The Father was not angry at the Son at the cross. And neither do the Gospels emphasize Jesus’ pain during his ordeal although he surely suffered physically. What they do emphasize is Jesus’ cry of dereliction (“My God, My God, why have you forsaken me”).
The notion that the Father (or God) is angry with the Son misunderstands Trinitarian orthodoxy, Reformed theology, and the clear emphasis of Scripture. Here’s why.
First, the Bible teaches the unity of Father and Son in God. God cannot be angry with himself.
The Trinity rules all other doctrines since theology begins with the first principle, Theos—God. John Webster explains, “The ruler and judge over all other Christian doctrines is the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.” Yet Webster does not mean that the Trinity is the single doctrine that explains everything else.
Webster writes further, “The doctrine of the Trinity is not one doctrine among others; it is foundational and pervasive.” The Trinity forms something of an umbrella that opens up over the rest of Christian theology: “To expound any Christian doctrine is to expound with varying degrees of directness the doctrine of the Trinity; to expound the doctrine of the Trinity in its full scope is to expound the entirety of Christian dogmatics” (2016: 159).
The basic thesis of trinitarian theology is that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are a unity—a triunity. Hence, it makes little sense to say that one person is angry with another person. Yet Jesus does cry, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Lest we let our theology make the Bible fiction, we need to state what happened here.
As is often the case, John Calvin provides insightful commentary. He first asserts that the Father cannot be angry with the Son:
Yet it is not to be understood that the Father was ever angry toward him. For how could he be angry toward his beloved Son, “in whom he was well pleased”? Or how could he appease the Father by his intercession, if the Father regarded him as an enemy? (First Catechism, quoted in Horton 2018)
Calvin rightly affirms that the Father was never angry with the Son. He loved the Son.
So what happens at the cross then? Calvin explains:
But it is in this sense that he is said to have borne the weight of divine severity, since he was ‘stricken and afflicted’ by God’s hand, and experienced all the signs of a wrathful and avenging God, so as to be compelled to cry out in deep anguish: ‘My God, My God, why hast thou forsaken me?'” (Ibid.)
Calvin draws on the classical Christian tradition to distinguish between what happened to the Son of God according to his being and what happened to him according to signs. The mutual bond of love never retreated from the being of God in which the Father and Son experience blessed triunity.
Rather, the signs, namely, the darkness in the sky and the experience of human suffering highlight the substitutionary work of Christ. Out of love, the Son experienced the signs of wrath that are truly due us for our sin.
And that sign preeminently is death, that is, the original curse (“in the day you eat of the tree, you will surely die”). He becomes the curse for us, receiving the judicial punishment of death on our behalf. Death is the curse, the expression of God’s wrath. So we affirm this fully. “Yet,” as Calvin writes, “we do not suggest God was ever inimical or angry toward him” (Inst. 2.16.11).
Second, to say God or the Father is angry with the Son misunderstands Trinitarian orthodoxy.
At the heart of Trinitarian theology is God. And the Lord God is one God. So the three persons in the one God act and feel together. They are one and not made up of a thousand atoms or properties. God is light. All light. He is unchanging and perfectly ordered in his emotional life. In short, God is simple.
So to say something like “The Father burns with anger towards the Son, striking him at the cross with his anger” effectively teaches a separation in God. Such statements unintentionally sunder God in two creating a di-theistic God.
Michael Horton writes, “The subject of the incarnation is God the Son who assumed our humanity.” God becomes human. And so God cannot be angry with himself!
He continues, “A properly ecumenical doctrine of the Trinity therefore will not allow any image of an angry God who punishes a mere human being for other human beings. As truly as the Father sent the Son out of love, the Son embraces his mission in love for the Father and for his bride” (2018: 2:157). Jesus never becomes God’s enemy. He wills to die as God incarnate to effect salvation.
God loves the Son. And God loves us. Despite the reputation of Calvinist self-loathing, Calvin himself affirms: “But because the Lord wills not to lose what is in us, out of his own kindness he still finds something to love” (Inst. 2.16.3). The cross-work of Jesus flows from the love of self (in God) and the love of us (his creation).
The Son undergoes the sign of the curse, namely, death which is the effect of God’s wrath. But to build a case that the Father was angry with the Son goes beyond Scripture and the consensus of orthodox Christianity.
Third, the Gospels do not emphasize the pain of Jesus’ ordeal but his substitutionary death on behalf of humanity—taking the wrath of God, the curse, and death.
Some Roman Catholic spirituality focuses on the suffering of Christ as a sort self-mortification. It provides a way to imitate Christ. Sometimes Protestants mimic this mode of mortification in their preaching of the Gospel.
We preach that Jesus suffered excruciating pain for us. He was tortured, mutilated, hung on the cross. And God did this to him.
And yet the four Gospel books themselves do not make this case.
Gospel scholar Francis Watson explains, “Jesus’ physical pain is not emphasized, though the reader can only assume that it must have been extreme.” He notes that the possible exception is Jesus’ words “I thirst” in John. Still, even in this case, “Physical suffering does not seem to be the issue here.”
Then he makes the insightful observation: “Far more significant than the physical and psychological torment that Jesus experiences along with other victims of crucifixion is the darkness that occasions his cry of Godforsakenness” (2016: 155; see Matthew 27:45–50).
That cry of dereliction appears in Matthew 27 when Jesus cries, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.” For Watson, Christ’s cry reveals the meaning of the noon darkness to the reader. He explains, “Together, the darkness and the cry reveal the truth of the contemptuous claim that, though he saved others, he could not save himself. Jesus’ ability to save others is dependent on his inability to save himself from physical and spiritual destruction” (2016: 156).
The Gospels portray Jesus’ suffering primarily through the cry of dereliction (without ignoring that Jesus certainly did suffer physically). Pointedly, to focus on Jesus’ physical pain not only mismatches the emphasis in the Gospel books but also in the apostolic preaching.
God predestined Christ to die by crucifixion (Acts 2:23; 4:28). Yet the immediate cause of Jesus’ pain is lawless men: “you crucified and killed [him] by the hands of lawless men” (Acts 2:23). So our preaching or thinking should accord with the twofold reality that God predestines all, yet lawless men wickedly killed Christ.
What belongs to God both providentially and immediately is the noon darkness that symbolically portrays God’s just wrath against sin in Jesus Christ (Matt 27:45). Christ becomes the curse for us when he hung on the tree (Gal 3:13). That curse means death since hanging on the tree was the consequence of sin—a death sentence (Deut 21:22–23). Further, Jesus hung on the tree to evoke the memory of the garden tree. Here, Adam and Eve ate from the tree that led to the direct consequence of death, God’s curse.
This rich theology of atonement is what the Gospels emphasize in Jesus’ substitutionary death in which he took our punishment. He swallowed up death as if he were a sinner on our behalf. He bore our transgressions. And died on the tree for us and for our salvation.
To focus on the tortures of the cross may be of historic interest, and Jesus certainly suffered here. Yet the four Gospel books do not portray Jesus’ pain in these acts; they portray his pain in his cry: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me.”
And this is what we must emphasize in our preaching. By focusing on the nails, the pain in the stripes, and what lawless men did to Christ we can make an error. We could fall into the trap of preaching a Gospel of moral explemplarism (Jesus suffered so much for us!). Yes, he did suffer for us and this does show his great love for us and provide an example for us (1 Pet 2:21). But God justifies us because Christ received the just penalty for our sin.
Following Jesus’ good example flows from the cross and is an effect of it. It is sanctification. Not justification.
In our preaching, we should not fall into the trap of preaching mortification as justification. And this seems to be the effect of preaching the tortures of crucifixion. Besides that, the fourfold Gospels don’t portray Jesus’ pain in this torture. Neither ought we do to so. We should focus on the cry on the cross. That moment of Godforsakenness where Jesus swallows up death as the sin-bearer for us and for our salvation.
To more closely align with Trinitarian theology, Reformed theology, and the biblical idiom, consider these two suggestions.
First, avoid making the case that the Father (or God) is angry with the Son. He loves the Son. And he loves us. That is why he died for us. Love, not hate, is why God incarnated to save us. Instead say, “the Father and Son mutually love each other, and out of this great love Christ bears our sin and swallows up death by becoming the curse for us.”
Second, avoid preaching the tortures of the cross when preaching from the Gospel books because it misunderstands the theological intent of the Gospels, does not match the apostolical preaching, and potentially confuses sanctification with justification. Do preach Jesus’ guileless suffering as the example for our sanctification or way of living the Christian life.
In short, look to orthodox trinitarianism, learn from Calvin, and attend to the Bible’s meaning.
Note (Jan 3, 2019): For clarity’s sake, I believe that God is angry at sin and sinners, not the Son. Because of God’s love for us, God incarnated and took our place as our substitute and so underwent the judgment that we deserved (John 3:16; Eph 1:4). I plan to write on this later, but it was not the focus of this article.