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Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Why Must Someone Die Before God Can Forgive?

Hebrews 9:22 says: "without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness." Forgiveness cannot come unless some living being dies. In the Old Covenant, of course, it was an animal that was sacrificed but in the New Covenant, it is the very Son of God. The author of Hebrews makes the connection:
In fact, the law requires that nearly everything be cleansed with blood, and without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness. It was necessary, then, for the copies of the heavenly things to be purified with these sacrifices, but the heavenly things themselves with better sacrifices than these. For Christ did not enter a man-made sanctuary that was only a copy of the true one; he entered heaven itself, now to appear for us in God's presence. Nor did he enter heaven to offer himself again and again, the way the high priest enters the Most Holy Place every year with blood that is not his own. Then Christ would have had to suffer many times since the creation of the world. But now he has appeared once for all at the end of the ages to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself (9:22-26, NIV).

Why does God insist on "redemptive violence"? Brown and Parker write:

The central image of Christ on the cross as the savior of the world communicates the message that suffering is redemptive. […] The message is complicated further by the theology that says Christ suffered in obedience to his Father’s will. Divine child abuse is paraded as salvific and the child who suffers “without even raising a voice” is lauded as the hope of the world (Joanne Carlson Brown and Rebecca Parker, "For God So Loved the World?", in Christianity, Patriarchy, and Abuse, p. 2).

What is it about suffering and death that erases sin in God's mind? It seems barbaric and sadistic. Primitive religions all over the world offered (and some still do) blood sacrifices to appease the wrath of their god(s). It seems that man felt that in order to win the favor of his god(s), he needed to offer something of value to the god(s). What is more valuable than a life? Blood was thought to be the life principle in the body and thus when it was shed, the life was poured out. Leviticus 17:11 states: For the life of a creature is in the blood, and I have given it to you to make atonement for yourselves on the altar; it is the blood that makes atonement for one's life.

Commenting on this passage, Erhard Gerstenberger writes:

This blood gift to Yahweh actually cannot be illuminated logically, for prehistoric notions of faith are resonating in this rite. As is the case among other peoples, blood is considered to be a magical substance efficacious in and of itself. Hence with blood one can expurgate the powers of death and eliminate the stain of sin (cf. Ex. 4:25; 12:17ff., 22f.).

...Blood is thus the preeminent substance of life. This life force can redeem a life given over to death, and for that reason can also eliminate defilement and reestablish sundered fellowship. Both the author of the sacrifical laws and their audience seem to have taken as their point of departure the legal principle "a life for a life" (Ex. 21:23; Lev. 24:18-20), and to have appropriated without excessive reflection these ancient magical notions concerning the efficacy of blood. Subsequent Jewish and especially Christian theology then developed a broad atonement faith perspective associated with blood symbolism
[e.g., 1 John 1:7--"the blood of Jesus Christ cleanses from all sin"] (Leviticus: A Commentary, pp. 59-60).

All of this blood and gore is repulsive and offensive to modern man. As Frank James states:
And there is, indeed, an outrageous aspect to the atonement because it revolves around such disquieting concepts as death, blood sacrifice, guilt, sin, wrath and propitiation. With such notions in view, the thoughtful Christian might ask: Why must God employ such distasteful means to effect salvation? (The Glory of the Atonement, pp. 15-16.)

In addition, the atonement perpetuates the idea that violence can accomplish good. Religion and violence have been joined at the hip since the beginning (see Hector Avalos, Fighting Words: Origins of Religious Violence)and it continues today.

If someone wishes to retain belief in Christianity and yet deny there is redemptive violence, then one is in for a difficult task. As Hans Boersma writes:
Only by radically limiting Christ’s redemptive role to his life (so that his life becomes an example to us) or by absolutely dissociating God from any role in the cross (turning the crucifixion into a solely human act) can we somehow avoid dealing with the difficulty of divine violence (Violence, Hospitality, and the Cross, p. 41).

If one finds the concept of redemptive violence to be troubling, then one will be forced to reject Christianity. Garry Williams states it this way:

Others try to rescue a re-invented theology, but I have to say I am with the rejectionists. If purposed redemptive suffering is an insurmountable problem, then Christianity must go ("Justice, Law, and Guilt"– EA Symposium on Penal Substitution).


  1. It does seem really barbaric when you really think about it. Jesus suffered agony because I'm sometimes selfish or some guy's gonna murder somebody in the future and his suffering covers all that? Why not eliminate the sin problem to begin with?

    Also did the animals in the OT suffer in the sacrefices or did they die instantly?

    Jesus' death didn't stop people sinning. Christians do happily go on sinning and it's all okay cause it's already paid for and heaven awaits them?

    I don't know. The more you analyze it, the more ridiculous it becomes. And as you said, why couldn't God just forgive without some creepy torture for an animal or person? I thought God could do anything. I can certainly truly forgive someone without making them kill their dog or cat to pay for their offense to me.

  2. I think that this post comes closest to tackling what the biblical doctrine of atonement actually was. In other words, it was not penal substitution. Rather it was an analogy to the purgative blood sacrifices of the Old Testament. For this reason, while I have found criticisms of PSA illuminating, they never quite got to the root of the problem for me since it didn't seem to be what the biblical authors believed (after all, their concept of justice was not so far removed from ours that they could not see the flaws in such a conception).

    I spent years as a Christian trying to become comfortable with the notion that God required Christ's sacrifice to forgive sins before I realized that the ideas undergirding this conception were anachronistic even in Biblical times. They didn't really fit with the Hebrew's conception of God. They were just there because they had always been there, a relic from as Gerstenberger says, "prehistoric times." It is part of a worldview that has all but vanished from our civilization. The continued veneration of these rites certainly wouldn't exist today if they hadn't been enshrined in a holy book.

  3. Mike,

    I basically agree with you. The roots of the PST can be found in Paul's writings and Peter's but the main metaphor is that of a sacrifice. All the religions of that day understood that a sacrifice was to appease the god(s) and/or to make purification for sin. I think Paul took these ideas and as he did with others drew deeper theological significance. I have written so much about PST because it is the explanation of the atonement considered to be a fundamental or necessary doctrine by the vast majority of evangelical Christians. See this post.

  4. Leave aside the perhaps quite different “thought worlds” to the east. Just think of the Roman empire, centered in the Mediterranean. In Roman times, in Jesus’s and Paul’s religious framework. In this world, was not sacrifice a central defining feature of religion? Did any religion of that time in that locale not assign a prominent and indispensable place to killing animals to placate divine beings? Is that not what the gods were supposed to demand of those who believed in them, feared them, respected them, did as they wished?

    Do not “ancient religion” and “the practice of sacrifice and its underlying belief system” largely coincide? Could there have been a religion then and there that did not assign a central place to sacrifice? It seems unlikely.

    Unsurprisingly, it turns out then that Christianity, does center sacrifice,as is evident in its central ritual and its central belief. The ritual is the reenactment of Jesus’s sacrifice on the cross prescribed by Paul in I Corinthians 11 (see also Mark 14). The belief is in the death of the God-man on the cross followed by His resurrection, HIs triumph over death. Surely among the first followers of Christ the Risen One, surely at the center of this Jewish sect evolving into a new religion, sacrifice is readily to be found.

    Surely, then, it will be found soon enough in Paul’s summing up of his version of the gospel--as it is, in the thick knot of Romans 3:25. Whatever one concludes about Paul’s meaning here, it’s enough to show that his gospel is suffused by and redolent of notions of sacrifice--by Jesus, for the believer. And the theme of sacrifice is continued at the heart of the gospel, from Romans 5:6 through the triumphant 8:37-39.

    The basic notion is a crude one: God is out to get you, and He will, unless you buy him off with a sacrifice. Crude, but such behavior by divine beings who intervene in our affairs when and as they will, on their own terms, is consonant with the ups and downs, the breaks, the good times and the misfortunes, that are still today the stuff of everyday life.

    Two questions arise. First, do we still believe this stuff? Does sacrifice, propitiation of the gods or God, still lie at the center of our religion, our version of Christian belief and practice?

    Second, should we believe this stuff? Or rather, by reasonable moral standards, how might we judge a god who requires sacrifice of us, and/or of His Son?

    Maybe it isn’t just the PST that’s immoral. Maybe it’s also the whole idea of sacrifice that lies at the heart of all ancient religions, including the one that’s come down to us as Christianity today. That Christianity scales up the degree of sacrifice as it does shows both its great appeal (still today: Gibson's Passion managed to scale it higher than ever, and millions where enthralled by the spectacle) and its essential barbarity, a barbarity founded in the very idea of propitiation of angry god by offering him something of human worth.

  5. Finally I am reading words which describe my entire problem with Christianity. Even though I returned to the fold and began going to church again seven years ago after at least 35 years away, this whole nonsense of blood sacrifice, hell, punishment, etc has made it impossible for me to continue with it all. Back to atheism, with a massive sigh of relief.

  6. Ken,

    This and atonement generally are both examples of primitive ideas derived from extending the concept of `payment' to elusive substances like sin-responsibility. For blood as currency, we have the more specific superstition of vitalism at work. Blood is to the ancients as the pineal gland is to Descartes.

    To the modern mind, these concepts are largely incoherent. Even if we assume coherence, they are difficult, if not impossible, to support rationally as a serious possibility, much less as evidentially supported.

    Thanks for the link to Hector Avalos. I followed a link to another work of his, the premise of which resonates in this post as well: the Bible is not relevant to the modern world from a secular perspective.

    I guess I have a few more books to order... *grumble grumble*

  7. *Not relevant up to values in any distinct or fundamental way, I should say. I still think that the Bible should be read and understood for the level of influence it has, but not as a source of ethics or a substantive teacher of ethical thinking.

  8. I agree that the idea of ancient blood sacrifice is probably at the bottom of this. It might also help to turn the concept backwards "Why must someone die before God can forgive"? If people were not upset by blood, gore and death, there would be no need for any Gods or their forgiveness.
    Sacrifices to appease the Gods were thought necessary for survival- to prevent death and disease, or malnutrition from having a poor harvest.An angry God was the explanation for all these bad things happening to people.

  9. I think the punishment was so severe because the sins of all God's people were laid on Christ Past, present anf future. We should expect the punishment to be so severe with that much sin.

    In dealing with the issue between punishment and forgiveness my friend Harvey states it well:

    People make the common mistake of assuming that Jesus' sacrifice is a moral atonement (i.e., corrects moral misgivings). I don't believe this is a correct understanding of Paul. What Paul was talking about wasn't a moral atonement at all. It was a nomological (lawful) atonement that Paul was talking about. The law of God is both moral and coherent. A violation to one or the other is not acceptable to God, since God's law is perfect. If it were somehow shown to be immoral or incoherent, then it would not be perfect.

    When sin entered into the world, it introduced moral sins, but it also introduced incoherency (i.e., inconsistency with God's lawful decrees). A perfect God cannot exist side by side with an imperfect universe forever. Everything about that universe, including its lineage has to either be made perfect, or it must be blotted out. We are the lineage of Adam (i.e., we are all related to a causal line that brought sin in the world), and therefore we are heirs with whatever incoherency exists because of sin. That is, we are the result of a sinful regime, and that regime cannot forever co-exist with a perfect heavenly kingdom. If this were not true, then it would then be to say that violation of God's laws do not bring death, which would be false.

    The sacrificial atonement of Christ addresses these nomological (or law abiding) requirements in terms of their coherency. If we are made coherent in God's sight then we are atoned. Therefore, it is a just and righteous atonement for sins.....It's not penal punishment. As I said above, it's a nomic issue and therefore it is a nomical punishment.

    To use another example, think of the laws of conservation. Virtual particles violate the laws of energy conservation for a brief period, but they are finally "punished" by popping out of existence. The punishment in this case is nomical since the law of conservation cannot be violated beyond that which is allowed by the uncertainty principle. Similarly, a sinful world cannot violate God's laws beyond that which is allowed by God's decree, and once that decree is fulfilled, he brings to an end this current world order. Yes, it's punishment for sins, but the punishment is completely to fulfill the requirements of the law.

  10. Cole,

    "A perfect God cannot exist side by side with an imperfect universe forever."

    But a little while is acceptable? How much imperfection can be admitted before we can drop the term `perfection'? Any amount yields a contradiction.

    "Everything about that universe, including its lineage has to either be made perfect, or it must be blotted out. We are the lineage of Adam (i.e., we are all related to a causal line that brought sin in the world), and therefore we are heirs with whatever incoherency exists because of sin. That is, we are the result of a sinful regime, and that regime cannot forever co-exist with a perfect heavenly kingdom. If this were not true, then it would then be to say that violation of God's laws do not bring death, which would be false."

    If imperfection is compatible with perfection so long as the time-span is finite, then there is no necessary reason for the erasure of imperfection at any given time. Just as there is no maximum integer, there is also no maximum finite period of time. If imperfection can be allowed to exist and the existence of imperfection is permissible for any finite period of time, then the existence of imperfection may be arbitrary in duration.

    By this, we have in no way implied the need for the death of sin or the sinful at any given point of time. Therefore, any basis for this need must be atemporal. Nope, no death as a result of sin would ever be necessary at any given time so long as we grant the existence of eternal time.

    "Therefore, it is a just and righteous atonement for sins.....It's not penal punishment. As I said above, it's a nomic issue and therefore it is a nomical punishment."

    Your outline in no way necessitates a vicarious sacrifice. Why is a sacrifice necessary for a `making of coherence in God's sight'? If it is a question of making the will of the corrupted consistent with God's law, why can He not just point a finger and say `done'? This allows for the abolition of imperfection which you consider necessary without any sacrifice. If God, for whatever reason, cannot just point a finger, why not have redemption through voluntary acceptance of God? If it is a question of consistency with the law, why not make it an issue of being consistent with the law?

    The analogy does nothing to make this clearer. Actually, it makes the confusion a little worse, as it seems to imply that the `perfecting' of the world should occur inevitably, not requiring any sort of interference. To extend your analogy, it would be like saying that virtual particles pop into existence but remain, violating the law of conservation of energy, requiring removal by some other corrective measure to preserve conservation.

  11. Ken and others,
    Reading your comments, I think: is the meaning about sacrifices (as a kind of substitutional payments - PSA) the meaning the Torah of Moses and the prophets teach us?
    When I read in Exodus 32:32 the question of Moses about substitution and the answer of the Lord Himself – I think: probably we are all thinking on the basis of a bad axiom - we have to think ‘out of that box’. For the Lord didn’t agree with a substitution!
    Proverbs 17:15,26 sais: that’s an abomination to the Lord!
    The same in Ezekiel 18:4 and what follows and Ezekiel 33:10-20. And so on. That’s what happens with Achan too.
    I think the real believers in the Bible has an other way of thinking about sacrifices than the gentiles and many Jews had and most Christians today has!
    So I think that the meaning of the Cross is an other meaning than we think Paul means. Do we really understand what Paul is saying? Is he saying what Luther has given as his explanation? I think he gave us a bad and unbiblical explanation of Paul and the sacrifices.
    The heart-point in the Law of Moses and in sacrifices too was to love the Lord totally. The Jews had to give themselves to the Lord as sacrifices. When they didn’t do that, all their sacrifices were worthless! So in N.T. we have to give ourselves as holy sacrifices (see Roman 12:1,2). That already was the point in the O.T. and is the same heart-point in the N.T.