I knew I was going to read something that would rankle me in RC Sproul’s The Holiness of God. Well sure enough I did. I wanted to articulate a rhetorical move that Sproul makes, because it’s common among writers and preachers who share his theology. Sproul talks in his book about Rudolph Otto’s term mysterium tremendum (fearful mystery), which he applies to the holiness of God. It describes a gap of incomprehensibility between us and God. But what Sproul does rhetorically is to put himself on God’s side of the mysterium tremendum gap. If I claim that God is incomprehensible on the one hand and then “defend” His incomprehensible actions as perfectly reasonable on the other, this “solidarity” with God has the result of exalting me and putting me on God’s side against the rest of humanity.
RC Sproul pulls this move in a chapter entitled “Holy Justice” where he begins with the goal of “look[ing] at the most difficult, most offensive passages we can find in the Old Testament [to] see if we can make any sense of them” (130). He deals with two accounts of God’s holiness resulting in the death of priests: Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu who die because they brought “unauthorized fire” to God’s altar and Uzzah who is struck dead after touching the Ark of the Covenant.
I. Nadab and Abihu
Leviticus 10 relates the story of Nadab and Abihu:
Now Aaron’s sons, Nadab and Abihu, each took his censer, put fire in it, and laid incense on it; and they offered unholy fire before the Lord, such as he had not commanded them. 2 And fire came out from the presence of the Lord and consumed them, and they died before the Lord. 3 Then Moses said to Aaron, “This is what the Lord meant when he said, ‘Through those who are near me I will show myself holy, and before all the people I will be glorified.’” And Aaron was silent. [Leviticus 10:1-3]
It makes me think of all the Boy Scout campouts I went on where we played with fire in a way that we probably shouldn’t have. Immediately preceding this story, Aaron and his sons had offered elaborate sacrifices to God successfully to inaugurate Aaron’s priesthood. But apparently Nadab and Abihu then jumped the gun. They didn’t wait for God to say, “Next.” They were like the kids in chemistry class who enjoy playing with the Bunsen burner so they race ahead of the teacher’s instructions. And the result was that they got burned up.
Part of the mysterium tremendum about God’s holiness being expressed here is that God is unpredictably dangerous so you must proceed very carefully and meticulously in going about the work of sacrifice. This story was basically the foundational violence establishing the temple cult and the whole kosher system of dividing the world into clean and unclean. God says to Aaron as a response to what happened: “You are to distinguish between the holy and the common, and between the unclean and the clean” (v. 10).
So what does Sproul do? He moralizes the story:
The instructions had been clear. The altar of incense was declared by God to be most holy. When Nadab and Abihu offered strange or unauthorized fire upon it, they were acting in clear defiance of God. Theirs was an act of blatant rebellion, an inexcusable profaning of the holy place. They committed a sin of arrogance, an act of treason against God: they profaned a most holy place. 
Really? When Sproul tells us that “the instructions had been clear” and calls Nadab and Abihu’s deed an “act of blatant rebellion” and an “inexcusable profaning of the holy place,” he effectively guts the story of its mysterium tremendum. To try to turn what God did to Nadab and Abihu into something that “makes sense” is a greater affront to the mystery of God’s holiness than anything they ever did. By asserting that it is perfectly plain and clear why God scorched these two poor pyromaniacs, Sproul puts himself on God’s side of the mysterium tremendum that separates humanity and God. Nothing from the text says that God acted punitively in response to a moral transgression. That has all been presumed by Sproul. If we just read the story at face value, what we come away with is that God is not safe to be around, not that Nadab and Abihu are inexcusably arrogant traitors who deserve to burn in hell forever.
II. Uzzah and the Ark
The Ark of the Covenant was the most sacred holy object of the Israelite people. It got captured by the Philistines in battle and God caused all kinds of hell to break loose among the Philistines so they sent the Ark back to the Israelites. In 1 Chronicles 13, David is taking the recovered Ark to Jerusalem in a celebratory procession. A man named Uzzah is leading the Ark on an oxen-driven cart. Verses 9-10 say, “When they came to the threshing floor of Chidon, Uzzah put out his hand to hold the ark, for the oxen shook it.The anger of the Lord was kindled against Uzzah; he struck him down because he put out his hand to the ark; and he died there before God.”
I actually preached on this passage at the Durham VA hospital when I was a chaplain there in seminary. It was one of my earliest sermons. It was the weekend after the Fourth of July in 2009, and I was preaching to wounded and sick veterans. What I said was that Uzzah’s death was like a veteran keeling over and dying in the middle of a Fourth of July parade. King David got mad at God and called off the parade, basically saying if you’re gonna be like that, then the hell with your stupid Ark. That was an appropriate response. Things happen in life that are incomprehensible and it’s not wrong for us to shake our fists at God and yell, “Why?” God can handle it. That was the message of my sermon.
But it’s not incomprehensible to R.C. Sproul. He’s got it all figured out:
Not only was Uzzah forbidden to touch the ark, he was forbidden even to look at it. He touched it anyway… An act of holy heroism? No! It was an act of arrogance, a sin of presumption. Uzzah assumed that his hand was less polluted than the earth. But it wasn’t the ground or the mud that would desecrate the ark; it was the touch of man. The earth is an obedient creature. It does what God tells it to do… God did not want his holy throne touched by that which was contaminated by evil, that which was in rebellion to him. 
In reflecting on the two troubling stories that he’s just shared, Sproul says, “There is a reason why we are offended, indeed angered, by the story of Uzzah and the story of Nadab and Abihu. We find these things difficult to stomach because we do not understand four vitally important biblical concepts: holiness, justice, sin, and grace.” This quote is the epitome of smarm, a term I recently learned about from Gawker magazine. The “we” that Sproul uses in these sentences is completely disingenuous, because Sproul doesn’t really consider himself part of the “we.” How do I know that? Because Sproul then goes on to explain the four vitally important biblical concepts that “we” supposedly don’t understand. Again, there’s a mysterium tremendum that separates God from us the readers or the people who aren’t walking around on the stage with the invisible wireless mic, but Sproul is safely on the other side of it.
III. The Cross
As might be expected, Sproul holds to a “wrath satisfaction” model of Christ’s atonement on the cross (which I distinguish from “penal substitution”). After having shared these difficult Old Testament stories, he assures us that “there is no real conflict between the God of the Old Testament and the God of the New Testament” (157) and then offers the cross as “proof” of this lack of conflict:
If ever a person had room to complain of injustice, it was Jesus. He was the only innocent man ever to be punished by God. If we stagger at the wrath of God, let us stagger at the cross… God would have been more than unjust, He would have been diabolical to punish Jesus if Jesus had not first willingly taken upon Himself the sins of the world. Once Christ had done that… then He became the most grotesque and vile thing on this planet. With the concentrated load of sin He carried, He became utterly repugnant to the Father. God poured out His wrath on this obscene thing. God made Christ accursed for the sin He bore. 
None of these claims about what Jesus looks like to His Father on the cross have any Biblical basis whatsoever. It is pure speculation to say that Jesus became grotesque and vile to God on the cross. The holiness of the cross is not the Father’s repugnance towards His sin-bearing Son; it’s the Son’s willingness to have the sins of humanity sinned into Him with their savage theocide. Certainly Jesus died for our sins. You can even say that He died to pay for our sins, because that is one of the dimensions of the cross. But there is no Biblical basis for saying that Jesus died to satisfy God’s wrath for our sins (according to the grammar of Romans 5:9-10, we are justified and reconciled by the blood of Jesus’ sacrifice and saved from “the wrath” by Jesus’ life, which I interpret Eucharistically).
The way you arrive at Sproul’s conclusions is to give the interpretive priority for explaining God’s “holiness” to strange, troubling Biblical stories like the deaths of Nadab, Abihu, and Uzzah, and then superimpose the God you’ve extrapolated from these stories on the rest of the Bible. They’re in the Bible; we have to face them; but that doesn’t make them the primary basis for understanding God’s character. By claiming the monstrous God you’ve created by prioritizing these stories to be perfectly reasonable, the fire of God’s wrath effectively becomes a lightsaber in your hands. It’s an abominably lopsided view of God to define His “holy justice” as His zeal for killing people who touch His holy things inappropriately.
If people believe God to be this scary and you present His scariness to be perfectly reasonable, that gives you power because you’re the one who stands on the other side with God apart from the rest of humanity who are on the business end of your lightsaber. God doesn’t give us lightsabers to carry; He gives us crosses. Because they’re holy. The cross is not the receptacle for what is “utterly repugnant” to God; it is where Jesus shows us in His deeds exactly what God’s holiness looks like. In the opening chapter of his book, Sproul says that he was a “Unitarian” when he was first a Christian because he was so Jesus-focused and that he had to “converted to the Father.” Jesus says, “Whoever has seen me has seen the Father” (John 14:9). Any conversation about God’s holiness for a Christian must always start with Jesus.