Many Protestant Christians think they are following Jesus, the God of the Bible, but in truth they have turned him into Molech.
Molech is the angry God of the Canaanites. He storms about in the Old Testament eg Leviticus 20,1–3. He furiously demands that humans must make child sacrifices to him. He is not nice.
The above is what Bible scholars and authors such as Brad Jersak and Steve Chalke say. Steve Chalke explains that many Christians today wrongly see God as angry, vengeful, and desiring blood. Jersak and Chalke are not alone. Churches I know for example, have dropped the hymn In Christ Alone because it contains the lines “And on the cross when Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied”. In other words, it appears to depict God as this vengeful deity – like Molech.
Do you see God as wrathful, angry, demanding that someone innocent gets beaten up? That’s the accusation that is made.
Artist impression — Molech?
But there are other views. In particular, the church in the east and the west have different ways of understanding the cross.
A Western understanding
In the 11th century the western church split with the eastern church – which is now mainly in Russia, Greece and Egypt. Afterwards, the two sides developed their own understanding of “how the cross works”. How it is that Jesus dying on a cross opens up a relationship with God? The western church (which would later split again into Protestant and Catholic) based their understanding on the idea of a law-court. There has been a crime, (many crimes — all our sins together), so somehow there has to be a suitable punishment, a repayment for wrongs done. So, the innocent Jesus is crucified – justice is served and seen to be served, as in a law-court. This theory of the cross is called Penal Substitutionary Atonement, or PSA (but don’t mention PSA to your GP or strange conversations will follow).
The lawcourt metaphor is what Protestant and Catholic churches overwhelmingly believe and teach.
St Paul’s — London
An Eastern understanding
But our brothers and sisters in the Eastern orthodox church say PSA is barbaric – it makes God out to be some kind of angry tyrant. The idea of “an angry God demanding his pound of flesh” is crude and mistaken, they state. They take a different idea to the lawcourt; they take the idea of a hospital. In their understanding, the world is sick, terminally sick, and the cause of our sickness is death which entered an otherwise perfect world because of sin. The cure for this is that Jesus himself must enter death to battle with and defeat death, from the inside. This theory is called Christus Victor or Christ as conqueror. Humanity’s greatest problem, it states, is that the devil and his works have enslaved humanity through the fear of death. But, through Jesus, death is put to death.
An angry God demanding his pound of flesh” is crude and mistaken
Supporters of Christus Victor argue that PSA is about sacrifice, but God increasingly distances himself from sacrifices through the Old Testament. And, sure enough, there are passages such as Hosea 6 (later quoted by Jesus): “I desire mercy not sacrifice. Or the passage in Micah 6 about God wanting not sacrifice but for us “to act justly love mercy and walk humbly”.
According to Christus Victor mercy triumphs over sacrifice … mercy triumphs even over judgement.
Church on the Spilled Blood — St Petersburg
There are other theories of the cross too, (and yes, there are verses in scripture to defend all of them).
Why does it matter?
It matters if we want people to understand the cross.
People who argue against PSA say that it is incomprehensible to non-Christians who, in general, have a strong sense of fair play. “God sending someone else to die instead of you” isn’t fair. I can relate to that. As a young man there was one idea that stopped me becoming a Christian for many weeks. It was exactly this idea of fair play. To me it seemed appalling that someone else should die a terrible death for stuff I had done. Why? In the end, however, my Christian friends persuaded me that God loved me so much, it was already done — I could continue being shocked, or I could accept it. I accepted it.
But there is another was of looking at PSA and it comes from our experience as parents. If you are a parent, you will know that you would do (pretty much) anything for your child. Your love for them is often greater than your love for yourself. So much so that, as parents, we have sometimes wished whatever illness or calamity our child was suffering upon ourselves. I know I have, and I know others have. Both Jersak and Chalke skip over the point of parental grief. That’s a mistake. Father and Son are one in ways we cannot fathom; surely the pain of the Father in witnessing the death of his Son was crushing, devastating.
And PSA raises another difficult question: why does God ask us to forgive others freely if he doesn’t forgive us freely? Demanding the death of innocent Jesus and then saying to us, “I forgive you” – well that’s not free.
But again, surely our forgiveness for each other is only “free” because of the death of Jesus?
One Gospel – more than one understanding
Penal Substitutionary Atonement is often taught as the only Gospel truth. That’s a great shame as Christus Victor and other mainstream understandings of the cross each give us a new insight into the heart of God, and a historical event which is hard to get our heads around.
Thankfully in the end we don’t need to know exactly how or why the cross works. I’m not even sure we can know. We just need to embrace it.