2: Why Die if Not to Satisfy God's Justice?
Crucified Section 3: Clarifications
Crucified Section 1: the Origins of Human Sacrifice
It was Jesus who told the religious leaders, "go and
learn what this means, 'I have desired mercy and not sacrifice.'"
My concern—Who Sacrifices Jesus for Whom?—arises
from the assumption that human sacrifice is a specifically human
behavior that is practiced to meet specifically human needs. The problem
is that many times the sacrifice of Jesus is attributed to something God
needed to assuage his wrath instead of its being attributed to, once
more, a group of humans singling out another human for a collective
Apart from the murder of Jesus, most moderns, even
religious moderns, have no problem seeing the specifically human origins
of human sacrifice. Consider ancient civilizations and tribes who
sacrificed humans, including children, kings, and strangers. Frequently, it is
assumed that the community believed a god or other divinity required the
sacrifice. Accordingly, those who carried out the killing were, in the
minds of the community, doing the will of god(s). Nearly everyone walked
away with a clear (religious) conscience. Most moderns, however, do not agree with the community's perception. Rather, they feel outraged that the participants thought they were doing the god a favor.
Why the god needed a sacrifice in the first place isn't necessarily
discussed. Perhaps because it happened so often in primitive societies
(think of the Aztecs, among others) it has become just a given, an axiom
that cannot be questioned. But a question of such importance (the
question of why a divinity needs human blood) should seek an answer.
It is fortunate that the work of René Girard hypothesizes the
actual mechanism from which this sacrificial impulse arises. Simply put,
the community finds itself in a state of escalated tension (rivalries,
greed, vengeance—conflict that creates disorder, then, even as it
does now). At a certain point where the contagious violence is reaching
a crescendo, turning all against all, a new organizing pattern emerges:
the group identifies an individual or an individual group as the
underlying source of disorder. Once identified, the source becomes the
target of the community's wrath. The tension and violence that seemed
uncontrollable have found a solution: remove the individual and remove
the underlying threat.
The source is either killed or expelled. This transference of blame
toward the source has united the community that was formerly in a state
of disorder. A coalition of allies is formed as the alleged source is
identified and isolated from the group. This is the first transference,
to demonize the victim.
A second transference occurs when the
source (dead or expelled) is credited with having healed the community.
The causality seems clear: after the killing, tension receded and order
was restored, implying that the victim was somehow an agent of the
divine. This second transference, over hundreds of occurrences,
increasingly associates divine characteristics with the sacrificial
victim. The victim begins to represent a divine plan, whereby a need
that seems larger than the community is met through the offering of a
victim. Although all the conditions for the sacrifice are immanent in
the human condition, they appear to be transcendent (i.e. god's will).
This is the second transference, to divinize the victim.
Double Transference: This mechanism of double transference
that I have sketched highlights the specifically human impulses that are
behind human sacrifice. Even though primitive or pagan explanations
refer to gods in whom very few of us believe, we let them stand in the
stories as givens instead of as a creation of the violence itself. The
mechanism starts on the human plane, with angry humans. It then extends
to the mythological plane of angry gods. Understanding the mechanism
allows us to reverse the terms: instead of a pagan god demanding a
sacrifice, it is the sacrifice that demands an angry god.
us agree that human sacrifice meets a set of human needs arising from
the human condition, instead of meeting a divine need arising from a
menagerie of blood-demanding divinities. Examples gross as earth exhort
us that human sacrifice has been performed time and time again to
placate the alleged anger of the perceived god, all the while
functioning as a kind of pressure-relief valve for an unstable community
with an unstable mentality. We can recognize that the process is
self-validating: shift all the blame to one person and the rest of the
community will feel divinely forgiven or acquitted.
Christianity, keeping at its core the story of a human
sacrifice, may interpret Jesus' death in one of two morally opposite
- depraved humans exercised the poorest judgement in
history by selecting the most innocent man as the object of their blame,
hostility, and need for a victim, or
- God, like primitive gods,
needed to find a suitable object upon whom to vent wrath in order to
protect the rest of humanity from God's punishment.
first interpretation is perfectly moral regarding God's role. It allows
us to see God in terms of Jesus' "Sermon on the Mount." Here, Jesus
portrays his Father as perfectly good, causing the sun to shine
on both the wicked and the righteous—a god free from the need of a
victim, and overflowing with forgiveness and love by nature. The second
interpretation is inconsistent with "Christian" morality in that it
portrays God as behaving in ways Jesus taught against in his
exhortations to refuse to return evil for evil. Far from advocating for
the peace of the mob, Jesus advocated for the singled out individual,
such as the woman caught in adultery. The second interpretation portrays
God acting on an impulse that most legal systems prohibit and most
psychologists would seek to cure.
Christians, one might think, have historically sided with the
perfectly moral God, the one who is free from the need of a victim. But
one would be (half) wrong. Christians usually combine the two morally
opposed interpretations. Their God is a god of love who normally offers
forgiveness (making God better than humans), but who, in order to fully
execute this forgiveness, must satisfy an additional requirement of
justice that involves expressing wrath and punishment. This wrath can be
poured out on humanity or on a single (but perfect) living being.
Their God is both alarmingly moral in the forgiveness he offers and
morally alarming in the wrath he needed to express on someone.
Only unquestioned acceptance that sacrifice is necessary allows
the believer to be happy with these terms. In other words, as long as
the sacrificial enterprise remains unquestioned, the need to express
wrath remains acceptable.
What feeds these contradictory currents? For one, the scriptures
themselves provide a basis for both views of God.
The alarmingly moral aspect of their God is supported by many
portions of Judeo-Christian teachings. These present God as being full
of light, wisdom, love, and truth. Like the Sermon on the Mount, Psalm
23 provides a good example. God is good: he is illustrated as
the best, most courageous and caring shepherd. In light of many passages
such as this, of course God is perfectly righteous, full of
truth, light, and loving kindness. The best indicator of God's character
is revealed in Jesus, the visible image of the invisible God. It is
Jesus' refusal to return evil for evil that challenges all murkier
representations of God's character.
The morally alarming aspect of their God is also supported by some
unforgettable scriptures, mostly but not exclusively from what
Christians call the old (or first) testament. It is often these earlier
representations of God that help create the morally ambiguous God that
many Christians espouse. In some passages God is represented as
the author of what today would qualify as genocide, where the elimination of
women and children along with the warriors is commanded. To the extent these passages are accepted as
accurate representations of God—to that extent it is likely that the
sacrifice of one person in exchange for millions may seem acceptable.
(It did to one of Jesus' executioners.)
If, however, a Christian admits that some scriptures act as a
corrective to others, then
there must be an additional reason for the view that God needs to punish
his son in order to satisfy a sense of justice. Put differently, every
believer plays down certain scriptures in favor of others—why are those
concerning the sacrificial nature of God so popular? The God who desires
sacrifice and not mercy may derive from several elements, including,
- tradition (sermons, hymns, songs, sayings, and assumptions
passed within and between communities of believers),
hidden sacrificial impulse in each of us that is relieved to find out
that even God has such an impulse and that therefore it must not be such
a terribly dark impulse,
- the unfolding role of sacrifice and the passover in Jewish
- the portrayal of Jesus as the fulfillment and
completion of the sacrificial tradition within early Christian
scriptures (including the Epistle to the Hebrews),
engrained sentiment that fighting violence with violence works when it's
God's violence at work, and, perhaps most importantly,
- the inability to appreciate the death of Jesus if it wasn't to
satisfy God's sense of justice.
The advantage of combining the
two interpretations is that the received, sacrificial interpretation of
the scriptures remains intact (allowing one to be orthodox or free from
raising troubling questions) while the moral difference between God and
primitive gods remains demonstrable. However, this effort to combine the
God of "justice" with the God of love remains a juggling act. The more
one focuses on the need for a violent expression of wrath (sin being so
damaging to humanity), the more difficult it is to focus on the God of
love, "the Father of lights, with whom there is no variation or shadow
of turning" (James 1:17, NKJV).
One of my favorite Christian teachers performs this juggling act
spectacularly. So good a job he does that, were I not convinced that
human sacrifice is a purely human practice arising from a need to
contain and transfer blame, I would subscribe to his view. Teaching on
the passage that "God set forth [Jesus Christ] as a propitiation by His
blood" (Romans 3:25, NKJV), Mr.
This is what we cling to, this
wonderful good news of how the heavenly Father has taken up our cause,
has taken all the wrath and the judgment for us, has taken even the
wrath of Satan and the wrath of the world, and his own wrath upon
himself [in the person of Jesus].
What is spectacular is how "wrath" multiplies in this quotation:
- general ("the wrath and judgment"),
- Satanic ("the wrath of Satan"),
- worldly ("the
wrath of the world"), and
- divine ("his own
However (characteristically) faithful Mr. Cook attempts to be to the
passage, he is compelled to bring in two or three types of wrath not
mentioned by Paul (Satanic, worldly, and perhaps general).
It's "the wrath of Satan" that points to the true nature of
sacrifice. If he had felt the liberty to do so, Mr. Cook could have made
his point by focusing exclusively on the wrath of Satan. Also called
"the accuser" in the New Testament, Satan is the one who first blames
unjustly the victim, and then directs wrath against that victim.
Finally, the "father of lies" (another name for Satan) distorts the
reason for the violence, keeping in place a misunderstanding of God's
character that persists today.
Instead of multiplying types of wrath, we should interpret the "wrath
of God" as biblical shorthand for the concept that humans will always
suffer at the hands of humans so long at they disobey the God of love,
that this suffering, standing in opposition to their plans, will seem to
humans like God's anger, and that, in order to extinguish the wrath that
their own nature brought about, humans will, at times, find a
sacrificial victim that helps them both lessen the strife within them
and obtain a clear conscience about their role in that strife.
The "wrath of God" is the "wrath of the absence of God" and
occurs whenever humans run with their impulses unhindered by restraint.
God is involved in the violent outcomes, but not as executioner. God is
involved as the source of light that exposes the lies that so often
dominate human thinking. The involvement is God refusing to bruise a
bent reed or quench a smoldering flax, much to the resentment of humans
who want and don't want God's involvement. Refuse his kindness and all
that's left is human competition, fueled by greed and masked by one
transference of blame after another.
Not only could believers interpret wrath as biblical shorthand, but
often believers do, with statements such as, "We are not punished for
our sins, but by our sins." Many pieces of the puzzle of biblical
coherence fall in place when we allow for such shorthand. The phrase,
"wrath of God," understood as the inevitable self-destructive
consequences of immorality has great value. It helps us recognize both
the consequences of immorality (scapegoating being among them) and the
grandeur of a loving God.
The reason for the shorthand is likely
that it takes time, hundreds or thousands of years, for the divine light
to dispel lies that have both created and maintained cultures. The
shorthand has the advantage of getting one's attention concerning his or
her responsibility in this world. If one is in a theater and smells
poisonous gas, one may likely cry "fire!" (instead of "gas") to save
lives, only to explain later that urgency and the need for widespread
comprehension outweighed accuracy at the time.
Mr. Cook's muliple types of wrath illustrate how hard it is to align
the morality of Jesus's Father (illustrated in the Sermon on the Mount)
with the theory of atonement as an exercise in divine wrath. What Mr.
Cook avoids—much to his credit—is glibly accepting a thin
version of the crucifixion whereby a perfect God must, for legal
reasons, punish somebody, charitably killing his son to spare all the
guilty parties. Mr. Cook's version requires wrestling with the cost of
As long as Christians view God as being sacrificial (well-intentioned
but nevertheless sacrificial), they will be in a situation similar to
what Mark Twain ascribed to The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,
where "a sound heart & a deformed conscience come into collision."
Applied to the crucifixion, the sound heart arises from the life of
Jesus and his portrayal of his Father in the Sermon on the Mount. The
deformed conscience arises from the received tradition that God must
punish someone in order to express forgiveness to everyone.
The goal of the rest of this message (and perhaps of my life) is to
assert and hopefully explain how Jesus' death reconciles humans to a God
who never needed and never will need a victim to satisfy his sense of
justice. It will apply the rest of Mark Twain's quotation to the
Christian's dilemma, with the result that "conscience suffers a defeat":
Jim the slave is befriended in spite of the received tradition of
slavery, and God is recognized as the Misunderstood One who always sided
with the victim, who always saw the need to deliver this race from its
misdeeds, including its projection of its own sense of justice on
If Jesus did not die to appease his Father's anger or to satisfy his
Father's sense of justice, then why was it so important and inevitable
for him to die? Put differently, what was achieved by the death of
Many passages, notably in the Gospel of John and in Paul's letters,
claim that the death of Jesus is a most important event for the
redemption of humanity. The
benefits of that death include
- the separation of humans
from their moral and spiritual imperfections (sins),
introduction of forgiveness on a large, unambiguous, scale, and
reconciliation of humans with God.
The death of Jesus (along
with the resurrection) is the event that transformed Jesus from a local
phenomenon in first century Israel to a life that provides individuals
from all parts of the world, across history, the opportunity to obtain a
The reason Jesus died is because people chose to kill him for various
reasons—fear and envy being among them. The gospel narratives of
the betrayal, arrest, trial, and sentencing of Jesus place the
responsibility squarely at the feet of some (but not all) of the Jewish
leaders. The rest—the mob who shout "crucify him" and the Romans
who execute the business—are accessories to the crime.
God knew what would would inevitably happen to a truth-telling
emissary. Not only from his omniscience but from the history of the
treatment of prophets, God knew the messenger would be mistreated. What
happens to the emissary is a violent reaction by those threatened by the
truth. A violent episode could work out for the good—the greatest
good—in spite of the fact that this God takes no pleasure in
It was Jesus who told the religious leaders, "go and learn what this
means, 'I have desired mercy and not sacrifice'" (Matthew 9:13). He was
quoting an old testament prophet (Hosea 6:6), and he knew that the
sacrificial urge would soon shift its attention from tax collectors,
prostitutes, and Roman occupiers to himself. He would be the new
sacrifice, one that placated the fears of the Jewish leaders, one that
lent significance to the mobs who wanted to shift the blame outside
themselves, and one that proved convenient to the Romans who wanted
amicable relations with the lands they occupied if these relations could
be obtained through the loss of a few individuals.
This fate of Jesus would have been anticipated by God, who lives
outside time, and it would serve the need to put an effective end to the
perpetuation of a violent and disbelieving humanity. In this light,
Paul's statement makes perfect sense, whether one interprets "princes"
as worldly rulers or as fallen angels: "But we speak the wisdom of God
in a mystery, even the hidden wisdom, which God ordained before the
world unto our glory: Which none of the princes of this world knew: for
had they known it, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory" (I
Corinthians 2:7-8). What an extraordinary statement! If the agents of
Jesus' death had known the ultimate outcome—the spiritual beginning of a
new race—they would have sought to keep him alive.
The result of the death of Jesus is that one way or another he was
the representative human being (the last Adam and the second man,
according to Paul). In dying he put the human race to death. In rising
from the dead he provided a new identity for humanity. This identity
consists of his righteousness, and it allows those who believe in him to
be his brothers and sisters. The death is therefore efficacious, not in
pacifying his Father but in giving humanity a way out of the world and a
way into the kingdom of heaven. All this of course is a matter of faith,
and is not realized physically in the present. What counts for those who
want to be free from a deformed conscience, though, is that it is moral,
consisting of an extraordinary individual placing himself in harm's way
and then sharing the reward of that obedience with those who need the
benefits of that obedience.
The gospel that is based on the death of Jesus often takes the form
of a promise. It can be summarized in this way: if you are willing to
put your confidence in the life, death, and resurrection of
Jesus—if you are willing to let those experiences count in place
of your own—then you are, truly, a part of Christ. You are what he
is: righteous, new, one with God. You need only to allow his life to be
the starting and ending point of your thoughts and decisions, and as you
do, your daily, earthly self will be imbued with his spirit.
All of the above is truly good news for those who are discontent with
their earthly life. It is perhaps all one needs to know and think about
to experience peace, love and joy in this life and the life to come. It
is a good stopping place for the discussion.
Earlier in this article, I listed the following as reasons that many
Christians entertain a sacrificial theology:
(sermons, hymns, songs, sayings, and assumptions passed down and around
- the hidden sacrificial impulse in each of us
that is relieved to find out that even God has such an impulse and that
therefore it must not be such a terribly dark impulse,
- the unfolding role of sacrifice and the passover in Jewish
- the portrayal of Jesus as the fulfillment and
completion of the sacrificial tradition within early Christian
scriptures (including the Epistle to the Hebrews),
- the engrained sentiment that fighting violence with violence works
when it's God's violence at work, and, perhaps most
- the inability to appreciate the death of Jesus if it wasn't to
satisfy God's sense of justice.
responses would be:
- By tradition, I refer to Christian
traditions, which are as susceptible to corruption as are Christians,
perhaps more so since traditions are enlisted for the survival of
organizations, with the result that any tradition that promises the
survival of an organization is likely to be protected at all costs. In
Christianity, we have a glaring contradiction: the message (also known
as the "gospel" or "good news") that was intended to free people from
guilt has, historically, been converted into an instrument of
guilt. One reinforcement to this guilt is the image of God who is
sacrificial and, because of our wayward nature, turned his wrath on
Jesus. This image imbues our existence with danger: (1) we all went
astray (true), (2) we forced God's hand, causing him to act out of
character and kill the least deserving human, and (3) we repeatedly go
astray by not trusting this God who, obviously, is, one way or another,
capable of choosing a victim to keep the machinery of the universe
There are, of course, many other reasons Christians do not
trust in God, many of them needing ownership and renunciation—my only
point is that we will do better not to weigh ourselves down with images
that lessen the character of God as Jesus revealed it (saying, "if you
see me, you see my Father").
- That we all have a
sacrificial impulse is not in question. Whether we fight it or not, we
all know that we are relieved to find out that we are not being
blamed for something, that the blame has gone elsewhere (justly or
unjustly). However, the extent to which this impulse cultivates in us a
sacrificial interpretation of God is hard to examine. It may not occur,
or it may be so deeply hidden that we simply canot see it. If misery
likes company, divine misery likes divine company. So it is logical, but
not demonstrable, that our own sacrificial impulse is what causes us to
tenaciously hold onto the idea that God's justice requires the
destruction of a living being. One could argue that while we hate the
idea of human sacrifice, we, against our temperament, feel compelled by
our conscience to embrace the validity of that concept at least once in
history. And that concession is understandable until we start suspecting
that we've been mistaken about God's role in the crucifixion.
- The Jewish tradition of sacrificing animals was preceded by
Abraham's experience on Mount Moriah where the Lord provided a ram for Abraham to sacrifice in
order to spare Abraham's son; the Jewish tradition that thus focused on
animals shuttled humanity away from human sacrifice, a first major step
toward understanding the Father of Jesus.
- As a consequence of
God's weaning humanity away from human sacrifice to animal sacrifice,
Jesus is the ultimate sacrifice in Hebrews in this way: his death
unmasked the kind of agents who kill victims and in unmasking them, his
death declared that the human approach to pleasing God was wrong all
along. It was less wrong when animals were substituted for humans, but
it was wrong, nevertheless. Coming late in the tradition of Hebraic
animal sacrifice, Jesus' death, once more a human sacrifice, was what
could highlight the injustice once and for all of the sacrificial
implulse. In this respect, the Father supported the crucifixion, not as
something to satisfy his wrath but as something needed to demonstrate
once and for all the difference between human and divine justice, the
difference between the great "I am" and all the manufactured gods of
- Only time will remove the engrained sentiment that
fighting violence with violence works when it's God's
violence—this article being one more attempt to free us from that
- The death of Jesus gains more value, not less,
when the sacrificial veil is pushed aside; love and justice no longer
compete with each other but conspire together to give the human race a
second chance at achieving the peace and unity that human sacrifice only
Summarized in different words, the
non-sacrificial gospel can be worded this way:
The biggest problem in Christianity is the transference of
blame for the death of Jesus onto God himself. From its inception,
Christianity had to work with a language colored by sacrificial
thinking, and it had as its original audience a people whose survival
and coherence had depended upon sacrifice. The "divine" desire for
sacrifice and not mercy was hard to escape. As a result, an ambiguous
version of God was adopted among Christians: God could never forgive
people apart from having someone to punish. The death of Jesus is
appreciable only to the extent that he is being punished by his
Father in place of our being punished by his Father.
The misconstructions placed on God would include the following:
- God desires sacrifice
- God is violent
wrath—righteous indignation—resolves itself by putting
someone to death
- the Father acted in a way that is contrary to the
Sermon on the Mount (i.e. acted contrary to passages such as "If you,
then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children,
how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who
ask him! So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to
you, for this sums up the Law and the Prophets").
The claim that God needed to punish humanity but punished his Son
instead misconstrues the nature of God as being like ours—a nature
inclined toward retribution. These sort of claims license humans to do
ungodly things in the name of Christ, spanning from engaging in wars
based on religious differences to forming groups that honor God by
discriminating against a selected group of victims, the Ku Klux Klan
being exemplary of this kind of theology.
The "wrath of God" taken in light of Jesus as a representative of God
must mean God's willingness to allow humans to refuse his spirit and to
go their own wretched way, destroying each other in the process. When
human violence expresses itself without restraint, it takes on
characteristics that seem superhuman: it is inescapable, irresistible,
easier to join than to denounce. It does seem divine. If Jesus
came to show any one thing, it may have been to expose the delusion that
the wrath of God emanates from God. It reveals the wrath of God as the
dangerous state of allowing humans to rule over each other, selfishly,
We need Jesus to save us from our
versions of God. Because Jesus said, "I do only what I see my father
do," we must allow his life to re-define his father fully.
Otherwise, we will continue to ascribe to God the same characteristics
that myths ascribe to their gods, who are satisfied when a victim is
either expelled or put to death. It is ironic and also unavoidable that
the greatest misunderstanding about God has been re-applied to God's
greatest effort to dislodge that misunderstanding.
If we refuse to explain things about the death of Jesus that we do
not understand, we will be walking away from sacrificial theology. We can believe the death of Jesus
somehow worked for our benefit, without thinking for a minute that the
Father to whom that death unites us has anything but love and mercy for
 For a single
example, see 1 Samuel 15:1-3..."Samuel also said unto Saul, The LORD
sent me to anoint thee to be king over his people, over Israel: now
therefore hearken thou unto the voice of the words of the LORD. Thus
saith the LORD of hosts, I remember that which Amalek did to Israel, how
he laid wait for him in the way, when he came up from Egypt. Now go and
smite Amalek, and utterly destroy all that they have, and spare them
not; but slay both man and woman, infant and suckling, ox and sheep,
camel and ass."
 "Then one of them,
named Caiaphas, who was high priest that year, spoke up, 'You know
nothing at all! You do not realize that it is better for you that one
man die for the people than that the whole nation perish.' (John
 Hebrews 1 lends
itself to the notion that the scriptures can correct themselves. It
makes clear that Jesus, "the heir of all things, by whom also God made
the worlds," provides the clearest representation of God. The exaltation
of Jesus in that chapter concludes at the beginning of chapter 2 with
the warning, "Therefore we ought to give the more earnest heed to the
things which we have heard, lest at any time we should let them slip."
According to the non-sacrificial gospel, to "give the more earnest heed"
means to give the representation provided by Jesus the final say in
matters concerning God's character.
 In brief response
to these reasons,
(1) tradition takes the sacrificial
interpretation and disperses it in the fabric of the Christian
experience, making it difficult to see where essential elements of faith
stop and optional elements begin, with the result that only a concerted
effort, a kind of reformation, can dislodge the sacrificial
(2) The hidden desire for sacrifice is, in myself at
least, fully hidden, and only noticeable by how convincing the
sacrificial interpretation seemed in spite of the fact that the gospels
offer an alternate explanation, one that any open-minded reader cannot
miss ("He's been set up and murdered...").
(3) The role of
sacrifice in the Jewish tradition can be understood as a weaning process
during which the Lord first exchanges animal
for human sacrifice and later begins to move the religious community
away from animal sacrifice to the sacrifice of praise, the one wholly
moral form of sacrifice.
(4) Thus, when Jesus is figured as the
perfect sacrifice, the intention in Hebrews is to show that he brought
an end to sacrifice, but Hebrews does not dwell on how that can be,
leaving it to the reader to choose between (a) perfect satisfaction of a
sin offering or (b) perfect demystification of the role of sacrifice in
the human economy of violence.
(5)Any engrained sentiment is by
definition difficult to dislodge, being a sub-conscious response,
including the circular argument that if God does something it is right.
Of course if God is perfect, everything God does is perfect. What the
sentiment does not allow for is the possibility that on a fundamental
level, God did not do what it is assumes he did (vent his
(6)Finally, our inability to appreciate the death of
Jesus non-sacrificially is the chief concern of the next section, because it is the absence of purely
moral reasons for Jesus' death that allows sacrificial theories to
occupy our thoughts.
 It appears
inevitable to slip into sacrificial language when referring to the death
of Jesus. That language has "significance" written all over it. Paul
goes in both directions in his writings. He uses sacrificial language,
but he is able to discourse at length about the love of God in Christ
Jesus our Lord, and about Jesus' role as the last Adam and the second
man, which expresses the value of the crucifixion more clearly to me
It is perhaps Paul's use of ἱλαστήριον
(hilasterion) that provides the strongest inclination for Christians to
view the crucifixion as a propitiation—the English term
referring to placating or appeasing an angry god. Hilasterion
occurs in Romans 3:25 and Hebrews 9:5. It is translated as propitiation
or atonement (in Romans), and mercy seat (in Hebrews).
emphasis in "propitiation" is on God's need for appeasement, while the
emphasis of both "atonement" and "mercy seat" is on the human need for
purging (expiation) or mercy. In light of the specifically human origin
of human sacrifice, my argument leans heavily toward the need for mercy,
My argument interprets the death of Jesus as
being like a man throwing himself in front of a motorcycle to stop it
from running over a child (instead of the man offering himself to be
killed by the motorcycle driver to prevent the driver from being angry
at the child). The difference between propitiation and an offering of
mercy may be characterized as the difference between Jesus entering the
human race to take punishment and Jesus entering the human race to first
be contaminated by its disease and then to be able to offer a vaccine.
Both metaphors shift the ground from justice and morality to love and
practicality, so long as one admits that the human race has a deep
rooted and self destructive problem.
 From the first
minute of this talk by Colin Cook:
http://www.faithquestradio.com/radio/E073_HIH_021113.mp3 (Rom. 3:21-25
"The Epicenter Of The Gospel").
Mr. Cook understands the pagan
and therefore unholy history of propitiation. He devotes an entire talk
to the subject, http://www.faithquestradio.com/radio/E069_HIH_020513.mp3
(Rom. 3:25 "Jesus Isn't Trying To Convince God"). He claims the 19th
century promoted a "horrible, horrible caricature of God" wherein the
Father was angry with the world and only the peaceful and charitable
Jesus prevented judgment by presenting himself to receive the brunt of
Mr. Cook's resolution to the caricature is to say
that Jesus is one with God so God is appeasing his own wrath, "taking
all the full brunt and punishment and judgment of sin upon himself"
(8:45). The Father is outraged, not at humans, but at sin and its
damages. This anger cannot be concealed and so is directed to himself
through the incarnation and the crucifixion. "The difference between a
pagan propitiation and this propitiation is that we, in the pagan
propitiation, try to appease god by animal or human sacrifices. We try
to quieten god down. And the Christian propitiation is that God offers
the sacrifice. He quietens himself down. He appeases his own wrath. That
is the difference." (12:00)
From Mr. Cook's point of view, the
God-sacrifices-only-God theory allows Mr. Cook to emphasize the
devastatingly destructive acts of humans, while representing God as
being passionately in love with mankind, ready to do anything need for
redemption. And, I admit, this is as well said and as significant as any
version of sacrificial theology I've encountered. From my point of view,
this re-direction of wrath nevertheless provides a different caricature,
that of an angry, frustrated teenager who, refusing to hurt others, cuts
him- or herself. Violence must be expressed, but not against others.
Finally, Mr. Cook admits, "I do and I don't" follow this, "it being
beyond our comprehension." While I disagree with the need of God to
appease God's wrath, I appreciate the passion and honesty Mr. Cook
exercises here and elsewhere.
 For example:
John 3:14-15 - Just as Moses lifted up the snake in the wilderness,
so the Son of Man must be lifted up, that everyone who believes may have
eternal life in him.
John 10:17 - The reason my Father loves me is
that I lay down my life—only to take it up again.
Romans 5:6-8 - You
see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died
for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person,
though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God
demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners,
Christ died for us.
No question about it: the death of Jesus changed
everything, according to the gospel. The only question is whether that
death was another instance—the backfiring instance—of humans
finding and killing a victim, or whether it was a unique instance of God
violating his character and insisting on retribution.
theology," a phrase reminiscent of René Girard's Things
Hidden from the Foundation, Book 2, where he explicates the four
gospels according to a non-sacrificial theology. This is the book that
showed me a way out of sacrificial thinking.
Since the Foundation of the World, René Girard, Translated by
Stephen Bann and Michael Metteer, Stanford Press, 1987.
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