Benjamin L. Corey

Benjamin L. Corey

BLC is an author, speaker, scholar, and global traveler, who holds graduate degrees in Theology & Intercultural Studies from Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary, and received his doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller. He is the author of Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus, and Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith.

If God Needed A Blood Sacrifice For Sin, God Is Not Holy


I grew up on the Three Stooges.

Saturday mornings on the farm my grandfather would take a rare break from work and often sit down to watch them with me, in what has become a fond memory of my grandfather. I’m sure by the time I hit puberty I had seen probably every stooges episode ever made.

And when I had kids, I passed on my love of the stooges. Except, English wasn’t our primary language in the home at the time, and I wasn’t sure how to translate “stooge” into Spanish. So, to this day we still call them the Tres Idiotas.

In one of my favorite episodes ever, Curly flies into a hilarious rage every time he sees a mouse. As he’s raging, he shouts, “Moe! Larry! The cheese!” in an effort to get the only thing that will calm him down: cheese. If you need a refresher on that episode, here you go:

Now, what does any of this have to do with the Penal Substitution theory of the atonement? A lot, actually. In fact, if this atonement theory is true, God is actually a lot like Curly.

The Penal Substitution model of the atonement begins with God’s holiness. This holiness, we’re told, causes him to be so angry at the sight of sin, that by default, he must consign anyone who has ever sinned to an eternity of damnation and torture. However, God doesn’t want to do this and thus needs something to make his anger go away so that he can forgive– but the only thing that can appease his anger is the blood sacrifice of an innocent human.

In Penal Substitution, God reacts to sin the way Curly reacts to the sight of a mouse. And, like Curly, he needs something to calm his violent anger– but instead of a mouth full of cheese to calm him, he needs human blood. Innocent blood.

The chief irony of penal substitution is that it begins with God’s holiness, but unintentionally strips him of his holiness.

Let me explain:

The word “holy” in and of itself doesn’t tell one much. The term holy technically means totally “set apart or different.” Thus, when we say that God is holy, it means that God is uniquely different than anything else in existence. “Holy” is simply a reference to other attributes, or an essence, that is different than anything else.

For example, if I told you my daughter was unique, that wouldn’t tell you much– you’d need to ask: “What makes her unique?” In the same way, when we say God is holy, we are making the claim that God is fundamentally different, and referencing other character attributes (or lack of attributes) that warrant use of the adjective “holy.”

In fact, we even sing about it in church. We sing, “Our God is greater, our God is stronger, our God is…”

When we sing those things, we are affirming that our God is not like any other god. Our God is holy and totally different.

However, while Penal Substitution likes to lay claim to God’s holiness as a foundation, it paints an image of God that completely lacks holiness.

Throughout history there are countless understandings of the gods being angry and needing a human sacrifice in order to calm them down. There were those who sacrificed babies to Moloch, the Aztecs believing that the sun god needed human blood for appeasement, ancient hawaiians who sacrificed humans to the god of war, the Incas, the Mayans… there are all kinds of gods throughout history who needed human blood sacrificed to appease them.

If holy had an antonym it would be “same” or “similar.” And, if God needed the blood sacrifice of an innocent human, he sure is similar to primitive versions of god.

Thus, let us be clear about what we are doing when we describe the cross of Calvary in this way: when we say that God’s anger at sin necessitated the blood sacrifice of an innocent human in order to calm his wrath, we are not describing a god who is fundamentally different and holy– we are simply describing another version of an angry god who needs a virgin thrown into the volcano. 

In fact, it would make him no different than Curly needing his cheese.

That’s not holy. That’s not different. It’s certainly not the God I see perfectly and completely revealed to us through Jesus.

That’s actually the opposite of holy, because it’s entirely the same as all the other gods who hunger for innocent blood.

God is not the sun god, an angry volcano god, or a god who needs innocent blood to calm him down.

Our God is holy.

Perhaps we should rethink how we explain the cross so as to not strip God of his holiness. If Jesus somehow died for us, and it pleased God to offer himself up, is there a better way of explaining it? That question and more, in the next installments.

Benjamin L. Corey

Benjamin L. Corey

BLC is an author, speaker, scholar, and global traveler, who holds graduate degrees in Theology & Intercultural Studies from Gordon-Conwell, and earned his doctorate in Intercultural Studies from Fuller.

He is the author of Unafraid: Moving Beyond Fear-Based Faith, and Undiluted: Rediscovering the Radical Message of Jesus.

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  1. The word “holy” in and of itself doesn’t tell one much. The term holy technically means totally “set apart or different.”

    This is the second time I’ve recently seen this assertion, and I wonder what the authority is for it. The English word “holy” itself is cognate to “whole,” with the original meaing being akin to “healthy.” But I assume you don’t mean the English word, but the Hebrew word (qadosh) which is being translated by “holy.”

    In reference to God, “whole/healthy” certainly seems more applicable than “set apart,” but sometimes etymologies are inscrutable — assuming that this is the received etymology of the Hebrew “qadosh.”

    But using this new (to me) definition of “holiness,” it makes for a poor argument against penal substitution. To me, penal substitution strips God of His holiness because, to me, “holy” means “good” and human sacrifice is not good. But if “holy” just means “different” then penal substitution doesn’t really affect it; God is still different in all kinds of ways from those other gods — for instance, we might imagine an apologist saying that God is unique in that he exists, and those other gods do not.

  2. I’ve been pondering this issue for a long time. What kind of a loving God would require a blood sacrifice to grant forgiveness? It just doesn’t make sense to me. As you said in your article, this seems to be in line with what other uncivilized cultures did and what I’ve heard satanists do to raise energy. Why would a holy and loving God want any part of this kind of ritual? Or, is this blood sacrifice just a law in the matrix and God has to abide by it? He wouldn’t be very omnipotent then would he?

  3. yes, God is holy. God is God and Man is not.
    The serpent lied. Knowing good and evil does not make you like God.
    Without God, man dies. Death is horrible. When Adam ate from the forbidden tree, he died spiritually and much later he died physically.
    The blood sacrifice reminds us of this death. It is horrible. But the hope is the life to come through Jesus Christ.
    Satan is the great deceiver and what many cultures adopted is but a caricature/lie of the truth. The God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is the one true God.

  4. I joined the discussion- you removed it because it was to the point and honest and proved you wrong. Why I don’t trust “phony Christians”.

  5. To much text to say so little logical truth.
    Here, a good point of view.
    God told to Adam and Eve that if they sinned rebeling against God, they should die.
    After eating the “fruit” they were dead from inside, they hearts was not pure anymore. God went away from their presence.

    BUT God LOVES us so he wants to be with us.

    The Sacrifice is a symbol. The sinner look to the dying lamb, something that cost them, and that remembers them of the price for their sin.

    But in the end, GOD saw that the human sucks and HE offered the big sacrifice, JESUS, comming and dying as a lamb for our SINS, teaching us to LOVE God and the others as a way to follow God’s commandments.

    In the end, it was all for love.

    1. I’m sorry but you are wrong Gustavo…God certainly loves us and that love transcends everything in all of creation…he has always been with us, it’s just at times we have thought we were seperate from God, through our own sense of guilt…but a truly loving perfect Heavenly Father NEVER leaves his children, and that is what God has always been.

  6. What other sort of sacrifice can you think up that is better than a perfect human that is executed for his perfect loyalty and obedience to his God and Father? Do you not know that Scripture says ‘the life is in the blood’?

    Unlike us sinful humans with ‘death’ in our bodies, do you think that Jesus would have ever died naturally if he hadn’t been legally murdered by the scheming Jews that used the Roman laws to have Jesus executed?

    Do you think you can offer anything comperable to God that Jesus can offer to his God and Father? Yet you want ot complain about God’s means of salvation why?

    Do you understand that our debts against our own selves is so massive that we can’t pay them off? Do you understand that Jesus is one man that paid for all of that sin debt for his one perfect life?

    It is you that doesn’t understand the need for a ‘blood’=(life) sacrifice’. And taking the life of what would ultimately die anyway is not the same as taking the life of a human that never would have died naturally from death since it didn’t dwell in him.

  7. I watched every episode too and I don’t see what you’re seeing at all. You are basically ruining a beautiful love story. Greater love has no man than this to lay down his life for his friends. I don’t see God’s anger as some out of control rage but as One who is righteous, Who wants to set everything right, when so much is wrong, who wants justice, like we all do, yet is full of mercy and grace taking the penalty we deserve. He paid that penalty so now there is only one sin that sends anyone to hell and that is rejecting Jesus.

  8. The final straw in my deconversuon from Christianity was when I was at Chichen Itza in Mexico and realixed thzt human sacrifice to the angry Mayan gods was no different from the human sacrifice of Jesus to the Christian god. A god is angry, someone has to die to appease him.

  9. Certainly an irreverent article on an opinion which I see as faulty. First, not one scripture passage is offered in defense of this thesis. Not one. Anywhere. Yet we see scripture replete with passages speaking of an atoning sacrifice. Hebrews 9:22 lays the framework of the sacrifice in the Old Testament with; ” And according to the law almost all things are purified with blood, and without shedding of blood there is no remission.” Matthew 5:17; “Do not think that I have come to abolish the Law or the Prophets; I have not come to abolish them but to fulfill them. “Further into chapter 9, verse 26a says; ” He has appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of Himself.” 1 John 2:2; ” And He Himself is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the whole world.” Merriam-Webster; ” something that propitiates; specifically : an atoning sacrifice”. Romans 5:8; But God demonstrates His own love toward us, in that while we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” Romans 3:10; “As it is written: “There is none righteous, no, not one;””. Romans 3:23; “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God,”. Romans 6:23; “For the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 1 Peter 2:24; “who Himself bore our sins in His own body on the tree, that we, having died to sins, might live for righteousness—by whose stripes you were healed.” 1 Corinthians 13:3a; “that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures”. 1 Peter 3:18″ For Christ also suffered once for sins, the just for the unjust, that He might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh but made alive by the Spirit,”. Romans 4:25; “who was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification.” There are more.

  10. God does not need blood. The law of moses required blood. There are two laws, the 10 and the other 603. God wrote the 10 to go in the arc (heart), the other 603 went on the outside. The 603 were done away with by Jesus.

    Read all of Hebrews 9, it tells you according to the law, not according to Yahweh. Man requires blood, not god

  11. Thank you. There are no propitiatory sacrifices in Hebrew/Judeo/Christian communities. Sacrifices that God has required have always been for the spiritual edification of someone. Abraham’s vision of his reality was transformed by his experience, he built an altar that he named, “God will provide.” Hebrew sacrifices and the law were detail oriented activities that were meant to prepare the Hebrew tribes morally and intellectually so that they could take an active part in the transformation of the world that would be initiated by the Messiah. Just as the scapegoat was a multifaceted event on the Day of Atonement, so was Jesus’ death on the Cross. Jesus words written in the Gospel of John speak of some of the transformative events that would occur on Calvary-Jesus and the Apostles would be consecrated, and the Paraclete would be given a greater role in the Kingdom of God that Jesus had developed on Earth. Jesus’ statement. “When I am lifted up, all will be drawn to me,” speaks about mankind’s state of being in this world. How many hardened or deadened people are touched at some time in their life by the violence that Jesus suffered at the hands of the Romans or are shocked by the callous behavior of so many of the Jews and ultimately recognize their own behavior and attitude haven’t been that much different?

    If one looks at Job, we see a precursor to Jesus. The Father allowed terrible things to happen to Job but it is apparent that Job’s sufferings effected Satan’s position in the heavens. Jesus said he had seen Satan fall from heaven. God didn’t need Jesus to die the way he did, but if that death would help release a multitude of people from Satan’s power, He was willing to make that sacrifice.

  12. You’ve put a strawman of God on display here.

    Blood sacrifice was never to quiet God’s anger. It was to fulfill the requirements of the Law. And the Law existed to show us how sinful we are. God can’t fudge the Law, because He is perfect and just. Because of His perfection, justice must be fulfilled, and because of His love for us, He planned a way from the dawn of time for that to be done through Christ.

    Imagine a teacher sets a deadline for her students to turn in a paper. On the day the papers are due, only a few students actually have one to turn in. Now, the teacher can (and many do) say, “Oh, all right. I’ll give you another week.” That teacher is being unjust. She set the rules and then changed them midstream out of sentimentality. A just God cannot do this.

    If the teacher does not change the rules and gives zeroes to all of the students who didn’t turn in the paper, is she angry? Is she cruel? Is she unjust? Of course not. The students merely failed to do what they knew was required of them.

    You are of course free to disagree with PSA, but you should at least characterize it correctly before doing so.

  13. The scourging, the mockery, and the crucifixion was necessary because of what we are, not because of what God is. It was we who demanded the blood sacrifice, and God, because of his eternal and unconditional love, submitted himself to our will, and thus opened the door to our reconciliation.

  14. I have to admit I really don’t understand where this line of thinking helps make sense of Christ or his Father or his sacrifice of his own will for that of his Father. I don’t get the sense that this draws us closer to Christ or the gospel. Even though there are no doubt distorted theological perspectives on the sacrifice of Christ, his intentional dying as the ransom for many, this rant doesn’t draw me closer to Jesus. It just feels like a frustrated diatribe against those for whom an empathetic response would have been more helpful. To my mind it seems more like what I might say in an angry drunken rage. I fear it has more stirred up the trolls than inspired our believing souls. Benjamin, you can do better.

  15. I shouldn’t be, but yet continue to be amazed at the way mankind elevates our own puny and incomplete wisdom, actually expecting that a being that spoke the universe into existence (though I suppose you don’t believe that either) could possibly be understood and deciphered by something as brief and stupid as us. What you seem to be saying is you don’t much like that part of the Bible and want to toss it out and replace it with something that seems more reasonable to you.

  16. “Without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness” Hebrews 9:22a
    Hebrews 9:19-28 is really good and helps it make sense. We need His blood for remission of sins, not for the fury of God.

  17. This is an interesting piece. Mr. Corey has surely given us all something to think about. I think I see a possible flaw in the reasoning though and it goes something like this and it has something to do with the way you define the meaning of holy. I realize that if you ask 100 different believers the meaning of the word holy, you may well get 100 different answers. The possible flaw I see here is and how Mr. Corey defines it. If he defines holy as sinless, then his analysis continues as written. But it has never been proven to me that this is the fundamental meaning or intention of the biblical writers when they used it when describing God. Indeed, holy has more to do with separation of purpose and being different as he noted. And so while I totally agree with him on the following two statements:

    • … we are simply describing another version of an angry god who needs a virgin thrown into the volcano, and

    • Perhaps we should rethink how we explain the cross …,

    I am not sure we need to assume that when God is described as holy that it is fundamental that we are to understand from that assertion that God is sinless. I think we should continue to treat holy as meaning that we are to continue to keep God separate from all the other so-called gods of this age and all of life’s many distractions.

    So far as describing the cross differently, may I suggest that the fundamental reason for the cross was less about atonement than to show all that he has skin in the game. As horribly as people have suffered throughout the ages, I’m fully convinced that no one is going to be able to accuse God on judgment day of sitting idly by and having experienced none of what we experience down here on a daily basis. He’ll simply be able to show us his wounds if nothing else. And of course, he very well may produce the recorded video of the events of that horrible day on Golgotha for all to see. Going to the cross were approved all that he really didn’t care and that he took responsibility for all the actions that resulted as result of his choosing to create us in his image.

    I think all the blood in the Old Testament was to show the cause and effect of the law versus our sins. But the overarching conclusion was for us to learn the lesson of Romans 4:15, namely that the Law works wrath. And if you read Romans 3:25 and 26 – at least it’s clear to me – that God’s way of displaying his righteousness – his Holiness according to most believers – was for him – not us – to take the hit that our sins deserve. The cross also explained the purchasing power of God to buy back the fields which is the world and all of us in it.

    For now I’m uncomfortable with the accusation that the “blood sacrifice” of the cross is a mutually – exclusive reality apart from his holiness – that the one obliterates the other. Rather, I think it is because of his holiness that he took the hit for us – because that was the right thing to do – and especially to show that the price he paid was real. In its own way, the price he paid for us through his sufferings was to show that we have real value to him. As I was told endlessly growing up, that God did not wink at sin. Okay, have it your way – he did not wink at it; he who knew no sin, became sin, absorbed the blows the sins caused and deserved because it was the right thing to do, and doing so, he put it, our sins, the law which condemns us and forever stood against us, to death on the cross. And I think that this is all an expression of his holiness. Remember, all this wrath of cause and effect, sin and punishment are part and parcel of the Old Covenant and its way of relating the God. But the Old Covenant had the glorious purpose to bring us all to the New Covenant. Thus we should leave behind the language of the Old Covenant and the thinking that it generates. We should all move joyously into the language and reality of the New Covenant with its focus on Grace, peace, and the new creatures he has already made of us. Maranatha

  18. Ben, thank for posting this discussion. I have reread your book as well as Frank Schafer’s book and have been doing a fair amount of introspection into the construct of my belief. These discussions really do help me to to frame and question some of my own building blocks of my faith.

    I grew up as a child of missionaries in Latin America. We had out fair share of recycled US television shows, The Three Stooges being on of them. The name had were Los Tres Chiflados.

  19. I think I understand the point, and where this is going, and it is a valid discussion. A few things… God’s holiness is chiefly due to the fact that He is without sin, then you can talk about His other attributes. Jesus offered himself up, and could have chosen not to be crucified, so it was actually God offering himself as a sacrfifice. Jesus was 100% man, but he was not just a man, He is 100% God as well. If you have kids, and a spouse, you understand the simultaneous anger and love God can have. When my kids go and do something to hurt themselves when I have said 100 times not to do it.. I am going to be sad and upset. A more appropriate analogy is when a spouse leaves and starts sleeping with someone else while you’re still married. You have a right to be jealous of the affections that were meant for only you. Sin damages relationship, and that is the point God is making. Adam and Eve were created without sin, but also created with choice, and I trust we can all do the math on that. God, offering Himself as a sacrifice is what makes our faith so unique. We are not trying to reach nirvana or some perfect state to be worthy of reaching God. He reached down, sacrificed Himself, because He loves us and wants to be with us.. to show us what real love did.. and still does.

  20. If that god created everything and is omnipotent, that god chose to make the rules as they are. He is not subject under someone else’s rule. He is as angry or as compassionate as he chooses.

    Of course this stuff is not understandable, because it is completely irrational.

  21. I’m a fan of Ben Corey’s stuff, but this is WAY off mark. He didn’t sacrifice an innocent human, he offered up himself. He can swear by no name greater than himself. Jesus was God in the flesh, not just “another virgin thrown in a volcano.” You cant throw away Isaiah 53 “Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer, and though the LORD makes his life an offering for sin, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand.” God only exhibited the law of Sowing in Reaping. In order to reap children, he had to plant a child. Jesus didn’t shed his blood for me, because I don’t require a sacrifice for sin, but God does. Jesus died for me, but his blood was shed as “an offering for sin”

  22. Had you provided on verse from the Bible to support your claims, I might be interested in what you have to say. However, you have only provided your opinion. Your opinion means nothing to the Christian. God’s word, however, means everything to the Christian. His word states very clearly that He requires the shedding of blood, not just blood, but the act of SHEDDING the blood in order to cover sins. Christ didn’t do away with the Law, but fulfilled the Law by becoming that perfect sacrificial Lamb of God. God’s holiness sets Him apart, but only Christ’s sacrifice ripped the veil that separated us and now we have access to this holy God. Why? Because He, Himself, had to be that perfect, innocent, expensive sacrifice for our sins. There is no other way. Now that’s LOVE.

  23. The PSA version of God I absorbed growing up was different than a violent, out-of-control God looking for someone to vent his anger on. It was presented as a God who cannot violate his own character, which includes having to punish sin. The image was more of a loving judge in a courtroom whose child was before him having committed a crime. The judge isn’t eager to punish him, but he “has” to for the laws of justice to be kept. So this God finds a loophole, steps down from the bench and takes the punishment for his child.

    Of course, this still has many of the same problems, including a God who is powerless to forgive sin of His own volition and a slave to His own laws. And it brought up too many questions for me to ignore. If a sacrifice was necessary to forgive sin, how did Jesus walk among the people freely forgiving them? Doesn’t the story of Abraham and Isaac on the mountain show us that God is different from Molech and the others because He doesn’t require sacrifice? And doesn’t forgiveness require that the debt be erased completely, instead of foisted upon someone else to pay?

  24. I enjoyed this Ben, like I always do! Good analogy on God like Curly! That is an image I will never forget! One thing that I wanted to bring up (not that it conflicts with what you are saying here) is that I believe that the word you are really looking for is sacred, instead of holy.

    The reason I bring this up is because sacred means what you said holy does. Separate, unique, different from the rest, set apart, etc, etc. Holy, on the other hand, means to make “whole.” It comes from an old Teutonic word, hālig, which becomes whole, also in German and Dutch. That is why holy and whole sound alike.

    Not that this takes anything away from what you are saying here. But, maybe it could add on to it. For example, in order for God to be holy, he would have to be whole. If God behaves irrationally like Curly does, then one cannot say that God is whole, but is missing something.

    What do you think?

  25. Christ became incarnate in the human Jesus to be our example of the way God wants us to live, the way that will bring us peace with God, with ourselves & with our fellow human beings. (Thy will be done on earth. Mt. 6:10) He came to enlighten us. (I am the light of the world. Jn 8:12) We believe that Jesus was fully divine and fully human. Being fully human, he had to die. I believe that showing us how to die was part of showing us how to live. His faith that God is in control made him able to face death and to believe it was for the greater good so that all human beings see Gods love, would see him resurrected and know that this life is not all there is. Jesus constantly spoke of the love of God and neighbor as being the most important thing. He lived in a manner that met what God requires of us according to Micah 6:8, “He has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?” God does not require blood sacrifice but was willing for his own blood to be poured out to show his love for all of humanity.

  26. You do not get to define what the Holiness of God is. You know what Hebrews 9:22 says as well as we do, and you cannot explain it away.

  27. I love this. I’ve been trying to address PSA lately, so I’m wondering if you (or anyone reading this comment thread) could respond to this commonly used verse: “Without the shedding of blood, there is no remission of sin.” That’s my biggest obstacle in trying to refute PSA, and I’ve yet to come up with a convincing way of responding that doesn’t involve diversion tactics.

  28. Even when you read Jewish theology looking back on the sacrifices, the idea is that they were to show God their submission and seriousness about reconciling the relationship. The sacrifice wasn’t to pay a penal debt incurred by the sin.

    Which, in that light, invests the death of Jesus with a lot more meaning.

  29. Good insight. I think “Holy” is supposed to be “set apart” in the sense of “sacred”, but anyone can tell that Aztec theology is not about the holy or the sacred in the sense we have come to understand. So, despite the semantic stretch, it works.

    This is one of the hinges of progressive theology, as one can tell by watching the blogs on Patheos. Sadly, most Christians don’t even realize that, unless you take Hebrews excessively seriously, the traditional penal substitution theory is not even Biblical. One can make a strong case that what Paul preached was much closer to what came to be called the “moral influence” theory. If one does not take “ransom” too literally, that is how it reads: Christ goes first much more often than Christ goes instead.

    Or we could consider “ransom” as an action securing our freedom from the piracy of violent imperialist systems, and the love of money in general. I don’t know if that fits any of the traditional interpretations of atonement theory, but it matches pretty well with Paul’s general worldview.

  30. Beautifully explained! I think this misunderstanding of God’s character stems from a misunderstanding of sin and evil, which is the antithesis to God’s holiness. These are separate and against God, rather than tools in God’s toolbox.
    I like the theodicy of Jurgen Moltmann for the explanation of Christ’s death. Christ climbs into our unholy humanity–even death– and redeems it with his holy presence, conquering sin and death rather than submitting to their rule.

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