What sort of God do you believe in? Are you troubled with worshipping a God who brings divine retribution? Are their grounds to question the measures of this retribution? I think it’s important to ask the tough questions about God’s role in human affairs and to seek better ways of viewing His nature. Abraham’s appeal to God to do what is right must likewise be our demand (Genesis 18:25).
Modern readers might be shocked to hear God commanding Moses to execute the ringleaders who had had sexual relationships with Moabite woman and worshipped their idols. He orders these leaders be slain and their bodies hung upon a stake for all to see (Numbers 25:1–4). As this order is carried out, Aaron’s grandson, Phinehas, impales a man daring to consort with his newly acquired Moabite mistress (Numbers 25:1–8). God praises Phinehas’s “zeal,” halting the plague that He had sent in wrath and stating that Phinehas had “made atonement for the children of Israel” (8–13).
How does this portrait of God demanding retribution differ from that of God punishing His Son as a divine substitute for the sins of the human race? Does God mete out justice through infinite retribution?
Believing in a judgmental God can be dangerous. Assuming that God demands an ethic of retribution not only gives a penal flavor to our theology but also encourages zealous violent retribution by cultivating its justification. John J. Collins, for example, argues that the “zeal of Phinehas” has served as a pragmatic slogan for religiously motivated violence in the Judeo-Christian tradition throughout history” (The Zeal of Phinehas, 2003, pp. 19–20).
Present-day readers may be shocked by such ancient executions, yet despite their distasteful elements, they carry positive aspects within religious thinking—among not only the ancients but also more modern people responding to infidels and those who oppose the racial order of slavery.
We should not be surprised to learn that the theology of a punitive God has contributed to atrocities such as lynching. According to Donald G. Mathews, who argues that lynchings were public “rituals of sacrifice,” concludes “That the formal religion of Southerners should have been symbolized by ‘sacrifice’ is not surprising. The cross had come to symbolize a salvation affected by Christ’s paying just satisfaction for the sins of humanity: focus was on the justice of punishment. Even God had had to pay the price for human sin! His Justice required it.” (The Southern Rite of Human Sacrifice, Black History Bulletin, Vol. 65/66, No. 3–4/Vol. 66, No. 1-4, (July- December 2002/January – December 2003), p. 42).
How should we explain the divine command to hang bad people when so often throughout history hanging has occurred the other way around—the bad and unforgiving lynching the innocent?
The Crusades, the Inquisition, witch hunts, Auschwitz, genocide, acts of violence, racism, exploitation of the weak, and so on ad infinitum—all reasons to address this probing question of God’s justice. And what are we to make of Christ’s crucifixion, history’s most significant act of sacrifice as retributive punishment? It is imperative that we understand God’s justice, which makes right what has gone wrong in the world—a justice that is “liberating and restorative, not crippling and retributive” (Fleming Rutledge, The Crucifixion: Understanding the Death of Jesus Christ, 2017, p. 169).
The misuse or abuse of Scripture can have dire consequences. Selectively reading harsh statements to endorse violence and incorporate them into a depiction of God is dangerous. Theologies that reject the Old Testament because of these harsh statements, however, are not acceptable alternatives. Jesus expresses that the Old Testament has explanatory power, but how should we explain it? Jesus says, “these are the very Scriptures that testify about Me” (John 5:39, NIV). Thus, Jesus puts Himself at the core of Old Testament commands (Luke 24:7). With Jesus as the corrective center, views of justice that nurture a stern, retributive, and violent theology are reframed. Jesus calls us to question Old Testament depictions to discern the character of God.
While Jesus removes the spirit of punishment from justice, punishment must not be entirely eliminated (Matthew 5:44; Romans 6:23). God can’t overlook evil and let everyone off the hook, for that would be to declare humanity neither accountable for wrong nor capable of good. Victims too would be left with injustice, with no recourse for redressing abuse. Instead of ignoring wrongs and moving on, Old Testament atonement addresses injustice and calls for rectification. Sin is not merely bad behavior that needs punishment but rather systems of distortion and corruption that we are all caught up in, which ultimately lead to ruin and death. God does not stand as the executioner but shows how sin destroys itself. As a deterrent, God warns us of sin’s dire consequences, instilling a deep sense of His abhorrence of evil. To save and liberate us from the systems of sin that entrap us and spin out of control, God’s pursuing love must contain actions that confront evil in some form of rejection and revelation.
God’s demand for retribution in Numbers 25 does not teach vindictiveness or bloodlust. If it depicts God’s justice—which is never arbitrary, petty, or disproportionate—then it depicts rectification, not through arbitrary retribution but by remedying wrongs so that right may thrive. In this light, such Old Testament images are powerfully important for thinking about current justice, for they provide a context to address the consequences of evil. Amid today’s social justice, these images teach us that wrongful deeds call for rectification. Instead of overlooking the past we must confront it with repentance and a sense of accountability for our actions. They also teach that God is just and fair, which is good news for victims.
Perhaps the pain caused by evil evokes a churning reaction in God, a combination of the desire to stamp out evil and its adverse consequences and the desire to save people. Phinehas is a priest whose job is to guard the Sanctuary from wrath unleashing upon the people. God’s wrath, in the person of Jesus, is expressed through His own suffering and death as He gives Himself for a broken world. Such wrath shows how our sinful ways eventually lead to ruin. By forfeiting divine protection, the Israelites are left exposed, resulting in danger, exile, lost happiness, and the terror of war. Phinehas knows that within his social context, the death of the perpetrators will resolve guilt; he simply does his job to protect the lives of the Israelites. His story contains a solemn (though relatively crude) lesson that highlights accountability, but it also implores us to follow the example of Jesus, for only God can rescue us from our predicament. Jesus alone has the power to address the challenges of our world.
As reflected in Phinehas’s Moabite desert encounter, administering justice for committed wrongs is atonement in the basic, low-grade sense of destroying evil. But what atonement would the God of justice ask in reflecting on the life of Jesus? When we hear directly from God in Scripture, most often, others are speaking for Him in favor of punishment. God lets the Israelites tell the story of the Old Testament; what if we let Jesus tell the story of Israel’s vocation?
Why did Jesus die in such a horrible way—the supreme act of retribution? The gruesome scene is not instigated by God. Jesus submits Himself to the horror of a brutal and violent death by “the hands of sinners” (Matthew 26:45). What happens that day is the violent death of a criminal carrying the systemic nature of sin. Jesus submits to the very worst ethic of retribution, one specifically designed to excruciatingly shame the condemned, yet the crucifixion reveals the expansiveness of God’s heart. Jesus redeems His lost creation, delivers it from cruel bondage, and recreates a new humanity while judging sin and exposing the powers of injustice and deception.
The cross simultaneously reflects many things, including working justice in the world—not the kind of justice manifested through the Crusades, the Inquisition, genocide, or other warped visions but rather a cruciform justice in which God becomes one with those condemned. He is in solidarity with the victims of violence without hating the oppressor, offering salvation to those who repent. The cross is a symbol that something has gone terribly wrong in the world and must be set right by the hard-fought corrective of Jesus’s crucifixion. To see God’s justice in the cross is to break away from present human reality and enter a new reality in which God sets things right. He dies not to justify strict retribution but to break it’s power. The cruel Roman execution stake on which Christ is hung is reclaimed by a God who is determined in His love to make all things new, and the God who becomes a victim of violence and injustice shares this story. The story also conveys God placing Himself under His own judgment of sin, so that justice and mercy can merge in the very being of God Himself to liberate justice.
Craig Ashton Jr.