The idea of an angry god needing to be appeased by a human sacrifice conjures up all kinds of images. Speaking of the various atonement theories, pastor Brian Zahnd writes,
I find most of them inadequate; others I find repellent. Particularly abhorrent are those theories that portray the Father of Jesus as a pagan deity who can only be placated by the barbarism of child sacrifice. The god who is mollified by throwing a virgin into a volcano or by nailing his son to a tree is not the Abba of Jesus!
The “abhorrent” theory that Zahnd is referring to goes by the name penal substitutionary atonement (PSA). This is the idea that God inflicted upon Christ the suffering that we deserve as the punishment for our sins. On this view, the sacrificial death of Christ appeased God’s wrath.
For Zahnd, this theory of the atonement amounts to something akin to an angry pagan god who requires a kill before he will turn back his wrath. It is asserted, far from being an accurate description of God, this depiction actually impugns His character.
So here’s the question, is God an angry deity who needs to be appeased? That is, does Scripture provide any examples of God’s righteous anger being placated in the context of making atonement for the people?
Whenever we have questions about the character of God, it’s necessary to go straight to the Bible. After all, only God can tell us what God is like. Oftentimes, our feelings about God are unhelpful guides. And when emotions are allowed to override Scripture, we end up making a god in our own image.
I think those who hold to Zahnd’s view are going to have a very difficult time dealing with some clear texts of Scripture. Specifically, I’d like to look at Numbers 25. Here, I believe, is a clear example of God’s righteous anger being placated when a violent atonement is made for the Israelites. What’s incredible about this account is that it is precisely what some say cannot exist. That is, their view of God and atonement says this is pagan, not biblical. And, yet, there it is, in the Bible.
In Number 25, we read about the blatant idolatry of the Israelites. Israel is currently living in Shittim and has begun engaging in sexual immorality with Moabite women and worshipping their gods. As a result, the author of Numbers writes, “And the anger of the Lord was kindled against Israel” (v.3).
Consequently, Moses is commanded by God to “take all the chiefs of the people and hang them in the sun before the Lord, that the fierce anger of the Lord may turn away from Israel” (v.4).
Before moving forward, it’s important to make a distinction between the anger of a perfect God and the anger of a sinful man. God is absolutely righteous; we are not. God is perfectly holy and just; we are not. Therefore, it’s not surprising that God’s anger is always justified whereas human anger is rarely justified.
After killing all of the leaders who had “yoked themselves to Baal of Peor,” the story takes another grisly twist. One of the Israelite men named Zimri continues to engage in sexual immorality with a Midianite woman named Kozbi. In response, Phinehas, the grandson of Aaron, the priest, follows the Israelite back to his tent and drives a spear through Zimri and Kozbi.
What’s significant about this story is what follows immediately after describing these violent details. It says, “Thus the plague on the people of Israel was stopped” (v.8).
Don’t miss this. God’s wrath was being poured out on the Israelites because of their disobedience. He did this by bringing a terrible plague upon them. All told, twenty-four thousand people died from the plague (v.9). However, immediately following the killing of these two individuals, God turns back His wrath from the people and ends the plague. This is not speculation. This is what the text says.
And the Lord said to Moses, “Phinehas the son of Eleazar, son of Aaron the priest, has turned back My wrath from the people of Israel, in that he was jealous with My jealousy among them, so that I did not consume the people of Israel in My jealousy. Therefore say, ‘Behold, I give to him my covenant of peace, and it shall be to him and to his descendants after him the covenant of a perpetual priesthood, because he was jealous for his God and made atonement for the people of Israel.’”
God's wrath—the plague—was stopped when Phinehas made atonement for the people. How did Phinehas make atonement for the Israelites? What did he do? The text is clear: Phinehas killed Zimri and Kozbi. That is, in response to the killing of Zimri and Kozbi, God turned back His righteous wrath. This is not a pagan god being described here. No, this is the immutable God of the Bible. There is no getting around this. This is the Abba of Jesus.
Does this one text mean that penal substitutionary atonement is true? No. Much more would need to be said, and that’s not the purpose of this blog post. What this text does show—at minimum—is that a biblical understanding of atonement may include appeasing the righteous wrath of God.
Number 25 is a case in point. Within this troubling account, we see a vivid example of retributive punishment being carried out against certain individuals. And, through the inspired words of the Old Testament, we’re told that this violent execution satisfied God’s righteous wrath and served to make atonement for the people.
I think we see something similar—not identical—in the cross of Christ. The death of Christ makes atonement for those who put their trust in Jesus Christ. Paul writes, “Since, therefore, we have now been justified by his blood, much more shall we be saved by him from the wrath of God” (Rom. 5:9). The blood of Christ propitiates the wrath of God. And Paul says that this shows God’s righteousness.
It was to show His righteousness at the present time, so that He might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Rom. 3:26)
God is the justifier because God was in Christ paying for the sins of the world. Here we see the supreme demonstration of the love and mercy of God. But God is also just. Here we see God’s perfect holiness and justice on display when the sins of the people are justly punished in Christ on the cross. God cannot simply ignore sin. If He did, He would be unjust. So the cross of Christ is where God’s wrath and mercy meet. At Calvary, God both punishes and pays for sin.