Is God vengeful or loving?

Do we really believe that God is vengeful?

‘Why did Jesus die?’ has always been a difficult question. It is tragic, barbaric but one that we address each year. I note it is one that is part of the syllabus for RE in primary schools. It needs to be answered.

We may have heard in the past “Jesus died for our sins, to pay the ransom we owe.” In today’s world, I wonder whether people actually understand such terminology, let alone understand its origin and meaning then. What does ‘sin’ mean to the person walking along the street now? It is related to those ‘crimes’ such as murder, or possibly to the ‘lesser‘ crime of lust – then again the #metoo campaign has hopefully addressed the patriarchal diminishment of male lust. Is sin just a very old way of saying that we have not followed God’s way – the way that Jesus set out over 2,000 years ago? For decades it appeared to me to be very much focussed upon the individual – you have sinned and fallen short of God and you need to repent. Well, individually, I know I have, we do fall short of what God wants of us, but we may have also remained silent when society has fallen short of what God has sought. The recent shooting in Jacksonville appears to reignite the argument relating to the use of guns in the States, with opposing sides either claiming that more guns are needed to dissuade (or possibly prosecute) the armed aggressor or we should have fewer guns (and tighter gun laws) to reduce the use of guns.

Have we left the situation go so far that we are
unable to reclaim a solution of a society with fewer guns?

The media is full of #FakeNews and of individuals claiming that their story is true; well, until Giuliani claimed that “truth isn’t truth“. This will surely be a perpetual viral meme – I certainly hope so, and it doesn’t become accepted. Even Pilate couldn’t face that!

Anyway back to why did Jesus die?

What if we were to take a fresh look, consider what happened anew? Maybe we should not focus upon individual sin we look at systematic societal sin, not by ignoring our implicit responsibility, but considering the ‘big picture’? Why did we come to such a belief in the first place?

Currently, one leading argument of atonement theory starts with that God created the universe, which was deemed good. Great so far. It didn’t work out in the Garden of Eden and humanity suffered a ‘fall’, whereupon God could either destroy humanity in its entirety to restore that situation or send God’s own son to pay that price. The extent of the demise of humanity would only be considered a finite ‘payment’; however, Christ’s sacrifice would be of infinite magnitude – thus be deemed “satisfaction“. The theory is that God allowed his Son to die upon the cross, as an innocent victim, so that God could forgive our sin. Jesus would pay our debts. Anselm’s theory, devised in the 10th Century, alluded to patriarchal fiefdom lords who, utilising debts, could have untold power over their subjects. It is a theory.

I have recently enjoyed reading Brian Zahnd’s “Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God”, finding it complimented James Alison’s lecture on Atonement. Here I offer some of their argument for discussion.

If we go back in history to the First Jewish Temple the priest would enter the Holy of Holies, sacrificing a bull for his sins (the priest was always a man). He would also take two goats: one for sacrifice to the Lord God and one for Azazel, or the Devil. He would kill the first goat and sprinkle the blood inside the temple. He would then exit the Temple having donned a white robe, and was now called a ‘son of God’ or an angel. The Priest would hear “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord“. The blood poured out within the Temple had set the people free from their impurities – importantly not in a way to placate a God as with other existing ‘other-fath’ sacrificial practices. The Priest would then continue to sprinkle the blood – God’s blood – outside of the Temple. This was incarnational, God in our world, not in the Temple. The second goat, Azazel’s goat, was then ceremonially burdened with the people’s sins, driven to the edge of the cliff, where it died.  It was the scapegoat and we are the beneficiaries. The comparison with Jesus in Luke 4:29 is stark but striking in that Jesus had yet to die.

Notice here that God’s anger hasn’t been mentioned. Where talk is made of the ‘mercy seat’ no mention is made of placating God’s anger. (1) This was a Jewish liturgy, a priestly process which freed the people of their sins. Any mention of the anger of god originated from pagan sources.

What about Jesus?

According to the New Testament, Jesus was the authentic High Priest, who restored the eternal covenant and, incarnationally, came from the holy place to offer himself as a demonstration of God’s love. Again this was a radical change to the extant understanding of sacrificial pagan rituals. Penal Substitutional Atonement asks that God is satisfied by the giving of God’s son, the intentional provision of offspring knowing that they would be killed painfully, tragically – where is love there? We are called to ‘pick up the cross’ (Luke 9:23) but is this really what we are called to do as well? Abraham wasn’t allowed to do that.

God did not demand the death of Jesus : we did.

Jesus was killed by the principalities and powers of this world.

Alison suggests that Christ, in that Resurrection garden upon exiting the tomb was a moment of the beginning again of creation, resembling the garden of creation, seen with angels. The stone when rolled away is the metaphor for the veil separating the Holy of Holies.

Zahnd argues that the Western Church is content with a view of a crucified God. The atonement theories argue for a particular contextual timely view which attempt to explain the cross in a rational manner, if that were possible. But as argued above God is not seeking a sacrifice to placate but wishes to convey God’s love. Zahnd declares (2) that

when we look at the cross we don’t see what God does; we see who God is!

What of the Easter story then? The crucifixion of Good Friday isn’t an accounting balancing act, a satisfying transactional process, it is a catastrophe denoted brutally in Acts 3:15:

“You killed the author of Life”.

The death of Christ was the culmination of months of scheming by authorities – a “state-sponsored execution of an innocent man” (3). We do not see on Good Friday anyone demanding a sacrificial scapegoat, or Pilate seeking the death of Christ to redeem the imperial rulers, this is “Christ reconciling the world to himself” (2 Corinthians 5:19). Golgotha was where the world cried out “Crucify Him” and God responded “Forgive them“.  It is the place where we can so clearly see how our civilisation is entangled with violence. From here we see the revelation of mercy from our God. Jesus didn’t arise with words about the cross but returned with “Peace be with you” – there was not a lingering consideration of divine vengeance here!

The issue here maybe not grasping atonement theory but re-imagining the love that lies behind that act. Ultimately the cross and resurrection is about God’s love poured out for all. There is no violent sacrifice demanding God, but following humanity’s demands for human sacrifice, we see God’s mercy and love, offering that forgiveness for all, still even today.

Do you see a vengeful God or one of Love?  Can God be both? What is God like?


(1) Michael Winter, The Atonement, (London: Geoffrey Chapman, 1995), citing Malachi 1:9, Zechariah 7:2 & 8:22
(2) Brain Zahnd, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, (Colardo Springs: Waterbrook, 2017), p. 82.
(3) Brain Zahnd, Sinners in the Hands of a Loving God, (Colardo Springs: Waterbrook, 2017), p. 84.

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