Most of us who have been raised in the church have heard this statement, or one like it, so many times that it has never really been analyzed rationally. It's one of those fragments of a thought, which we absorbed at such a young age that it never occurred the thinking part of our brain to question it.
My experience with Bible study groups is that, even when this statement is brought up for questioning, people assume it at such a fundamental (or philosophers would say, “axiomatic”) level that, even if we were to all sign paperwork agreeing that it is untrue, it would sneak its way back into the conversation next week. After all, what else is the point of Jesus if not to let the angry Old Testament God wail on him a bit until the Divine anger at sin is spent, and he (very much a "he" in this way of thinking) can go back to being relaxed and easy-going again?
The only problems with this theology are biblical, logical, and practical. That is to say, it has all the problems. It exhausts all the ways that a theological assertion can possibly be wrong.
Biblically, the Old (or I would prefer “Hebrew”) Testament makes repeated claims about God doing and saying things that are gracious, and the New (“Christian”) Testament makes more than a few about God doing and saying things that are wrathful.
Just blindly picking a few examples at random, think of the book of Jonah, when God saves the entire city of Nineveh despite the fact that they are sworn enemies, devoid of redeeming value, in the authoring culture's eyes. Yet, even the “animals besides” can’t escape God’s mercy. Or think of pretty much the whole book of Isaiah where the prophet prophecies a future for the whole world where all instruments of warfare and strife between peoples will be repurposed or destroyed, lion can lay down with lamb, and children can play with poisonous snakes (Is. 2:4; 9:4-5; 11:6-8).
And on the flip side, apart from all the “weeping and gnashing of teeth” sayings that are put in the very mouth of Jesus, which are probably worthy of a whole other blog, there is far more wrathful violence meted out in Revelation than in any other book in the Bible.
Logically, it doesn’t add up, why God would be so much different in one testament than the other.
The explanation that Jesus "took the punishment intended for us" is helpful for the first minute or so that you actually think about it but gets pretty dubious by minute two or three. A God who can chill out and be cool only after beating the crap out of an innocent person isn’t gracious. He is transactional. Yes, he'll let bygones be bygones in exchange for pain. But grace, by definition, implies something that is unpaid for and undeserved.
Plus, if the person required to exhaust his righteous pummeling is actually righteous himself, then that "divine child-abuser" God isn't even just. If you try to get around all this by saying that Jesus is part of the Trinity and so the suffering is all “in house,” God hitting himself, more or less, rather than wailing on us, the grace recipients, you just run into more logical walls. In what sense is it, then, that humanity has paid the price for sin, other than in some theatrical display of the members of the Trinity playacting among themselves what such comeuppance might look like? And as Luther asked 500 years ago, why couldn’t such an affair have just been “put on up in the clouds?” Why pretend to have some token involvement of humanity in what is actually an intra-Trinitarian affair?
Practically (and this is the biggest problem), few ideas have resulted in more dangerous anti-semitism than the OT-God-mean-NT-God-nice idea.
Only the historically misguided assertion, popular since medieval times in Europe that it was the Jews alone who were responsible for Jesus’ death has been invoked to support more senseless animosity toward our present day Jewish brothers and sisters (Jews didn’t crucify people, gentile Romans did; and one could just as easily argue that Jesus’ supporters and disciples were nearly all Jewish).
This doesn’t need to be over-explained now that it’s been brought to level of conscious thought. It’s not hard to see how chronically prejudiced people, who tend not to bother themselves too much with things like logical fallacies and historical inaccuracies, get from “mean Old Testament God” to “mean Old Testament people” to “Christ-killer” accusations. The Nazis, who just happen to be the most well known of the many examples, knew well that the best way to make your own side seem moral is to accuse the other side of being so immoral that killing them is righteous. And it doesn’t get much worse to an officially Christian audience than killing Christ.
So if this idea is unbiblical, illogical, and practically dangerous, why is it so hardwired in the minds of Christians? I could answer that with a more extensive conversation about tribalism, and how genuine article Christianity is so often replaced by your garden variety tribal religion whose main purpose is never to be true or life-giving but always to reinforce the superiority of my people over yours.
But for millions of us well meaning Christians who never intended to say anything anti-semitic and potentially destructive, the more immediate answer is this: its what we learned first. And as statistically improbable as it is that everything we learned first happens to be right—that our family of origin or our first Sunday School teacher happens to be right about everything—that is unfortunately the wager our brains are programmed to make all the time on even the most important beliefs. The burden of proof is always on the contradicting belief that came second.
Apologies for deconstructing one belief without reconstructing another, but I'm well beyond the word limit that most blog readers will tolerate. Think through it yourself, though. If both the Hebrew and Greek parts of the Bible are filled with conflicting evidence as to whether God is basically wrathful or basically gracious, what does that suggest about how the Bible should be read and applied? If you were to make a wager on the wrath testimony or the grace testimony, both of which run through the entire length of the Bible, which one would you wager on and why? Is there any character in the Bible who might inform such a wager? Regardless of the testament in which you find God’s true Spirit, don’t make the mistake of assuming that all the bathwater in the Bible submerges the importance of the baby.
Cheers and Peace,