Done with Substitutionary Atonement

Done with Substitutionary Atonement March 20, 2012

I’m done with Substitutionary atonement. I’m done with the magical notion that human beings need to sacrifice in order to appease an angry God.

Sixteen people died at the hands of Sgt. Bales last week. Sixteen innocent Afghanis dead. It’s not entirely clear what happened, but one thing we can say: life had betrayed Sgt. Bales. Something had gone terribly awry, rage overwhelmed the moment, and erupted in a horrifying act of violence.

René Girard, an anthropologist of significant influence, refers to this as mimetic violence, violence that erupts when life has betrayed us, when we’ve not received our due, as though there is some standard against which our life is measured. But no such ideal exists; in its place is an endless spiral of comparisons and envy, a spiral that leaves us paralyzed by shame. Then realizing we do not measure up, like Cain, the rage builds within us until it erupts on the nearest victim. It happened in Afghanistan last week. It happens to one in four married women, each bearing her husband’s rage on her body. It happens when a community discovers some weakness in a person whose life was thought to have measured above our own – a spiritual teacher, a celebrity. The vitriolic attacks now popular on the web, seeking to tear into the reputations of those who have indeed fallen short, are a response to our shame, not theirs. And so the cycle of mimetic violence makes its downward spiral.

Societies have used a variety of strategies to protect themselves from such violence. The ancients did so by putting a sacrificial system in place. All shame, guilt, rage and hatred were poured into the sacrifice and drained of their power, destroyed in the altar fires or exiled into the wilderness. This was no peaceful ritual done as the congregation engaged in centering prayer.

That sacrificial metaphor remains too active today, distorting our understanding of God. It was part of my spiritual formation. “Put that on the cross with Jesus, Sam,” my teachers would say. By “that,” they invariably meant some natural expression of adolescence.

Enough, these ritual acts of violence live on in our minds and ultimately support the downward spiral of mimetic violence. Suggesting the cross is an effective way to appease an angry God for all the horror that characterizes the human species, is not only magical thinking, it is dangerous thinking.

Let’s be clear. Jesus was indeed sacrificed on the cross, but not one God required. Like the sacrifice Cain offered, it was offered without God’s command. Like the sacrifice Cain offered, the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross was made only to assuage our fear, to excise our shame. Further, when humanity sacrificed Jesus, God answered with a resounding, “No. I will not have it. I’ll turn your sacrifice on its head.” And so God raised Jesus from the dead. (Whether one understands this in a literal fashion, or as a metaphor in the context of story, is of little consequence to me.)

God rejects the cycle of mimetic violence and offers new life to those who bear the weight of injustice in the world. That is the biblical story. Liberation theologians rightly describe it as “God’s preferential option for the poor.” The Prophets spoke for the orphan and the widow, Christ sought justice in a world overwhelmed by tyranny. This is God’s nature.


But it is not only the victims who are healed by the creative love of God, so let’s take this one step deeper. Sacrifice that appeases an angry God does not exhaust the metaphor. Much of sacrifice is focused on restoring community. The Exodus text which describes the Tabernacle’s altar sounds like they’re getting ready for a party. Sacrifice and community gathering go hand in hand. The person bringing a sacrifice to the altar has recognized his responsibility for defacing the beauty of human communion in the presence of God. He then takes the next step; he brings the sacrifice as a first step towards community restoration. He’s bringing food for the party. That is an entirely different way to view sacrifice, is it not? Looking at the sacrifice of Jesus on the cross in this way, a much different picture emerges.

We often ask, “How can a good God, a God of love and compassion allow the violence and injustice of this world to stand? Where was God when Sgt. Bales walked off the base to commit this atrocity? Think about it, aren’t we talking about the fundamental betrayal? Doesn’t the injustice we experience, life’s betrayal as it were, fall back on the hand that guides creation? (Here I would prefer the reader take this metaphorically.) What is God’s answer?

Let’s open our minds to this: God offers a sacrifice as a first step towards community restoration. It is as though God recognizes God’s complicity in the cycle of violence and takes responsibility for a creation where justice has yet to prevail. God offers a self-sacrifice as a way to create the beauty of human communion in the presence of God’s creative love.1

We don’t understand what mechanism the ancients thought was at work, but we do know they thought of Christ’s sacrifice as offering new life – but not just new life – a restored life, a new life capable of reversing the cycle of mimetic violence. It is why the sacrifice of Jesus was to be “once for all.”

Looking at the sacrifice this way, “following Jesus” means we are called to examine our lives, take responsibility for our complicity in the cycle of violence defacing creation, and take steps towards healing the fracture. We need to “bring food to the party.” For then, empowered by the new life given by God, we will turn the spiral of violence upside down. The rage will drain out of this human community and we will move ever closer towards a world formed in the creative love of God.

1 I’m grateful to Dr. Annette Schellenberg, Dr. Annette Weissenrieder, Dr. James Noel, and especially Dr. Gregory Love for their input at a symposium sponsored by San Francisco Theological Seminary as I worked these ideas out. By this I do not mean to imply that their views are in line with mine.

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138 responses to “Done with Substitutionary Atonement”

  1. “Doesn’t the injustice we experience, life’s betrayal as it were, fall back on the hand that guides creation? (Here I would prefer the reader take this metaphorically.) What is God’s answer?”
    Don’t shy away from this idea because of the problem of theodicy. We DO feel that the universe is unjust, we DO feel that God must be responsible, since God created the universe the way it is. And so what do we see on the cross? God acknowledges this. God’s hands are outstretched, taking responsibility for the sins of the whole world. Jesus (God) dying for our sins. And by God taking the responsibility, we are freed – freed to acknowledge our complicity in the sin, as a first step to changing our ways. And by his stripes, we are healed.

  2. I was done with substitutionary atonement 30 years ago. I do not regard Jesus’ death is an any way a sacrifice or necessary.

  3. I have been doing a lot of reading re Substitutionary Atonement. Many theologians are dumping Sub Atonement that was developed by Anselm in 1000 CE. The first of the 10 commands is: “You shall have no other gods before me.” The reality is that we become like that which we worship. Jesus revealed a non-violent God. So, the angry God that needs to be appeased doesn’t fit. I think that the rampant violence we have today is a result of worshipping this violent God. Before Constantine made Christianity the religion of the nation, the Christians were totally non-violent. Worth thinking about!

  4. I agree that a substitutionary atonement based on “the appeasement of an angry God” needs to go, but I am not sure that is the only possible atonement theory that can be thought of as substitutionary.

    The analogy that helps me is this: We do not call a Fire Chief “angry” or “abusive” when he/she has to send a firefighter into a burning building to rescue someone who is trapped in the flames. We call both the Chief and the firefighter “heroic” and “loving.” We applaud their concern, their risk, and their action.

    I believe it is possible to read John 3:16 “he gave his only begotten Son” from that vantage point. There is no anger to be appeased, and there is no abuse coming from the Father’s heart. It is simply that God has seen a world “dying in the flames,” and has taken action to rescue those of us (and I think it’s everyone of us) who are trapped and unable to get out by our own efforts.

    If that still seems like “appeasement,” then I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree. To me, it seems like “amazing love.”

  5. Steve, this is by far the best analogy I’ve run across while I try to sort through my own relating with sacrifice and atonement. I have yet to get past the sheer scope of violence involved with ‘honoring God’s plan’ overall. I’m not sure how I feel about such a God.

    Anyway, thank you for helping me put one puzzle piece together with another.