The Crucifixion, by Diego Velasquez (c. 1630)
There have been a few posts circulating around lately about the meaning of the nature of the atonement, with Crystal weighing in here, and Paula and Friar Charles weighing in here.
Shown below are a few articles providing some insight on theories that find meaning in Christ's death, but underplay or eliminate the notion of God's wrath needing to be appeased by the death of a God-Man. I don't consider them heterodox - I think there are longstanding Catholic truths reflected and embedded in each of them - Besides, there have always been multiple theories of atonement regardless...
Atonement... "At-one-ment". One thing I can say in common about the essays. Paradoxically and ironically, I find that the more I learn about Judaism as practiced in the time of Jesus, the more the doctrines of Christianity make sense to me.
James Alison - Some thoughts on the Atonement
Crystal introduced me to theologian James Alison, and I find his writing to be fascinating. This was a lengthy article, so I'll just put a couple of excerpts here...
I want to suggest that the trouble with it (the dominant Substitution Theory) is that it is far too little conservative. I want to put forward a much more conservative account. And the first way I want to be conservative is to suggest that the principle problem with this conventional account is that it is a theory, and atonement, in the first place, was a liturgy...
We tend to have an “Aztec imagination” as regarding the sacrificial system. The hallmark of the sacrificial system is that its priest sacrifices something so as to placate some deity.The Jewish priestly rite was already an enormous advance beyond that world. They understood perfectly well that it was pagan rites that sacrificed victims in order to keep creation going. And one of the ways in which they had advanced beyond that, even before the fall of the Temple and the Exile to Babylon, was the understanding that it was actually God who was doing the work, it was God who was coming out wanting to restore creation, out of his love for his people. And so it is God who emerges from the Holy of Holies dressed in white in order to forgive the people their sins and, more importantly, in order to allow creation to flow...
The notion is that humans are inclined to muck up creation; and it is God emerging from the place that symbolises that which is before creation began, “the place of the Creator”. The Holy of Holies was the place that symbolised “the first day” – which, of course, meant before time, before creation was brought into being.
The priest emerged from that and then he came to the Temple Veil. The Temple Veil was made of very rich material, representing the material world, that which was created. At this point the high priest would don a robe made of the same material as the Veil, to demonstrate that what he was acting out was God coming forth and entering into the world of creation so as to make atonement, to undo the way humans had snarled up that creation. And at that point, having emerged, he would then sprinkle the rest of the temple with the blood that was the Lord.
Now, here's the interesting point: for the Temple understanding the high priest at this stage was God, and it was God's blood that was being sprinkled. This was a divine movement to set people free. This was not – as in our understanding – a priest satisfying a divinity. The reason why the priest had to engage in a prior expiation was because he was about to become a sign of something quite else: acting outwards. The movement is not inwards towards the Holy of Holies; the movement is outwards from the Holy of Holies.
So the priest would then come through the Veil – meaning the Lord entering into the world, the created world – and sprinkle all the rest of the Temple, hence setting it free. After which, as the person who was bearing the sins that had been accumulated, he places them on the head of what we call “the scapegoat”, Azazel, which would then be driven to the edge of the cliff and cast down, where it would be killed, so that the people's sins would be taken away.
That was, from what we can gather, the atonement rite. But here's the fascinating thing: the Jewish understanding was way ahead of the “Aztec” version we attribute to it. Even at that time it was understood that it was not about humans trying desperately to satisfy God, but God taking the initiative of trying to break through for us. In other words, atonement was something of which we were the beneficiaries. That it is the first point I want to make when we are talking about a liturgy rather than a theory. We are talking about something that we undergo over time as part of a benign divine initiative towards us.
This puts many things in a slightly different perspective from what we are used to. It means, for instance, that the picture of God in the theory that we have that demands that God's anger be satisfied is a pagan notion. In the Jewish understanding it was instead something that God was offering to us. Now here's the crunch with this: the early Christians who wrote the New Testament understood very clearly that Jesus was the authentic high priest, who was restoring the eternal covenant that had been established between God and Noah; who was coming out from the Holy Place so as to offer himself as an expiation for us, as a demonstration of God's love for us; and that Jesus was acting this out quite deliberately...
God is propitiating us. In other words, who is the angry divinity in the story? We are. That is the purpose of the atonement. We are the angry divinity. We are the ones inclined to dwell in wrath and think we need vengeance in order to survive. God was occupying the space of our victim so as to show us that we need never do this again. This turns on its head the Aztec understanding of the atonement. In fact it turns on its head what has passed as our penal substitutionary theory of atonement, which always presupposes that it is us satisfying God, that God needs satisfying, that there is vengeance in God. Whereas it is quite clear from the NT that what was really exciting to Paul was that it was quite clear from Jesus' self-giving, and the “out-pouring of Jesus' blood”, that this was the revelation of who God was: God was entirely without vengeance, entirely without substitutionary tricks; and that he was giving himself entirely without ambivalence and ambiguity for us, towards us, in order to set us “free from our sins” – “our sins” being our way of being bound up with each other in death, vengeance, violence and what is commonly called “wrath”.
Garry Wills - What Jesus Meant.
THE DEEPER REASON
Beneath all the horrors of a Roman execution, there is a deeper question than the legal one, a theological puzzle: Why did Jesus die? A common answer depends partly on Saint Anselm's influential book Why the Incarnation? (Cur Deus Homo?). Using feudal analogies, Anselm argued that Jesus had to become man in order to pay God a debt that man could not pay on his own. The offense of original and all subsequent sin was of an infinite nature because the offended party is infinite. Only an infinite spokesperson for man could pay the debt with his life.
But why did the payment include Jesus' death, and such a horrible death? Was the creditor so exacting? Behind this conclusion lies the imagery of an angry God, hard to appease but by the most terrible of sacrifices. This is a view that some people call "gruesome." The philosopher-critic Rene Girard says that it affirms the violent rituals of sacrifice, which load a society's guilt onto a scapegoat to be punished. Girard argues that Jesus is incapable of assuming guilt, so he exposes the fundamental absurdity of curing violence by violence.
Others question the idea that there would have been no Incarnation without the fall of man. Some Franciscan theologians argue that the Incarnation is the culmination of God's plan from the outset, whereby he raises man to himself in the person of his incarnate son. Creation without that deeper union between man and God would have been incomplete. They draw on some works by the early church father Irenaeus, who called Jesus the "recapitulation " (anakephalaiosis) of all creation in its glorious end. A Pauline letter signaled something like that:
His grace is overflowing to us in every kind of wisdom and knowledge, revealingThis passage accords with other writings of Paul, whereas Gordon Fee points out-he does not follow the logic of appeasement sacrifices, where the offending party must initiate compensation. In Paul, God is like the father of the prodigal son, who rushes to embrace beforehand, or like the good shepherd, who searches out his lost sheep. This God does not sit on a throne waiting for sinners to bring their sacrificial offerings to him. He is the agent throughout:
the secret of his purpose, the loving care of his prior arrangements in Christ,
that he bring the stages of all things to their fulfillment, summing them
all up [anakephalaiosasthai] in Christ, all that is in the heavens, all that is
on earth. (Eph 1.8-:10)
All is God's doing, as he rejoined us to himself through Messiah, and made us
cooperators in the rejoining. Just as God was in Messiah rejoining creation to
himself, canceling man's sin, so he made us diplomats of the rejoining. (2 Cor 5.18-19)
Another Pauline letter says:
He is before all things, and all things cohere in him. He is, in parallel, the
head of the body that is the gathering. He is the first-born out of death,
making him in every way primary. For it was God's glad will to invest in him all
the fullness of being, through him to rejoin all things to himself,
accomplishing peace through his blood from the cross, peace for heaven and for
earth through him. (Col 1.17-20)
Jesus himself speaks of his mission as lifting humankind up into his own intimacy with the Father:
"Just as you have shed your splendor on me, so I shed it on
them, so they may be
at one with us, just as we are one, T in them and you
in me, so they may be
fulfilled in that oneness. So all creation may
recognize that you have sent me,
and that you have loved them even as you
have loved me. Father, you have given
them to me, and 1: wish that they
should be where I am, that they may see the
splendor you have given me out
of the love you had for me before laying the
foundations of creation" (Jn 17.22-24).
Dark and mysterious as is the whole matter of the Incarnation and the Passion, perhaps a simple thing can help us think of them. I turn to my own experience. My young son woke up with a violent nightmare one night. When I asked what was troubling him, he said that the nun in his school had told the children they would end up in hell if they sinned. He asked me, "Am I going to hell?" There is not an ounce of heroism in my nature, but I instantly answered what any father would: "All I can say is that if you're going there, I'm going with you." If I felt that way about my son, God obviously loves him even more than I do. Perhaps the Incarnation is just God's way of saying that, no matter what horrors we face or hells we descend to, he is coming with us. I did not realize at the moment that I was just following a way we should think of God, according to Jesus himself:
"Would any one of you give your son a stone when he askedChesterton offers another way into the mystery, in a little two-act play of his called The Surprise. The play opens, in the Middle Ages, with a friar wandering through a woods. He sees a large rolling caravan, a platform stage with its curtain open and handsome life-size puppets lying with their strings loose. The puppet master is up above the stage. The friar asks what town he will be giving his show in-he would like to see it. The man tells him to sit down and he will give him a free performance. A romantic tale is then spun out in which a swashbuckling hero and his friend, drinking to each other's health, swear to rescue a damsel in captivity. They carry it off with great panache, and the play ends. The friar applauds, but the man asks to go to confession. He confesses that he is un-happy because he loves his characters, yet they do not breathe and reciprocate his love. As he turns away, the friar falls to his knees and prays that his wishes might come true. The curtain falls on the first act.
for bread, or a snake
when he asked for fish? Well, if you, flawed as you
are, know how to provide
good things for your children, how much more will
your Father in the
heavens provide for those who ask it of him?„ (Mt. 7.9-11)
The second act begins with the puppets again lying down amid their loose strings. But then the characters begin to stir on their own. They rise and start reenacting the play. But this time little things begin to go wrong, each aggravating the next, and the pace of mishaps quickens. The friends drink too much and quarrel, they show jealousy over the heroine, they arrive too late to rescue her, so her captor is about to rape her. At this point, the puppet master stands up on the roof of the caravan and shouts, "Stop! I'm coming down." God is going with us. Now that his creatures have free will, the puppet master can no longer manipulate them from above. He must come down to be with them, to fight for them.
What I like about this parable is that there is no question about an "angry God." The maker is coming down to protect his creatures, from themselves and from all the consequences of their errors and sins. He is their champion, not their punisher. This shows that there are two ways of talking about what Paul called a rejoining. If we talk of salvation as sacrifice in the sense of appeasement or propitiation, there is a note of assuaging an angry God. If we talk of it as rescue, the power from which mankind has to be rescued is not God but the forces at work against God-all the accumulated sins that cripple human freedom. In the New Testament, this legacy of evil is personified as Satan. When Jesus, going to his death, says it is the enemy's time, and the dominion of darkness (Lk 22.53), he is certainly not saying that God is the dark power. Satan is.
It is the struggle with the human capacity for evil that Jesus wages in the name of humanity. Human freedom and perversity have led the sheep astray, have condemned the prodigal son to his own degradation, and only the Shepherd and Father can send for his rescue. Similarly, when Jesus wept over the Jerusalem that was about to kill him as it killed the prophets (Mt 23.27), he was not suggesting that God killed the prophets. It was the enemy of God who did. It was Satan.
If we want to know why Jesus died, the best place to look for an explanation is in John's account of the Last Supper, in the long passage called the Last Discourse. This does not speak of divine anger to be allayed by sacrifice. It talks, over and over, of divine love entering into the human darkness and turning it to light:
"I will no longer speak much with you, since the Prince of This World is upon
us-though he has no power over me. But all creation must see that I love the
Father, and I do whatever the Father has commanded me. Rise and let us be off
from here." (Jn 14.30-31)
If we ask why Paul and others speak of our being rescued by Christ's blood, what does that mean if his blood is not a sacrifice to the Father? The Last Discourse tells us: "No one can show greater love than this, that he lay down his life for those he loves" (Jn 15.13). He sheds his blood with and for us, in our defense, not as a libation to an angry Father. That is how he sacrifices himself for us.
There are other references to Jesus' sacrifice in scripture. Paul talks of him as the hilasterion-which meant the golden covering on the Ark of the Covenant (Ex 25.T7), known as the "mercy seat," where blood was sprinkled on the Day of Atonement: "In his blood God has presented him as the mercy seat for those who believe in him, to make clear his faithfulness to the covenant by canceling sin in his lenity" (Rom 3.25). Jesus is a new mercy seat, where his own blood, shed against man's enemy, becomes the bond with the Father. There is another famous passage where Paul speaks as if Jesus' blood were an expiation to the angry Father: "Though he [Jesus] was not conversant with sin, he [the Father] treated him as sin for our sake, so we might be God's vindication" (2 Cor 5.21). This continues a passage cited earlier where God initiates the rejoining with himself. Old commentators tried to make this mean that Jesus became a sinner, or even sin personified, or "a sin offering." But Jean-Noel Aletti shows rhetorically that it means Jesus was treated as if he were sin, in the sense that he is pitted against sin (Satan) and suffers the consequences by identification with sinful humanity. In the Epistle to the Hebrews, Jesus offers a sacrifice to God, but it is a unique kind of sacrifice, putting an end to all earlier kinds, and God initiates it to conquer sin, not to placate himself.
However we understand the mysterious sacrifice of the cross, one thing is certain-it is a proof of God's love, not his anger. "Such was God's love for the creation that he gave his only-begotten Son to keep anyone believing in him from perishing, to have a life eternal" (Jn 3.16). Jesus was sent to express, vindicate, and extend the Father's love. That is why the completion of his rescue raid into history is the descent into hell. This is not mentioned in the New Testament-save for a highly dubious reference in a notoriously obscure verse (1 Pet 3.19). But it is contained in the early creeds and baptismal oaths, showing that it is original to the revelation that was preached. For the Greek Orthodox Church, it is at the center of Jesus' mission-indeed, it is the Resurrection (Anakatastasis). This is part of the whole conception of Jesus as the summation and climax of creation. He reaches back with his redeeming power, to rescue mankind from the very beginning. Early poems Iand-plays (especially in medieval treatments of it under the title of "the Harrowing of Hell"), along with endless paintings afterward, show Jesus breaking open the prison of the past to free those not previously vindicated in his blood. The normal depiction highlights the emergence, first, of Adam and Eve. Some pictures show him accompanied by the bandit who died with him. The comprehensiveness of God's salvific plan is emphasized-how
Through black clouds the black sheep
And through black clouds the
Shepherd follows him.
Though most depictions give the starring roles in this event to Adam and Eve, I believe the Shepherd was first seeking out his special lost one, Judas.
Judas...? Well, can we go that far?
Marcus Borg and John Dominic Crossan - The Last Week
THE MEANING OF BLOOD SACRIFICE
We focus on animal blood sacrifice because that form of worship is most outside our general experience and may be the one most likely to lead to a misunderstanding of Jesus's action in Jerusalem's temple. For those who are vegetarians for moral reasons, the slaughter of animals for food is ethically repugnant. Animal blood sacrifice would be repugnant to them as well. But most people in the ancient world took blood sacrifice for granted as a normal or even supreme form of religious piety. Why?
First, the vast majority of people in antiquity grew up in close contact with animals on land they either owned themselves or farmed for others, and most of them would have killed animals for food or at least seen it happen. In any case, the ancients knew that to eat meat or have a feast, you had first to kill an animal. We know that too of course, and in fact we eat far more meat than they ever did, but few of us have seen our meat killed and butchered before it is offered to us as food. We get our meat plastic-wrapped at the supermarket, and many of us could not watch the bloody process by which it got from field to store.
Second, and long before animal sacrifice was invented, human beings knew two rather basic ways of creating, maintaining, or restoring good relations with one another-the gift and the meal. Each represents the external manifestation of an internal disposition. Each has its own delicate protocols of what, when, why, to whom, and by whom. The proffered gift and the shared meal are probably the most ancient forms of human interaction, possibly even more fundamental than sex as a bonding activity.
How, then, did people create, maintain, or restore good relations with a divine being? What visible acts could they do to reach an Invisible Being? Again, they could give a gift or share a meal. In sacrifice as gift, an offerer took a valuable animal or other foodstuff and gave it to God by having it burned on the altar. In this case, the animal was totally destroyed at least as far as the offerer was concerned. No doubt the smoke and smell rising upward symbolized the transition of the gift from earth to heaven, from human being to God. In sacrifice as meal, the animal was transferred to God by having its blood poured over the altar and was then returned to the offerer as divine food for a feast with God. In other words, the offerer did not so much invite God to a meal as God invited the offerer to a meal.
That understanding of sacrifice clarifies the etymology of the term. It derives from the Latin sacrum facere, "to make" ( facere) "sacred" (sacrum). In a sacrifice the animal is made sacred and is given to God as a sacred gift or returned to the offerer as a sacred meal. That sense of sacrifice should never be confused with either suffering or substitution.
First, sacrifice and suffering. Offerers never thought that the point of sacrifice was to make the animal suffer, or that the greatest sacrifice was one in which the animal suffered lengthily and terribly. For a human meal or a divine meal an animal had to be slain, but that was done swiftly and efficiently-ancient priests were also excellent butchers.
Second, sacrifice and substitution. Offerers never thought that the animal was dying in their place, that they deserved to be killed in punishment for their sins, but that God would accept the slain animal as substitutionarv atonement or vicarious satisfaction. Blood sacrifice should never be confused with or collapsed into either suffering or substitution, let alone substitutionarv suffering. We may or may not like ancient blood sacrifice, but we -should neither caricature nor libel it.
As an aside, think about our ordinary use of that term "sacrifice" even today. A building is on fire and a child is trapped upstairs; a firefighter rushes in to get him and manages to drop him safely to the net below before the roof caves in and kills her. The next day the local paper headlines "Firefighter Sacrifices Her Life." We are not ancients, but moderns, and yet that is still an absolutely, acceptable statement. On the one hand, all human life and all human death are sacred. On the other, that firefighter has made her own death peculiarly, especially, emphatically sacred by giving it up to save the life of another. So far, so good. Now imagine if somebody confused sacrifice with suffering and denied it was a sacrifice because the firefighter died instantly and without intolerable suffering. Or imagine if somebody confused sacrifice with substitution, saying that God wanted somebody dead that day and accepted the firefighter in lieu of the child. And worst of all, imagine that somebody brought together sacrifice, suffering, and substitution by claiming that the firefighter had to die in agony as atonement for the sins of the child's parents. That theology would be a crime against divinity.
Back, then, to ancient blood sacrifice as gift or meal, but not as Suffering or substitution. Like the rest of their world, most Jews accepted blood sacrifice as a normal and normative component of divine worship at the time of Jesus. There is no reason to think that Jesus's action in the temple was caused by any rejection of blood sacrifice or, indeed, had anything to do with sacrifice as such. There were other powerful forces of ambiguity at play in first-century Israel with regard, first, to the official highpriesthood and, through its members, even to the temple itself.