Thursday, February 12, 2009

Atonement -- not so simple

So last time I wrote about grace, and how it is actually a theme that is encountered (and countered with justice) all throughout the bible, both Old and New Testaments. Tonight I write about another theme, atonement, and once again it is one that is much more complicated than it might appear on the surface.

Let's start with the Old Testament. When I think of atonement in the Old Testament, I usually think of animal sacrifice. This practice begins immediately in the bible narrative, right after Adam and Eve's ejection from the Garden of Eden. It begins with their sons, Cain and Abel:

"Now Abel kept flocks, and Cain worked the soil. In the course of time Cain brought some of the fruits of the soil as an offering to the Lord. But Abel brought fat portions from some of the firstborn of his flock." (Genesis 4)

So right away animals are being presented as an offering to God. Noah did it right after the great flood (Genesis 8), Abraham is recorded often as building altars and providing "burnt offerings" on them to God, and Moses did the same. And once Moses inherits "the law", we see right away in the first chapter of Leviticus that God handed down specific instructions on burnt offerings, with specifics from the type of animal (male, without defect) to the style of preparation (skinning the animal, where to place the head on the altar, etc...). That chapter also details how to prepare birds or even grains as a burnt offering, instead of animals. Later, in Leviticus 16, God provides details of how to prepare and kill animals for sacrifices on the "Day of Atonement" a special worship and celebration outside of regular sacrifices. The bottom line is that these offerings, whether spontaneous or command-based, were an important part of their relationship with God.

This is the foundational practice of achieving/receiving atonement. Since I keep mentioning the word, and it's the title of this post, we might as well define it!

I've looked up the word "atonement" in many dictionaries and concordances, and just like with any other topic, there's no agreement. Welcome to biblical study, my friends. But the general tone is something like this:

Atonement: when something has happened so that God can forgive sin

Interesting. The basic picture here is that God is willing, even eager, to forgive, but it's not a unilateral move. He waits for a person to respond, then provides the forgiveness.

So I guess that's it, then. See you next time!

Okay, I'm kidding. Obviously it's not that simple. First let's work through some logic, then we'll look at a few more bible passages.

Logically, what is it about animal blood, bird carcasses or grains that opens up the doorway to forgiveness? Is it something physically present in the flesh or grain? I can't say for sure, but that seems doubtful. This appears more like something God simply chose, because it was an easily-available form of sacrifice for the people. Something that did come with a price, but not too much. He's looking for the gesture itself -- the details are irrelevant (although there sure are a lot of details in Leviticus).

In that case, then, let's look at the bible and see how this plays out. If offerings bring atonement, and enable God to forgive sin, then without offerings there may not be atonement, right? I mean, God laid out the rules pretty clearly. Now we return to Isaiah:

"Yet you have not called upon me, O Jacob, you have not wearied yourselves for me, O Israel. You have not brought me sheep for burnt offerings, nor honored me with your sacrifices. I have not burdened you with grain offerings nor wearied you with demands for incense. You have not bought any fragrant calamus for me, or lavished on me the fat of your sacrifices. But you have burdened me with your sins and wearied me with your offenses." (Isaiah 43:22-28)

Ouch. Surely this won't go well. But wait:

"But now listen, O Jacob, my servant, Israel, whom I have chosen. This is what the Lord says -- he who made you, who formed you in the womb, and who will help you: Do not be afraid, O Jacob, my servant, Jeshurun, whom I have chosen. For I will pour water on the thirsty land, and streams on the dry ground; I will pour out my Spirit on your offspring, and my blessing on your descendants. They will spring up like grass in a meadow, like poplar trees by flowing streams." (Isaiah 44:1-5)

Whoa! So maybe sacrifices aren't the only way to atonement? You readers who are long-time church attendees are probably thinking of this passage by now:

"You do not delight in sacrifice, or I would bring it; you do not take pleasure in burnt offerings. The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit; a broken and contrite heart, O God, you will not despise." (Psalm 51)

There were whole years, even decades, when the Israelites were not able or not willing to follow specific divine commands. They skipped the Year of Jubilee more than they followed it, they intermarried with idolatrous cultures, they spared enemies they were supposed to kill and killed enemies they were supposed to spare. And they missed sacrifices. Sacrifices for atonement. For forgiveness. Yet God always forgave them anyway, which is powerfully apparent when reading books like Isaiah.

I guess that is the meaning of grace.

I'm running short on time again, and have so far still to go. So let's close with the most fun part -- the hard questions:

-- If God could forgive without sacrifice, then why ask for sacrifice in the first place? It's obviously not for God, or to "enable" God's forgiveness through atonement. He's God. He built the universe; he can forgive whom and when he wants. Is it possible that the demand for sacrifice was for the people? For them to put some skin in the game, come together as a culture, and spend time processing the big picture of what they'd done and how they would improve?

-- If God could forgive without sacrifice, does this put any possible holes in the view of Jesus' death as a necessary part of penal substitution (his perfect self killed so that we imperfect people could be saved)?

-- If "yes" to the above, what other reasons could there be for the life, and death, of Jesus?


Andrew said...

Good questions and many that I am also spinning around. It has always bothered me on an intuitive level, even before I started articulating it, that God wanted to forgive but had these technicalities that prevented him from doing so. Because:

A. That seemed enormously limiting.
B. As you indicate, there are plenty of scriptural examples when God just... forgives.

Great topic!!

Dean said...

Interesting read. Great topic!

I was watching a documentary the other night with my mother. It showed a sheep being slaughtered for a religious ceremony of some kind. I think it was Ramadan, but I may be mistaken. Anyway, my mum, a devout christian (and a meat-eater, I might add) proclaimed that it was barbaric and devils work to sacrifice any living thing in Gods name. I commented that it was also a Christian/Judaic practice that had just fallen out of favor. She disagreed and I didn't know where to find the info in the bible. Thanks for this. I'm forwarding it on now.

Bob said...

So interesting, Michael. Glad you are writing some of the heavy stuff again.

Looking forward to the next installment.

Redlefty said...


Thanks! There's much more to be written here, and I look forward to putting it together.


Yes, animal sacrifice was a central part of the Jewish people's lives, which is the ancestry of Christianity. And those sacrifices were explicitly commanded by God, so I'd be hard-pressed to call them the devil's work.

It's amazing how many things I would like to think are just plain wrong (animal sacrifice, polygamy, slavery) yet are fully accepted by God in the Old Testament.

I used to think it was just because they didn't have the "full" picture of God, and as they grew they threw away their childish ways. But that'a awfully preumptuous of me to assume that our picture of God is somehow full today. After all, as my Mom commented on the last post, Christians are just grafted branches (Romans 9) in the divine plan.

Maybe He's not done yet.

Thanks for your comment, and I wish you well in speaking with your Mom!

Tit for Tat said...

I always found it fascinating that people who dont like animal sacrifices are enthralled by a supposed human one. Heres another way of looking at it though. If you choose to believe Jesus is God, maybe he sacrificed himself for your benefit, "because of your beliefs" after all, animal sacrifice was deeply ingrained in the psyche of that era. So wouldnt this be a way to penetrate their minds and end that concept forever. Mind you, I dont think it worked very well.

Logan said...

Very good points. I've often wondered why so many people are not bothered by the notion that God apparently 'needs' innocent blood to be shed in order to forgive. I like how you pointed out that God, as Creator of the universe, can simply forgive. I've always seen the Passion as a symbol of what we have to go through from our end to experience deliverance and grace...not something God "needed to forgive our sins".

Tit for Tat said...


Im wondering, why exactly do I need forgiveness, or you for that matter?

Logan said...

I don't think we're automatically destined from a burning hell, if that's what is meant you mean.

I think we all commit sins-I'm not afraid to use the word-but I believe the universe already operates with the law of karma. I see forgiveness as something we earn when we forgive others-it liberates us from the laws of karma and allows us to grow.

Just my own understanding...

MamaRose said...

I TOTALLY AGREE with you that GOD CAN & DOES/DID FORGIVE without ANY sacrifice--BUT, there was (MAYBE) a 'contrite HEART'/'confession'/'Repentance' WITHIN the person(s)--that we don't know about--that GOD DOES??!!

And, I ALSO AGREE that the 'sacrifice' WE MAKE IS 'FOR' US--mainly, FOR OBEYING HIS COMMANDS/LAW!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

About Jesus's LIFE SACRIFICE?????--I'm thinking that with ALL THE SIN for 'ALL TIME'--THAT was WHAT WAS 'NECESSARY'--IN GOD'S EYES/Mind--OR, for sure, he would not have ASKED HIS ONLY SON to do that--right?????!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

And, I'm WONDERING just HOW OLD 'Tit for Tat' is--is he/she REALLY NOT 'AWARE' of ANY SINS that they have committed????????!!!

Not just the 'OT' kind--from the 10Commandments--but, from the 'NT' ones--the ones JESUS asked us to follow--the ones like HAVING A 'PURE' HEART, NOT 'lusting' BY 'LOOKING'--WANTING what other folks' have--NOT 'Loving our Neighbor as ourselves'--ones like those--NO HUMAN has EVER followed those PERFECTLY--EXCEPT JESUS!!!!!!

If he/she NEEDS to be 'CONVITED' of sins, then they NEED to READ MORE of JESUS'S WORDS in the first 4 books of the NT!!!!!!!!!!

'We've ALL SINNED & COME SHORT OF THE GLORY OF GOD'--Romans 3:23 & also, another verse that 'comes to mind' is: I John 1:8--'IF we CLAIM to be WITHOUT sin, we DECEIVE ourselves & the TRUTH is NOT in us"--sorry, that's blunt--BUT, THAT'S GOD'S WORD!!!!!!!!!!!!

It's times like THESE when His Word is like a SWORD--CUTTING through all the bunk...............

LOVE YOU BUNCHES!!!!!!!!!!!! Mom

Debby said...

When I have to stop and think about your post for a couple days before I can comment, I know that you're into the 'great things' again.

When a parent loves a child, no sacrifice is too great. Think about it, Redlefty...what would you give up to save your children? I think that Jesus' sacrifice was demonstrating the enormity of God's love for us. God loves us. He wants to forgive us and welcome us and hold us close. We don't understand squat without visuals. Heck, even with the visuals, we are out of our depth.

Okay. That's all I've got.

*Wanders off still thinking*

James W said...

I concur with Debby. I think if God did not show us how important we were with his son's sacrifice we would not be here today. I feel humbled to know someone loves me that much. How can you not love someone that has given up so much.

Redlefty said...


You're going right at the point I'll be exploring a couple of posts from now.

I've got one more aspect of grace/atonment to look at first, hopefully tonight!

Don said...

I think you're on to something here. These are certainly huge questions for faithful, church attendees. I have my own thoughts and ideas here. You already know them so I won't bore you with them. Steve Jones opened my heart and life to so many questions with many, but not all answers. That, IMO, is why we're on this journey. By the way, I was in Katy last weekend. I was going to call, but remembered Saturdays are for families (your family). Maybe next time.

Steve H. said...

Great post and very thoughtful. God certainly can unilaterally forgive but everything comes down "relationship". In Gen 3:21 God himself makes the first animal sacrifice by preparing animal skins for the newly fallen Adam and Eve to "cover" their sin. That seemed to allow a temporary makeshift relationship with God possible. In God's economy its not just an innocents blood is shed so now I forgive you, God is ferevently trying to restore relationship with very disobedient children. Every good relationship demands some form of sacrifice (hello married people)

Thanks again for the post Michael

Debby said...

What if the animal sacrifice thing was simply another 'visual'? (Re: We don't understand squat without visuals and even then we are out of our depth.) What if God is simply trying to explain to us what kind of a relationship He desires with us? What if he was using the literal sacrifices (animal and Christ's) as visuals to show us that the relationship he wants from us is like a father w/ his children or a husband and wife...the kind of mutual love that has both sides prepared to lay down their lives for the other, to sacrifice anything to be close.

Okay. That's all I got.

*wanders off thinking*

Debby said...

Any good relationship (marriage, parent/child) does require a measure of sacrifice and forgiveness. The old Testament displays that in the God/People relationship: The people sacrificing at the temples. God raining grace down on the Israelites, etc.

And then, what if gradually over tiem, people began perverting God's idea of relationship, turning His simple desire for us into a rigid, unforgiving, legalistic rulebook that no one could possibly live up to. People began to judge one another, and find everyone lacking. God said, "No. Let me try to explain it one more time." And he came down to teach us the lesson personally. What if this is God's way of saying 'you sacrifice, I sacrifice, we become one in our love for each other, and in the end, no sacrifice is too great for our relationship?

Viewed in that light, rigid Christians, judgemental Christians, angry Christians, unbending Christians are even more wrong.

Debby said...

Oh. PS. That's all I got.

*wanders off thinking*

Redlefty said...

By all means, keep going if you've got more, Debby!

If you've ever read Phillip Yancey's satirical alternate version of the Prodigal Son story, it has a similar takeaway.

He basically says what if the son returned home, had his party, and then was told by the "responsible" son that continued acceptance by the father required him to wear his robe just so, wear the right kind of ring, follow a million house rules, etc...

In the process the prodigal son would've lost sight of the fact that there were no such conditions on his return. And the responsible son clearly has missed the whole point of what family means, and how unconditional true love can really be.

Don said...

Okay, I have to put in Steve Jones’ two cents worth. Steve is my favorite journeyman theologian:

The cross has long been the chief emblem of Christianity. The New Testament writings give it a preeminent place. The death of Christ is said to have reconciled us to God, defeated the principalities and powers, destroyed death, provided a ransom, removed our sins.

Out of this language come atonement theories that attempt to explain a nagging perplexity: How can a Jewish preacher's death two millennia ago effect our redemption?

Many give a ready answer here. They say that Jesus in some mysterious way took our sins onto himself and was punished in our stead. A perfectly just God must punish sin, so He punished a substitute instead of us. Golgotha drained the cup of divine wrath so that the Creator could treat us favorably.

I won't launch into a lengthy disputation of the view known historically as penal substitution. But I will point out one glaring flaw in the theory: It annihilates free forgiveness. Under penal subsitution, God forgives no one, He instead exacts payment from another, JESUS.

Logan said...

Steve Jones is a great man...I really miss his writing!

Paula said...

I'm currently reading my way through Leviticus in my quest to read the Bible from cover to cover and in the order it was put together. There have been several things that have struck me while I was reading. The first is the multitude of rules that God laid out for Israel. How to Sacrifice for Sin (both intentional and unintentional), how to sacrifice for the various holy days, how often to sacrifice and what to sacrifice for. When God talks to Moses about unintentional sin, I was left wondering how something unintentional was determined to be sin - who makes that judgement call?

I guess the other thing about the Sacrifices that caught my eye is the frequency. I think the Israelites would have to have HUGE HUGE herds to support the level of sacrifice. Maybe that's a secular way of looking at things, but the thought did cross my mind.

I know that one thing that did catch my attention as I was reading the first part of Leviticus is that God commands that the laws He gives are supposed to be followed for all time. Yet I know that many Christians say that the blood of Jesus takes care of those laws and you don't have to follow them any more. What's your take on that?

Redlefty said...

Paula, that's a great question and one that probably deserves its own post sometime soon.

Either way we answer it, it raises problems:

1) If those rules were for all time, we're clearly screwed. We eat shellfish, wear clothing of mixed fibers, miss almost all the sacrifices and festivals, etc...

2) If those rules were only for the Jews in the OT, then is there any standard at all these days or is it a free-for-all of grace? If some things still matter, how do we discern? By only following NT guidelines, from books written 2,000 years ago to specific church situations of the day, are we merely repeating the mistakes of the Jews and following obsolete rules while missing the heart of things?

You didn't really expect a shorter/simpler answer from me, right? Ha!

Paula said...

Correction, I'm wading through Numbers (I think it's aptly named and hopefully I'll be through it tonight). And No I'm not expecting a shrt and sweet answer from you.