I realize that contemporary evangelical Christianity is heavily – if not primarily – influenced by Calvinist and Augustinian assumptions about the total depravity and sinfulness of humanity, the justice of a wrathful God and the need for penal substitution which is the primary purpose and accomplishment of the cross of Jesus. With all that said, I know that this post will not sit well in such a worldview. But I’m okay with that.
The Wrath of God is a central point found in the “substitutionary atonement” view of what Jesus accomplished on the cross. For those who don’t know what that means, it is the understanding that our sin has caused a deep and tragic gap between us and God. Because He is completely pure and holy, God cannot stand to be in the presence of sin and impurity therefore we cannot enter God’s presence. Because our sin has caused such great offense to God, we are deserving of death and only a sacrifice at the level of God himself taking our place could satisfy the debt we owe. And so Jesus Christ takes on the sin of humanity and by his sacrifice we are ransomed (the debt of sin is paid).
Let me say that this is ONE way to explain what happened on the cross and while it is certainly a scriptural position, this is just part of the story and there are other equally scriptural ways to understand what took place. I will state up front MY BELIEF that while this understanding is biblical and is an appropriate description in some settings, there are other explanations which are equally biblical (meaning they are found in scripture) but are perhaps more central to the overall message of the Bible.
Recently this issue came up on a friend’s blog and another commenter defended the position strongly. He provided a list a scripture references defending penal substitution and even made the statement that there was no reason for the cross other than to appease the wrath of God. In fact he believes that “any attempt to diminish the importance of the penal substitution of Christ diminishes God’s holiness and wrath, as well as the wicked depth of human sin.”
I’d like to include the main sections of my two responses. I haven’t asked the fellow for his permission so I’m not going to include his comments. Let me say that while I disagree with his position, I appreciated his willingness to dialog without resorting to name calling or personal attacks.
The act of the powerful Christ emptying himself in the face of violence and sin – not fighting fire with fire, so-to-speak – is a powerful way to understand what took place on the cross. Through Christ’s response to evil we are given the ability and model to do likewise. We do not have to respond to evil with more evil – we can show the expression of true love and willingly lay down that which is temporary to enter into that which is eternal.
The Cristus Victor theory, which has its own limitations, declares that through the cross Christ was victorious over the enemies of sin and death. Christ entered fully into the grasp of the enemy and then in an undeniable display of superiority, brushed himself off and walked away – effectively showing the enemy to be impotent.
For a people (Israel) who were expecting the return of a Davidic King and the restoration of the nation to a position of prominence, the cross holds yet more significance. Jesus was certainly the promised Messiah and yet he behaved very differently from the manner in which Israel anticipated. Rather than leading Israel in a grand military coup, Jesus showed them – and us – how to die. More than dying so that we don’t have to, Jesus died so that we would know how to.
There is no reason, from the perspective of the cross, to view substitutionary atonement as even the primary expression. Again, I don’t intend to discredit the theory, yet those who choose to approach the message of the cross from the perspective of victory, freedom, healing and love can do so with a clear position of scripture and the history of the church to support them.
Then after conceding that it is possible to construct a list of valid texts to provide a biblical case for substitutionary atonement (not unlike the lists that one could put together for other atonement theories) I went on to say…
However, we also could look at larger trajectories in scripture and see that God’s wrath is rarely the point…it is often the last ditch effort of gracious creator engaged in every imaginable tactic to get the attention of his unruly – but still beloved children. You pointed to the suffering servant in Isaiah – if you continue reading through to chapter 58 you’ll notice that what God desires is mercy, not sacrifice. Appeasing the wrath of God through sacrifices, at least here, is secondary to showing grace, mercy and compassion – because this is the type of God in whose image we are created.
I won’t argue one bit that the wrath of God is an important and recurring theme in scripture, but I am far from convinced that it is the primary message…Personally, I’m going to say that talking about reconciliation doesn’t have to always be a message about “sinners in the hands of an angry God.” And I do not see in any way that God’s holiness is diminished by that – and I find it interesting that we should even feel compelled to put God’s wrath up next to his holiness as preeminent descriptors. I’ll argue all day that it is perhaps more central to the overall message of Scripture to say that “The LORD, the LORD, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin.”
Of course this quote is from Exodus 34, where God came down and proclaimed his name to Moses. You’ll notice that the rest of verse 7 says, “Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished.” I affirm that truth and yet also put it secondary – as the text does – to God’s compassion and graciousness.
There’s more that I could say about this topic, but I’ll stop for now and see if anyone else has something to add.