Is God Vengeful?

As progressive Christians enter Holy Week, we have to stop and ask, what do these days leading up to the commemoration of that cruel death mean? In this particular time in history, our understanding of why Jesus suffered doesn’t always resonate.

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11 thoughts on “Is God Vengeful?

  1. Carol,
    Songbird is right; this piece is beautiful, compelling, and (I firmly believe) dead wrong.
    Your analysis of the difficulties we liberal Christians have with blood and sacrifice and atonement is excellent—we are squeamish not only about what this theology means about suffering and sacrifice, but also about what it means about God.
    However, citing Newberg’s (very interesting) work is where you start to lose me. To use as support for any position evidence that says—“meditating on, and praying to a loving God can give us internal peace and motivate us to compassion;” while “imagining a vengeful God can yield more anger and frustration”—invites us to believe in a loving God because it’s better for our mental health and maturity.
    The reason we seek God is to connect to and better understand the nature of the universe and its creator—we believe in things because we think they are true, not because they encourage internal peace and compassion (though that may well be an effect). Believing something for some other reason than that it is true is something far less than authentic. Like praying the sinners’ prayer to purchase a ticket to heaven, or having your child baptized as “fire insurance.”
    Yes God is love, and yes the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting—but we don’t get to cherry-pick the avenues of God’s love and mercy simply because, “the ideas no longer resonate with us.”
    I don’t understand the passion and crucifixion of Christ any better than I understand the mystery of the Trinity, but I believe in both and I struggle with the suffering and the blood because I believe that they are in some very true way salvific. It is the life, death and resurrection of the Lord that saves our souls, not “the act of focusing our attention on suffering [or] of having active compassion for those who endure it.”
    As always Carol, I appreciate your perspective and your work.
    Grace and peace,
    Sam

  2. Thanks for the thoughtful comment, Sam.

    I think we do cherry pick. Or at least we focus on some things more than we do on others in our tradition. This is a time when people wear “His Blood’s For You” and “His Pain Your Gain” t-shirts. Where’s the catchy slogan t-shirt that says, “I am saved through the moral example of Jesus Christ”?

    Oh wait… I guess that’s WWJD.

    Anyways… there are a lot of views of atonement. I’m suggesting that we not focus on the bloodiest one. Or at least, I don’t, because I can’t figure out who needs the blood.

    Do I just want to create a soft God in my mind because it makes me feel all warm and fuzzy? No. I want to honor what I read about God in the Scriptures–like Psalm 51: 16 —

    You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it;
    you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.
    The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit;
    a broken and contrite heart.

    I also know that we have Christian Militias bombing right now. Hatred between religions is violent and palpable, and as people of faith right now, it can be our great gift to humanity to incite compassion in any and every way we can. The world needs it.

  3. Other Scriptures stating that God does not desire sacrifice, but mercy:

    What to me is the multitude of your sacrifices? says the LORD; I have had enough of burnt offerings of rams and the fat of fed beasts; I do not delight in the blood of bulls, or of lambs, or of goats. When you come to appear before me, who asked this from your hand? Trample my courts no more; bringing offerings is futile; incense is an abomination to me. New moon and sabbath and calling of convocation– I cannot endure solemn assemblies with iniquity. Your new moons and your appointed festivals my soul hates; they have become a burden to me, I am weary of bearing them. When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. Isaiah 1:11-17

    For in the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this command I gave them, “Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people; and walk only in the way that I command you, so that it may be well with you.” Jeremiah 7:22-23

    For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings. Hosea 6:6

    I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream. Amos 5:21-24

    Hear what the LORD says: Rise, plead your case before the mountains, and let the hills hear your voice. Hear, you mountains, the controversy of the LORD, and you enduring foundations of the earth; for the LORD has a controversy with his people, and he will contend with Israel. “O my people, what have I done to you? In what have I wearied you? Answer me! For I brought you up from the land of Egypt, and redeemed you from the house of slavery; and I sent before you Moses, Aaron, and Miriam. “With what shall I come before the LORD, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the LORD be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the LORD require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? Micah 6:1-4, 6-8

    “Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, not sacrifice.’ For I have come to call not the righteous but sinners.” Matthew 9:13

    “But if you had known what this means, ‘I desire mercy and not sacrifice,’ you would not have condemned the guiltless.” — Matthew 12:7

  4. This has been a very rewarding conversation here and on HuffPost – thank you for posting and for being willing to engage the dialogue that percolates up around such a complex concept. Your leadership is inspiring.

  5. So where does Gethesemane come into the picture, Carol? Christ asks God three times to set aside this cup of wrath and then surrenders to “Not My will, but let Thy will be done.”

    Your modern progressive rejection of the notion of blood and sacrifice may culturally suit you, but what you are doing is revisionism and borders on heresy. The original preachers of the Gospel understood the need for the sacrificial atonement and the cleansing blood of Christ: are you now stating that they who knew Christ and were personally taught by Him were wrong and that you have been divinely gifted a superior revelation?

  6. Stushie, It’s not a new revelation. There are a number of atonement theories in our tradition. As you know, there are three major themes of atonement in our reformed history–Calvin and Barth speak of prophet, priest and king–three offices and in each, the work of salvation is accomplished. We understand Christ as prophet (moral exemplar), priest (substitutionary atonement), and king (Christus Victor). I am saying that for some people, focusing on substitutionary atonement is not as helpful. But there are a number of ways in which we have understood the saving work of Jesus.

  7. The thing I find odd about “progressive Christianity” is this tendency to ignore that which one finds objectionable. One of the most popular verbs for the progressive Christian is the word “resonate.” If I were to limit myself to only those things which “resonate” with me, then I would certainly experience arrested spiritual development. I think that many people today have been blinded by the lies of secular humanism and therefore dislike the idea of sacrificial atonement. Now they arrogantly believe that they’re good and that they really don’t need salvation. They can’t/ won’t see that Humanity is broken, that we all have a wretched inclination to sin which naturally separates us from a righteous God. So what are we to do?

    Ultimately, we’re bound to the Authority of Scripture which makes clear that Jesus’ death was a propitiation for our sins. I’m sure you’re well aware of Paul’s words in Romans 3:25. Now, you can easily respond that by citing that there are numerous theories of the Atonement, but ultimately, we’re bound to St Paul’s declaration:

    For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God; Being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: Whom God hath set forth to be a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God.

  8. I am well aware of Paul’s words. I am not denying them, I’m just saying that they do not make as much sense to me. But there are other views of atonement, and other Scriptures that resonate with me (sorry you don’t like the word or that defense, but I do!). Like, the words of Scripture above. They clearly state that God desires mercy more than sacrifice.

  9. It’s ok if certain passages of the Bible don’t make sense to us but it’s not ok to be dismissive of them. I am not saying you are being dismissive, just asking you not to be. I’ve waited 20 or 30 years for certain passages to become clear and I’ve been waiting that long and longer for some which have not yet become clear. However, the promise is that, as we seek, we will find and as we ask, we will receive and as we knock, it will be opened. I can testify from personal experience that these promises are true.

    It’s a difficult sell to take substitutionary atonement out the gospel and the Bible in general. I would submit that the power of Christianity comes exactly from this. “For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.” (I Cor 1:18)

    At some level, we all understand that we deserve what Jesus suffered on our behalf. To repress it or deny it is not to obviate it. I know it’s not pretty and that it offends our sensibilites. Evidently, it is meant to.

    However, I would hasten to add that I believe the Bible taken as a whole portrays a God of mercy and grace, not of vengeance. I prefer to look at the cross as a triumph of grace over the power of sin. Nevertheless, like it or not, the penalty of sin is death. To not confront this bit of ugliness and to not press on to understand the Bible’s message in this regard is to miss something crucial within the overall context of Christianity.

    Therefore, to answer your question, “Is God vengeful?,” my answer is an emphatic, “no!”

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