Jesus died on the cross in our place, taking the punishment that we deserve and satisfying God’s wrath toward sin. It’s a simple concept, really, but much of the world has never understood it. Just two decades after Jesus’ death and resurrection, the Apostle Paul wrote that the idea of Christ crucified was a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles. And in all of the centuries since, not much has changed. Some deny the atonement outright, claiming that God had no reason to be wrathful in the first place. Liberal theologians have touted all kinds of alternative ideas. Decision recently asked author, scholar and radio talk show host Michael Brown to give a clear explanation of what the Bible teaches about God’s wrath and Jesus’ atoning death.
Q: In what ways do false teachings about the Atonement spring from misconceptions about the nature and character of God?
A: It seems that in our generation we’ve swung from the notion of an all-angry God who is out to get us, to this other notion of an all-nice God who just wants us to have a happy life. So we have very little concept of divine judgment. We have very little concept of the consequences of sin. We have very little concept of future punishment. Basically, we’ve got this toothless grandfather of a deity with a self-help manual.
Q: Why does the world try to act like there’s no need for God to be wrathful in the first place?
A: First, we have a hard time accepting the idea that there are consequences for our actions. We don’t even want there to be such a thing as losing. We have children’s competitions where they don’t keep score because everyone has to win. So, in many ways, we want to shield people from the reality of the serious consequences of their actions. Second, we have such a broken, fatherless generation that we have constantly emphasized God’s love, goodness and acceptance. These things are very important, but we’ve gotten out of balance with it. We’ve forgotten that there are things that deserve punishment and that sin itself is ugly and bad, and God’s judgment is good and necessary. It’s not arbitrary. It is based on a combination of God’s perfect goodness, mercy and justice.
Q: Some atheists claim that the God of the Bible is unjust and capricious—that He’s got arbitrary standards, and it’s unfair to hold us to them. They say if there is such a God, they wouldn’t want to follow Him anyway. How do you respond to that?
A: First, I would remind people that the same God we’re talking about is the One who sent His Son to die for all the vile things that we’ve done. God loved us so much that He said, “I’m going to pay for all that you’ve done. In fact, I’m going to put the punishment for all that you’ve done on my Son.”
And I would ask, “Do we have a prison system? Do we have penalties for various crimes? Do we believe it’s right if a serial killer goes to jail for life without parole? Do we believe it’s right that someone who’s raped a little girl goes to prison?” We all believe that there are certain right punishments.
Imagine if Adolf Hitler had not committed suicide in a bunker—that instead, he escaped and lived a happy life in Argentina. Would that be fair or right? No. Well, that should tell us that for God to be fair, there has to be a judgment beyond this world.
We also have to understand that God’s laws are good. Everything God forbids is bad for us, and everything He calls us to is good for us. When we sin, we are sinning against our Creator and against ourselves.
Q: One liberal theologian wrote, “God did not have to arrange a killing at Calvary in order to forgive sin.” And the popular novel The Shack said that God doesn’t need to punish people for sin. What do you say to those kind of views?
A: If sin is not punished, we’ll destroy ourselves. That’s why every society has punishments for certain crimes. It has to. You cannot go without it. If you allow your children to do whatever they want to do their entire lives without consequence, you will hurt them. Standards are good. Discipline is good. Punishments are necessary. God could have simply said that He was going to look the other way—but then what about justice? What about fairness? What about what’s right?
But God did not “arrange a killing” at Calvary, nor did He commit “cosmic child abuse,” as some have claimed. I think people making these statements have no clue about the love of God. They present a superficial version of love and don’t understand deeper love.
God is perfectly just and cannot simply look the other way when sin is committed, any more than a judge can look at a serial killer and rapist and say, “Hey, you’ve had a tough life; just try to do better.” There would be outrage over something like that. So, in short, God devised a way where the Son, who was perfect in every way, could say, “I will take the punishment.”
Each human being owed a debt that none of us could pay back. But the Son of God, with His infinite “credit,” said, “I will pay for all of it.” So, at one and the same time, God can be perfectly just and perfectly merciful.
And He shows us how deeply He loves us by showing us how ugly sin is. If He simply said, “I look the other way; I forgive you,” it doesn’t show us the ugliness of sin. It doesn’t show us God’s justice. It doesn’t give us a picture of the exchange that took place through the cross. We now receive what Jesus deserves, and He took what we deserve. This produces a gratefulness far beyond what simply saying “I forgive you” could ever produce, and it produces a hatred of sin in our lives because we’ve seen the ugly consequences of it. So, without that aspect of the cross, we do not understand the love of God.
Q: But someone might say, “It’s fine to use examples of terrible crimes against humanity, but Christians say that even something like lustful thoughts will bring God’s wrath. Why would God need to punish something like that?”
A: Let’s first recognize that God is not striking us with lightning for every lustful thought we have. Otherwise, virtually the whole human race would be dead, at least those who are old enough to have those kinds of thoughts.
But by being patient with us, He doesn’t mean to excuse sin. It’s to give us time to repent. And we have to ask, “Are these thoughts good?” Are those the kind of thoughts your wife would want to hear? God sees how gross and wrong and sinful those thoughts are. I think our biggest problem is that we simply don’t want to recognize how holy God is and how unholy we are, because it puts us in a position where we hear that we need to change our lifestyle.
The fact is, we’re a messed-up world. We’re killing each other. We’re raping each other. Torturing each other. Filling our bodies with drugs and alcohol. But if we lived by God’s principles, we’d see that they work. God didn’t design us for those other things. When we do things His way, we find out His way is the way of life. When we stray from that, we find out we’re on the path of death.
Q: How is it possible that the Atonement can bring us to the point that there’s no condemnation for those who are in Christ?
A: It’s because the cross is the perfect and ultimate payment for every single human sin. Our worst, most horrific acts have been paid for in full. And if we will put our trust in the Lord, there’s a divine exchange. Jesus took every sin on His own shoulders, and if we look to Him, God gives us Jesus’ perfect righteousness. It’s completely an act of mercy.