Does God Want Sacrifices? part 4: Substitutionary Atonement Theory
Animals: Tradition - Philosophy - Religion Article from


Stephen Kaufman, M.D., Christian Vegetarian Association (CVA)

Does God Want Sacrifices? Part 4: Substitutionary Atonement Theory 

Last week, I discussed theological difficulties associated with substitutionary atonement theory – the theory that Jesus death was a sacrifice needed to atone for humanity’s sinfulness. Some of the theory’s social implications are problematic.
Substitutionary atonement theory treats sin as a legal problem – humanity’s offense against God – rather than as a social problem. The theory does not regard sinfulness in terms of society’s institutions or events of human history (other than original sin). Consequently, the theory does not challenge unjust human institutions, making it easier for Christians to countenance injustice. This, I think, is one reason that Christianity has, at various times in history, accommodated slavery, subjugation of women, cruelty to animals, and other unjust arrangements.
Substitutionary atonement theory sees Jesus’ death as satisfying the penalty for sin. Now that human sin is no longer a barrier to justification before God, one may focus on one’s own individual salvation and pay little attention to social justice. Although Christian doctrine generally holds that “saved” Christians naturally reflect God’s love, in practice many Christians, confident of their justification before God and therefore convinced that God is guiding their moral decisions, can believe that selfish and other patently unjust behavior represents God’s will.
Another difficulty with substitutionary atonement theory is that it portrays Jesus as innocent yet voluntarily submitting to suffering. This has often been an obstacle to people who suffer as a consequence of unjust social structures, because church authorities have often told victims of abuse, “in imitation of Christ,” to submit to domestic or other abuse in the same way that Jesus accepted his tragic destiny.
Finally, substitutionary atonement theory adopts the logic of Caiaphas who, in trying to convince the chief priests and Pharisees to call for Jesus’ execution, said, “It is expedient for you that one man should die for the people, and that the whole nation should not perish" (John 11:50). Substitutionary atonement theory posits that it is indeed better for one innocent man to die to save everyone else, which has been the logic of scapegoating violence throughout human history. Indeed, one might wonder whether substitutionary atonement theory presents Christianity as a new revelation, or whether it presents Christianity as a variation on the perennial religious theme that gods demand sacrificial violence.

Next essay, I will discuss theories regarding the sacrificial killing of animals in the Hebrew Scriptures. 

Go on to: Does God Want Sacrifices? part 5: Sacrifices in the Hebrew Scriptures
Return to: Reflection on the Lectionary, Table of Contents 

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