Is Penal Substitution Theology Modern Baal Worship?

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Over 2500 years ago the cult worship of Baal had infected Israel and become the dominant belief system and worship practice amongst the people God called His own. In order to combat this distorted belief system God raised up the prophet Elijah to confront the false system of worship.

Despite Elijah’s singular victory over Baal at Mt. Carmel, Baal worship persisted through history as various cultures adopted Baal, changing his name to suit their time and place in history. Baal became Zeus to the Greeks, Jupiter to the Romans and Thor to the Germanic and Norse peoples, and with the conversion of Constantine Baal insidiously infected Christianity. God, through the prophet Malachi, foretold that before Christ returns the people of God would again, like Israel 3500 years ago, need the prophet Elijah to call them back to the worship of the true God.

“But before the great and terrible day of the Lord comes, I will send you the prophet Elijah. He will bring fathers and children together again…” Malachi 4:5,6

Malachi’s prophecy is a warning that prior to the coming of Christ the world will face a similar crisis - a world in which religious leaders and politicians lead the masses into the worship of a false god.

In order to understand Malachi’s prophetic application for today, we need to understand what made Baal worship false. What was the problem with worshipping Baal? Was it simply a matter of using the wrong word “Baal” when worshipping God? Was it because they were not saying “Yhwh” (Yahweh)? Or was it something else?

“The Hebrew noun ba‘al means ‘master’, ‘possessor’ or ‘husband’. Used with suffixes, e.g. Baal-peor or Baal-berith, the word may have retained something of its original sense; but in general Baal is a proper name in the OT, and refers to a specific deity, Hadad, the W Semitic storm-god, the most important deity in the Canaanite pantheon.

“Yahweh was ‘master’ and ‘husband’ to Israel, and therefore they called him ‘Baal’, in all innocence; but naturally this practice led to confusion of the worship of Yahweh with the Baal rituals, and it became essential to call him by some different title; Hosea (2:16) proposed ’îš, another word meaning ‘husband.’”  [i]

Obviously, the problem was not the syllables used as ba’al was one name used for the true God. Therefore, the problem must have been something else. There must have been some distortion presented in the character of Baal that is not in the character of God. So, what was Baal like?

Ancient, non-biblical, sources give varying degrees of information regarding Baal and the pagan pantheon, but there are some key elements that are common amongst them.

Baal was the son of El (i.e. El-ohim or El-Shaddai). He was the god of weather. Often called, ‘Almighty’ and “Lord of the Earth.” Baal was the god who brought rain, thunder, lightening, who fertilized the earth, controlled the sun and brought the harvest. Baal fought the great serpent leviathan as well as battled against Mot, the god of death. And most amazing of all, it was taught that Baal died in his battle with Mot and was resurrected from the dead to bring life to earth.  [ii]

So what was the problem with worshipping a god who was the “husband and protector of Israel,” the son of El, who controlled the weather, who brought rain, sunshine, and fertility, who blessed with full harvest, who warred against the great serpent and death, who died and was resurrected to bring life to the earth? What was wrong with this god? What was Elijah opposing? What made Baal worship false?

Here is what one Christian writer identifies as the central distortion in Baal worship:

“Determined to keep the people in deception, the priests of Baal continue to offer sacrifices to their gods and to call upon them night and day to refresh the earth. With costly offerings the priests attempt to appease the anger of their gods;”  [iii]

And the Bible confirms this:

"So the prophets prayed louder and cut themselves with knives and daggers, according to their custom, until blood flowed." 1 Kings 18:28  [1]

Could it be that Baal represented the characteristics of Satan’s version of God, the idea that he (as god) must have bloody sacrifices in order to be appeased, have his wrath assuaged, or have his anger propitiated? And is God waiting for His church on earth to complete the reformation by eliminating this pagan god concept and restoring the true picture of God as revealed in Jesus?

At the 1897 General Conference Session of Seventh-day Adventists, Pastor George E. Fifield, Secretary of the New England Conference of Seventh-day Adventists,gave a powerful sermon on this subject. Here is an excerpt:

“In Christ Jesus we…[are] the household of God; and are built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ himself being the chief corner-stone… This is as near to the Lord as we can get. This is the at-one-ment; this is why he bore our griefs and carried our sorrows, that he might do that for us by breaking down all those things which separate hearts from hearts, both human and divine. Notwithstanding this, we did esteem him stricken, smitten of God, and afflicted [Isa 53:4]. That was what we thought about it. We said, God is doing all this; God is killing him, punishing him, to satisfy his wrath, in order to let us off. That is the pagan conception of sacrifice. The Christian idea of sacrifice is this. Let us note the contrast. ‘God so loved the world, that he gave his only begotten Son, that whosoever believes in him should not perish, but have everlasting life.’ That is the Christian idea. Yes, sir. Indifference keeps, hatred keeps, selfishness keeps… But love, and love only, sacrifices, gives freely, gives itself, gives without counting the cost; gives because it is love. That is sacrifice, whether it is the sacrifice of bulls and goats, or of him who is the Lamb of God. It is the sacrifice that is revealed throughout the entire Bible. But the pagan idea of sacrifice is just the opposite. It is that some god is always offended, always angry, and his wrath must be propitiated in some way.

“If it is an ordinary case, the blood of bulls and goats will suffice; but if it is an extraordinary case, the blood of some innocent virgin or child must flow; and when the god smells the blood, his wrath is appeased. We talk of pagan immortality, pagan Sunday, pagan idolatry, etc.; but it seems to me that the lowest thought is that men have brought this pagan idea of sacrifice right into the Bible, and applied it to the sacrifice of the cross. So the Methodist Discipline uses these words: ‘Christ died to reconcile the Father unto us,’ that is, to propitiate God so that we could be forgiven – paganism straight out. Why, brethren and sisters, it is the application of the pagan conception of sacrifice to the sacrifice upon the cross, so that that wonderful manifestation of divine love, which God intended should cause all men, all beings in the universe, to wonder and adore, has been turned around and made a manifestation of wrath to be propitiated in order to save man. I am glad that we are losing sight of this manner of viewing the subject, where we do not say that Christ died to reconcile the Father unto us. Brethren, there is sometimes such a thing as to give up the expression of a thing, and think we have thus gotten rid of it, when a good deal of it still lingers and clouds our consciousness of the love of God, and the beauty of his truth, so that we cannot present a clear gospel…” [iv]

A contemporary of Fifield, E.G. White, described Satan’s strategy from the beginning has been to cause the Jewish ceremonial system to be misunderstood to reveal a God who required propitiation of His wrath:

“From the day the Lord declared to the serpent in Eden, "I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed" (Genesis 3:15), Satan has known that he can never hold absolute sway over the inhabitants of this world. When Adam and his sons began to offer the ceremonial sacrifices ordained by God as a type of the coming Redeemer, Satan discerned in these a symbol of communion between earth and heaven. During the long centuries that have followed, it has been his constant effort to intercept this communion. Untiringly has he sought to misrepresent God and to misinterpret the rites pointing to the Saviour, and with a great majority of the members of the human family he has been successful. 

 “While God has desired to teach men that from His own love comes the Gift which reconciles them to Himself, the archenemy of mankind has endeavored to represent God as one who delights in their destruction. Thus the sacrifices and the ordinances designed of Heaven to reveal divine love have been perverted to serve as means whereby sinners have vainly hoped to propitiate, with gifts and good works, the wrath of an offended God.”  [v]

Are Fifield and White right? Has the pagan idea of sacrifice infected Christianity? Has the time come for Malachi’s prophecy to be fulfilled? Is it time for a people to stand up and, like Elijah, and say — No! God is not like this?


[1]Some may attempt to argue that what made Baal worship false was its gross and hedonistic practices. We assert that all such degradation is the outgrowth of worshipping a god who must be appeased, assuaged or propitiated. In the Dark Ages these ugly practices of worshipping such a god were evidenced in the Inquisition and burning people at the stake. The gross forms of their worship were the fruit of the real problem, which was accepting a god who had to be paid by sacrifice to grant blessings, a god who would inflict punishment if sacrifices were not brought. And Revelation tells us that those who hold to this view of God will again torture and kill in the name of their god.

[i]Wood, D. R. W., & Marshall, I. H. (1996). New Bible dictionary (3rd ed.) (108).

[ii]Wood, D. R. W., & Marshall, I. H. (1996). New Bible dictionary (3rd ed.) (108).

Leicester, England; Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity Press. Carthage, a history, Serge Lancel, p194

 Miller, Patrick (2000), Israelite Religion and Biblical Theology: Collected Essays, Continuum International Publishing Group, p. 32. ISBN 184127142X

Moscati, Sabatino (2001). The Phoenicians, Tauris, p. 132. ISBN 1850435332

Walbank, Frank William (1979). A Historical Commentary on Polybius, Volume 2, Clarendon Press, p. 47

Zondervan's Pictorial Bible Dictionary (1976) ISBN 0-310-23560-X.

In 1899, the Encyclopædia Biblica, article Baal by W. Robertson Smith and George F. Moore states:

[iii]  White, E.G., Prophets and Kings, p. 124.2.

[iv]1897 General Conference Daily Bulletin Sermon Series number 1.

[v]White, E.G., Prophets and Kings, p. 685.

Note: Do not conclude that because I assert that Jesus’ death was not needed to appease/assuage/propitiate the Father that I am saying mankind could be saved without the death of Christ, or that Christ’s death was unnecessary for our salvation. Absolutely not! We could not be saved without the incarnation, life, death and resurrection of Christ. His death was a non-negotiable requirement for the salvation of mankind, it just wasn’t needed to do anything to the Father or the law, for nothing was wrong with the Father or the law. His death was required for other reasons, all of which are consistent with God’s character of love. 

—Timothy R. Jennings, M.D. is a psychiatrist based in Chattanooga. He is the author of Could It Be This Simple? A Biblical Model for Healing the Mind.