What's "Good" about (Bloody) Good Friday? Some Thoughts on the Atonement

A correspondent recently wrote: “I’m more baffled than ever about the Atonement. I sometimes feel like banging my head against the wall because of the conflict between the emotion and the logic. Why do you think a loving, merciful creator would demand a blood sacrifice?”

As Christians throughout the world commemorate the crucifixion of a whipped-raw Jesus on Good Friday, and as they symbolically eat Christ’s body and drink his blood on Easter Sunday, one might well ask: What in God’s name is going on?
A blog isn’t the medium for detailed theological exposition, of course, nor for sustained theological conversation. And the Cross of Christ is a Very Big Subject in the Christian theological curriculum. But perhaps we can at least consider an elementary response to my friend’s good question–a question many, many people raise about the Christian religion. What’s all this blood about?

Christian blood-symbolism harks back to Israelite temple worship, in which animals were killed and offered to God as substitutes for the human sinners who gave them up. “Life for life” was the basic principle, because sin at its root is the enemy of life. And the spilling of blood is the most powerful of sign of life-sacrifice.

There was also a gradient of sacrifice in the ancient Law: vegetation for the least, small animals for greater sins, and the highest of domestic animals for the greatest of sins.

The Hebrew prophets themselves made clear that these rituals together formed an elaborate picture of God’s holiness and our sin. God recognizes sin to be mortally serious. Therefore the most graphic symbolism of life and death was necessary to portray both its cost and its redemption. Indeed, this is a view of things shared in many other cultures: hence blood sacrifice, including human sacrifice, has been reported around the globe.

What is striking about the Israelite sacrificial system is not only its tribute to God’s holiness, but also its testimony to God’s mercy. God was willing to accept animal substitutes and forbade human sacrifice, although it makes no logical or moral sense to do so: How can the blood of bulls or goats possibly make up for human sin?

Christian belief recognizes this point and affirms–let us face this startling truth–that human sacrifice was, in fact, necessary. Humanity has to pay for humanity’s moral debts, and those debts amount to a weight sufficient to crush the life out of us. Jesus called himself the “Son of Man,” an ancient phrase that means “the representative of humanity,” and (in a way no one understands) took on himself the consequences of humanity’s sin. He died an unmistakably sacrificial death–blood galore–as our scapegoat, as “the Lamb of God who takes away the sins of the world.”

So the blood-symbolism, I suggest, makes grim sense. “Life for life,” and in this Great Exchange, as Luther puts it, Christ receives the consequences of our sin and we receive the benefits of his goodness.

Some recent critics–and even some theologians–have been appalled at all this, however. They see in this scenario a Christ who is a victim of God’s bloodthirsty rage. But remember that orthodox Christianity is trinitarian. The Cross is not the Big Father God pounding the Smaller Son God to death. It is the One God–Father, Son, and Spirit–who suffers in the Cross-event. Indeed, the one God suffers in all three persons: as the one on the Cross, yes, but also as the loving Father and Spirit who hate to see him hurt, even as they support him in his necessary work. So there is no “divine child abuse,” as some put it, in this doctrine.

But why doesn’t God just forgive us? Why does anyone have to suffer at all?

The first thing to say is that forgiveness of any serious transgression means someone has to suffer. If you have forgiven a painful injury, you know how much it hurts to refuse to get even, let alone seek vengeance, and instead to forgive.

The second thing to say, however, is that the Cross is more than just an elaborate, and shocking, symbol of God’s self-sacrificial forgiveness. The Cross takes care of something; it accomplishes something.

Many of the world’s religions speak of wrong actions as affecting the order of things, not just making the gods or other people or oneself unhappy. In India, when one fails to do what one should, one’s negative actions create negative karma. In tribal societies around the world, breaking tabus–whether one meant to do so or not–creates a bad situation that requires corrective action. And in ancient Israel, failing to follow God’s law–even in unintentional transgression–was called sin, and required an appropriate sacrifice.

Christianity shares this sense that sin is not only a rupture in our relationship with God and others. Such a rupture could be met indeed with forgiveness. Sin also somehow makes a mess, incurs a debt, infects a soul, and so on in a range of metaphors that all point to a problem in the nature of things that needs solving.

Five-year-old Billy uses his crayons to decorate Mom’s heirloom Irish linen tablecloth. He has been told not to do so, and he does it anyway. When Mom calls him to account, Billy sees how sad she is and repents. Mom forgives him. All is well–except that the tablecloth still needs washing. The relationship of Mom and Billy is restored by forgiveness, but someone still needs to take care of the objective state of affairs caused by Billy’s sin.

I owe you a thousand dollars. It’s time to pay up, and I tell you that I need the money for something else. You compassionately see my side of things, and you decide to forgive the loan, and forgive me. We thus remain friends. But the fact remains that you are out a thousand dollars. Either I pay it, or you do–no matter how we feel about each other.

In the Cross of Christ there is a disorder that is rectified, a stain that is removed, a disease that is cured, a penalty that is paid, a something wrong that is made right by Jesus’ sacrifice of himself. Jesus anticipates that horrible reality in the Garden of Gethsemane and acknowledges that the “cup” of suffering must be drained by someone–either us or him. However we feel about him and however he feels about us, the cup is still there. And he chooses to drink it on our behalf.

The Cross of Christ therefore shows us an impressive example of commitment to a cause. It depicts God’s love in dramatic terms. It inspires devotion. And, indeed, it marks Christ’s victory over all of our enemies–particularly death, hell, and the devil. All of these, and more, are valid and important aspects of the Atonement.

The Cross of Christ also, however, did what needed to be done, however dimly we perceive it–and I certainly wish I perceived it better than I’ve been able to sketch here!

Let us look hard, then, with wonder, and horror, and gratitude, and see what we can see.

“Behold! The Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world.”

0 Responses to “What's "Good" about (Bloody) Good Friday? Some Thoughts on the Atonement”

  1. Matt

    Excellent post, Dr. Stackhouse – and very timely on this Good Friday. The analogy of the $1000 debt is very suitable – thank you.

    I especially appreciate your emphasis on the unity within the Trinity. One further point that could be made, maybe you could expound on this in future – is that the unity of the Trinity is not merely the sum total of its various attributes. It is the “I AM THAT I AM”. God is *entirely* each attribute that He ascribes to Himself. (i.e. – God’s wrath and mercy are not two separate attributes of God that He must creatively keep in tension or vaccilate between them as a senile old grandfather). Rather, *every* act of God is met simultaneously with *both His divine justice and His omnibenevolent mercy*. In the cross we truly see both – a just penalty for sin and loving mercy for the repentant! For us to expect forgiveness without a demonstration of just vengeance is to deny the unity of the Godhead. It is an expectation of a god that is other than the God who reveals Himself in the Bible.

    Maybe in the future you could exposit 2 Corinthians 5:21? This verse has had a profound effect on my thinking of atonement. We often (correctly and necessarily) focus on the atonement as imputing our sin guilt on Christ, but less so on the imputation of His righteousness on us. If the cross merely removes our guilt, do we not stand merely “neutral” in front of God, in such a way that He could send us either to heaven or hell?

    Is there not only one criteria in which to enjoy fellowship with God in this life and the next – that being absolute perfect righteousness? Of course, the mode of imputing our sin onto Christ and Him imputing His righteousness onto us is the same – and it is not possible without the Cross. Why do we tend to not spend enough time focusing on what it means for us to “become the righteousness of God”? Of course, in this day and age, our understanding of our legal understanding before God and substitionary atonement is drastically shallow as well – so thank you for the excellent reminder!

    PS – I would still like to hear from you re: Dr. Patterson – esp. – is he trying to ensure that women not “teach or have authority” over *grown* men or over any boy who will one day be a man?

    In Him,
    Matt

  2. Jon Coutts

    Very well said, thank you for taking the time to write it, especially on this weekend where the computer is as good a place as any to Remember.

    One thing I find interesting is when people draw a parallel from the bloodiness of atonement to claim that for this reason Christianity is or should be a bloody, violent religion. Properly understood, nothing could be further from the truth! To me the atonement enables real forgiveness and allows us to put justice is in the hands of One who knows; even One who has already suffered; already has willingly been the ultimate victim. Incredible.

  3. Jerry

    “The relationship of Mom and Billy is restored by forgiveness, but someone still needs to take care of the objective state of affairs caused by Billy’s sin.”

    Great analogies. But I see a huge leap from this “objective state of affairs” to the seemingly subjective (and maybe magical) balancing out of right and wrongs in the bloody, objective death of Christ.

    “And, indeed, it marks Christ’s victory over all of our enemies–particularly death, hell, and the devil. All of these, and more, are valid and important aspects of the Atonement.”

    This is another thing I struggle with. People are still dying, and no one has literally seen a “hell” or a “devil” for Christ to have victory over.

    While I still keep trying to understand Christian theology, I battle over a nagging thought – “Is this all a deep mystery, or is it a sham that just doesn’t make any sense?

  4. kandace

    I believe many of us who grew up attending Christian church services have become immune to the deep spiritual truth of Jesus’ sacrifice through our ritualistic chanting of words like those in the Apostles Creed and other rote statements of church dogma on this subject. Often, our pastors have little time or are perhaps not as well prepared as Dr. Stackhouse to try to explain this difficult mystery.

    For those of us who are called to teach others the Good News, understanding this means of reconciling fallen humanity with our creator is of the utmost importance.

    My own efforts at grasping the meaning and veracity of the atonement are greatly enhanced through these types of exchanges. Interestingly, the undertanding which is coming to me now begins at the level of emotion — a vast and deep sense of sorrow for the horrors suffered by tthe man Jesus Christ. Perhaps this is where compassion truly begins.

    I am very appreciative of Dr. Stackhouse’s explanation here. For, as he has shown us, if we can begin to understand the need for atonement as an absolute truth — like gravity, moon phases, or cause and effect — we at least have a starting point from which to develop our thoughts.

    But then of course I am left with another question: if the atonement had to occur to re-establish balance within the construct of universal truth, why did the Creator of all set the whole thing up that way to begin with?
    Guess it’s back to the books!

    Thanks Dr. S. — and have a great day.

  5. James Anglin

    Hi, John. Nice blog.

    I’m still not happy with my understanding of the Atonement. Many of the explanations that I have heard seem to me too anthropomorphic.

    For instance among humans it may well be true that forgiveness always requires some suffering on the part of the forgiver, in overcoming the instinct for vengeance. For vengeful people this pain may be great; but for more serene souls it is smaller. We recognize ease in forgiving as a virtue, and we imagine painless forgiveness as a level of virtue to which humans can in principle aspire. So surely God can forgive without this kind of pain.

    And it is true among humans that forgiveness still often leaves damage to be undone, and this is beyond human power to do without some kind of cost. Yet even among humans we again see a spectrum of difficulty in paying such costs. For a poor family’s teenager to total the car is a crisis, but a billionaire family might get a new car every day anyway. Surely an omnipotent God can simply restore any damage with negligible effort.

    Maybe my work as a physicist has led me into gnosticism or something, but I feel a need to understand the Atonement as something that would really be done by the extremely superhuman God I believe in, the God at whose will each particle and every point of space persists from instant to instant, the God who decides reality. So far I’ve gotten to something like this.

    There is enough evil in the world that even we humans are appalled by it. I imagine God must be far more horrified, for knowing how much better it all could be. And indeed God could simply eliminate everything bad. But the evil extends, like the roots of tares, into the souls of us, God’s children. My moral sicknesses are, unfortunately, part of who I am. Suddenly removing them from me would be replacing me with a better, but other, person. To fix the universe by instant fiat would be to annihilate us all. Rather than that, God maintains us as ourselves, and the whole sick world with us. And since I think that maintaining the sick universe in reality requires intimate and ongoing involvement by God, I think that must be a kind of torture.

    But I hope God is suffering in hope. In the continued existence God painfully gives us, some of us may gradually be sanctified, while remaining ourselves. Here I’m fuzzy, but I take some of Jesus’s parables to say that the key to sanctification, as opposed to being replaced with another person, is maintaining a close dependent relationship with God. I figure that those hard sayings about Jesus’s flesh being food are, while of course not literally true, awfully close to literally true. I think that God suffers maintaining the broken universe in order to bleed goodness into us.

    If God is bleeding into the universe anyway, in the sense of suffering by maintaining it in order to inject as much grace as possible, why bleed in human flesh on that cross, that one dark day in Palestine? Well, for one thing, why not? It was no more than what God was already doing, every day, anyway. For God every day is Good Friday. I think of the Atonement as happening all the time, in ways we cannot see. The crucifixion was a brief incarnation of it.

    And I think the main reason to incarnate the Atonement for those few grim hours was the same as the reason for the Incarnation as a whole: to show us what God is like, so that we can accept the intimate relationship that can heal us without destroying us. I think the crucifixion was Jesus’s second last parable.

  6. Pramod

    Thx for the above write-up, which I read on Nicks Blog (Life Without Limbs.org) as I have clearly understood about the Cup that Jesus took. I had this question lurking in my mind for sometime and I found that answer here.. I’m from India and a Hindhu convert to Christ. (Born Again Christian).
    May God Bless You and Inspire you and Nick to bring up more like artical’s to bring people to Light of the Christ.
    In Christ Pramod.

  7. John Stackhouse

    Belated thanks for all these good thoughts, friends, as I go over them on Good Friday 2008. We’re in the deep end of the theological pool here, so let’s just do our best and help each other understand as best we can what we ultimately cannot understand.

    I’ve taken another run at some of these questions in the revised edition of “Can God Be Trusted?” and particularly the question of why Jesus’ death didn’t usher in a new, “peaceable kingdom” immediately….

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