been wrathful as long as sin has been a part of the equation – but sin is not eternal, nor is Lucifer. God existed in perfect, wonderful, blissful, and eternal community with himself before he created anything at all. There was no anger or wrath in this relationship. Lucifer, as a fallen angel, is not eternal but created. Prior to his existence, rather, prior to his sin and fall, there was no reason to be angry or wrathful (and I don’t think either of us would want to say that God was angry without reason).
You comment “To say God changes says He could stop loving. That’s wrong.” I agree with you, that to say God could stop loving is wrong. He has always been loving, will always be loving. Yet, how that love is expressed changes. Again, before sin entered into the equation, God never needed to express his love in mercy. There was no need for mercy before sin, before he created. Did the eternal Son need mercy? Or the Holy Spirit? What I’m trying to get at is that your impulse is absolutely correct – God’s character does not change. He is loving, sovereign and holy. Yet, how these ‘core’ attributes are expressed changes appropriately given the situation. Will God be angry with me in heaven? No, because I’ll be free of sin, having been delivered by the blood of Jesus. Is he angry with me now? At times, when I choose sin over him and spurn the blood of Jesus. That’s all I meant.
You comment also on the everlasting nature of hell and make a logical connection between the everlasting of God’s anger against those in hell. I think I said something like “God has not always been wrathful, not will he always be wrathful. When sin is eradicated, God’s wrath will come to an end.” Honestly, I misspoke. We all do that sometimes – that’s why I invite people to question me when they don’t agree! Sometimes we talk about hell as separation from God. I think that is a mistake. It is separation from God’s blessings, kindness, etc. However, the problem for those in hell is that God will be very present, in the fullness of His divine wrath. Sorry to have confused.
Your second question is also a very good one. I said that I don’t believe Jesus literally descended into hell between his death and resurrection; instead, I follow those interpreters that understand the phrase in the apostles’ creed to refer to his suffering on the cross. Jesus suffered hell for us. Remember above you ably pointed out that hell is about God’s wrath. Jesus suffered the wrath of God against sin, having become sin for us.
You say, “I know Jesus did not die a symbolic death to give us symbolic life.” Yes and Amen! I fully agree. Jesus death was a real, atoning death, satisfying the wrath of God for all those who are ‘in Christ’. The Bible word ‘propitiation’ is stunning and sweet. It means he Jesus was a sacrifice that didn’t just turn away God’s wrath, but a sacrifice that absorbed it on our behalf. The great agony of the cross wasn’t the pain of the nails or the spear, it was the pain of God’s wrath (something movies like the ‘Passion’ can never capture). You can hear it when Jesus cries, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” = “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.”
On the same topic you ask, “if he didn’t actually go into hell, how did he get the keys?” Another good question. On this, I would remind you that God has always had the keys to heaven and hell. Satan is the ‘god’ of hell, as though it is his sovereign domain. God is sovereign there – Satan is prisoner. Satan did build the pit, God did. So the keys didn’t have to be stolen out of hell, they’ve always been in the King’s hand.
Finally, on this, I would point out that there is little if any evidence that from Scripture that compels us to believe that Jesus spent Saturday in hell. There is a couple of verses in 1 Peter (3:18-20 & 4:4-6) that people have taken to mean that, but I don’t think it’s good exegesis of the passages (there’s a short article on that by John Piper). The actual phrase “descended into hell” did not appear in any form of the creed until 390AD, and then only in a copy made by Rufinus (and not the one he preserved as official). Even then, it is doubtful Rufinus believed that Jesus descended into hell like we use the phrase, but into the grave (the word Hades can mean hell or grave). It did not again appear in a copy of the creed until 650AD. I hope that helps.
If there are any follow up questions, don’t hesitate to ask.