For if we go on sinning willfully after receiving the knowledge of the truth, there no longer remains a sacrifice for sins, but a terrifying expectation of judgment and THE FURY OF A FIRE WHICH WILL CONSUME THE ADVERSARIES.Hebrews 10:26-27
Note: The quote in the “Why” question is from Hebrews 10:31.
When people think of God as angry and vindictive, this is one of the passages that comes to their minds. That is taking it far out of context with the whole story, however. Let me see if I can put it into perspective.
For one thing, consider the audience: Jews who have converted to Christianity, or are thinking about doing so. The entire book is an argument from the Jewish scriptures that Jesus is the culmination who fulfills and completes everything written from Genesis through Malachi. However, the book also has much to say to modern Gentile Christians, as well.
Love and Justice
Starting from the beginning, we have a God who created everything that exists. His creation is governed by His own character: perfect love equally balanced with perfect justice.
- Love alone — defined the current, modern, shallow way as “Do everything they ask; give them everything they want; never make them unhappy” — would not allow for justice. That would cause a world of selfish creatures who felt free to harm any other creature, because God would always “love” them and never expect them to be accountable. Ick.
- Justice alone — defined as “Everyone gets exactly what they deserve, full punishment for every harm done and every rule broken” — would cause a harsh, legalistic world where everyone was afraid to even breathe wrong for fear of the consequences. Again, ick.
God’s world is governed by His love — delighting in His creatures and wanting the best for them (which can only be found in relationship to Him) — and His justice — hating and punishing anything that harms them (by separating them from Him).
From that standpoint, how is He to deal with sin and rebellion and rejection by these creatures He loves? His answer is to punish the sin harshly as the evil it is…but to transfer that sin onto Himself so that He is the one punished. Since He gave humanity free will, though, that transfer can only take effect for an individual if they choose to accept it. If they don’t, then the punishment still stands…only the individual has to face it for themself.
Back to this passage in Hebrews, the history of the Jews gave a preview of this transfer via their system of animal sacrifices in their temple. The intricate laws governing these sacrifices were given in Exodus and Leviticus, when the nation was first formed out of a group of slaves supernaturally freed by God. Their culture was built around this idea: Temple sacrifices make them right with God via the blood of the animal killed to atone for their sin.
Other Alternatives Can’t Work
The Jewish Christian audience reading this book were being tempted to lean more on the “Jewish” rather than the “Christian”, to escape persecution and alienation by returning to the Temple sacrifices rather than fully depending on Jesus as the ultimate sacrifice. The writer is telling them that they cannot do that. They know that the Temple system was only a foreshadowing, and that Jesus is the real thing, the final answer. If they try to backtrack, they would be trusting in a sacrifice known to be ineffective, and rejecting the only thing that works: the sacrificial death of God’s own Son. They would really end up facing God with their sin on their own, with nowhere else for it to transfer.
As modern readers, we don’t have the history of the Temple-sacrifice background and culture. But we do have the same temptation to trust in something other than Jesus. We may believe the lie that “a loving God would never condemn someone”, conveniently overlooking the fact that love without justice is cruel. Or we may believe that justice applies to the other guy and not to us, forgetting that we have all rebelled in the same way against the same Creator.
Rejecting Love = Facing Justice Alone
Jew or Gentile, whatever the excuse, there is no getting around the point: If we don’t let Jesus carry our sin, then we carry it ourselves. That is indeed terrifying.
Thanks to Jesus, though, it is also unnecessary!