It is an odd fact in the history of Christian doctrine that the Church has never produced an official theology of atonement. All orthodox Christians believe that Christ’s death on the cross was constitutive of our salvation, but there are dozens of different theories and variations of theories to explain exactly how Christ’s cross, that is, his death, is saving. Unlike the great Christological and Trinitarian debates in the early Church, this question has never disturbed the Church’s life in such a way that a Council felt the need to pronounce authoritatively and so, to this day, we are at liberty to profess all kinds of theories about the cross provided one thing, that we profess Christ’s death saves us.
This is healthy. The Church need not pronounce on every detail and force people to accept a particular explanation for every doctrine. This is only necessary when the core of the gospel and/or the unity of the Church is threatened. On the other hand, this does not mean that the theology of the cross is a matter of indifference. Indeed, while there may be many theories of the cross that are acceptable to orthodox Christianity, there are also theories that are not acceptable. A theory is not acceptable if it runs up against other Christian doctrines in an irreconcilable way. As regards the atonement, the most obvious way this can happen is when a particular theory obscures the claim that God is love.
Theories of atonement that make God into a sadist or an arbitrary punisher of sin must be avoided. It is too often the case, however, that many popular versions of the Christian story involve God in, essentially, human sacrifice. The argument goes something like this: the wages of sin is death (i.e., spiritual death, hell), and all are sinners, so all must die (i.e., go to hell) if God is truly just. But, being merciful as well as just, God sent his son to take the punishment due to us. The sacrifice of Jesus on the cross becomes a simple replacement for the death God, in justice, must demand from every human person.
There are at least half a dozen problems that jump off the page here. If everyone sins, isn’t there some fault with the maker? How can it be just to damn humanity en masse for sin when they had no legitimate shot at not sinning? Why does Jesus’ physical death cancel our spiritual death? If God really accepts his death as a substitute for ours, and the death that we are really concerned with is spiritual death, shouldn’t Jesus be damned for eternity? Why is our own death not enough to pay the wages of sin? Why did Jesus’ death need to be so terrible? If what God needed really needed to cancel our debt was blood, couldn’t it have been got in a more humane way? Why does God need blood to cancel debt anyways? Can’t God cancel debt be mere fiat? Etc. etc.
Now, in the course of Christian history, there are those who have tried to answer this or that question. I cannot rebut every proposed solution here. Suffice to say that the whole series of questions (and it could be longer), stems from a misunderstanding. As Frank Sheed put it:
It was not as if Christ said to his Father: “All men deserve death. Would you mind killing me instead of them?” That would have been either horrible or meaningless. What in effect he said was: “Because of my obedience in doing your will, teaching your will, attacking powerful men who are perverting your will, they are determined to kill me. Will you accept my death and apply it to the needs of all men?” (What Difference Does Jesus Make?, p. 200)
Deserving death is not really the issue. The wages of sin are death, yes. But not because God needs to punish us. Rather, as any honest observer will attest, we have spent our history murdering one another. God doesn’t punish sin arbitrarily. He grants us the freedom to love, without which love is impossible. His respect for that freedom means that he hands us over to the consequences of our own actions. This “handing over” is a frequent way for Scripture to talk about God’s punishment for sin. He lets us punish ourselves.
On the other hand, in his great love, God has consented to bear that burden as well. The Father doesn’t punish the Son for sin. He sends the Son to bear the burden of sin that we are already inflicting on each other. Christ wasn’t crucified by himself, but between two sinners. Who knows how many thousands or tens of thousands the Romans crucified? And not just the Romans. The friendship of Herod and Pilate forged at the time of Jesus’ condemnation symbolizes that the whole world (Jews (Herod) and Gentiles (Pilate), from the Jewish author’s point of view) is guilty of violence. We are all responsible for the violence against Christ, yes, but that only makes sense in the context of constant human violence against one another. It is not conceivable that Jesus be the first murder victim in our history. We are a murderous race, killing our brothers and sisters, almost from the beginning.
It was into this violence that Christ inserted himself. Just think of him stepping in front of the crowd about to stone the woman caught in adultery. And the Gospels make it clear he knew what he was doing. He knew that cleansing the temple would not go over well. But he also knew it was God’s will. It is not that it was God’s will to have Christ killed, but rather that doing God’s will often gets one killed. If you need contemporary examples, look no further than Martin Luther King and Oscar Romero. Indeed, as the lives of these three men indicate, sometimes you can be certain that doing God’s will will get you killed.
As St. Anselm, so often misunderstood on the question of atonement, so germanely pointed out, ‘Why did Jesus have to die?” is the wrong question. Anselm laconically points out that Jesus had to die because we killed him. The real question is, rather, “Why was this death saving?”
I want to look at this question by looking at the idea of sacrifice. Why was Jesus’ death an acceptable sacrifice? Now, sacrifice is a widely misunderstood term. When we think of Jesus’ death as a sacrifice it is very tempting to fall into a reading of Scripture, especially the letter to the Hebrews, which matches up very closely with the God who needs blood to forgive sins.
But this is exactly the opposite of the point of Hebrews. Like the prophets of the Old Testament, Hebrews insists that God does not want blood. When the ancient Israelites thought that killing an animal would appease God’s wrath, they were excoriated by the prophets. If you think that you can be right with God through ritual killing, the prophets insisted, you have misunderstood God entirely. God wants your obedience, your contrition. God wants you to act justly, especially to the most disenfranchised among you. To read the letter to the Hebrews as if its argument was that goats’ blood could not satisfy God, but (sinless) human blood could, is to pervert the Gospel.
The ancient Israelites, like virtually every society on earth, understood that sacrifice was necessary to live in community. However articulated, this basic conviction is universal. Just think of the last time you had to host a family function, never mind living with some other person for 50 years or raising children with that person. Without sacrifice, without a person learning to get over him or herself, these relationships inevitably fall apart. That’s why marriage is good preparation for heaven.
And like every culture, ancient Israel expressed its basic convictions through story and ritual. The problem, of course, is that sinful humanity often loses sight of the heart of the issue. Instead of understanding their sacrifices in the temple as symbolic of their gifts of self (“give me your very best!”), necessary to live in harmony with God and neighbor, the Israelites often understood their sacrifices as a way to manipulate God. But Israel was not like every other culture in every aspect. God sent them prophets to remind them of what God really wanted.
Now it is a terrible shame if we Christians, self-consciously heirs to this great tradition (the early Church insisted on keeping the Old Testament), forget its lessons on so central a question as the cross. As the New Testament makes very clear, Christ was able to make of his death an acceptable sacrifice, a gift of himself, precisely by doing what the prophets called for. He obeyed God’s will, he acted with justice to the least, he was even contrite on our behalf. That he died is essential in as far as it gave a context for how he died. Jesus had taught the beatitudes, but here he was given a chance to exemplify them in a way that simply cannot be paralleled in a non-life-threatening situation.
Goats and sheep could never appease God because, being offered by sinful humans, they could never really achieve a perfect getting over oneself. Even in our best moments we find little hints of our egotism creeping in. We can’t trust that our motives are perfectly pure. Our best attempts at self-sacrifice fall short and, as Hebrews points out, we must try over and over and over again. We are incapable of a perfect sacrifice, not because our livestock don’t please God, but because our hearts don’t.
But, if we are to live in harmony with God and neighbor in eternity, perfect sacrifice is needed. We must get over ourselves completely or heaven will not be heaven. It is this total lack of self-concern that defines Jesus’ sacrifice as perfect and, therefore, saving. But the real miracle is this: as Paul indicates in that odd passage to the Colossians, Christ’s suffering lacks something to be made up by us, his body. Why is it miraculous that Christ’s sacrifice needs something to complete it? Because this means that Christ’s sacrifice is not for him alone, but must be applied to all of us, members of his body. Christ’s sacrifice was perfect in itself, but it must be applied throughout history to make us perfect. We could never do this on our own, but in union with him, we can offer what little we have and it will bear fruit. Slowly our motivations can be purified, our egotism weakened, our charity increased until we will finally be like Him because we see him face to face.
God doesn’t need blood to forgive sins, as the prophets never ceased to announce. But God does demand human sacrifice. We must value God’s will over our own. We must love truth more than we despise suffering. And where we fail in this, God joins us, even to the Cross.
Brett Salkeld is a doctoral student in theology at Regis College in Toronto. He is a father of two (so far) and husband of one.