• John G. Stackhouse, Jr.

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 an elaborate pattern of sacrifices, including vegetation for certain offerings and animals for others.

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.”

[If you would like to read more about this strange Story, please consider this book.]