The New Testament includes frequent references to Jesus' death as a means of salvation. John's Gospel refers to Jesus as "the lamb of God who takes away the world's sin" (1:29), and Revelation takes up the same image. Hebrews describes Jesus as setting aside sin through the sacrifice of his own self (9:26). Paul attests that God sets forth Jesus as a sacrifice (literally, "place of atonement") "by his blood" (Romans 3:25). Luke's Gospel stands out for refusing to describe Jesus' death in sacrificial terms, though there Jesus' body is broken "for you" and his blood is poured out "for you" as a "new covenant" (22:19-20).
Far removed from the world of ritual sacrifice, most modern folk find such language confusing, even offensive. Many of us recoil from the theory some Christians espouse, that Jesus' death amounted to a substitution. According to that view, God -- being just -- is bound to punish human sin. Jesus takes our place, enduring our punishment through his agonizing death, and his suffering removes God's judgment. This theory, called "penal substitutionary atonement," requires that someone must get hurt, and badly, in order that mortals may escape God's righteous wrath.
There's a problem with penal substitution. Biblical sacrifices do not represent human attempts to purchase forgiveness; instead, they offer a ritual means of acknowledging the costliness of sin and alienation from God. Through sacrifice, God reaches out to mortals and invites their response.
According to the Bible, God offers forgiveness freely. God is ready to forgive people without hurting anyone. (Listen to an interview with theologian Alan Padgett here.) Moreover, God's justice does not amount to retaliation. As Jesus taught, retaliation and punishment constitute inferior models of justice (Matthew 5:38-42). God's justice, or righteousness, involves God's saving action on behalf of humankind. True justice doesn't inflict harm. True justice heals.
The Jewish Scriptures and the Nature of God
Leviticus makes clear that God provides Israel's sacrificial system. A key verse, Leviticus 17:11, insists that God appoints the blood of sacrifices to "cover over" (or atone for) the lives of individuals or the community. That same language, "covering over," lies behind the day of atonement, Yom Kippur (Leviticus 16:29-34; 23:26-32). As Christian Eberhart shows, the atonement sacrifices did not "punish" animals in the place of humans; rather, they purged sin from the holy places. Priests sprinkled the animal's blood upon the altar, cleansing the impurity of sin through the vitality represented by the blood (Leviticus 1:1-7).
Here's a simple antidote for those who think ancient Judaism was a formalistic religion in which ritual sacrifices appeased an angry God: read the Psalms. There we encounter the same God who is "compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness" (Exodus 34:6, Jewish Publication Society). Consider Psalm 65:3 (65:4 in the Hebrew): "When all manner of sins overwhelm me, it is You who forgive our iniquities." As Psalm 51:17 famously puts it, "True sacrifice to God is a contrite spirit."
Interpreting Jesus' Death
Early Christians faced a monumental challenge in the wake of Jesus' death. Jesus' ministry brought life, meaning and community. But his crucifixion turned everything upside down, to all appearances demonstrating Jesus' ultimate failure to transform the world. In the light of the resurrection, however, Jesus' followers encountered the same life, meaning and community they had experienced in Jesus' presence. Somehow Jesus' death had opened the path to new life. How to explain that?
Christians developed several metaphors to account for the significance of Jesus' death and resurrection. Some emphasized how the cross demonstrated Christ's faithfulness to God, a path vindicated by the resurrection. For others, the cross revealed that God so loved humanity that God's own Son would pass through torture and death in order to accomplish reconciliation. Because Jesus died during the Passover festival, many naturally turned to the model of sacrifice to interpret how something so awful as Jesus' death had opened the way for something wonderfully good.
As Jeffrey Siker has demonstrated (find his essay here), the sacrifice metaphor required some creative work. Jesus had died during Passover. However, Passover does not involve sin offerings; Yom Kippur does. Indeed, the Passover lamb does not even constitute a sacrifice; it is never offered to God. Nor does Yom Kippur require the slaughter of lambs. It seems early Christians interpreted Jesus' death by imagining him as a Passover lamb who also purges and atones for human sin. In no case does the New Testament identify Jesus' sacrifice as a punishment, received on behalf of sinful mortals.
A Metaphor, with Advantages and Limitations
The metaphor of sacrifice holds several advantages. It acknowledges the shocking costliness of Jesus' death. It further acknowledges God's full investment in the human condition, with all the horror and cruelty of which human beings are capable. The metaphor celebrates that through Jesus' death and resurrection human beings find themselves in renewed communion with God. And sacrificial language attests to God's full investment in Jesus' life, all the way through his death and resurrection.
Unfortunately, some Christians have turned this one metaphor (among many) into a dogmatic system in which Jesus "had to die" in order to avert God's wrath. Some even go so far as to imagine God punishing Jesus -- an especially bizarre concept when one takes seriously the doctrine of the incarnation.
Like all metaphors, sacrificial language has its limitations. It captures some dimensions of Jesus' death but not others. It cannot provide a final or complete explanation for Jesus' death.
For example, the sacrifice metaphor cannot account for one of the most basic aspects of Christian experience, the sense that Christ's death and resurrection somehow empower believers to live better lives, to "conquer" sin. Early Christian authors, notably Paul, turned to another metaphor for that. Paul talked about "participation," that believers somehow participate in Christ's death, freeing them from bondage to old, deadly ways. Likewise, believers participate in Christ's resurrection life, experiencing divine power for the here and now. So Paul wrote:
I have been crucified with Christ. But is no longer I who live; rather, Christ lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me. (Galatians 2:19-20, my translation)
When early Christians reflected on Jesus' death and his risen presence, several images came to mind. Among them, sacrifice evoked the ritual means God had set forth for humankind. It involved blood and death; it purged sin. In a graphic way sacrifice involved participation. By placing a hand on the head of a sacrificial victim, Israelites were saying, "I am a part of this." Sacrificial language says some important things about Jesus' death -- but it does not say everything.