Does God Want Sacrifices? part 3: Substitutionary Atonement Theory
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Stephen Kaufman, M.D., Christian Vegetarian Association (CVA)

Does God Want Sacrifices? part 3: Substitutionary Atonement Theory

Christians have struggled to understand why Jesus suffered and died on the cross. Indeed, his death was a scandal in the decades following Jesus’ death. If Jesus were really God incarnate, critics of early Christianity argued, why was he unable to avoid ignominious death as a common criminal? A popular explanation, particularly among contemporary Protestants, is one that has evolved over 2000 years. This theory, sometimes called “substitutionary atonement theory,” holds that Jesus’ death was necessary, because divine law required that sin must be punished. Humanity’s sin, which relates back to Adam and Eve’s “original sin,” had created an imbalance between good and evil in the universe, and punishment was necessary to restore order. Jesus submitted to and bore the punishment that all humans, as sinners, should have received. Only a perfectly innocent individual, which Jesus represented, could atone for humanity’s inherent sinfulness. Many Christians today hold that belief in this substitutionary atonement theory is an essential component of salvation, and only “saved” Christians will enjoy everlasting bliss in Heaven.
I will not claim that this theory is wrong, but I do find it problematic for several reasons. First, the question, “Who killed Jesus” can lead to some awkward conclusions. If the mob, the Roman authorities, or the high priests were responsible for killing Jesus, then one would come to the awkward conclusion that the evildoers – not Jesus – were actually fulfilling the divine mission to substitute an innocent victim for sinful humanity. Further, if humans killed Jesus, it would make little sense to see Jesus’ death as atonement for humanity’s sins, because this would mean that sinful humanity had saved itself by killing an innocent person. In other words, murder had somehow delivered humanity from sin. Therefore, it appears that, if humanity’s salvation derived from killing Jesus, then God must be responsible. So, these theologies suggest that God either killed or orchestrated Jesus’ death. This seems to portray God in an unattractive light and seems to conflict with God’s previous declaration, “This is my beloved Son, with whom I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).
The substitutionary atonement theory assumes that justice and righting of wrongs involve some kind of retribution. According to this framework, the problem with sin is that it causes an imbalance – a disturbance of the moral order of the universe. Given humanity’s depravity and sinfulness, the only way to restore balance is through the most severe punishment: death. However, such a view separates God’s justice from God’s forgiveness. This separation is both theologically and socially problematic, because it encourages people to choose to either focus on God’s justice or God’s forgiveness, depending on their own temperament or on the moral issue at hand. When there is relative peace and well-being, people can choose to abide by the dictates of a loving and forgiving God. When there is social unrest or a crisis, people can revert to the image of God as wrathful and vengeful. Indeed, religions throughout history have included images of the divine as wrathful and vengeful, and they have regarded their own violence as service to their angry god(s).
Substitutionary atonement theory facilitates this universal problem from manifesting itself among Christians. With God involved in violence and punishment, it becomes easier for Christians to justify their own violence and punishment “in the name of God.” Some might argue that, because God’s wrath has been fully satisfied by the perfect sacrifice of Jesus, God is no longer wrathful. Consequently, substitutionary atonement theory might be compatible with an image of God as one who has become purely loving, compassionate, and merciful. However, this view presumes that God’s temperament has changed over time; it does not account well for Jesus teaching, before his death, that we should love God and love our neighbor as ourselves (Luke 10:25-28); and, though many people claim hold such a view, it seems to me that few actually behave as if they believe it, likely because it fails to appeal to the near-universal desire for vengeance. When people see themselves as victims of mistreatment, they generally become angry. It remains tempting for people who believe that they have been wronged to believe that a God of justice likely shares their righteous indignation. They might then regard their own vengeance as assisting God in meting out justice.

Next essay, I will further explore concerns about the social consequences of substitutionary atonement theory. 

Go on to: Does God Want Sacrifices? part 4: Substitutionary Atonement Theory
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