No, the Crucifixion is Not About Bloody Child Sacrifice Being Necessary for Forgiveness

In my post Message to the Nones, which countered some popular but wrong-headed notions of what Christians believe about suffering, one commenter said that his major beef with Christianity is the penal substitution theory of the atonement. The good news for that commenter, and many people who have struggled with that notion (including me) is that it’s not the only theory of why Jesus died on the cross. In so-called “emergent” church circles, challenges to the penal substitution theory are rampant.

The penal substitution, or blood atonement theory says that human beings are utterly depraved and sinful, deserving of God’s punishment because of all we do and don’t do in direct opposition to God’s will, commandments, and desires for us. God, being perfectly just, cannot simply overlook our sins. Justice requires punishment. So God chose to take on the punishment himself, in Christ’s crucifixion. With God’s justice now satisfied—someone has received the punishment required by our sin—God is now free to love and forgive us unconditionally.

Theologians more learned than I have explained at length the problems with this theory. For example, how can a perfectly just God choose to punish the one human being who doesn’t deserve punishment? Isn’t punishing an undeserving victim fundamentally unjust?

We non-theologians often have a visceral response to the penal substitution theory. In my evangelical college fellowship, people would talk about how we are all sinful wretches who deserve nothing good from God. What we deserve is punishment, deprivation, death, pain. They would then switch their focus to how wonderful it was for Jesus to take on the bloody suffering and death that we deserved. Meanwhile, I was still stuck on the idea that we deserved such things to begin with. Does this mean, I wondered, that the most awful ways we have managed to treat each other—the Holocaust, the slaughter in Rwanda, 9/11—embody the sort of treatment that we deserve from God? That sunshine and babies and love are given by God only because the lonely, painful nothingness we actually deserve was displaced onto Jesus, not because God fundamentally wants to shower his beloved people with good and beautiful things, because God is the first and ultimate lover and creator and giver of all that is good and beautiful?

This did not seem right.

Truth be told, I’ve glossed over what I believe about the cross for the past few decades, except to sense that it has something to do with God suffering as we suffer. And that, it turns out, is what today’s emergent Christians are saying about the atonement and the cross. In the cross, God experienced the one thing that God had previously been unable to experience—being completely godforsaken—as an ultimate show of solidarity for people who suffer (which is, of course, all of us).

My fellow Patheos blogger Tony Jones, author of A Better Atonement, explains it this way:

We’ve all felt it, that God has abandoned us, that there is no God. The Israelites felt it, and the Psalmist sang about it. Of course, it is unthinkable that God would experience godforsakenness. How can a divine being experience his own absence? God is only able to do so because God’s very nature is trinitarian. In an act of ultimate solidarity with every human being who has ever existed, God voluntarily relinquished his godship, in part, in order to truly experience the human condition….God himself experiences—and redeems—godforsakenness.

Another Patheos blogger, Christian Piatt, names three reasons that the blood (or penal substitution) theory of atonement doesn’t make sense in the larger context of the Biblical narrative. Piatt notes that Jesus forgave sin while he was alive (so his death was clearly not necessary for forgiveness), that God called for an end to human sacrifice before Jesus, and that the Gospels make clear that violence is never redemptive.

A friend and theologian told me many years ago that the reason he is a Christian is because of the unique Christian response to human suffering, which doesn’t explain why we suffer but makes clear, in the starkest way possible, that God is truly with us in our suffering. At the time, I knew he was speaking a truth, though I hadn’t explored atonement theories enough to quite get what he was saying.

Now I’m beginning to understand, with the help of Jones and Piatt and others who have gone to divinity school and written books on the subject. As I explained in my Message to the Nones, Christianity and the Bible don’t explain why we suffer (though Christians love to come up with nonsensical, offensive reasons of our own). The Biblical narrative, rather, calls us to respond to and alleviate suffering with love. It tells us, most notably in the story of Job, that God is God and we are us. And in Christ’s crucifixion, the scriptures tell us that God, the creator and sustainer and redeemer of the world, has been there, in the place where pain, violence, loneliness, and sin leaves us feeling abandoned by God. God himself has been godforsaken. The cross is the means of reconciliation between God and humankind, not because Christ paid our debt but because Christ (Godself in human flesh) suffered as sharply, in his physical pain and spiritual abandonment, as we do. That is the message of Good Friday. And like my theologian friend, that is, for me, the most convincing reason that I claim Christianity as my own.

I have come to realize that the classic line from Romans 6:23 used to support the penal substitution theory, “The wages of sin is death,” is not about a cosmic death penalty, but about cause and effect. If we remain mired in our sinful, selfish, unloving ways, the result is death—of spirit, of love, of possibilities, of a life in which we can truly flourish and nurture a world in which others can also flourish. If we follow Jesus, learning to live with generosity, hospitality, and forgiveness, and to value what Jesus (God) values, we will live a new kind of life. And this way, the way of Jesus who suffered as we do, is the only thing that ultimately prevails against the death-dealing ways of humankind and our broken world. Love that suffers with and for God’s beloved people is the only thing that can prevail in this way.

But the power of God’s love over the power of death is the next part of the story. Today, we reflect on Christ’s agony on the cross and the inevitability that humankind’s sinful, power-seeking, boundary-drawing ways would send him there (which is how I understand the notion that Christ died “for our sins”). And we recognize with astonishment that God truly knows how we feel in our darkest hours.

Believing with Our Bodies
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Why I Believe Native American Mascots Should Go
The Perfect Pair of Boots and the Essential Work of Parenting
About Ellen Painter Dollar

Ellen Painter Dollar is a writer focusing on faith, parenting, family, disability, and ethics. She is the author of No Easy Choice: A Story of Disability, Faith, and Parenthood in an Age of Advanced Reproduction (Westminster John Knox, 2012). Visit her web site at for more on her writing and speaking, and to sign up for a (very) occasional email newsletter.

  • Maria

    Thank you for this thoughtful post. I went to seminary. And I still find myself reverting back to and being frustrated with atonement theories. Beautifully written. Humbling and beautiful way to begin this day.

  • Christian Piatt

    Thanks for the mention, Ellen. Nice work.

    • Ellen Painter Dollar

      Thanks for the help in working it out.

  • Tim

    One of the (many) great things about belonging to Jesus is that he doesn’t grade us on a final doctrinal exam: “You were a 5 point Calvinist. Sorry, of you go to wail and teeth-gnash.” His death defeated death, and in his resurrection we too have been raised. (1 Corinthians 15.) All atonement theories pale in the light of these simple truths.


    P.S. I’m a 5 point Calvninist. Hope I get a good grade.

    P.P.S. I did a Good Friday reflection today at my place too, Ellen, but not as theological as yours!

    • Ellen Painter Dollar

      Yes, Tim, I agree. Ultimately, my faith is not a set of “theories” that I have decided I can embrace, but about big truths by which I want and hope to live. God and love being more powerful than death. God that weeps with us. God that took on human flesh to show us a way to wholeness and healing.

      And I have no doubt that you will get a good grade on what God seems to care about most, which is how we treat other people. Thank you for your continual grace here, and in your own writing.

  • Trevor

    As one rarely touched by standard Atonement throughou theology these days, I was touched by thus post. Thank you.

    • Trevor

      *As one rarely touched by standard Atonement theology these days, I was touched by this post. Thank you. (phones are great, aren’t they?)

    • Ellen Painter Dollar

      Thanks for letting me know.

  • Jeannie

    Having grown up with quite conservative Christianity, I was well into adulthood before I even realized there could be any alternative to the atonement interpretation. I think the various models (atonement included) can all be doors to faith, depending on the person. Although I’m not entirely satisfied with the “ultimate show of solidarity” theory, ultimately for me the fact THAT Jesus died and rose again is more important than how that “works” technically. Grace, grace, grace.

    • Ellen Painter Dollar

      “…ultimately for me the fact THAT Jesus died and rose again is more important than how that “works” technically. Grace, grace, grace.” Yes, that’s it for me too. As I wrote here, I spent many years not thinking terribly much about what exactly I believed about the cross, but I don’t think that meant I didn’t have a faith in which the cross plays a central part. As I said to Tim above, it’s the big truths of the Gospel, more than competing theories, that compel me as a Christian.

  • Shawn

    We needed to know we had a God that understood our sufferings. Not that God didn’t understand our sufferings but that we needed to know he did.

    There is more to the mystery than that but this is at least part of it. Christ proved that God’s love was the real and participatory love that agonizes with the agonized. As Syme asked Sunday in Chesterton’s The Man Who Was Thursday, “Have you, have you ever suffered.” And Sunday answered, “Can you drunk of the cup that I drink of?”

    • Ellen Painter Dollar

      “Christ proved that God’s love was the real and participatory love that agonizes with the agonized.” That’s a lovely way of putting it. And isn’t that also true of our human relations? Sometimes the most supportive thing someone can do is sit and cry as we cry, without offering all the various theories of suffering that Christians are all-too-prone to pull out of their hats.

  • DaveP

    The Romans couldn’t keep Jesus on the cross because they were trusting Jesus to hold on by himself until he was dead. After all, Jesus said he was a willing sacrifice. But every time the Romans stood the cross up, Jesus would let go and try to run away. Finally, the Romans decided to nail him to the cross.

    Nails: the first penal implants that solved erectile dysfunction. :)

    • Tim

      Dave, you are really having trouble controlling your inappropriateness, aren’t you? And before you apologize once again because you think I’m offended, I’m not. But I am saddened at your comments. I’m sad for you, I’m sad that Ellen has to put up with your blather, and I’m really sad that you choose not to glorify God in your participation here at Ellen’s blog.

      Don’t be a troll, Dave. Be a grown-up.


    • Jeannie

      I don’t find that a very appropriate contribution to the discussion here.

  • DaveP

    > I’m sad for you,

    Why? I’m happy, cheerful, and enjoy life.

    > I’m sad that Ellen has to put up with your blather

    Ellen doesn’t have to put up with my blather, she can ban me at any time. And has come very close to doing so several times. :) Or, she can just ask me to restrict my posting in any way she’d like (for example, no more than 2 posts allowed on gun control threads).

    > I’m really sad that you choose not to glorify God in your participation here at Ellen’s blog.

    Are you saying God is humorless and wants everyone to be depressed?

    > I don’t find that a very appropriate contribution to the discussion here.

    Hmmm. Using Ellen’s metaphor of this blog being like her living room (which I think is a very good way of thinking about her blog), then my comment is exactly the kind of thing I’d say if a group of people were sitting around a living room being all serious about something. I imagine the response I’d get would be lots of eye-rolling, groans, and some thrown pillows.

    • Tim

      Justify it any way you like, Dave. You’ve still over-stepped the bounds of polite discourse.

      • DaveP

        > You’ve still over-stepped the bounds of polite discourse.

        That reminds me of Ellen’s column on “Taboo Stories About Disability: What We’re Not Allowed to Say”:

        “He took me to task for refusing to accept an interpretation of parental motives that I did not share, for arguing that my story contradicts a story that someone else tells about parents like me.”

  • M

    I prefer this theory to the penal atonement theory, but it still doesn’t really work for me. Even if god suffered on the cross, that wouldn’t mean he understooof ad every kind of suffering, just one kind, of a punishment that thankfully isn’t in use anymore. He still wouldn’t know what it was like to die of cancer, or to grow up with an alchoholic father, or to be in the trenches or WW1. He wouldn’t really know what it was like to be a woman, or gay. So if god needed direct experience in order to really feel for us, there’d be lots of things that were still beyond his understanding.

    My own explanation for the crucifiction is that Jesus upset someone in power; the Romans or King Herod or maybe an influential religious leader. He was put to death and his disciplines, who thought he was the messiah, had to make sense of the tragedy somehow. The resurrection story was the best they could do.

    • Ellen Painter Dollar

      I think the WAY Jesus suffered is less important than that he spoke the words, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” on the cross. The crux (ha) of his suffering is that moment of feeling abandoned, forsaken, hopeless. That is a feeling that anyone who has suffered deeply knows, no matter how they have suffered. And, as in the Tony Jones quote in my post, I believe the fact that Godself knows how it feels to be abandoned by God (possible because of the Trinity) is what makes Christ’s suffering world- and life-changing.

  • Kurt Brown

    Well done. Very good read…

  • http://none Anne

    I like M’s interpretation of the crucifiction the best. Also, as I expect many of you theologians out there know, a death and resurrection myth, as well as a virgin birth, among other similarities, exist in many ancient “religions”. My perspective is that in order to make Christianity more palletable (sp?) to the masses, elements of the people’s pagan theology needed to be interwoven. That is why, for instance, some people wonder what the easter bunny and eggs have to do with Christ rising from the dead. They don’t have anything to do with it. But those are symbols of fertility, a sure sign of spring, and tied to ancient pagan faiths, I do believe.

  • Dan Martin

    Ellen, I appreciate and agree with this post. I’m pretty thoroughly convinced by a Christus Victor interpretation of the atonement myself. This is the notion that Jesus’ death *and resurrection* were the pivotal moment in a war between darkness and God, where darkness’ greatest weapon–death–was shown to be ultimately impotent. I get into this concept a little on a post of my own if you’re interested.

    I would further expand one point you made. It is absolutely scriptural that Jesus’ suffering was in part divine engagement with the pain humans experience. But the common meme of God actually forsaking Jesus on the cross, I believe, needs further examination and challenge. I wrote on that for Good Friday a couple years ago: Scripture does not teach that God cannot look at sin, nor does it teach that God actually turned his back on Jesus.

  • Steve Lewis

    Well, Anne and all Pauline Christians here, it’s going to be a good thing that root Christianity does contain so much pagan mythology. It just happens that pagan mythology contains the Celestial Torah components such as the seasonal celebrations like the Spring Equinox and rebirth of life from Winter’s hold. And it also happens that we are at the beginning of a new celestial Age, the Age of Aquarius, and like before when Judaism’s exclusivity was rejected by God and universalized through Christ, the Messianic tradition has undergone a new transformation. Actually, it’s not new at all but recovered Celestial Torah knowledge that was lost when Judaism began the Abrahamic rejection of astro-theological linkage to major Abrahamic religious rites and their spiritual meanings. This is why what I’m writing here seems treading that “heretical” “New Age” line, which it does, quite deliberately. We are in a New Age and it’s time to wake up and face the historical reality that Bible-based Christianity can no longer be used as spiritually authority. Not when it’s been exposed by God’s tool for recovery of lost spiritual knowledge, archeological findings about the people who wrote those Bible stories, have been outed as the prot0-Hollywood Script writers, fabricating a mythical origin of Hebrews that never happened. Paul wanted to keep Christians ignorant, like the Yahweh priests who wrote Genesis II, also wanted to keep Jews ignorant, actually commanding human beings to forgo the one trait that raised homo sapiens above the animal instinctual life, curiosity about our environment and the way things work. Incredible that any people would buy into such irrationality but that’s religion for you. At least it is for those who don’t base their religious beliefs on Gnosis, Knowledge which alone sets you free of sin. You won’t even know what sin is until you have knowledge of the greater situation that produces “sinful” behavior.
    There are so many things wrong with Paul’s theology and Pauline Christian beliefs that follow it, such as the one of Christ dying as a sin atonement sacrificed God-man. It’s such a lunatic idea that an immortal could somehow cross his fingers and pretend to suffer when by definition of being a Son of God he knows he cannot die. No mortal has such knowledge so there’ no comparison in experience of terror between a God-man and a human being. And that’s just for starters in the moral absurdity of letting another take your blame for your mistakes. Would any of us do this for a man falsely convicted in our community for our crimes without feeling enormously guilty? Think about it. Rationally. Paul doesn’t want you to but I do.

    There is a rational, actually biologically based as well as spiritual reason why God created the world’s most psychologically powerful Icon of Self-Sacrifice in the Crucifixion Story. Once you know that there is no permanent death of the soul the point of Pauline Easter Story is only confirmation of common knowledge, knowledge known all over the world for thousands of years. But now we have a “biomystical” interpretation of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Happy Easter eve!

  • Phil McCarthy

    Thanks for the great post Ellen. I think the Orthodox regard the penal substitution theory as a blasphemy and a heresy and that’s certainly my view. I’ve come to see that Paul uses a huge variety of metaphors; as if he is struggling through any one phrase or concept to capture the totality of what Jesus accomplished. For me, it’s through Sunday, not Friday, that salvation comes. Jesus’ victory over death resulted in complete victory over death, and signals that just as Jesus, the ‘first fruits’ is completely transformed, so will ultimately the whole of creation be as God’s real saving, restorative, redemptive plan, is worked out, and ultimately fulfilled as he returns. As Tom Wright says in ‘Surprised by Hope’, Jesus is coming to us, we are not going to Jesus. Happy Easter.

    • Phil McCarthy

      Sorry that should be “Jesus’ resurrection resulted in a complete victory over death…”

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  • Marcion

    If god truly cared about our suffering, wouldn’t it make more sense to use his infinite power to alleviate it, instead of sending his son (who is also him) to suffer with us? That accomplishes nothing. If god wants a universe without suffering, and can make a universe without suffering, why doesn’t he just do tht? I’ve said it before and I’ll say it agin: Any god that chooses to suffer with its creations instead of relieving their suffering is as incompetent as it is masochistic.

    • Jim Green

      Marcion, you’ve “cut through” a lot of theological madness….a perverse and tangled Gordinian Knot. I wish we had a few such rational thinkers in this evangelical-ridden wilderness where I live [Haskell County, OK]. I was [until recently] the sole plaintiff in a federal church-state action. The U.S. Supreme Court ruled in my favor. Local evangelicals, with the full participation and approval of our County Commissiners, erected a huge granite Ten Commandments stelae on the Courthouse lawn. The Supreme Court said the governments participation amounted to an unconstitutional endorsement of religion. We’re a small backwater county [13K citizens]…and I have been persecuted relentlessly…socially, in seeking government services, etc.]…since the court ordered the stelae’s removal [my local barber...a part-time preacher...will no longer cut my hair]. I invite emaill conversation.

  • Dell

    Perhaps before we get into theories-of-atonement we need to think a bit more about theories–of-life. We fuss about the notion that “surely a nice God wouldn’t allow a world where one thing had to die in-order for something else to live”. We worry that God might appear to be mean. But all life in the creation (at last as it now stands) depends on the death of other things. First nations cultures know this and give thanks to/for the lives (spirits) of the animals they consume in order to live. Cultures that practice sacrifice (biblical Hebrews) also understood that we should not presume to take/depend on life of such others without giving thanks (worship). Even if we are vegetarians our survival depends on other living things dying. But we tend to be so naïve about this that we don’t realize that even a gift of cut flowers is tantamount to saying “to show you that I love you, I’m going to kill living things for you.” If you don’t want a God who created the real world that we live in, by all means try to find a better one. Religions have been doing this since the beginning.
    Bishop Greg Kerr–Wilson suggests another reason we are uncomfortable with the idea that “Jesus died so we might have life ” ( )
    “In a culture that sees self-affirmation as the route to psychological health, a story of self-sacrifice for our salvation may make us uncomfortable about the implications for our own exertions of self.” I think that a critical piece of this puzzle is that we view our lives as “our own” which we have by “right” and we are autonomous, independent individuals.”
    Most of us are far more Gnostic than we realize. Seeing ourselves as little sparks of the divine in our own right we don’t want to be beholding to anyone else’s life (or death). It wouldn’t be fair of God not to respect our “right to life”. In a culture so hep on property rights it’s ironic when we forget that God cannot “take” any life that doesn’t already belong to God. Personally I glad that the creator gave me life when I was born, and I’m glad that Jesus not only gave his life so we might live, but also took it up again so we might live together .

  • Lasseter

    A tip of the hat to Phil McCarthy in the comments for mentioning Orthodoxy and for pointing out that Christ defeated death. In our main hymn for Pascha (Easter) we Orthodox sing that He trampled down death by death and bestowed life on those in the tombs. The penal theory of the atonement is an innovation whose seeds were planted only some centuries into the Christian Era, and it is indeed not a part of Orthodox Christianity.

    While I don’t entirely agree with all of the ideas in the original post, a tip of the hat to the author there as well for the larger matter of pointing out that this punitive model that forces God to be wrathful, even to His own Son, is not the only way to and ought not put everyone off of Christianity. For anyone interested in further reading, this is an interesting link I came across not too long ago:

    Orthodox Problems with Penal Substitution

  • Steve Lewis

    “Are you saved?” The question asked so frequently by fundamentalist Christians. My brother-in-law provided me the correct answer: “No, God’s using me right now to help people instead of saving me for later.”

  • a.e

    Thank you for writing this. I’ve been looking for it for a very long time.

  • Mad

    Admiring the dedication you put into your blog and detailed information you present. It’s nice to come across a blog every once in a while that isn’t the same old rehashed material. Fantastic read! I’ve saved your site and I’m adding your RSS feeds to my Google account.

  • Kate B.

    Atonement theory never had much play with me, but one piece of art got the message of Jesus as our fellow sufferer across to me: the magnificent Isenheim Altarpiece painted by Matthias Grunewald with its central image of a crucified Christ covered in skin lesions. The piece was commissioned for the chapel of a hospital for those suffering from skin diseases and Jesus was painted this way to specifically show how Jesus took on human suffering and understood it. (It also has a depiction of the resurrected Jesus that I have always irreverently called “Hippie Jesus” because he glows and is surrounded by a rainbow.)