I am going to pose a question. If I were to ask this question in church, I would get a predictable answer that may be honest. And, it may not.
Have you ever wondered why a God of perfect, unconditional love needed Jesus to die for our sins? Have you ever wondered why this God needed blood to be shed to begin with? I mean, back in the Old Testament?
If I pose this question in a Bible Study or Sunday School class, people will either give me the death stare or swear to have no doubts at all about this doctrine. Many Christians have only been in one church tradition and only know the viewpoint of that tradition. Many don’t even know there are myriad options within theological orthodoxy, and it hasn’t always been held that “Jesus died for our sins” means he died in our place because an angry god would otherwise give us a death sentence, or to simply satisfy the same god’s sense of righteousness, even if that is apart from “divine wrath.”
It’s really easy to think we are supposed to believe this mythological doctrine that paints a portrait of God as one who needs blood-spilling. There are all kinds of passages in the New Testament that say things like:
“Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written: ‘Cursed is everyone who is hung on a tree.'” (Galatians 3:13)
So, most of us have been taught some form of blood-atonement through the doctrines we are taught and in the way the scripture is understood. But, for many of us, the question nags because it certainly looks like there is a conflict in the ideas. When the Bible tells us things like what Paul wrote in Galatians 3, yet John tells us God is agape love (1 John 4:16), how do we reconcile these things in a manner that is faithful?
I firmly believe many of us wrestle with this stuff in quiet, because we dare not voice our doubts in church or we will be looked at as lacking faith or being a lesser Christian than others. This is not the case; Thomas is scorned for wanting proof, but he was just being honest. He wanted an experience that would be the footstool of his faith and Christ gave it to him without condemnation. That was after the resurrection, but before it, at the Last Supper, the disciples argued over who was going to be the best among them when the Lord was trying to prepare them for his death, and we apparently are still comparing ourselves to one another.
Still, the questions remain. How are we to deal with this?
First of all, let’s bear in mind that the original readers of Paul’s writings lived at a time of great transition. The Christ Event had just run its course and it was a pivot point for the entire universe. The early church found its ministry in a setting filled with religions revolving around sacrifice – it was common in Rome, not just with the Old Testament system. Nonetheless, it was prevalent and painted a picture of God as somehow needing this system. This gave humanity a certain idea of who God is and what God requires of us to be in good standing with God. It was into this Christ came to show us in the flesh what God is like. In his person, he cleared up what turned out to be widely-held and deeply-trusted misunderstanding about the very character of God. Had the church preached moving beyond sacrifice and relating to God through it, to relating to God through God’s love for us alone, the message would never have been received. Therefore, working within the dynamics of blood-atonement, the Word made flesh went to the cross and the church attributed meaning to it that was founded in Temple sacrifice. If those who believed God needed to be appeased could come to believe that God was appeased and satisfied once and for all, they would accept the message of Grace and believe it was safe for them to let go of killing animals to atone for sin. Therefore, Paul used this language as a transitional tool to get people to make the transition from Old Covenant to Christ.
Our problem today is that we have instituted doctrines that don’t take this transitional context into account when reading scripture. Neither do we filter our ideas through the concept of God as agape love. It is when we long for a deeper connection to and understanding of God’s magnificent and extravagant grace, that we find ourselves caught in the cross hairs of heart and mind. The heart wants to reach beyond limits placed on it by the mind, having received substitutionary atonement teaching, but it can’t because it doesn’t know it can be faithful to God outside of a narrow doctrinal structure.
One must note that there are two forms of substitutionary atonement: Satisfaction and Penal Substitution. You can look them up at theopedia.com, but the first dates to the 10th Century and the second only dates back to the 16th Century and was largely developed by John Calvin. This is why it’s the prevalent view in evangelicalism.
However, way back in the 1st Century, a second generation church leader named Irenaeus gave us Recapitulation theory. You can also read about it at theopedia. Rather than basing the atonement in Temple Sacrifice, Irenaeus looked back to Adam and the scriptures that refer to Christ as the New Adam. In short, the atonement is not from something Christ did (dying on the cross), but is made real through who he is. By becoming man, he stood in solidarity with us. He made himself one with us, even to the point of sharing our suffering in its worst form (being tortured and feeling separation from God in crying out “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”). By making himself one with us, he makes us one with him. This At-One-Ment is the atonement – not though a bloody sacrifice, but through being united with Christ.
As for the cross, we are not saved because Jesus died on it: We know the extent to which God will go to get through to us, that we do not need to think of God as one who is angry at us and needs to be appeased to accept us. He did as much as He could to convince us that we are accepted. It was not God who was bloodthirsty – it was us. In the 1st Century, they simply would not have accepted the message of God’s love and I am not sure we do much better.
By holding to substitutionary atonement, we continue to think of God in an Old Testament way. This is contrary to Christ. We have brought Christ into this Old Covenant 2.0 kind of system that is not the New Covenant at all. We have made Christ someone he isn’t – in our own eyes. We are connected with him and we are saved, but we rob ourselves of the full glory of receiving the message that God loves us, because the message that God is agape love and substitutionary atonement are not compatible with each other. Something has to change.