In his 1934 book, The Kingdom of God in America, H. Richard Niebuhr depicted the creed of liberal Protestant theology, which was called “modernism” in those days, in these famous words: “A God without wrath brought man without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” Niebuhr was no fundamentalist, but he knew what he was talking about. So did Dietrich Bonhoeffer when he named the kind of mainline religion he encountered in 1930s America: Protestantismus ohne Reformation, “Protestantism without the Reformation.”
Sin, judgment, cross, even Christ have become problematic terms in much contemporary theological discourse, but nothing so irritates and confounds as the idea of divine wrath. Recently, the wrath of God became a point of controversy in the decision of the Presbyterian Committee on Congregational Song to exclude from its new hymnal the much-loved song “In Christ Alone” by Keith Getty and Stuart Townend. The Committee wanted to include this song because it is being sung in many churches, Presbyterian and otherwise, but they could not abide this line from the third stanza: “Till on that cross as Jesus died/the wrath of God was satisfied.” For this they wanted to substitute: “…as Jesus died/the love of God was magnified.” The authors of the hymn insisted on the original wording, and the Committee voted nine to six that “In Christ Alone” would not be among the eight hundred or so items in their new hymnal.
Modifying hymn lyrics to suit one’s taste, of course, is nothing new. The Nestorians in the early church refused to sing Theotokos, preferring the less offensive Christotokos, in their Marian liturgy. More recently, the Universalist leader Kenneth L. Patton kept the “Ein Feste Burg” tune by Martin Luther but replaced “A mighty fortress is our God” with “Man is the earth upright and proud.” And then there is the Mormon Tabernacle Choir which sings—and quite beautifully I might add—the Reginald Heber hymn “Holy, Holy, Holy” to the tune of “Nicaea” (!!) but in the first and last stanza changes “God in three persons, blessed Trinity” to “God in thy glory through eternity.”
Those who treat the wrath of God as taboo, whether in sermons or hymns, stand in a long lineage too, one that includes Albrecht Ritschl, Faustus Socinus, and the unnamed revisionists in the second century who followed the heretic Marcion. According to Tertullian, they said that “a better god has been discovered, one who is neither offended nor angry nor inflicts punishment, who has no fire warming up in hell, and no outer darkness wherein there is shuddering and gnashing of teeth: he is merely kind.” The lure of such a gospel is unmistakable—it explains why neo-Marcionism (God’s wrath in the Old Testament, his love in the New) is still flourishing today not only in popular piety but also among guilded scholars of religion.
Why do many Christians shrink from any thought of the wrath of God? R.P.C. Hanson has said that many preachers today deal with God’s wrath the way the Victorians handled sex, treating it as something a bit shameful, embarrassing, and best left in the closet. The result is a less than fully biblical construal of who God is and what he has done, especially in the redemptive mission of Jesus Christ.