2. How does the (life and) death of Jesus atone for our sins?

Early Christians believed that blood had redemptive powers:

all things are cleansed with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no forgiveness

(Hebrews 9:22)

To regard a substance as having such abstract powers invariably comes from a form of thinking known as sympathetic magic. JG Frazer’s The Golden Bough (1889) extensively documents and elucidates such rituals. The belief in the abstract restorative powers of blood stems from a naive essentialism that should be anathema to the modern educated mind:

But flesh with the life thereof, which is the blood thereof, shall ye not eat.

(Genesis 9:4)

For the life of the flesh is in the blood: and I have given it to you upon the altar to make an atonement for your souls: for it is the blood that maketh an atonement for the soul

(Leviticus 17:11)

For it is the life of all flesh; the blood of it is for the life thereof: therefore I said unto the children of Israel, Ye shall eat the blood of no manner of flesh: for the life of all flesh is the blood thereof: whosoever eateth it shall be cut off.

(Leviticus 17:14)

We now know that life cannot be defined as that which has blood pumping through it, that blood is not at all a life giving essence but rather one substance among many, part of a system that enables but one of many complex chemical reactions that sustain a living organism. The line between the living and the inert is not a sharp one, rather a matter of degree. Blood is not magical.

Why is God vengeful? That is, why does this being require a violent sacrifice (blood) to atone for sin? Is God not supposed to be accepting of those who come to him? Why does he need some kind of payment, ransom, or substitution at all?

A sophisticated Christian may counter that blood is symbolic. This is not in accord with the Hebrew Bible, and of course it raises the question “symbolic for what?”

The scapegoats

The Day of Atonement occurs on day ten of the seventh month in the Jewish calendar. On this day, the High Priest of Israel would sacrifice a bullock as an offering to propitiate for his own sins. Then he presented two goats at the tabernacle which were chosen by lot. One goat was “The Lord’s Goat”, a blood sacrifice, and the other was the scapegoat, to be sent away into the wilderness. The High Priest confessed the sins of the Israelites to Yahweh, placing them figuratively on the head of the scapegoat, who took them away never to be seen again. With the cleansing magic of the blood of the Lord’s goat, The sin of Israel was atoned for.

In the New Testament, Barrabas is reportedly set free. Yet why would the Romans release a rebel leader and murderer on the request of a crowd of Jews? Why have the Jews suddenly turned against Jesus? Acts 25:16 (almost certainly written by the author of the Gospel of Luke) reads

I told them that it is not the Roman custom to hand over anyone before they have faced their accusers and have had an opportunity to defend themselves against the charges.

There is no precedent in Roman custom for releasing those to be crucified. More specifically, the practice is not in accord with what is known of Pilate’s dealings with the Jews. As history, the story is completely implausible. It is to be understood as not only a parallel to the Jewish practice of atonement through scapegoating, but as a direct replacement for it. Barrabas means “son of the father”, so we have two sons side by side. In some manuscripts of Matthew, Barrabas is even called Jesus Barrabas. The conceit is that there is no need to practice the Jewish sacrifice of two goats each year now because the ritual is subsumed into the one-time sacrifice of God’s son. So Barrabas is set free and disappears, the wilderness goat, and Jesus is slain, the blood sacrifice. The parallels may not only be an attempt to update and replace the old rituals, a constant theme of the canonical Gospels. There may be intended an ironic commentary, in that the wrong “goat” was chosen by the people to die.

Now, the life of Jesus cannot be only that of an animal, a blood sacrifice to Yahweh. So the tale must be refined. The writers of the New Testament books naturally attempted to do this, as did Christian leaders.

The Moral Influence Theory of Atonement

The oldest theology on the atonement is probably the moral influence view. The idea is that the entire life and death of Jesus encourages a moral betterment of society. However, this theory is not satisfactory at all. Christ’s death is no longer a necessary or uniquely redemptive act. Rather than being saved by the blood of Jesus, people save themselves through their own behaviour. The divinity of Jesus becomes a side note.

There is intense debate on whether the moral influence view is contradicted by scripture, especially the declarations by Paul that people are saved by faith and not “works of the law”.

Does such moral influence even work? Robert Ingersoll asked the razor sharp question, “Has the promise and hope of forgiveness ever prevented the commission of a sin?”

In fact it seems that belief in forgiveness is a predictor of higher crime rates. In a study of 143,000 people across 67 countries, Azim F. Shariff and Mijke Rhemtulla found that

the proportion of people who believe in hell negatively predicts national crime rates whereas belief in heaven predicts higher crime rates.

The Penal Substitution Theory of Atonement

The penal substitution theory did not emerge until the 11th Century CE. The major critic of this view of the atonement was Faustus Socinus, whose objections were:

1. Perfect satisfaction for sin, even by way of substitution, leaves no room for divine forgiveness or pardon.(Is God unwilling or unable to forgive without someone suffering?)

2. It is unjust both to punish the innocent and to allow the guilty to go free.

3. The finite suffering and temporary death of one is disproportionate to the infinite suffering and permanent death of many.

4. The grace of perfect satisfaction would appear to confer on its beneficiaries a freedom to sin without consequence.

Another flaw in  the penal substitution theory is that only a victim can forgive you for what you have done to them. Penal substitution bypasses the hurt done to victims and so is unjust.

The Satisfaction Theory of Atonement

The satisfaction theory is found in the works of the medieval theologian Saint Anselm of Canterbury. The death of Jesus is seen as an alternative to punishment altogether. Rather, it is said to restore the honour that sin had taken away. On this view, God is something like a mafia Godfather.

Thomas Aquinas refined the satisfaction theory, postulating that the crucifixion of Jesus restored a universal moral imbalance.

The weakness of satisfaction theory is that it abstracts the death of Jesus and dodges the question of what the crucifixion was actually supposed to achieve. Aquinas says that punishment is medicinal, and the death of Jesus was medicinal, but how are they medicinal? What is the active ingredient in the medicine? How is the death of Jesus a morally restorative act? What is good about it?

The Ransom Theory of Atonement

Another early (as opposed to medieval or later) theory is that the death of Jesus paid a ransom. Traditionally the ransom is paid to Satan. Yet this gives undue power to Satan: What hold would he have over Jesus, who reportedly resisted him?

Anselm’s refutation of the ransom theory was that Satan, being a rebel and outlaw, could have no just claim over humans.

Furthermore, the idea is unscriptural. There is nothing in the Bible about the devil demanding a ransom for humans.

There are other theories of the atonement that the reader can research for themselves. Suffice to say none of them are satisfactory.

What does the Bible say?

Paul doesn’t make the issue any clearer. He doesn’t stick to any soteriological model, preferring to pile on the metaphors, presumably to enrichen the death of Jesus beyond that of Jewish blood sacrifice. Throughout the New Testament you will find a conflation of many, often contradictory, ideas on the death of Jesus. In passages such as 2 Corinthians 5:21 and Galatians 3:13, Jesus is the scapegoat.

In Romans 3:25, propitiation, faith, and blood are what redeem us.

In Romans 6, a surrendering of freedom is implied. The death of Jesus makes us “slaves of God.”

In Romans 8:3

For what the law was powerless to do because it was weakened by the flesh, God did by sending his own Son in the likeness of sinful flesh to be a sin offering. And so he condemned sin in the flesh

flesh is the redemptive element.

Elsewhere, the death of Jesus is an economic transaction, as in Acts 20:28 :

…feed the church of God, which he hath purchased with his own blood.

Let us not forget that the idea of blood’s magic cleansing properties is littered throughout the New Testament as well as the Old.

Atonement cannot be a combination of the theories since all of them are flawed, and most of them are mutually exclusive. To the Jews, the capture and execution of Jesus is evidence that he was not the Messiah. So why does the story of Jesus end this way?

Remember that The New Testament was intended to replace the Old. Christ’s death is a direct replacement for the Judaic practices of blood sacrifice and scapegoating. But Paul, especially, tried to seal the deal with as many convincing metaphors as he could muster. This has opened the way for two millennia of wild and contradictory theology.

The problem of atonement should be a huge stumbling block for Christians. At the very least, each Christian should have a satisfactory theory as to how Jesus is salvation. That would not suffice were humans less mentally flighty creatures. That is, it should not suffice, since for all the imaginative invention of theories we are capable of, the failure of the allegedly holy texts to make the crucial matter clear is a giant red flag.


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