John Calvin rightly affirmed that God was never “inimical or angry toward” Christ at the cross (Inst. 2.16.11). Instead, Francis Turretin explains that Jesus experienced the “want of the sense of the divine love” (Inst. 2:354). John Flavel also specifies that God withdrew his “sensible love” from Christ at the cross (Works, 1:410).
In short, Christ always had God’s love even at the cross. Christ willingly died for the joy set before him. Yet at the cross, he did not sense God’s love (though he always had it) because “the sense of the divine wrath and vengeance resting upon him” intercepted Christ’s sense of love (Turretin, Inst. 2:354).*
If not the Son, then with whom or with what was the Father angry? Here’s my answer. God was angry at sin and sinners, yet out of his great love for us he himself bore our sin and died as our substitute. As Michael Horton writes, the cross “was not a cathartic release of anger but a just satisfaction of God’s cosmic and covenantal righteousness” (Justification: 2:226).
God was angry at sin and sinners while also loving them to death
God was angry at sin and sinners while loving them to death. So God assumed humanity and died for us because of his great love (John 3:16 with 1:14). He underwent the punishment that was due our sin by becoming the curse and enduring divine wrath (Gal 3:13).
Yet the first challenge here is that no Gospel book claims that God was angry at sin and sinners at the cross. Nor does any Gospel claim that God was angry at the Son for that matter. Yet something did happen because Jesus cries, “My God, My God. Why have you forsaken me?” (Matt 27:46).
So we need to piece together the total message of the four Gospels and of Scripture. In the first place, Jesus’ command, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matt 4:17) intimates that people need to repent because of their sin.
Paul claims that God saved us from wrath on the basis Jesus’ blood (i.e., his death) in Romans 5:9. So it seems clear to Paul that sin deserves wrath, and it seems clear to Jesus that humans need to repent of sin.
Why would this be so clear to both?
Because The Old Testament Shows Us That Sin Results in Judgment
The answer is that the Old Testament teaches us about the reality of human sin and God’s wrath against sin and sinners. It is the primary conceptual matrix of Jesus and the apostles.
Consider the Book of Numbers. The whole book illustrates the continuous sin of Israel, God’s wrath and forgiveness, and the need for a mediator. For example, Korah rebelled against Moses desiring a more prominent role in the service at the tabernacle.
During this time, Yahweh appeared in glory and said to Moses and Aaron: “separate yourself from this community so I may consume them instantly” (Num 16:21). Not wanting the whole community to die, Moses and Aaron intercede for them saying, “God, God who gives breath to all, when one man sins, will you vent your wrath on the whole community?” (Num 16:22). So God spares the community and punishes those who incited the rebellion.
The Old Testament paints many such pictures of sin, wrath, and forgiveness. In these ways, the Old Testament narrative supplies the rationale for why Jesus came “to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). And yet God is never angry with the Son. In fact, he says, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased (Matt 17:5; Also see Matt 3:17; 12:18). That love was not torn asunder at the cross.
So what happened?
God imputes our sin to Christ
The religious leaders mocked Jesus on the cross by saying, “He saved others; he cannot save himself” (Matt 27:42). Yet it was by not saving himself that he could save others.
Paul explains, “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God” (2 Cor 5:21). The point here seems to be that God made Christ to be sin as in counted sin to him.
The parallel in verse 19 confirms this reading: “that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them.” The word “counting” here is logizomai, which means reckon, account, or impute. God does not impute sin to us (2 Cor 5:19); instead, he makes or imputes sin to Christ (2 Cor 5:21).**
So if Christ becomes sin, then he bears our sin and so the consequences for our sin, namely, God’s just wrath. Matthew narrates God’s wrath through the symbolism of darkness, “there was darkness over all the land” (Matt 27:45). Darkness symbolizes judgment (Exod 10:21; Joel 2:2) and mystery (Deut 4:11). And this is what the cross achieves: judgment against sin with the deepest mystery of God.
God out of his great love satisfies his justice by dying for us
What is the mystery? The mystery is that God himself died for us to satisfy divine justice, to forgive our sins, and to credit us as righteous. The mystery is that God loved us so much that he added humanity to himself so that he could gain the ability to die.
God cannot die; humans can. God became human so that he could die for us. And he did so for one sole reason: because God so loved the world.
Yes, God’s righteousness requires that he punish rapists, liars, and everyone in between. Yet God’s love and mercy mean that he takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked (Ezek 18:23). Somehow God must be both just to punish sin and justifier to forgive it out of his great love.
That happens at the cross where the incarnate God died for us. In one inseparable operation, the Father sent the Son into the world to redeem it and the Spirit to perfect the Son’s work. Yet this whole operation happened according to the one will of the triune God.
God was not angry with the Son. He was angry with our sin. Divine justice demands punishment. And this ultimately means death. On the cross, Jesus satisfied divine justice by enduring “all the signs of a wrathful and avenging God” (Calvin, First Catechism; Qtd in Horton, 2018).
And God did it because he loved us while hating our sin. He did it while reckoning sin to Jesus. The Son died while being in want of the sense of divine love according to his humanity but never being in want of God’s essential love for him.
Who was God angry with? Us, our sin. It killed the Son. And so he loved us to death, even death on a cross.
*Asserting that the Father was angry with the Son at the cross makes a threefold mistake. First, God is one, and so it makes an unreasonable claim (that God can be angry at God). Second, classical trinitarian theology excludes the possibility that the Father can will to be angry at the Son; God has one will that works inseparably to accomplish our salvation. Third, the four Gospel books do not emphasize Jesus’ experience of pain but only his cry of dereliction; this suggests that Christ underwent the just punishment for sin—God’s wrath culminating in Christ’s death. It does not suggest that the Father was angry with the Son.
**Or this means that Christ incarnated in the likeness of sinful flesh (Rom 8:3). The point would be similar.