Thursday, November 19, 2009

Quaestio Disputata: On the Death of Christ as a Sacrifice for Sin

Question. Whether Jesus’ death on the cross should be understood as a sacrifice for sin?

Objection 1. It seems that it should not, because a sacrificial understanding of the cross inevitably leads to an understanding of God as needing to be placated and appeased by the blood sacrifice of a human being—not only an awful and utterly unhelpful image, but one that is unfaithful to the biblical vision of the nature and character of God.

Objection 2. Further, a sacrificial interpretation necessarily fosters an image of God that is non-Trinitarian: instead of the one God who acts in Christ, Jesus is the “Son” sent by the “Father” to die a brutal and horrific death in absolute submission to the paternal will. Not only, then, does God become a demanding monad or a schizophrenic binity, but God’s own action opens itself up to the charge of “divine child abuse.”

Objection 3. Further, given the inherent violence at the heart of a sacrificial understanding of Jesus’ death, the politics of such an interpretation—that is, the way in which this reading of the narrative is embedded, embodied, and scripted into the life of communities—has been, and ineluctably will be, irrevocably violent. The violence characterizes both the powerful and the powerless: the former justify their coercion by recourse to the divine, and the latter are compelled to submit to oppression in imitation of the obedience of God’s own Son.

Objection 4. Further, the entire symbolic worldview of the sacrificial system is antiquated and has no purchase in the modern world. It is meaningless to tell persons living today that “Jesus is the sacrifice for your sins,” much less to call upon ancient accounts of sacrifice, as if to become a Christian one must accept the ancient conception of the gods and their appeasement by sacrificing living beings for their benefit.

On the contrary, Jesus’ death on the cross, while multifaceted and multilayered in its capaciousness for salvific meaning and theological interpretation, inescapably entails understanding it as a sacrifice for sin. The background of the Old Testament and the interpretive lens of the New Testament render it so, and richly, for in a world that has not moved beyond conceptions and enactments of sacrifice, the sacrifice of Jesus proclaims the gracious end of sacrifice and invites all to participate in the self-sacrificial character and peaceable community of the triune God of Israel.

I answer that more than anything, as a hermeneutical lens for understanding the death of Christ on the cross, sacrifice is simply and absolutely unavoidable if we are committed to being faithful to the New Testament documents. Prior to those texts, however, the Old Testament stands as the guiding framework and symbolic infrastructure for making sense of any meaning in the Lord’s anointed being arrested, tortured, and executed as divinely accursed—yet raised to new life, vindicated in obedience, and exalted in glory. The originating interpretive “stuff” which the first century Jewish believers had to work with when approaching Jesus’ death after the fact were the primal narratives, and specifically the Levitical installation for how to deal with sin, found in Torah. Notions of animal sacrifice, the life-and-death power of blood, the need for purity, corporate atonement, transference of sins, expiation and propitiation, the scapegoat, and the Passover lamb (among others) all find their origin in these magisterial texts.1

Thus for the early communities of those gathered by the witness of the risen Lord, shaped fundamentally as they were by the stories and rituals of the Hebrew Scriptures, the raw materials for looking backwards in Spirit-led discernment of the meaning of the shameful death of Israel’s Messiah were already embedded in their worldview and religious construal of God and human life. This is made clear in nearly every book of the New Testament. Paul, the earliest representative writer of the early church, writing just 20 years after Jesus, calls him “our Passover Lamb [who] has been sacrificed” (1 Cor 5:7), and similarly calls him the “sacrifice of atonement [hilasterion]” put forth by God (Rom 3:25).2 The Johannine literature calls Jesus “the atoning sacrifice [hilasmos] for our sins” (1 John 2:2; 4:10), as well as the “lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world” (John 1:29) and the inimitably worthy “lamb who was slain” (Rev 5:12). The Synoptic Gospels no less portray Jesus through a sacrificial lens, primarily through their presentation of Jesus’ last meal with his disciples as a new kind of Passover meal, forever transformed in light of Jesus’ impending death. Noting the Day of the Unleavened Bread and the preparation for the sacrifice of the Passover Lamb, Jesus eats the meal with his disciples then passes around broken bread and shared wine as Jesus’ own “body” and “blood of the (new) covenant” (Matt 26:17-30; Mark 14:12-26; Luke 22:7-23). In these ways the broad contours of the New Testament texts appropriate their received concepts of sacrifice and sin toward understanding the meaning of Jesus’ death on the cross.

However, no other document more forcefully or frequently centralizes the idea of Christ’s sacrificial death for sin as the book of Hebrews. The book’s heart is the middle section of 4:14–10:18, in which the author articulates a vision of Christ as the chief and final priest (4:14-16), who is able both to end once and for all the entire superstructure of sacrifices constantly being offered to atone for sins (9:11-14) and to make the perfect and ultimate sacrifice for sins, once for all (9:23-28). He is able to do this because, unlike a normal priest, who as a sinful man must make sacrifices (from the blood of an animal) for himself as well as the people, Christ’s sinlessness deems him both the perfect high priest and the perfect sacrifice (7:23-28), and in offering himself in the altar of heaven “made perfect forever those who are being made holy” (10:14). Clearly, for the author of Hebrews, Jesus’ death on the cross is explicitly and unequivocally the sacrifice for sin.3

The question at this point, then, is, What is sacrifice?4 Expanding the narrowed definition with which the term has been marginalized, Robert Jenson identifies “a sacrifice [as] any prayer spoken not only with language but also with objects and gestures, so that these latter are like the verbal prayer ‘offered.’”5 And as exemplified in the book of Hebrews, any “common distinction between the offerer and what is offered” is “obliterated.”6 It must also be noted with Thomas Torrance that “in the Old Testament liturgy it is always God himself who provides the sacrifice whereby he draws near to the worshipper and draws the worshipper near to himself.”7 The sacrifice is offered by God’s own provision and action, thus originating in God’s desire for the severing of alienation.

How does sacrifice work? According to Edward Irving, the logic of sacrifice involves an understanding of sin as pollution, a corruption in which all humanity shares. In the Incarnation, however, God himself assumes that polluted flesh, and it is that same body “yet kept from sin by the agency of the Spirit...that becomes the first instance of restored humanity and the basis of redemption for others.”8 In this way Jesus’ entire life, and not only his death, may be affirmed as a sacrifice to God, as the one “who until his death was the gift of the Spirit to the world, now becomes the giver.”9

It is fundamental in this discussion to remember both that Jesus offers himself on the cross and that Jesus is both divine and human, so that, on the one hand, the gift of this sacrifice is freely self-chosen by a human being, while on the other hand, the offering is God’s own self given in behalf of others. The former point affirms the continuity between Jesus and us—that the one obedient to God unto death lived a truly human life—and the latter the discontinuity—that the cross and resurrection is an event in the triune life of God, over against but for us. The grace of this discontinuity is that, though God chooses to suffer for us, the sacrifice is once for all: “being-a-victim is not valorized—it is exposed as that which has no justification before the triune God who has acted to dismantle its claim to be a redemptive technique in the cultures of the world.”10 The only sacrifice to which Christians are now called, as people saved by/from sacrifice, is the “sacrifice of praise” (Heb 13:15) and the “living sacrifice” (Rom 12:1) of holy and worshipful bodies given in loving service to the world.11

Is such an understanding inherently violent? Does it lead inevitably to coercion and/or passive submission? According to Michael Gorman, for Paul “the reality of the not for him a symbol of divine violence that permits or even encourages violent acts and language. Rather, it is above all the reality and symbol of divine inclusion and love.”12 Thus the logic of the cross—and, necessarily, of discipleship—is one of “selfless concern for others rather than some form of self-harm,”13 particularly with regard to those in power. Alternatively, because once and for all there is an end to sacrifice, Christian proclamation intrinsically rules out the need or possibility for scapegoats, offering instead a people freed from the temptation to falsely blame others and capable of naming the dehumanizing injustice of coercion and false sacrifice. Where the world can only see dirtiness, and when the powers whip up a murderous mob, the church of the risen Lamb speaks a better word: one of a purity not dependent on human hands—of a victim whose voice could not be silenced—of a cross that hangs empty, forever.

Therefore, the use of sacrifice to understand the work of Christ on the cross does not inevitably lead to a God needing to be appeased by blood, instead remaining faithful to the biblical God who provides graciously for his people’s cleansing.

Therefore, when cross and resurrection are understood as events in the life of God, when the Father giving and the Son obeying and the Spirit empowering are seen in mutual concert and kenotic love, and when the violence of the cross is viewed as of human and not divine origin, the triunity of God is affirmed in the sacrifice of Jesus.

Therefore, the politics of the lamb who was slain in fact leads to empowerment of victims and the renunciation of coercive violence, for as followers of the crucified and risen Lord Christians are liberated from the meaninglessness of oppression and empowered peaceably to subvert the structures of injustice as a cruciform community.

Therefore, for those parts of the world that do not retain sacrificial cults (though it must be noted that much of the world does), in continuing both to perpetuate scapegoat tactics and to employ the image of sacrifice in heroic or civic discourse, they actually remain powerfully open to the good news of the one who gave himself up for them.

- - - - - - -

[1] Colin Gunton rightly points out that the “[o]ne unifying feature” of the “great variety of practice and interpretation” of sacrifice in the Old Testament is the “single centre” of the Exodus event. See Gunton, The Actuality of the Atonement (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1989), 120-21.
[2] All biblical quotations are taken from Today’s New International Version.
[3] For a helpful summary of the priestly material in Hebrews, see Ben Witherington, The Indelible Image: Volume One: The Individual Witnesses (Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2009), 441-46.
[4] For a helpful analysis of sacrifice and holiness in both Testaments, see D. R. Jones, “Sacrifice and Holiness,” in Sacrifice and Redemption, ed. S. W. Sykes (New York: Cambridge, 1991), 9-21. [5] Robert W. Jenson, Systematic Theology, vol. 1, The Triune God (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 192.
[6] Ibid.
[7] Thomas F. Torrance, The Mediation of Christ (Colorado Springs: Helmers & Howard, 1992), 110. He goes on: “so in the actualized liturgy of the life, death, resurrection and ascension of Jesus Christ, it is God himself who in atoning propitiation draws near to us and draws us near to himself.”
[8] Gunton, Actuality, 132.
[9] Ibid., 135.
[10] Joe R. Jones, A Grammar of Christian Faith: Systematic Explorations in Christian Life and Doctrine (2 vols.; Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2002), 457. See also the proposal of S. Mark Heim, Saved From Sacrifice (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2006), which I commend even if I do not agree entirely.
[11] For a creative account of the centrality of worship, story, and character for a theology of sacrifice, see S. W. Sykes, “Outline of a Theology of Sacrifice,” in Sacrifice, 282-98.
[12] Michael J. Gorman, Inhabiting the Cruciform God (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 145.
[13] Ibid., 146.


  1. Brad this is pretty incredible. You seem to articulate a theology I want to believe and am not able to give voice and language to on these tough theological issues. Well done!

  2. Two questions:

    1. You are right that a traditional atonement theology doesn't "inevitably" lead to a sadistic God image and the glorification of suffering, but does it do so more often than not or at least a significant amount of the time? If it does in any significant number of instances, even though not always or inevitably, is this not still a legitimate critique?

    2. Since this image is not the only interpretation of Jesus' death either in scripture or throughout Christian tradition should it receive the emphasis it does? While recognizing this has a place in our understanding of the cross event should it have the general monopoly that it does in popular circles?

    I'm not necessarily disagreeing here. I'm just raising questions to better nuance both of our thinking on this question.

    Oh, and thanks for distracting me from my final papers!