Although Christianity has no tradition of animal sacrifice to justify, it retains the orthodox Jewish insistence that this bloody worship was divinely instituted. The Old Testament does preserve a record of those who insisted that sacrificial religion was demanded by God, but it also reports that the Latter Prophets denounced this slaughter of the innocent. So why has the Christian Church chosen to teach that this murderous worship was an expression of God's will?
The ancient practice of animal sacrifice is the foundation on which the doctrine of Christ's Atonement has been built. This doctrine teaches that by the death of Jesus, man and God were finally reconciled. It says that what could not be accomplished by the slaughter of hundreds of thousands of innocent animals was finally accomplished by the crucifixion.
The killing of animals in the house of the Lord was supposed to appease God, whose holiness was offended by the sins of men. Always implicit—and often explicit—in this sacrificial religion, was the understanding that man deserved punishment for his sins. And if God were not placated by a substitutionary victim, the person, himself, would have to die. So the innocent animal died in the place of the sinful man. The sixteenth chapter of Leviticus, among many other places in the Bible, de-scribes one of the procedures followed in killing victims.
"[The priest] shall bring a young bull for his own sin offering to make atonement for himself and his household, and he is to slaughter the bull for his own sin offering...He shall then slaughter the goat for the sin offering for the people and take its blood behind the curtain [i.e., into the Holy of Holies ] He shall sprinkle it on the Atonement cover...In this way he will make atonement for the Most Holy Place because of the un-cleanliness and rebellion of the Israelites." (Lev. 16:11, 15,16 NIV)
Christianity, as well as orthodox Judaism, accepts this butchery at the Tabernacle door, and the sprinkling of the animal's still-warm blood in the Holy of Holies, as having been commanded by God; as being pleasing to Him. And Christianity went beyond attributing the death of animals to their Creator. It taught that God also decreed that Jesus—another innocent victim—should die for men's sins.
This concept of sacrifice to a God offended by men's sins is deeply ingrained in the traditional language of the Christian church. The patristic writers spoke without equivocation of God's wrath and judgment and of the need for the penalty, due to sin, to be paid.
St. John Chrysostom wrote at length about the need for God's wrath to be propitiated by sacrifice, as did Ambrose and Cyprian. Tertullian said that Christ was sent to earth to die: "He had come for this purpose that he himself, free from sin and altogether holy, should die for sinners."
St. Augustine said that Christ took on himself the punishment that was due for men's sins when he died on the cross in their place. "Since death was our punishment for sin, his death was that of a sacrificial victim offered for sin." Augustine also said that the sacrifice of animals in the Old Testament was a prototype of the most effective sacrifice of all—the death of Jesus on the cross.
Most of these early Christian writers based their atonement theories on the Epistles of St. Paul. In those letters to the early Christian converts, Paul's reasoning about the significance of Jesus' death was based on his training as a Pharisee—as one who had been scrupulously trained in Mosaic Law. The Law which described the method, and the rationale, for the ritual killing of various animals. In Paul's time, the Jerusalem Temple was the hub of Judaism and the slaughter of living creatures was the central act of worship there. For Paul, there was no redemption of the penalty due to sin without the death of a victim. It was this belief that led him to present the death of Christ as the zenith of sacrificial worship. In the book of Hebrews he wrote:
"Neither by the blood of goats and calves, but by his own blood he [Christ] entered into the holy place, having obtained eternal redemption for us. For if the blood of bulls and of goats and the ashes of a heifer, sprinkling the unclean, sanctfieth to the purifying of the flesh: How much more shall the blood of Christ who offered himself without spot to God......he hath appeared to put away sins by the sacrifice of himself.( Heb.9:12-14,26.)
In the book of Romans Paul wrote: "[God] spared not his own son, but delivered him up for us all" Romans 8:32) And he is the author of that familiar passage of scripture which says "without the shedding of blood, there is no remission [of sins]." This statement, recorded in Hebrews 9:22, has become a Christian mantra repeated endlessly, and mindlessly, through the centuries.
Paul could develop and preach his theory of Christ as the ultimate sacrificial victim only because he had never met Jesus. He never walked with the Master as he taught about the nature of God and his own mission on earth. He did not know that Jesus said “Love your enemies...that ye may be the children of your Father: he maketh the sun to rise on the evil and on the good.” He did not know the parable of the Prodigal Son, which Christ used to show that God's love and com-passion was always present; that there was no need to atone for one's sins. That no sacrifice had to be made in order for transgressions to be forgiven.
Neither did Paul know that Jesus taught his followers to return good for evil, thereby showing their kinship with the God who is "kind to the ungrateful and wicked... [therefore] be merciful as your Father is merciful" (Luke 6:35,36.)The God whom Jesus revealed was nothing like the God of Paul's understanding: a God who needed the sacrifice of countless animals, or of his own son, in order to be reconciled with sinful men.
Since Paul never met Christ, the only other way he could have known what Jesus taught about the nature of God was through the witness of the Gospels. But the record that would later be circulated among Christians had not yet been written. And not only did Paul lack access to the Gospels, it was not until almost three years after his conversion that he finally journeyed to Jerusalem to meet with those whom Jesus had called to be his disciples. Even then he spent only two weeks with Peter and the others who had known Christ, and during that time their discussions centered on the role that Paul would play as Apostle to the Gentiles. After this short visit, Paul headed back North again and did not meet with Peter, or the other church elders, for another fourteen years.
During those years, with no one to tell him what Jesus revealed about God, he constructed his own theory of Christ as the sacrificial victim. And in order to do this Paul, like his Jewish ancestors and Christian descendants, ignored the biblical texts that denounced any kind of sacrifice—human or animal.
In validating the concept of sacrificial religion, Paul preserved the ancient belief in a God whose "justice" demanded the brutal death of an innocent victim. But Jesus did not die because God demanded atonement for sins. He died because men did not want to hear what he said about the God who cared for all He had created; the God in whom there was no appetite for retaliation or demand for restitution.
During his agony in the Garden of Gethsemane, Christ prayed to be delivered from the fate that awaited him. But finally he was able to say "Nevertheless, not my will, but thine be done." And the journey towards crucifixion began.
But it was not God's will that Christ—or anyone else—die that brutal death. Crucifixion was a torture devised and carried out by men. What Jesus discerned as the will of God that night in the Garden, was that he must embody the principle of love and forgiveness, even unto his own death.
Jesus had told his followers that hatred and violence was never justified. "Love your enemies, do good to those that hurt you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who mistreat you;....Love your enemies and you will be sons of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked. (Luke 6:27, 28,35 NIV)
And now, when he was about to be delivered over to his enemies, he demonstrated the ultimate rule of love: even in defense of the highest good, violent attacks on the person of others was forbidden. When they came to arrest him, the Apostle Peter drew his sword to launch a counter-attack. But Jesus told him to stop: "Put your sword back in its place. For all who draw the sword will die by the sword. Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels." (Matthew 26: 52,53 NIV)
Jesus let Peter know that although he had the kind of power at his disposal that could defeat his persecutors, God's power was never to be used destructively. Throughout his life, Christ had been faithful in using that power only for good. He had healed the lame, the blind, and the leprous. And even on the brink of what must have seemed like the utter failure of his mission, he remained faithful to the revelation of his heavenly Father, whose love and goodness was all-encompassing.
Months before his death Jesus had been speaking to a large crowd that included many Pharisees. He told them "I do nothing on my own but speak just what the Father has taught me...Yet you are ready to kill me." (John 8:28,36.NIV)
Men killed him because they wanted to silence him. They wanted to continue their worship of the violent, vengeful Jehovah who demanded the death of multitudes of men on the battlefield, and multitudes of animals on his altars. They wanted to worship the kind of God in whose name they could indulge their own appetite for brutality and destruction.
In the doctrine of the Atonement, this ancient, idolatrous worship continues. Many who call themselves Christians accept Paul's claim that God required the sacrificial death of Jesus, just as he had once demanded the slaughter of animals. But in accepting Paul's teaching, they reject the revelation of Jesus Christ, who lived and died trying to turn men away from their worship of the man-made God they had created in their own image. A partisan God who could be cruel as well as kind; a God who alternately blessed and cursed His creation. A God whose punishment could be avoided by the sacrificial death of an innocent victim. #
The multitude of your sacrifices—what are they to me? I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats...Your hands are full of blood; wash and make yourselves clean Take your evil deeds out of my sight.(Isa.1:11,16)
For I did not speak to your fathers, or command them in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. (Jer.7:22)
I despise your feasts...When you offer me holocausts, I reject your oblations, and refuse to look at your sacrifices of fattened cattle...but let justice flow like water and integrity like an unfailing stream. (Amos 5:21, 22)