Anglican Priest
Bible Handbook
What's New?
Site Map
Contact me!

next essay
prev essay

© 2014, Tony Harwood-Jones
You are expected to contact the author for permission
to reproduce this essay in whole or in part.

Sacrificial Atonement

Question: The New Testament speaks of a loving and merciful God, who demands the torture and death of his own Son as “payment” for the sins of humanity.  But, what kind of a loving Father needs to exact this kind of revenge?

Posted online under the hymn, There is a Green Hill Far Away: “Sadly, this hymn portrays the idea that we are saved by a blood sacrifice from the consequences of sin....”

In trying to understand the meaning of Jesus’ life and work,. and the associated complex theological concepts, I like to start from the perspective of Jesus’ disciples.

Go back to the time before Jesus did any sort of public ministry.
  The people who later became known as “Apostles,” were living their lives and doing their jobs.  The man who became “Saint Peter” was actually named “Simon” (it was Jesus who started calling him “Peter” – a name that means “Rocky” 1 ).  Simon was a commercial fisherman.  James and John also fished for a living.  Matthew ran a lucrative tax-contracting business.  Although the occupations of the others are not known, we can assume that they were normal adults making a living and perhaps raising a family. 2

Then along comes a fellow named Jesus, who is known to be religious, and who has sometimes taught Scripture in synagogue, and says, “Quit your job, and come with me.  I want to teach you some stuff.” 3

Now, if it were me, why on earth would I do that???

The guy doesn’t have a big Neon sign over his head saying “THIS IS THE SON OF GOD!  YOU’D BETTER DO WHAT HE SAYS!” 4  If he did have such a sign, the respectable people who eventually had him killed would have thought twice about doing so.  Not only did the community leaders fail to notice anything wonderful about Jesus, even his own family wasn’t very impressed when he began to teach religion!  For a while, his closest family members believed the gossip that said he was having some sort of mental breakdown! 5

So I think it’s important to keep in mind the visible and physical ordinariness of Jesus of Nazareth.  No superman costume.  No cape.  A carpenter by trade, who had lived and worked all his life in a village where everyone knew him and his family.

True, he had taken an interest in religion from a very young age, 6 but even that was not really unusual.  To this day all Jewish kids are trained to read the Scriptures in public, and even to preach simple sermons (that’s what a Bar Mitzvah is all about).  The Galilee carpenter sometimes taught in synagogue, but so did many other young Jewish men.

In other words, Jesus was, for a number of years, an unremarkable man, typical of his time and culture.

The Gospels suggest that he made a change of direction some time after attending an open-air sermon by John the Baptist, when he took part in John’s ritual washing ceremony. 7    Mark’s Gospel says that during this ceremony, “the Heavens opened and he saw the Spirit descending like a dove.” 8  Note that it doesn’t say that anybody else saw this phenomenon.  Jesus saw it.  Period.

But once he was baptized, Jesus began to actively build an organization, inviting people – twelve in particular – to join him.  He started training them to help him with what he wanted to accomplish.

Some Bible students like to point out that there once were twelve tribes of Israel, and therefore Jesus might have been deliberately creating a mini-Israel by having twelve associates.  This is a possibility, but I emphasize more the “ordinariness,” of what he was doing.  Jews have always had small religious academies called Yeshivas, and a basic group of Jews who gather for religious purposes requires a minimum of ten participants (a Minyan) in order to achieve a quorum, so Jesus was just beginning a normal Jewish school.

However, in so doing, Jesus was no longer simply a very religious woodworker, he was starting something quite deliberate.  But this still did not make him a stand-out – an extraordinary phenomenon that was visibly superhuman.  He was just like many other Jewish teachers, doing what was quite ordinary for his time.

But his school, and his teaching, eventually ran afoul of community leaders.  One of his followers may well have belonged to an extremist group,9  so it wasn’t hard to trump up some fake terrorism charges.  But even here, the response of the government, as brutal as it was, was not unusual: the Romans crucified 6,000 suspected participants in the Servile Revolt of 71 BCE, and Josephus, a Jewish historian of that day, tells us that the Romans once put a large number of convicted people, crucified on crosses, all along the walls of Jerusalem.  Apparently, Roman soldiers would even amuse themselves by crucifying their victims in different positions.10   So, vicious torture was the order of the day for the Roman Empire.

What about the extraordinary nature of Jesus’ teaching?  Was not his moral code unique, where love is better than hate, forgiveness is better than revenge, giving is better than getting, and giving up one’s self to God’s Kingdom is better than anything else in life?  Well no, actually.  Almost all of that stuff wasn’t new, and can be found somewhere in the Hebrew scriptures.

Even his amazing ability to bring healing to sick and troubled people is not as unique as you might think.  Christians tend to get distracted by the miracles, but we need to note that Jesus himself said that anybody with enough faith could do what he could do. 11  And apparently his disciples did just that!  The Bible says that they healed the sick, 12 and that Peter even walked on water... for a minute. 13  Later Peter also raised a person from the dead. 14  Skeptics wonder whether the miracle stories were exaggerations, and I’m not going to address that here.  I merely wish to point out that even in the miracles, Jesus is not completely unique.  He just does better, what others at the time were also apparently able to do.  No big “Son of God” sign over Jesus’ head.  No superhuman powers.  Ordinariness.

So, at Jesus’ trial and execution, while some people were troubled because Jesus seemed to them to be innocent of a capital offence, and some even began to think that he really was a “son of God,” 15  for the most part he appeared to be a regular guy who was viciously maltreated by his countrymen – as martyrs have always been, before and since.

All of which is to say that Jesus’ followers could not have had a complex and highly-developed theology about him during his life and even at his death.

Right at the beginning, when they said “yes” to Jesus’ invitation to join him in his ministry, they would have had to do so based on the ordinary input of their eyes and ears: a hunch that he was worth knowing; something that he said which triggered an emotional response in their hearts; dissatisfaction with their current journey in life; hope that they might be on the ground floor with someone who would make a difference in their world?  All of the above, probably.

And as they got to know him, they certainly would have noticed that he practiced what he preached... right to the end.  Stuff like forgiveness.  Forgiveness of one’s enemies.

And what would they have felt when they heard him, at the peak of the horror, say, “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do”? 16  Especially because many of them had contributed to his downfall by running away, or by denying their connection with him.  It could be that they felt that his forgiving attitude even under torture lifted their own feelings of guilt from them just a little, though admittedly they continued to feel pretty awful for quite a while.

At that juncture, when they had done what was right, giving Jesus’ body a decent burial, it is hard to imagine that they could have gone from there to build a major world religion with doctrines of Salvation and Atonement and Incarnation and the Holy Trinity, and all the rest of the great Christian theological formulae.

Then everything changed.

As far as we know, a couple of days after his death, they began to say that Jesus was alive again, and that they had met him, and that somehow he had engineered a huge shift in the fabric of the world.

For my part I cannot imagine how anyone could deny that they know a guy when there is a chance to rescue him, but be willing to be tortured and killed for saying that he’s alive, when they know he’s dead and gone!  Legend has it that Peter was crucified upside down, and Andrew is said to have been crucified in an “X” pattern.  These people could have avoided their own violent ends if they had merely said, “Oh, it’s alright, your honour, I was just making up that stuff about Jesus being the Son of God.  He’s quite dead, don’t you worry!”

So I believe that something incredible and overwhelming really happened.  Accounts differ: sometimes they said that they could put a finger in Jesus’ wounds; 17 at least once he was described as floating in the air; 18 and sometimes he seemed to be simply a bright light and a voice. 19  All of them said that he could appear and disappear at will.  But whatever happened, they came away absolutely certain that their friend and teacher was triumphantly alive, and very much present among them.

Not a dream; not a vision; not a ghost.  Alive, and well, and utterly real.  “I cannot tell a lie, your honour; I saw him, I did.  It was different from you and me, to be sure, ‘cause he could appear and disappear, but I know without a shred of a doubt that he was completely real, and in fact he is... how can I put it... the Lord of everything 20... even of you, your honour!”

Such might be the testimony of an early Christian before a magistrate who was considering putting him or her to death.  It reflects the certainty of an experience, and a rudimentary understanding of what it all meant and who Jesus really was.

Complex theological descriptions of what had happened did not come immediately.

The original Apostles’ feelings may have run something like this: “WOW!  My friend, my teacher, is alive!  Somehow, he has come through all that torture and is bigger and better than ever!  And he’s okay with ME!  He’s forgiven ME!  I feel so much more whole and so much happier!

“Hey, everybody!!  That teacher that was crucified last week?  Jesus of Nazareth?  He’s ALIVE!  And much MORE alive than just breathing in and out – he’s full of life, more than any of us!  And even though we don’t see him all the time, he’s right here with us, and by some spiritual means he’s guiding us to finish the work that he began.  Come and join us!  And, you know what!??  If you give yourself to him, and are genuinely sorry for the way you’ve messed up, you’ll be filled by God’s forgiveness, and when you die you will rise from the dead just like he did!”

Understanding developed slowly.  At first the disciples and their students (for they quickly began schools similar to the one that Jesus had) thought back to the things that Jesus had taught during his ministry.  They reflected upon the elements of Jewish history and culture that had been in place for centuries and appeared be some sort of groundwork for what had happened.  They found Jesus’ moral teaching in the Jewish scriptures (he had probably shown them the passages himself), but they also found passages that seemed to describe Jesus himself – his personality and his ministry – passages that had been written long before he ever came along. 21

Top of Page

Crucifixion as Sacrifice
Among the passages that caught their attention was the enormous section called the Torah, in which the sacrificial system for dealing with human sin features very prominently.

They had seen with their own eyes that Jesus did not resist when the soldiers came for him.  He willingly went to his death.  Eventually, someone somewhere began to draw a line between Jesus going to his death and an animal sacrifice going to its death.

Religions that kill animals, smear their blood around, and burn the animal parts on an altar seem very strange and distasteful in this hi-tech modern age, but let’s try to have an open mind and consider what the ancients were trying to do:

Commandments in the Torah taught that the best way to make up for human sin is to offer something valuable as a gift to God.  The gift must be valuable – the first crops off the land, or an expensive animal, perhaps – because the gift is meant to be a symbol for the offering of one’s whole self (or one’s entire community) to God.  The offering would be truly “given to God” by being rendered useless to humans – by being burned on the altar.

Of course Hebrew thinkers recognized that God doesn’t eat the sacrificed animal, or the sacrificed crops.  But the only other way they figured you could give your whole self directly to God would be to get on the altar and literally give your own life.  Thus, valuable animals and produce were used in substitution for the lives of the sinful humans who were offering them.

The ancient Hebrews knew – and today we ought to know – that sin cuts us off from God.

In daily life, when we act badly toward a friend or a family member, it is very hard to get back on good terms, and we often end up being completely cut off from one another (“we’re not on speaking terms,” it is said).  So too, when we break God’s laws we end up “cut off” in a similar way.  The relationship is broken.  We can no longer be close and friendly with God, until something is done to fix things – to reconcile.

In broken human relationships, saying that we’re sorry helps.  Bringing a gift helps (the image comes to mind of a husband bringing home a bouquet of roses).  The gift signifies that the giver wants to make amends.

In the ancient world, sacrificed beasts were “gifts” for God, and they, too, signified that the givers were trying to make amends.

Among the followers of Jesus, the idea dawned that Jesus was offering himself in our behalf.  “Here is a gift to you, O God: my life itself.  Me.  Not some animal or other substitute.  But in doing this I represent all humans.  In a way I’m just like the animals that were offered for entire communities.”

They began to say that Jesus is our bridge-building gift to God: given in our behalf by God to God.

Meanwhile, there was a parallel theological thread: that of reflecting upon who Jesus actually was.  He had spoken with “authority” on many topics, for example, and long before being killed, he was criticized for forgiving sins, because, as they said, “... only God can forgive sins.” 22  Perhaps forgiveness was unleashed in the Crucifixion because those soldiers were torturing and driving nails into the hands, not just of a carpenter/teacher, but of God himself!?

So, very early on, Jesus’ followers were saying, “God was in Christ, reconciling the world to himself.” 23

At least it made sense that, if God was being crucified, then the forgiveness that he offered at the time was a Divine and somehow universal one.

Thus we deftly sidestep the idea that a cruel divinity took His only child and threw him down to earth to be tortured (which is how many people interpret the New Testament phrases about God “giving” his only-begotten son).  Everything seems somehow different when it is God Himself deciding to become human and then personally facing and forgiving evil – head on – in that crucifixion.

But of course throughout his life Jesus spoke of “The Father” as being someone other than himself.  Jesus also spent time in prayer, and in so doing he wasn’t just talking to himself.

Eventually the doctrine of the Trinity emerged out of all this – which is the subject of a completely different essay – but suffice to say that Jesus’ followers concluded that all of God was on the cross, and yet heaven was never for a minute empty of God; and that a human being just like you and me was on the cross, and yet somehow he was so bound up in the nature of God that the two are indistinguishable.

They also believed that, while God is One, God is also LOVE.  But love is a relationship, and, if God was complete and entire before there was a universe, at the point in eternity when nothing existed for God to love, there already was, within the very nature of God, a relationship: a Lover and a Beloved and the Love – the Unbegotten One, the Begotten One, and the Breath of Love that flows between them – the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. 24

Whether or not one grasps the doctrine of the Trinity (and few, if any, really do) it is a constructed answer to the series of contradictory problems that I have outlined in this essay:
  1. Jesus was fully human, and felt every bit of pain and sorrow that we ourselves feel, with no unfair advantage;
  2. He spoke of the Father as being separate from himself, and he prayed to the Father;
  3. And yet in Jesus, God was so fully at work, that Jesus’ teachings are God’s teachings, and the torture that he suffered was inflicted upon and absorbed by God; 25
  4. Only God can forgive sins, and yet his followers had been convinced from the outset that with Jesus’ death and resurrection, not only were their own sins forgiven, all of sinful humanity and God were somehow reconciled.

Top of Page

Crucifixion as Punishment
Even when we think of the Crucifixion as the Son of God taking upon himself the punishment that is due to us – once we start to follow the above logic the unpleasantness of the image is somewhat reduced.  After all, not only does sin – bad behaviour – cut us off from one another and from God, there generally are consequences for sin, or ought to be.

Murder someone?  Go to jail.  Tax fraud?  Pay a fine or go to jail.  Drink and drive?  Lose your car.  Consequences.

It may be very unfashionable right now to physically spank little kids for lying or kicking or taking somebody’s toys, but we cannot deny that bad behaviour really ought to have consequences.  And let’s not just talk about children – we need only read a newspaper or watch a newscast about adults who do bad things, and we’ll see that people everywhere cry out in rage if abusers and embezzlers and crooks get away with no consequence for their crimes.

So there is no real harm in saying that human badness naturally leads to unpleasant consequences, that consequences are as necessary a part of creation as is the law of gravity, and if they don’t follow quickly on evil deeds, something else will very soon get broken.  From there we can then allow ourselves to hear Jesus say, “Let me take that for you.”

God takes the consequences of the sin of the world on himself, for the Son of God is “one” with God, and so all actions of the Son are actions corroborated and owned by the Father.

Top of Page

In summary, I believe that the complex theory of Jesus’ Sacrificial Atonement, did not spring full-blown out of thin air.  This theory grew from the disciples’ reflections upon a series of actual and intense experiences, coupled with their understanding of the ancient laws of the Jewish people.

They could not deny the resurrection; and they knew that the person who rose, although in one sense a normal human being, was somehow God living out a human life.  Only in this way could they explain the impossibility of a dead person being hugely alive.  Only in this way could they explain that his terrible death had changed everything; that a bridge had somehow been built between sinful people and their maker.  The “Son” of God was both different from and the same as God, and his death was not God inflicting punishment upon an innocent child, but rather it was God himself choosing to live a full human life; choosing to look horrifying human behaviour in the face, and forgiving it.

They also believed the core message of the ancient sacrificial system, that reconciliation with God involved an offering – the offering of a gift to God.  The suffering and death that was inflicted upon God-in-Jesus was somehow in line with the sacrificial offerings of the ancient Jews – it became the most complete, best, and last sacrifice ever.  And the suffering it entailed somehow functioned like an absorbent sponge, with Jesus voluntarily “taking” the natural consequences of human sin upon himself.

Tony Harwood-Jones
Easter Day, April 20, 2014


1  See Matthew 16:18.  “Peter” (Latin: petros) means “rock.”  Another name for Peter that is found in the New Testament is “Cephas” (Greek: κηφας) which also means “rock.”  When an English-speaking person is affectionately called “Rocky,” it means that they are built like, or as solid as, a rock.  And that is precisely what Jesus means in Matthew 16:18.
Click here to get back to the narrative.

2  Peter was definitely married (see Matthew 8:14 – if you have a “mother-in-law” you are married).  It is not known whether Peter and his wife had children.  1 Corinthians 9:5 suggests that several other Apostles were also married, simply because there we see St. Paul insisting that he has a right to travel about with a wife just as they do.
Click here to get back to the narrative.

3  See Matthew 4:18-22.
Click here to get back to the narrative.

4  We are told that the voice of God actually did say this... once, in the presence of a very small select group, long after they had made the decision to leave their jobs and follow Jesus (Matthew 17, 1-8).  My point here is that Jesus did not have such a message visibly around him at all times, so that everyone, friends and enemies alike, could see it.
Click here to get back to the narrative.

5  Read Mark 3:21 where Jesus’ mother and his siblings came to take him away, and where (vv.31-35) he refused to acknowledge them.  Oh yes, and despite some traditional church dogma, it’s pretty certain that Jesus did have siblings: see Matthew 13:55 and Mark 6:3 (see also Galatians 1:19, where a person is identified as “the Lord’s brother”).
Click here to get back to the narrative.

6  Luke 2:41-52.
Click here to get back to the narrative.

7  See Luke 3:21-23 and Mark 1:9-16.
Click here to get back to the narrative.

8  Mark 1:10.
Click here to get back to the narrative.

9  Simon the Zealot (Luke 6:15 and Acts 1:13) – Zealotry is a known radical movement in 1st Century Israel.  It wasn’t fully developed during Jesus’ lifetime, but the seeds were already there.  Certainly there were guerrilla groups violently agitating for independence from Rome, before, during, and after Jesus’ day.  Religious leaders could very easily persuade the Roman government that Jesus’ group was one of those.
Click here to get back to the narrative.

10  Here I’m following the information in Wikipedia about the history of crucifixion: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crucifixion#Ancient_Rome.
Click here to get back to the narrative.

11  Matthew 21:21.
Click here to get back to the narrative.

12  Luke 9:1 and Luke 10:17.
Click here to get back to the narrative.

13  Matthew 14:28-31.
Click here to get back to the narrative.

14  Acts 9:36-42.
Click here to get back to the narrative.

15  Matthew 27:54.
Click here to get back to the narrative.

16  Luke 23:34.
Click here to get back to the narrative.

17  John 20:27.
Click here to get back to the narrative.

18  Acts 1:9.
Click here to get back to the narrative.

19  St. Paul evidently only saw the light and heard the voice (Acts 9:3-5), but even though he was not one of the Twelve, he says that his experience of the risen Jesus was of identical quality as that of the first apostles.  See I Corinthians 15:5-8, and 1 Corinthians 9:1.
Click here to get back to the narrative.

20  “Jesus is Lord” is probably the first theological statement used by the Apostles.  It is all over the New Testament.  See, for example, Philippians 2:11, Acts 10:36, and Romans 10:9.  Scholars argue about what exactly it meant when the first Christians said it, but although the Greek word for “Lord” (κυριος) sometimes meant “God,” and sometimes means “really important ruler,” it is quite clear that the message was, “Jesus is in charge.”
Click here to get back to the narrative.

21  One of the most famous of these is Isaiah 53:1-9.
Click here to get back to the narrative.

22  Mark 2:7.
Click here to get back to the narrative.

23  2 Corinthians 5:19.
Click here to get back to the narrative.

24  I’m grateful to St. Augustine for much of this.  One of his works, parts of which I have read in translation, is entitled, De Trinitatis – or, “On the Trinity.”
Click here to get back to the narrative.

25  See John 10:30, where Jesus is quoted as saying “I and the Father are One.”  And then in John 14:9, he apparently says: “whoever has seen me, has seen the Father.”  Even if you subscribe to the view that asserts that these words were put into Jesus’ mouth after the fact, it shows what his followers had begun to believe.
Click here to get back to the narrative.