Did God Really Demand the Death of His Son as a Sacrifice for Sin?
One of the more poignant arguments against Christianity is that the Christian God demanded that his son be offered up as a human blood sacrifice in order for justice to be satisfied and forgiveness offered. In this view the Christian God is an angry, blood thirsty tyrant who must be sated before he becomes a loving father. Christians will of course argue that people who view the crucifixion this way are missing the point, don’t understand God’s righteous anger, are minimizing the need for justice, etc. However, I think that the real truth is that many Christians misunderstand the reasons for the crucifixion and our critics are simply making some pretty obvious observations about our own teachings regarding the propitiation of sins and the death of Jesus. I know that I’m treading on some pretty hallowed theological ground here, but if you’ll stick with me, I think you may find that my upside down world understanding of this issue is a better fit with reality than what many of us have been taught.
Let’s start our discussion with the issue of blood sacrifice itself. The first thing to be noted is that blood sacrifice is not something which originated with the Hebrew God. It had been practiced for millennia prior and has occurred all over the world. It is a human invention. In his excellent book Ideas That Changed the World, Felipe Fernandez-Armesto offers the anthropological explanation for the pervasiveness of the practice of blood or animal sacrifice:
Gifts are a common way of establishing reciprocity and cementing relationships between individuals and human groups; by extension, a gift should also work to bind gods and spirits to the human givers, connecting deities to the profane world and alerting them to its needs and concerns. . . During the last 10 millennia . . . sacrifice has acquired a great many meanings: as penance for sin; as thanksgiving; as homage to divinity; as a contribution to the well-being of the Universe; or as a sacrilized gift, considered as an act of worship or of imitation of God.
One of the things which we need to understand about God as revealed in scriptures is that over and over again, God does not wait for us to become acceptable or advanced enough to establish a relationship with him. Instead, he reaches out to meet us where we are and bit by bit draws us forward towards him and away from our previous ideas and ways of doing things. The rituals of animal sacrifices did not reflect a need or demand of God. Instead, by instituting rituals of animal sacrifice God is co-opting a human institution and way of doing things and directing it back to himself with the ultimate result that the human institution drops away while the devotion to God remains.
If we look in scripture the first offering made to God is made by Cain and Abel, which did not turn out so well. But it was not an offering in response to a demand of God. We don’t know what prompted them to make their offerings to begin with; perhaps they were imitating the actions of others around them. The second instance of animal sacrifice which appears in scripture is when God makes his covenant with Abram. Again it is not a sacrifice made in response to a demand on God’s part. The purpose of this sacrifice isn’t Abram seeking to appease or please God, but God’s way of demonstrating his commitment to Abram and the promises made to him. The specific actions of the ritual – cutting the animals in half and passing between them – are noted in other contemporary accounts as a form of sealing an agreement between two parties. The implication was that if either party broke the covenant, they would be cut in half like the sacrificed animals had been. So, we see clearly here God using a ritual of mankind’s own making that Abram would understand and be comfortable with. The first example we have of God demanding a ritual sacrifice is when God tells Abram, now Abraham to sacrifice his son Isaac. At this time, God then provides a substitution for the sacrifice and the boy’s life is spared. In fact, the first actual instructions from God regarding ritual animal sacrifice don’t come until the law is given through Moses hundreds of years later. By that time, the Hebrews had been living among the Egyptians for many, many generations and would have been heavily influenced by Egyptian religious practices which included animal sacrifices.
I’ve gone through all of this out simply to establish that animal or blood sacrifice did not originate with demands from God at all. Instead, they are almost certainly an example of God meeting people where they were and using what they were already familiar with to turn them towards himself. God didn’t need animals sacrificed to him. But people needed assurances that they were acceptable, forgiven and in right relationship with their God. God uses the already familiar rituals of animal sacrifices to meet the needs of the people, not to meet his own blood thirsty demands.
So we get to the time of Jesus. One of the pressing issues of the religious community during Jesus day was the keeping of the law. The Hebrews were, of course, living under Roman occupation and the keeping of the law had in many ways become a nationalistic rather than a spiritual pursuit. This is part of what accounts for the zealousness of parts of the religious establishment; breaking the Hebrew law was not simply a demonstration of a lack of faith – it was akin to treason. Keeping the peculiar laws of the Hebrew bible was what ensured that the Hebrews would remain a separate nation that could take its rightful place when the Messiah arrived and lead them to victory over their oppressors. In this environment, the law and the sacrifices no longer served to turn the people’s hearts and devotions towards God, but often served largely secular, political purposes. Once again, God reached out to meet humanity where it was in a way it could understand in order to turn us back to himself again. Enter the Word made flesh – Jesus.
Since the topic at hand is whether God demanded the sacrifice of his son to provide for the forgiveness of our sins, I’m going to skip straight to the death of Jesus here. The first thing we must understand about the death of Jesus is who it originated with. The reality is that throughout Jesus’ ministry there were people who wanted him dead. There are quite a few places in the gospels where Jesus slipped out of town in order to escape those who would kill him. It was human desire which sought the death of Jesus and not the demands of God. In fact, there was nothing about the execution of Jesus which conformed to the rules of God. Regular rules for trial were ignored. Jesus wasn’t subjected to the scriptural means of death for one who blasphemed – that being stoning. Even the usual proscription against killing during the Passover feast was ignored. And it wasn’t the fury of God which propelled events forward; it was the fury of men which did that. This was an event of human motivations and means from start to finish.
The claim that the crucifixion of Jesus was a sacrifice demanded by God, ignores the bald, ugly reality of what actually happened. The religious leaders, caring nothing for what God cares for – our hearts and need for redemption – had turned Jesus over to the powers of this world. The people in demanding his execution and the release of Barabbas committed an act of gross betrayal against Jesus who had never harmed anyone and healed many. It was the worst of human nature on display. The soldiers mocked Jesus, mocked his royalty, mocked the miraculous power he had demonstrated purely in service to needy humanity. The means of his death was a rather extreme example of man’s capacity for cruelty towards fellow man. It was carried out by those just doing their jobs – the banality of evil at work 2000 years before we had a term for it. While Jesus suffered on the cross, we see further examples of the difference between God’s ways and mankind’s ways. Before he is even dead, the soldiers amuse themselves with a bit of vice, gambling for his clothes. When he asks for some small comfort – a drink – he is met with yet another example of how people will treat those suffering and offered a dose of vinegar which will not alleviate his suffering but simply makes it worse. All in all, rather than an example of a sacrifice demanded by God, the death of Jesus is a fantastic display of the worst behaviors and traits that humans can muster up. There was nothing about it that reflected God’s desire or demands. This was the work of human beings through and through.
And yet . . . God takes this ugly, evil display of cruelty, vice, power, betrayal, self-interest and arrogance and does what he is wont to do with the things we humans come up with. He uses it to turn us towards himself. It’s as if he says, “are you done now? Are you satisfied? Have you vented your fury and poured out your sinfulness on me to your satisfaction? Fine. Then it is done. You poured out your sin on me and my son. And now, I have redeemed even the worst that you can do. He is risen. He is Lord of Lords and King of Kings now. You sin has no power. It has no power to defeat me and it has no power to separate us any longer. Turn away from it and seek after me.”
This claim that God reacts to this lurid display of human cruelty and sin by declaring it as the means by which we are reconciled to him may seem to be a stretch, but tomorrow I’ll use the story of the prodigal son to explain why this reaction is exactly the way that God behaves with us. I would do it today, but this post is already way too long. But I do have it written already, so if you aren’t already subscribed, you should go do that and it will be delivered into your inbox tomorrow. I know you’ll be waiting with baited breath for its arrival! J