Did God need a sacrifice to appease his own wrath?

Sometimes when talking about the good news (the Gospel) God is portrayed as an angry God who needs the human sacrifice of his own son in order to appease his own wrath. Is this the good news of the Bible? Many scholars claim that this interpretation is a rather modern way (advocated by Calvin) to make sense of the events of the cross and has caused much harm by promoting the myth of redemptive violence and creating a mental picture of God as wrathful.

Actually, Jesus accomplished many different things through his death and resurrection. That’s why the Bible gives us many different pictures to describe different aspects of the Gospel. Since it is impossible to summarize every aspect of the Gospel on these pages, I want to highlight only one prominent Gospel theme that can be traced through the whole Bible. 

Right at the beginning of the Bible (Gen 3:15) we are told what the coming savior (the Messiah) will accomplish: he will crush the head of the snake and thereby defeat the powers of evil that had caused sin, suffering and death to enter the world. 

How did Jesus understand his own death?

When we, humans, obeyed the evil powers in the beginning of time we became enslaved to them and everything they represent: selfishness, immorality, greed, sin and death. This is why Jesus refers to Satan (who represents all evil powers) as the ruler of this world (John 12:31; Eph 2:2). Even though we want to do the right thing, we often end up doing the wrong thing because deep down in our heart we are slaves of these powers. 

One central thing Jesus did was to drive out the “prince of this world” (John 12:31) by destroying the works of the devil (1 John 3:8). Jesus gave his life “as a ransom for many” (Mark 10:45). The word ransom was usually used in the context of redeeming a slave. Jesus understood his death as the means of freeing us from the slavery to all evil powers and thereby to death and sin. He attacked and overpowered the strong man who enslaved us (Lk 11:21-22; Col 2:15) and triumphing over all evil powers, he freed us, the prisoners, from their grip. 

In order to help us understand his death, Jesus gave us not a doctrine but a meal: the last supper. Jesus purposefully chose the day of Passover which was celebrated in order to remember how God rescued the Israelites from the slavery in Egypt. Thereby he made clear that his death must be understood in light of the Exodus: as God rescued the Israelites from Pharaoh’s slavery, so Jesus’ death and resurrection brought forth an even greater Exodus. Jesus offers us freedom from our worst enemy: the evil powers ruling our hearts, causing us to live in sin and death. 

Throughout his life Jesus demonstrated that God is able and wants to forgive sins without a sacrifice (Mt 9:2; Lk 7:48). In the midst of torture and pain, Jesus asked the Father to forgive us (Lk 23:34) and because Jesus and his father are always one, we know that the Father forgave us. Therefore through Jesus we have forgiveness of sins.

Accordingly, the first believers proclaimed the death and resurrection of Jesus as a glorious triumph over all powers of evil and sin. Jesus undid the damage Adam had caused (Rom 5:12-21; 1 Cor 15:22). Through Jesus alone we are restored into being a royal priesthood (1 Pe 2:9) so that we can reflect God’s image in us anew (Gen 1:27) and live again in a relationship with him. As we walk with him, he heals our broken heart and enables us to love others once more with his beautiful love, which causes transformation from ashes to beauty (Lk 4:18). 

While living in this world we’ll only see and experience the beginning of this victory in part. But we know from Revelation that one day King Jesus will fully establish his kingdom and completely overcome all evil. He will restore his whole creation (Col 1:20; 2 Cor 5:19) into his beautiful kingdom. Then suffering, death, sin and pain will be no more (Rev 21:4). This is the triumphant and glorious Gospel the first believers proclaimed (Hebr 2:14-15; 1 John 3:8; Col 2:15).

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