Punishment, Blood Sacrifice and Atonement Theology
Such lovely thoughts when we’re thinking about Jesus, don’t you think? So, how did we get here? Let’s review a bit...
Punishment by death and blood sacrifice are ancient traditions. You might have seen movies about other religions and shuddered at the sacrifices of goats or virgins. But one need only read the Bible in order to find that our history is rife with the same.
Ancient laws demand blood sacrifices. Animal and human. Remember Abraham who was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac in order to appease God? Then there’s Jephthah’s daughter. You’ll find her sad tale in the eleventh chapter of Judges. Jephthah wanted to win a battle, so he made a deal with God. “I’ll give you a burnt offering of whatever walks through my door first...” (Yikes! He should’ve thought that one through.)
If you’re a person who says, “Oh, that’s just the Old Testament,” consider this...
If you toss out the Old Testament because it’s, you know, old, you lose the Ten Commandments. And a lot of other really good stuff.
Then there’s Jesus. Notice that when he stopped that gang of men from stoning the woman caught in adultery he said nothing about, “Hey, guys, murder is so illegal.” Why? Because they were following the ancient laws. So, he resorted to logic. “Let the one among you who is without sin cast the first stone.”
It’s interesting to note that God spoke out against blood sacrifice eight centuries earlier, through the prophet Isaiah. It’s a beautiful, if slightly disturbing bit of verse, you might want to check out. (Isaiah 1:11-17)
All too often, history has intertwined blood sacrifice and punishment. You have committed a crime. It is displeasing to God. You must die. This is most apparent in the story of Noah and the Ark. All of humankind had become displeasing to God. Therefore, only Noah, a righteous man, and his family were spared.
Later, Abraham asked God to spare the people of Sodom and Gomorrah, but the cities were destroyed because, God says, “This is the sin of your sister Sodom: She and her daughters were proud, had plenty to eat, and enjoyed peace and prosperity; but she didn’t help the poor and the needy. They became haughty and did detestable things in front of me, and I turned away from them as soon as I saw it.” [Ezekiel 16:49-50]
Is it any wonder that people expect God to dole out death warrants for their sins? So, when Jesus was crucified, it was easy for people to start tying things all together.
However, for generations people were fascinated by Jesus, followed him, learned from him, mourned his death, celebrated his resurrection, and told his story. The early church taught that Jesus had defeated the powers of death. Hallelujah! It wasn’t until about 1,000 years after Jesus died that Anselm (a Benedictine monk and Archbishop of Canterbury) introduced a new concept: Nope! Jesus died to save us from our sins. He had to take our punishment, so God could forgive us.
And in one fell swoop, we were back to blood sacrifice.
The Death of Jesus
For over 800 years the Seleucids, Carthaginians and Romans were hanging people on crosses. They killed criminals, slaves and enemies of the state. It’s impossible to know how many people were killed, but we know of the one occasion when 6,000 of Spartacus’s men were crucified.
So, was Jesus just one more? In a sense, yes. He was an enemy of the state, a threat and a trouble maker who garnered the attention of too many of the wrong people in undesirable ways.
You know the rest of the story. But, how will you tell it? Jesus was tried. He was convicted. And he was crucified.
Did he have to die? Well, actually, probably not. He could have shut his mouth, lived a quiet life in some nice, little village somewhere, and caught fish instead of people. Or made furniture.
But, did he sacrifice himself? Absolutely. He chose not to move to a little fishing village and be anonymous. He knew God had a plan and he knew he was a part of that plan. “Thy kingdom come, thy will be done...” If the people were to know God’s love, God’s grace, God’s compassion; if the people were to know all that it means to walk the ways of God’s people, he had to teach the things he did, do the things he did, live the life he did. And with that life came risks. He knew and accepted those risks. For us. And that’s a mighty big sacrifice.
So what do we teach the kids? Factor in the age of the child. That’s always most important. And then tell the truth. God sent that remarkable human being into this world, God’s own child - can you imagine, God’s OWN child?! And do you know the things Jesus did...? He loved us all so much, so very, very much, that he gave his all for us. He didn’t give up. Even though it was horribly dangerous. Even though it was very scary. He didn’t give up.
It’s a sad story. It’s a violent story. It’s a scary story. But it’s a true story.
And there is Easter. That stone will be rolled away.
“Mary, why do you weep?”
For more information regarding sacrificial atonement:
Marcus Borg, Rita Nakashima Brock, Lee Camp, John Dominic Crossan