Tag Archives: sacrifice

Atone Deaf Part Seven: Keep it Messy, Tragic, and Beautiful

The final post in a series about atonement, the question of meaning and accomplishment in the death of Jesus.

The first six posts in this series focused on the origins and evolution of the theological interpretation of Jesus’ death. We explored the foundations of sacrifice and vicarious suffering in the Hebrew Bible, New Testament perspectives on the passion of Jesus, and the development of certain atonement theologies throughout Christian history. You can revisit those posts for my analysis and conclusions. In this final post, I want to leave the research where it is and focus more on the lingering questions and feelings surrounding atonement. Because, ultimately, I’m not sure a technical or transactional understanding of the death of Jesus is the most helpful or valuable one.

The Problem of Over-realized Theology

Strange as it is to have to articulate this, I think it’s crucial to remember that all of our source material for a Christian study of atonement – from scripture on down to Calvin’s Institutes – consists of subjective human interpretation long after the fact. Even the gospels themselves represent an artistic reconstruction of the events of Jesus’ life and passion, told from various perspectives a generation later. Paul’s letters are thought to be the earliest material in the Greek canon, but they are written by a man who was not a companion of Jesus when he walked the earth. Later, the Church Fathers would often blatantly disregard the settings and tropes of scripture in their effort to fit the texts into their own Greek-flavored interpretive schemes. My point is this: for all of the inspired and inspiring insight offered by Bible texts and other Christian writings, they are all assigning meaning on top of meaning to a distant historical event, from a certain vantage point, with the benefit of time and imagination, under many diverse influences. We are the beneficiaries of their work, and their writing is of great value. It is my opinion, however, that when we literalize or absolutize these subjective perspectives we develop an overly legal or forensic view of atonement. That is, we downplay the historical messiness of Jesus’ death and begin to imagine that the theological metaphors are actually concrete, that there was actually some cosmic juridical transaction that took place, as if heavenly bookkeepers were frantically balancing their ledgers as the last drop of Jesus’ blood spilled out. We forget that theology is interpretive and speculative, not descriptive.

As a younger man I believed that Jesus came down to Earth out of the sky, like the son of Jor-El, with a picture of me in his wallet, knowing that he had to be in the right place at the right time to die for me so I could go to heaven. If he had missed his chance or chickened out, I would be out of luck. But Jesus is the hero of the story, so he died just like he was supposed to. Happy ending. Is there a modicum of truth in this version of the story? Perhaps. But my privileging and overemphasis of the transactional (and substitutionary) interpretation of Jesus’ death completely blinded me to historical reality, and led me to imagine it as something other than a tragic injustice. I oversimplified and misrepresented Jesus’ mission and self-identity, completely disregarding the Jewish context of both. I was also myopic and self-serving, assuming that the central crisis of the known universe was my personal fate and afterlife destiny.

Well, the ancient narratives do tell us that Jesus faced his fate with courage motivated by compassion, first and foremost for his own family of Israel and for the love of the whole world. But even given his sense of mission and determination, the political machinations of his trial and execution are never seen as incidental or irrelevant. To say that Jesus “had to die” is not to say it was alright, just a technicality that had to be taken care of. It is to say that his prophetic message about a forgiving Father God and a kingdom of peace and radical social justice was such a challenge and offense to the religious and political powers-that-be that his execution became inevitable. To state this theologically, the life-based justice of God clashed with the death-based “justice” of the world. To state it in more anthropological terms, Jesus lived and died by his countercultural commitment to nonviolence and non-retaliation. If Jesus simply needed to die to satisfy a cosmic theological need, he could have thrown himself off a cliff or jumped in front of a chariot. Instead, he looked corrupt human empire in the face and said, “you don’t understand how power works.” Yes, he had to die, and there is no more damning comment on the state of humanity. Atonement is about palpable hope for our future in spite of this, because of Jesus.

How to Believe in Atonement 

So what does it mean to “believe” in this death? Is it simply a fact we must acknowledge in order to be saved? Is it a transaction we need to understand correctly so that its benefits can be applied to us? Or is it more than that, a story into which we can enter, that can redefine the way we understand the world? As we observed, the ancient interpreters understood Jesus’ death as a self-given sacrifice which disarmed and defeated corruption and sin, exposed the evils of empire and hell, set humanity free from bondage, and reconciled creation to its Creator. There is enough there to keep us hoping and imagining for the rest of our lives, but there are countless other insights, questions, and dreams, some old and some quite new, which explore different aspects and ramifications of atonement. I’ll conclude this series with just a few brief samples, which will hopefully whet your appetite and send you out on your own investigation.

  • To be meaningful, Jesus’ death cannot be separated from his resurrection. One of the big problems with theologies that focus primarily on transactional or substitutionary atonement is that they seem to suggest that Jesus’ death was, in itself, a complete, sufficient, and satisfactory event. These interpreters affirm the resurrection, of course, but treat it as a separate theological category. The cross is about atonement and salvation, resurrection is about eschatology and afterlife. A holistic view of atonement understands Easter as more than proof of heaven or a surprise happy ending. It is God’s peaceful and life-affirming response to the horrors of human ritual victimization exposed on the cross. It completes the picture, and it’s the only way that the events of the passion can be called “good.”
  • Incarnation is atonement. This idea actually goes back to Anselm, but it has been picked up by some of today’s best thinkers (see this Facebook post by Michael Hardin). It suggests that incarnation – how Jesus in his humanity embodies and reveals the divine nature – is the true context and content of atonement. Death and resurrection are thus only the climax of the full story of Jesus’ humanity. Jesus is not God in a man costume, securing atonement by shedding his own heavenly blood. He makes atonement because he is the true human being, who faces a human fate, and who interrupts, disarms, and transcends the human cycle of violence. He does this for and with and on behalf of his human family.
  • Does God love mercy or sacrifice? Why would God send prophets into the world to urge us toward “mercy not sacrifice” if His real desire was for a propitiating sacrifice? Time and again, the Bible’s prophetic witness suggests that blood sacrifice is a human endeavor, a concession, and that God truly desires obedience, mercy, and relationship. Dare we suggest that this same God’s ultimate plan of redemption for the world is the violent sacrifice of an innocent human, His own son? An atonement theology in tune with the gospel and the divine character as revealed in Jesus cannot attribute that kind of bloodthirst to God. In fact, taking a cue from the book of Hebrews, it sees Jesus’ death as a self-given sacrifice which exposes and ends the practice of sacrifice forever. At Easter, mercy obliterates sacrifice once and for all. (Check out this blog post by Brian Zahnd.)
  • If God cannot change, then atonement cannot change God. Philosophically speaking, God is absolute and unchanging by nature. The divine will cannot turn or change its mind, even though anthropomorphic depictions of God in scripture often suggest otherwise. This is one reason why the earlier atonement theologies we surveyed were careful not to suggest that God’s wrath was satisfied or His mind changed by the death of Jesus. Instead they focused on external, impersonal factors like God’s “honor.” His consistency of character and His reputation for mercy and compassion had to be preserved. And after all, how coherent is it to suggest that God reached into human history to affect a change in His own heart and disposition? It is we who need to turn away from aggression and embrace compassion, not God.
  • Atonement is a revelation, not a project. This is along the lines of the previous idea. Richard Rohr (after John Duns Scotus) has suggested a vision of atonement as a revelation of God’s love, rather than a project or transaction intended to solve a problem. Jesus did not live and die to “mop-up” humanity’s sin problem, but to reveal God’s true face and posture in the midst of our trouble. Read more here.
  • Mark Heim says, “Jesus didn’t volunteer to get into God’s justice machine. God volunteered to get into ours.” 

That feels like a haphazard and incomplete list of ideas, and I think that’s just about right. One thing I do not want to suggest with this series is that atonement can somehow be systematized or explained in any complete or tidy way. The death of Jesus is (with good cause) the most overanalyzed and over-explained event in the history of the world. It actually does us good, I think, to resist the impulse to pin it down or distill it into a chart or a slogan. We do well to preserve something of the chaos of history, to treat Jesus’ death as a distant and devastating memory. “Atonement” is our attempt to discover our own place in the old story, to feel a fresh wave of the sorrow and shock of Good Friday, and the elation and glory of Easter. This is the story of our lowest moment as a species, and of God’s greatest triumph.


Atone Deaf Part One: Sacrifice in the Ancient World and the Hebrew Bible

First in a new series of posts exploring the topic of atonement, the question of theological meaning and accomplishment in the death of Jesus.

For many western Christians the death of Jesus is not only the most theologically significant event in the Bible or the church calendar, it is the most significant event in all of human history. And for conservative Protestants in general and evangelicals in particular, an understanding of Jesus’ death as an atoning substitutionary sacrifice is more essential to faith and hope than his life, his message, or even his resurrection. As kids we learned that believing in the efficacy of Jesus’ sacrificial death in our place was the only way to be reconciled to God and saved from His wrath. We learned that this view, labeled Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA), was the only true and biblical one, anticipated fully by the ancient Jewish sacrificial system and explicitly taught in the New Testament. We’ll deal with the New Testament in upcoming posts, and today we’ll focus on the Hebrew Scriptures. The major question of today’s post is whether or not the offering rituals of ancient Israel constituted substitutionary sacrifices for the satisfaction of God’s wrath. But first, a general word about sacrifice and human history.

Where Does Sacrifice Come From?

In terms of history and anthropology, sacrifice is the communal sacralization or ritualization of the killing of animals (and/or the consumption of resources in general). Most ancient cultures, not least those in and around the Near Eastern setting of the Bible, developed frameworks in which sacrifices were understood to be interactions or exchanges with gods and supernatural forces. Killing animals, burning or cooking their flesh, and using their hides and bones as raw materials is what ancient hunters and farmers were already doing long before it was codified into any kind of religious system. In its most appealing expressions, sacrifice was an appreciation of divine providence and a show of respect for the animals and plants which gave their lives so the tribe could survive. More severe systems took “blood sacrifice” to unsavory extremes and offered up human victims to purge their tribes of impurity. Being one Near Eastern culture among many, Israel reflected some of these sacrificial characteristics while emphatically rejecting others.

Blood Sacrifice and Sin in the Hebrew Scriptures

The texts of the Hebrew Bible imply the ubiquity of sacrifice in the ancient world. In the early Genesis tales, for example, figures like Cain, Abel, Noah, and Abraham perform various sacrifices centuries before there were Levitical laws or a temple in which to practice them. The ancient Hebrews also demonstrate distinctly polytheistic tendencies, such as their use of pagan names for God and their penchant for “household gods.” These stories (written down as late as the post-exilic period) indicate that Israel’s sacrificial system represents a later stage in the evolution of Hebrew religion, an evolution in which they moved further and further away from the practices of their polytheistic neighbors. Noah and his family are portrayed as the first humans to kill and eat animals. The story of Isaac’s “binding” dramatizes the Hebrews’ rejection of the common ancient practice of child sacrifice. And the Torah laws themselves reflect the specific religious and agricultural realities of Israel’s life in the “promised land,” not some generic or timeless setting. All of this suggests that sacrifice did not fall out of heaven all at once as a divine decree, but that it developed and changed over time as a human endeavor according to Israel’s religious beliefs and experiences.

For the purposes of this series, we are most interested in those sacrificial traditions in Israel which dealt with blood and/or sin, as these are the images most often invoked in Christian discussions of atonement. We will briefly examine three such traditions, with special attention to the way they worked and the problems they were intended to address. These are pesach (Passover), the korban khatta’at (sin offering), and the scapegoat of yom kippur (the Day of Atonement).

The Passover story, narrated in the book we call Exodus, features a blood sacrifice at its dramatic climax. The children of Israel, slaves and captives in Egypt for generations, must kill a lamb and wipe its blood on their doorpost so that the “angel of the LORD” will pass them by as it unleashes a deadly plague against their Egyptian overlords. The event will be commemorated in an annual festival (in fact, a festival of lambs predates the Exodus experience), and marks a decisive moment in the formation of Israel’s identity as a unified people destined to become a nation. We note that there is supernatural danger in the story, but it is temporal and local and directed against the Egyptian villains. We also note that there is no “substitutionary” element to this sacrifice. The Israelites’ problem is not that they are guilty of any sin, in fact they are innocent victims of oppression. The blood is an identity marker and a harbinger of liberation.

The Levitical law prescribed several types of sacrifices, including burnt offerings, grain offerings, and offerings of peace and thanksgiving. The sin offering (detailed in Leviticus 4) involved the sacrifice of a bull for the acknowledgement and forgiveness of sins, particularly for “unintentional” misdeeds (4:2). This sacrifice was not conceived as a substitutionary killing but rather as a gift to God of an unblemished specimen as an offering for sins. And while the aim of such a sacrifice was to seek divine forgiveness, the framework was one of covenant faithfulness and blessing, not eternal salvation, afterlife, or the appeasement of God’s wrath.

Likewise, the sacrifices of the annual Day of Atonement (also described in Leviticus) were offered for the sins of the people, intentional and unintentional. The Hebrew word we translate “atone” literally means to “remove” or “wipe away.” The corporate guilt of the people was to be confessed and relinquished. Among the many rituals of the day, two goats were prepared: one for slaughter as an unblemished sin offering, the other as a “scapegoat.” The scapegoat was symbolically imputed with the sin guilt of the people (the closest thing we’ve got here to a “substitutionary” animal) but it was not sacrificed. Instead it was led into the wilderness to physically remove the people’s sin from the land. (According to rabbinical tradition, in order to avoid the embarrassment of a “sin goat” accidentally wandering back into town, it was usually led off a cliff to its “accidental” demise. Still, we note that this was technically not a sacrificial death, and was not a part of the official yom kippur observances.)

In summary: The offering rituals of ancient Israel served various functions and occasions, including matters of sin and forgiveness, but substitutionary punishment, soul salvation, and appeasement of divine wrath were not their context or intention.

Prophetic Critique of the Sacrifice Traditions

A question which arises later in Israel’s religious tradition and which speaks directly to our study of atonement is whether or not these sacrifices represented the only and mandatory methods of dealing with human sin guilt. For the theology of PSA to make sense, blood sacrifice must be the only possible way for God to be fully satisfied in the face of human sin guilt. But according to Israel’s poets and prophets, this was and is not the case. For one thing, Hebrew Bible texts routinely feature individuals and groups who attain forgiveness by repentance and prayer, without the help of sacrifices or the shedding of blood (eg. David in Psalm 32 or the entire city of Nineveh in the book of Jonah). If those inferences aren’t strong enough, however, Israel’s prophets offered a more direct challenge to the notion of blood sacrifice as the path to God’s heart. Consider these well-known passages:

And Samuel said, “Does the LORD delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obedience to his voice? Surely, obedience is better than sacrifice, and to listen than the fat of rams.” (1 Samuel 15:22)

Thus says the LORD of hosts, the God of Israel: “Add your burnt offerings to your sacrifices and eat the meat! For when I freed your fathers from the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings or sacrifice. But this is what I commanded them: ‘Obey my voice, that I may be your God, and you may be my people. Walk in all the way that I command you, that it may go well with you.’” (Jeremiah 7:21-23)

“For I desire goodness, not sacrifice; Obedience to God rather than burnt offerings.” (Hosea 6:6)

According to the prophets, God is not particularly impressed with heaps of unblemished animal carcasses, and in fact (according to Jeremiah) He never asked for any blood in the first place. In light of these passages and our observations above, sacrifice looks more and more like a concession at best, like something God tolerated from humans who would rather negotiate forgiveness than walk in the light. 

But, since humans are utterly unable to obey God and walk in the light, doesn’t blood sacrifice become necessary to pay for our sins? God may not prefer it, but He has no choice! That is the logic of PSA, but it is difficult to reconcile this formula with the spirit of Jesus, who echoed these same prophetic words and revealed a God who forgives sin freely. Why would a God who rejects sacrifice in the name of mercy and love demand a blood sacrifice (a human sacrifice!) in order to forgive sin? It is inconsistent with the gospel of the kingdom and the divine character revealed in Jesus. 

Sacrifice: Human Gesture, Not Divine Demand

Some are perhaps uncomfortable with the anthropological approach to sacrifice I’ve outlined above, so consider a more “theocentric” version of the story: God calls Israel from among the tribes of the world, insists that they stop sacrificing human lives – especially children – and instructs them in the appropriate way to offer good gifts and offerings. But later God reminds them through the prophets that sacrifice is no substitute for love and obedience, and He wishes people would seek Him in the wellbeing of their neighbor instead of the spilling of animal blood. In what possible universe would this same God go on to require and even to orchestrate the human sacrifice of His own beloved Son?

The Passover lamb, the sin offering, and the scapegoat were symbols of liberation, forgiveness, and covenant, not punishment or the assuaging of divine wrath. Likewise, God is not a petulant, bloodthirsty deity in need of pacification. God’s heart and disposition are not swayed this way and that by the spilling of guilty or innocent blood. We will explore the positive and compelling ways in which the death of Jesus might be described in sacrificial terms, but substitutionary punishment is a fundamental misunderstanding and misrepresentation of Israel’s sacrificial traditions and the God they meant to honor and delight.

Next time: The Suffering Servant of Isaiah 53.

[NOTE: After writing the first couple of posts in this series, it came to my attention that the brilliant and funny blogger James McGrath has already coined the term “atone deaf.” I just want to give him full credit and link to his post.]


Break Your Bible: Jeremiah 7 and What God Never Said

The first post in this series was met with almost deafening silence, but I’m forging ahead with this second one. I know I am pushing fairly hard against the grain of how most Christians have been taught to read their Bibles, but I don’t do so lightly or flippantly. On the one hand, there are surely more pressing issues facing us today than how we interpret the Bible. On the other hand, the way Christians respond to pressing issues is deeply affected by our traditional interpretations of scripture. This type of exercise might be the first step to laying a new and healthier foundation for Christian thinking and living.

Whereas the previous post explored the way we interact with the many streams of thought and belief represented in the Bible, today’s post concerns how the Bible interacts with itself. If Numbers 25 raised questions about how we identify and assess divergent voices in the Bible, our passage today unsettles our simplistic notions of biblical authority and uniformity. Jeremiah 7 is not only a major prophetic watershed in the Hebrew Bible, it is a text frequently quoted and alluded to by Jesus (it contains the bit about the Temple becoming “a robber’s den” and Jeremiah’s descriptive history of Gehenna). But before we can confront the surprising implications of the prophet’s words in verses 21-23, we have to take a moment to clarify what they actually say.

When Translators Attack!

Here is the text of Jeremiah 7:21-23 according to the 1985 update of the JPS Tanakh translation of the Hebrew Bible:

21 Thus said the LORD of Hosts, the God of Israel: Add your burnt offerings to your other sacrifices and eat the meat!
22 For when I freed your fathers from the land of Egypt, I did not speak with them or command them concerning burnt offerings or sacrifice.
23 But this is what I commanded them: Do My bidding, that I may be your God and you may be My people; walk only in the way that I enjoin upon you, that it may go well with you.

But those of us who grew up in the evangelical tradition were taught to stick with our familiar and safe NIV translation, which renders the same passage like this:

21 This is what the Lord Almighty, the God of Israel, says: Go ahead, add your burnt offerings to your other sacrifices and eat the meat yourselves!
22 For when I brought your ancestors out of Egypt and spoke to them, I did not just give them commands about burnt offerings and sacrifices,
23 but I gave them this command: Obey me, and I will be your God and you will be my people. Walk in obedience to all I command you, that it may go well with you.
[Emphasis added.]

The comparison of these two translations of the same Hebrew text highlights just how many choices a team of translators has to consider when producing an English version of the Bible. No two translators will ever make the same choices, and no single translation will ever capture the complete essence of what was originally written. But in addition to the stylistic variations between these two texts, there is one word in the NIV on which our entire discussion will hinge. Did you catch it? Right there in the middle of verse 22, it’s the word “just.” Four letters, one syllable, which completely changes the meaning of the passage.

What Did God Really (Not) Say?

In the JPS translation (based on the Masoretic Hebrew manuscript tradition) God via the prophet says, “Go ahead and eat up your own meat offerings, because I never said anything to your ancestors about burnt sacrifices. I just told them to obey me and walk with me!” But the NIV version tells a different story. Here God says, “Keep those sacrifices coming! But remember that I didn’t only give you commands about burnt sacrifices, I also told you to obey me and walk with me!” This is no minor discrepancy. In the JPS, God is utterly disinterested in burnt sacrifice, in fact He denies ever having asked for it in the first place. In the NIV, God demands uninterrupted burnt sacrifice.

Why would the NIV translators take it upon themselves to alter a text in this manner? How could the Bible of choice for fiercely conservative and “biblicist” readers justify changing an original author’s clear intent? What do they gain by tweaking the “word of God”? (I note here that even the ESV and King James Version render this passage according to the manuscript witness.)

I can think of at least two motivations for the NIV’s decision to alter Jeremiah 7:22. First, and most ironically, it preserves the appearance of consistency and inerrancy. You can’t have one part of the Bible saying that God never said or endorsed another part of the Bible. But more specifically, this verse threatens a precious evangelical theological assumption, namely that God demands blood payment for sin. This is a non-negotiable premise for certain configurations of atonement theory, for example. All translation is interpretation, and the NIV translators knew the interpretive expectations of their audience.

For more on questionable translation choices in the NIV, see this link: https://isthatinthebible.wordpress.com/articles-and-resources/deliberate-mistranslation-in-the-new-international-version-niv/

The Uncomfortable Implications of Jeremiah 7

Is Jeremiah claiming that the animal sacrifice laws in the Torah are illegitimate, a product of men and not God? What happens when a prophet seems to be saying that another part of the Bible doesn’t fully represent God’s word? I don’t offer any decisive answers to these questions, I just think it’s of paramount importance that we allow them to be asked. This is not about the reliability of the Bible, it’s about recognizing that a conversation is going on among the diverse texts of our tradition. I know inerrantists fear that questions like these will lead to doubt and undermine faith, but I don’t see how ignoring or neutering them is a healthier alternative to working them out in candor and hope.

It’s helpful, perhaps, to consider that Jewish interpreters have not found it necessary to edit or redact Jeremiah 7, and yet if the Temple were still standing they would surely resume making burnt sacrifices. Jews are (historically) more adept than Christians at allowing the Bible to speak, even in tension with itself, and yet living and flourishing within that tension.

The Beautiful Implications of Jeremiah 7

For my part I appreciate Jeremiah 7, both for the way it forces us to consider some heavy questions about how we read the Bible and for what it seems to be saying about God. This may be a disorienting text, but it’s certainly not the only voice in scripture suggesting that God is more concerned with integrity and mercy than He is with sacrifice. In fact, it’s a prophetic theme picked up by Jesus himself. How might such a clarification about God’s character alter or inform our understanding of Jesus, his death, or of our own relationship to God and other humans?

Jeremiah 7 is not a happy text. It’s a warning of calamity and coming judgment. But judgment comes not in the form of fire from heaven, it comes as a military enemy. The reason you face war and exile, says Jeremiah on behalf of YHWH, is not that your blood sacrifices were insufficient or insincere. Your problem is that you have not obeyed my commandments to honor your neighbor and care for the outcast. The God of Jeremiah is not impressed with religion and ritual, He is not thirsty for the blood of sinners or their animal substitutes. He longs to walk with humans in the way of selfless love.

The words of prophets are intended to ignite their hearers’ imaginations with possibility and hope. How can they do this if they cannot surprise us, if we refuse to let them diverge from a predetermined theological script?


Taking Easter Apart and Putting It Back Together Again

I’m easing my way back into blogging with some quick thoughts about Good Friday and Easter.

Growing up Evangelical, I learned to think about Holy Week within a certain framework (for one thing, we never called it “Holy Week,” we called it “the week before Easter”). Here’s what I used to believe about Easter. Not that I could necessarily have articulated all or any of this, but these were the assumptions and implications of our beliefs:

  • Jesus died as part of God’s Master Plan to assuage His wrath via human sacrifice, a plan that came together with precision in fulfillment of very specific ancient prophecies. None of the players in the story was acting outside of God’s Plan.
  • God needed Jesus to die so He could legally forgive our sins, so we can also say that we helped to kill him by committing the sins that necessitated the sacrifice. If we had not sinned, Jesus would not have had to die.
  • The shedding of Jesus’ blood propitiates (satisfies) God completely, but not universally and not automatically. For the sacrifice to be effective, one must convert to Christianity and believe in the sacrifice. Anyone who does not do this cannot enter Heaven when they die, since they have not taken advantage of the legal mechanism provided by the sacrifice.
  • Jesus’ resurrection was miraculous and triumphant without diminishing the effectiveness of his sacrificial death. God raised Jesus once the sacrifice was complete as a proof of his divinity and of afterlife. God brought Jesus back to heaven to prepare an eternal home for true believers.

Here are just some of the problems that swarmed my mind and heart as I grew up and learned to think through these beliefs:

  • Why does the God who (according to the Old Testament) ABHORS human sacrifice and who ultimately (according to the prophets and Jesus himself) REJECTS all sacrifice hatch a Master Plan that involves manipulating humans to carry out the horrific execution of a truly innocent person? Do we really believe that shedding the right blood was the key to pleasing God all along? What does this say about the character of God and the nature of the universe He created?
  • How can anyone (even God) conceivably satisfy their own anger, legally or otherwise? How does orchestrating a sacrifice for Himself “deal with sin” and make God happy enough to absolve a few humans of their guilt?
  • What is the level of accountability for the human pawns in God’s Master Plan? The priests and crowds demanded Jesus’ death, Pilate ordered it, and the Roman soldiers carried it out, but weren’t they carrying out the holy will of God? In this way, weren’t their actions strangely sacred? Is it wrong for God to hold them responsible for fulfilling the ancient prophecies He arranged “from the foundations of the world”?
  • If the death of Jesus has the power to heal and save, how is that power limited to only those who “believe in it” in a certain way? Doesn’t this put the onus of salvation onto humans and their decision to think or not think certain thoughts? And how does the salvation of a small remnant of humanity fit in with the Bible’s vision of renewal and rescue for all of creation?
  • If Jesus’ death was legally satisfying to God, does the resurrection in any way dilute or complicate its effectiveness? If the death of an innocent is required to “pay for sin,” how could God be pleased and placated by a death that is not “final”?

Here are some fresh thoughts about Good Friday and Easter. These are not the “correct” beliefs, they are my current best attempts at interpreting and appreciating this story I’ve inherited:

  • God did not kill Jesus. We did. And we did it not by committing isolated and disparate personal sins but by ACTUALLY KILLING HIM. The violence of human religion and empire conspired to murder Jesus. And if a prophet appeared among us today preaching empathy and a forgiving God, we’d murder him or her too. That is the scandal of Good Friday.
  • Resurrection is not the triumphant epilogue that gives the story a happy ending, assures us of heaven, and helps us win the culture war by following the correct religion. Resurrection is both a vindication of Jesus’ legacy and God’s non-violent rejection of our attempt to scapegoat and sacrifice His Son. It’s God’s “no thank you!” to our disgusting rituals and violence which were exposed on the cross.
  • Jesus does not come back to seek revenge or “settle the score” (as his followers clearly expected), he comes with “peace” on his lips, announcing a new world. His followers still didn’t get it, so he promised that his spirit would always be with them to guide them, if only they’d listen. If only we’ll listen.
  • Salvation is not achieved by rolling around in the magic blood of an innocent scapegoat. It is found in the light of Easter morning, in the hope of New Creation, and a willingness to follow in the Way of selflessness and vulnerable love. Jesus saved us from our sins by exposing their true nature, absorbing our hate and offering us the opportunity to repent of our violence and self-destruction.
  • We seek the presence of the Risen Jesus, not as our Holy Emperor leading us to conquest, but as the One who announces shalom and the end of violence and sacrificial thinking. Each Easter, like every new day, is another chance to open our eyes to this astonishing reality.