Jesus bore divine wrath at the cross for our sake (Isa 53:5), and so protected us from it. This act implies that God hates humans since he would have poured wrath upon humans if not for the work of Christ’s cross. Yet John says that God loved the world (John 3:16). So how can Scripture speak both of God’s wrath and his love for us? Does God hate us or love us?
Of all people, it may be of some interest to see how John Calvin (1509–1564) answered this question because he, in the minds of many, was a theologian of God’s wrath. While he certainly emphasized divine wrath, he (against some modern expectations) prioritized God’s love for humanity before wrath—indeed, for Calvin, passages about God’s wrath aim to underscore divine love and mercy.
Calvin knows that Scripture speaks of humanity as enemies, as being under a curse, and as estranged. In this regard, he cites Romans 5:10, Galatians 3:10, 13, and Colossians 1:21-22. Yet he explains such strong language under the category of accommodation.
He explains, “Expressions of this sort have been accommodated to our capacity that we may better understand how miserable and ruinous our condition is apart from Christ” (Inst. 2.16.2). He continues, “For if it had not been clearly stated that the wrath and vengeance of God and eternal death rested upon us, we would scarcely have recognized how miserable we would have been without God’s mercy, and we would have underestimated the benefit of liberation.”
In other words, God uses language of wrath and vengeance to help us understand the greatness of our salvation. These words accommodate divine speech to our lived reality. Thus, for Calvin, our hearts cannot fully appreciate God’s mercy “unless our minds are first struck and overwhelmed by fear of God’s wrath and by dread of eternal death.”
While he does not specify then what this accommodation conveys, he will shortly argue that God loves us and that (as he notes earlier) he freely favours us (Inst. 2.16.3, 2). On this basis, he sees language of God’s hatred for humanity as divine accommodation since it is clear elsewhere that God loves us. For example, John tells us that God first loved us before we loved him (1 John 4:19).
Before continuing on this topic, we need to turn to the cross because it stands at the centre of Calvin’s understanding of God’s love for us and divine wrath.
While commenting on Jesus’s cry of dereliction, Calvin comments, “Yet we do not suggest that God was ever inimical or angry toward him” (Inst. 2.16.11). Calvin finds such a view impossible since Christ rests in God and God’s love for Christ is why he can make satisfaction on behalf of others.
In light of this, he explains that Christ “experienced all the signs of a wrathful and avenging God.” And for Calvin, these signs are the sources of Christ’s death (Inst. 2.16.11; cf. Matt 3:17). And so Calvin can cite Hebrews 2:15 in the same context to speak of what Christ frees us from, namely, the fear of death—wrath and vengeance.
It is important then to note two important aspects of Calvin’s view. First, at the cross, God always loved the Son. He follows a scriptural pattern here as the Fourth Gospel makes this very point: “For this reason the Father loves me, because I lay down my life that I may take it up again” (John 10:17). The idea that God (or the Father) hates the person of Christ is foreign to Scripture.
Second, Jesus bears the “dread of death” on our behalf under the signs of divine wrath and vengeance. He thus truly experienced this very human dread of mortality, and so he cried out to God. Yet this imputed experience did not nor could ever lessen God’s true and lasting love for the Son. But Christ had to not only suffer in body but in soul in order to heal both according to Calvin (Inst. 2.16.12).
Why would Christ undergo such punishment? Was it since God so hated the world that he sent his only-begotten Son to save it? Calvin disagrees (and importantly, so does Scripture in John 3:16).
The reformer writes, “For how could he have given in his only-begotten Son a singular pledge of his love to us if he had not already embraced us with his free favor?” (Inst. 2.16.2). The fact that God became incarnate already shows his pledge of love for us and free favour. All of this was true even while we were still enemies of God (Rom 5:10).
And so Calvin makes the somewhat unusual argument that Scripture teaches us about God’s wrath so that we could know that “apart from Christ, God is, so to speak, hostile to us” which leads us “to embrace his benevolence and fatherly love in Christ alone” (Inst. 2.16.2).
Understandably, Calvin seems to strain the notion of love to its limits, but he makes further qualifications that, to my mind, clarify how God’s wrath leads to our perception of God’s love for us in Christ.
First, he affirms that God cannot love unrighteousness in us. Since we all have unrighteousness, we deserve God’s hate. And yet, “because the Lord wills not to lose what is his in us, out of his kindness he still finds something to love” (Inst. 2.16.3).
In this way (and secondly), despite our unrighteousness, God loves what he created us to be—he loves his image, the vestiges of created goodness in us. “However much we may be sinners by our own fault,” writes Calvin, “we nevertheless remain his creatures.”
And this is why God “is moved by pure and freely given love of us to receive us into grace” (Inst. 2.16.3). It is free because it has nothing to do with our actions; it is pure because nothing earns it. God simply loves us for what we are, not for what we do. Citing 1 John 4:19, Calvin affirms that God loves us first, anticipating our redemption in Christ.
The reformer cites Augustine to further explain his point (Inst. 2.16.4). Augustine explains after some discussion, “Accordingly, in a wonderful and divine manner, even when He hated us, He loved us; for He hated us, in so far as we were not what He Himself had made; and because our own iniquity had not in every part consumed His work, He knew at once both how, in each of us, to hate what we had done, and to love what He had done (Augustine, Tractates on John, 60.6).”
In other words, there is a sense in which God does hate us. That sense specifically is a hate of our corruption into unrighteousness. But what God has done to create us, God loves. And Calvin has reminded us that God always finds something to love in us, even the worst of us since we are his creatures.
In summary, God may be said to hate people in a specific sense: he hates unrighteousness in us. However, he freely and purely loves us which we know because God became human in order to save us despite our unrighteousness. God then cannot hate Christ because there is no unrighteousness in him, although Christ experiences the signs of hatred because he undergoes dread of death on our behalf.
And Christ’s cross with all that dread and wrath works, according to Calvin, to show God’s great mercy and kindness towards us. Even when we see wrath, it is meant to show us God’s love because such language is an accomodation to our creaturely capacity so that we can understand the overflowing goodness and love of God.
At the end of the day, we can learn one fundamental truth from this discussion: the incarnation flows out of God’s love for us, and even God’s wrath underscores the bounty of divine love. God Is love, and he loved the world to such a great extent that he became human and underwent the dread of the cross for our sake.