There are three problems with the theory that Jesus died on the cross to appease His Father’s anger.
First, it requires Jesus and His Father to have different opinions about us, because according to this theory, the Father is angry but the Son is sympathetic. This results in a serious theological problem, not only because it pits two members of the Trinity against each other, but also because it contradicts Jesus’ own words. In John 10:30, Jesus says, “I and the Father are one,” and in John 14:10, He says, “It is the Father, living in me, who is doing His work.”
Second, it doesn’t make sense. Never is rage so blind that a man punches himself in the nose for the affront of another! So if God were angry with us, why would He become incarnate and take it out on Himself? It would make better sense if He destroyed us. There is a precedent for that in Genesis 6:1—9:17.
Third, God’s wrath lies mainly in the future (Colossians 3:6 and 1 Thessalonians 1:10) and is directed at sin, not at sinners. We suffer God’s wrath only by our own choice, since God did not appoint us to suffer wrath, but to be saved through Jesus Christ (1 Thessalonians 5:9).
The revelation to us through our Lord Jesus Christ is that God is love, as John states in his first epistle. If God loves us, and if we are in a dire predicament, then it makes sense for Him to engineer a way to rescue us. Since God’s love is very great, and our predicament is very dire, God makes a great personal sacrifice to effect the rescue.
First, a digression about animal sacrifice.
Ancient civilizations were largely agricultural societies, even though many, such as the Roman Empire, did develop large urban centers. Religious authorities in those societies were an educated class who regulated the calendar for agriculture and provided for public order. However, those duties made it difficult, if not impossible, for them to operate farms. Most pre-urban civilizations set aside land for the clergy to grow vegetables, but vegetarianism wasn’t practical because of winter weather, the vagaries of rainfall, and the inability to ship perishables over long distances. Animal sacrifice served a practical role, being the fee schedule for the clergy, just as in the nineteenth century a farmer might pay for a doctor visit with eggs or chickens.
When we compare the sacrificial regulations of the Hebrews with other ancient societies, we find stark contrasts:
- The Torah bans human sacrifice.
The cultures surrounding the Hebrews routinely sacrificed infants, particularly the first-born, and archeologists have found ancient Canaanite buildings in which an infant was placed in the cornerstone. In other cultures, it was common to kill and even eat the losers in a war, or in Central American civilizations, even the losers of a sports event.
The immediate problem that the Hebrews faced was imitating the surrounding cultures’ sacrifice of the first-born son. The Torah prohibits human sacrifice. (Exodus 13:15, Deuteronomy 18:9-12)
- The Torah contains prohibitions and strong disincentives to cruelty, torture, maiming, and mutilation.
One culture in Central America even subjected the losers of wars and sports events to extreme torture—amputating arms and legs—before killing them. When Nebuchadnezzar’s armies conquered Judea, they killed the sons of Zedekiah as he watched, then they put out his eyes and marched him to Babylon in chains.
The Torah prohibits mutilation, and thus torture. This applied to animals (Leviticus 22:22) as well as people (Leviticus 24:19-22). Many other ancient societies treat their own members better than aliens, but the Torah prescribes the same treatment for all. Of course, sometimes people break laws. In that case, the penalty even limits the revenge one can take on the offender. (It is an eye for an eye, not a life for an eye.) The Torah prohibits self-mutilation and even tattoos (Leviticus 19:28), which were also practices of ancient religions.
- The Torah contains kosher laws that require humane slaughter.
All fruits and vegetables are kosher; the kosher laws only restrict the slaughter of animals and the consumption of meat and animal products. They prohibit the consumption of any food that is not humanely slaughtered. Now you know why Jews don’t go hunting.
However, if you read all those dry, complicated regulations for sin sacrifices in Leviticus and if you read about the requirements for the Passover lamb, you realize that it sets a pattern that Jesus fulfills. Jesus is the perfect sacrifice for sin. He is the first-born son, not of a sheep or a goat, but of God. He is innocent of all sin, He volunteers of His own free will—that is, He was convicted only by His own confession. He freely submitted to His Father’s will. He is, by the Levitical code, a perfect sacrifice, and therefore He perfectly removes all sin. He meets all the requirements for a fellowship offering, and thus places us in fellowship with God. Since even on the cross, none of His bones were broken, He also meets all the requirements for a Passover lamb, whose blood protects us from the angel of death, thus He prepares us for the Resurrection.
Of course, Jesus did all this knowing that He, as incarnate God, could raise Himself up from the dead. The Law requires death as the penalty for sin, but it doesn’t say the death has to be permanent. So Jesus rose again on the third day, demonstrating that He will raise up from the dead all who avail themselves of the benefits of His sacrifice.
So Jesus sacrificed Himself, not to appease His Father’s anger, but to express His Father’s love, by demonstrating to us that He really is who He claims to be. Because of His resurrection, we can be sure that if we trust in Him, we will be truly saved.
One final, pastoral note: If you are beset with the feeling that God is always mad at you, you might just be depressed. See your physician about any depression that lasts more than two weeks, especially if it’s ‘just the way you are’ throughout your life. Long-term depression is a medical problem that your doctor can fix rather easily. If you think that God is mad at you for some incident that happened recently, and it isn’t normal for you to feel this way, it’s probably a spiritual problem. You may want to seek pastoral counseling. If your pastoral counselor encourages you to think that God is persistently mad at you, get another counselor. God is love, and it is not His will that anyone be lost. According to 1 Timothy 1:15, Paul is the world’s worst sinner, so you can’t be any worse off in God’s eyes than Paul—yet Paul was made an apostle!