Many believers align with a God whom they think is angry, violent, and vindictive. Perhaps they identify with the angry god of Old Testament stories, or maybe they create God in their own image. I addressed each of these issues in previous articles and contended that those who follow angry god for either reason are mistaken in their conclusion that God is angry with us or that God is violent and vindictive.
I know some will protest that God clearly displayed his anger and vindictiveness toward us by punishing Jesus for our sins. They might even refer to Isaiah 53:
Surely he took up our pain and bore our suffering, yet we considered him punished by God, stricken by him, and afflicted. But he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was on him, and by his wounds we are healed.
We all, like sheep, have gone astray, each of us has turned to our own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.
This is a favorite passage used to support the penal substitutionary theory of atonement, which is the majority view among fundamentalists and evangelicals.
The Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory
The broad outline of penal substitutionary atonement is:
- We are all sinners
- God is so holy that he cannot look upon sin
- God’s justice must be satisfied, so we are all bound for eternal punishment in hell
- But God provided us an escape with sinless Jesus as a substitute in our stead
- God poured out his wrath against us upon his son, Jesus, on the cross
- Now we can find forgiveness for our sin and escape eternal punishment in hell
This reminds us very much of the suffering servant in Isaiah 53, ‘the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.’ However, the Isaiah passage has nothing to do with Jesus; it is NOT a prophecy of Jesus’ mission and death but relates to the Nation of Israel. The identity of the suffering servant is unclear but might have been an individual or, more likely, the nation of Israel itself.
Has penal substitutionary atonement always been a widespread view among believers? No, it has not. In fact this theory only arose about 500 years ago with John Calvin, who also used the Isaiah 53 passage as support. Calvin built upon Anselm’s Satisfaction Theory developed about 500 years before that (about 1100 AD). But, while Anselm needed a substitute to satisfy God for sins against his honor, Calvin needed a substitute to pay for sins against God’s sense of justice—just 500 years ago.
The earliest commenters on the significance of Jesus’ death on the cross were Jesus’ earliest followers and other New Testament writers. What they experienced as a community was that Jesus was with them and was then unexpectedly executed on a Roman cross. In a second surprise, Jesus rose from the dead and walked among them for a short period, speaking to them further before his final departure.
After Jesus departed, the question among Jesus’ followers was ‘What just happened? What is the significance of Jesus death and resurrection?’ The New Testament writers suggested a number of answers from different angles using Old Testament imagery, creativity, and other sources. This resulted in a variety of thoughts in the New Testament that do not present a consistent perspective, though those embracing penal substitution try to force these disparate ideas together into a ‘revealed, authoritative’ answer to the question.
For the first 1000 years of Christianity after the New Testament writers, the prevailing understanding of Jesus’ death and resurrection was Christus Victor—Jesus as victor.
Christus Victor: the Ancient, Widespread Atonement Theory among Believers
The idea of Christus Victor is that Jesus was victorious in his death and resurrection. Many of the ancients understood this as involving victory over Satan, but those who embrace Christus Victor today usually see Jesus’ victory to be over the ultimate powers of evil and death.
The power of evil, in the persons of the Romans and the Jewish leaders, killed Jesus very publicly and very painfully. Jesus was dead. However, the resurrection of Jesus defeated the ultimate power of evil by his rising from the dead—the power of evil ultimately was not successful against Jesus. Evil now has no ultimate power over us! But why such a terrible death? Jesus’death was dramatic, public, and brought about by the powers of evil. His dying of an accident or illness would not have served to expose and defeat evil.
Jesus also defeated the ultimate power of death, and this impacts us in that we will also experience resurrection from death! If you feel like saying ‘Hallelujah!’, go right ahead.
So, as you can see (hopefully), Jesus’ death on the cross was not an action of angry god against us or against Jesus. It was a demonstration against power—specifically the powers of evil and death. We do not have to fear an angry god, nor do we need to fear eternal punishment in hell; the Bible does not even teach such a thing.
God’s attitude toward us, as we discover from Jesus’ teaching and example is not anger, harshness, and vindictiveness but empathy, compassion, and care—for all of us. And Jesus teaches us to have empathy, compassion, and care for others—for all others. So let’s do it!
Articles from this series: Angry God:
We Often Become What We THINK God is Like: Angry God Part 1
We Often Create God in Our Own Image: Angry God Part 2
Did God Pour Out His Wrath on Jesus During His Violent Death on the Cross?: Angry God Part 3
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