Continuing my series on theology of the atonement, we continue discussion of the issue of a blood sacrifice.
The other day I noted that if God had demanded the blood sacrifice of a perfect, sinless human, he would not be all that different from Pagan deities who demanded blood to appease them.
Many, of course, find this hard to accept. For those of us who grew up with the Penal Substitution understanding of the atonement, the aspect that God was the agent of causation who demanded Jesus be killed is hard to let go of. I think this is mostly out of fear of having nothing to replace it with, but we’ll get to that in future posts, for those who hang with me through the series. (But I’ll drop an idea to ponder at the end.)
Today, however, I want to continue this exploration of the implications of God demanding a sin-virgin be sacrificed to him.
Mainly, I want to point out the following:
God never even liked blood sacrifices!
As David recognized in the book of Psalms:
“You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings.” Psalm 51:17
Here we see that, regardless of the sacrificial system prescribed by the Law of Moses, God took no delight or pleasure in sacrifices. God didn’t want them. While these sacrifices may have been a useful object lesson to the people, they were not something that he desired. In Hosea 6:6 God reminds his people of this:
“For I desire mercy, not sacrifice, and acknowledgment of God rather than burnt offerings.” Hosea 6:6
Furthermore, in the book of Matthew, we see Jesus confront the religious leaders and he tells them: “Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy, not sacrifice.” (Matthew 9:13) Thus, Jesus also affirmed that sacrifice was not something God desired.
The book of Hebrews goes on to critique the sacrificial system, arguing that it never even worked, and had absolutely no power to take away sins (Hebrews 10:4&11). The anonymous author also goes on to repeat the fact (by quoting Jesus) saying sacrifices were done according to the Law, even though God did not delight in them (Ch 10 v 8).
Did you catch that? There were parts of Moses’s law that God didn’t like or desire– and sacrifices were one of them. Hebrews 9:14 seems to hint that this may have been allowed by God as a mechanism to “purify our consciences,” but this is because we– not God– have a tendency to need a scapegoat to bear the blame for our own sinfulness.
We are the ones who need to see the shedding of blood, not God.
This is why Jesus freely told people that their sins were forgiven, and that faith had healed them– freely forgiving them without a blood sacrifice.
The author of Hebrews reminds of us of this in Chapter 9 when he/she writes that, “According to the Law, without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins.” (Heb 9:22) Not “according to God” but “According to the Law.” There is a difference. In contrast, in Jesus we see that sin can, in fact, be forgiven without the shedding of blood– because he pronounced forgiveness throughout his ministry.
When it came to blood sacrifice, God didn’t like it. God didn’t desire it. God didn’t delight in it– we see that multiple times in Scripture. But for our reasons, we needed it to purify our consciences– thus, the mechanism of scapegoating.
This is perhaps in part why John says that, “The Law was given by Moses, but grace and truth were given through Christ.” (John 1:17) Jesus came to present us something better than the Law: truth.
Now, let’s take this one step further. If God didn’t desire or like the sacrifice of animals, how would God feel about sacrificing a human?
Human sacrifice is condemned multiple times in the Old Testament, and at one point it is called an abomination (Deut 12:31) and on another occasion saying such an action profaned the name of God (Lev 18:21).
So here’s where we’re at:
The Penal Substitution metaphor of the atonement necessitates a blood sacrifice be offered to God– but only a sinless one would do, thus Jesus. However, when we look at Scripture, we see that God didn’t even like sacrifices to begin with– God took no pleasure in the system! To compound that, God also detested human sacrifice.
When we combine human sacrifice and the OT sacrificial system, we get Penal Substitution– but we also get something that God appears to detests and takes no delight in.
So if God took absolutely no delight in the sacrificial system, and found human sacrifice to be an abomination, why would he demand a combination of two things he hates?
Thus, there must be better answers. There must be a reason why it pleased God to subject himself to the very thing he detested.
Maybe one of them is that he wanted to put an end to the entire system of law that demanded such a thing, and knew it would take a drastic scapegoat (aka, the Lamb of God) for us to see how broken and unnecessary such a system was– but that’s just a hint of an answer.
Until the next part of the series!