One Good Friday I heard an NPR caller say something to the effect that she could never accept Christianity because it was based on a barbaric system of blood sacrifice. Call me naïve, but the evangelical subculture I’d spent my life in talked about being washed in the blood of the lamb so often that her objection never occurred to me. All of a sudden, after her comment, I heard things I’d always heard about “precious flows” with new ears. Was my faith built on some sort of bloodlust?
To what extent does the blood involved in Jesus’ death give the event meaning? There’s a whole movement of people who have gravitated away from the sort of understandings of the atonement I grew up on toward other interpretations. Perhaps the most well-known is the Christus Victor group, led by NT Wright and others.
Wouldn’t it be easier to skip right over Holy Week to Easter, to move right to the resurrection and omit the blood of the Passover lamb, the great drops of blood in Gethsemane and the sorrow and love that flowed mingled down at Calvary? Can’t we forget about all the blood this week? Fortunately, I rub shoulders daily with an assortment of theologians who are much smarter than me. Like a Monopoly player with a “Get out of Jail Free” card, I enjoy the wonderful job perk of being able to get out of the theological corners I think myself into by asking a question or two during a coffee break.
So I put my questions to my colleagues. One said, “The heart and foundation of Christianity is the death of Jesus ‘for us’ . . . Jesus' death is indeed a sacrifice, and this is irreducible for most Christians. It may even be ‘barbaric’ in the sense that humans putting the Son of God to death is the worst thing that could ever happen. But it is important to note that it is the sacrifice that ends all other bloody sacrifice for Christians. The Christian church soon distanced itself from the Jewish temple and its system of sacrifice.”
Interesting. But what about Christus Victor as a way to understand the atonement? Here’s another voice: “I'm not sure if the avoidance of blood-talk is exactly what Wright's up to, but it's possible. Overall I think he and others are trying to shake loose the hold that a radical substitutionary atonement theory has had on the church and by implication this may include the desire to reduce the blood emphasis . . . When articulating a Christus Victor atonement theology it is also important to stake out how one understands justification in this formulation. Of course as a theologian, I would say it is more important to articulate the concept correctly rather than palatably. But as long as you can do both, I'm cool with that.”
Which is why I love the theologians at Western Theological Seminary. They use phrases like “I’m cool with that” when wading into deep waters.
But what about the woman’s objections of barbarism? Here’s another scholar: “Blood sacrifice itself is not so much about violence--which is assumed in this quote's use of the word ‘barbaric,’ but rather about the offering up of life--since life is what blood symbolizes in Scripture (Gen 9:4-5; Lev 17:11ff.; Deut 12:23; Psalm 72:14; John 6:53). The sacrifice of animals recognizes God as the giver of life, and offers that life symbolically back to God. To deride this as barbaric, without understanding the cultural context of sacrifice in the ancient world, is simply to express an ethnocentric arrogance and myopathy.”
That’s another reason I love the theologians at WTS – they use words like “myopathy.” Here’s a little more from the same source. “Christian faith looks at the death of Jesus through many lenses, not simply through the lens of ‘blood sacrifice.’ There is a breadth of paradoxical wisdom and insight that the church has drawn from the death of Jesus, much of which is ‘foolishness’ in the world's eyes, but which Christians believe in fact is the road to life. If we come to the cross expecting to learn, rather than simply to explore whether our existing values cohere with this event or not, we may find ourselves in a position to be changed!”
Jim Brownson said this. (The other voices were Bob Van Voorst and Chris Dorsey.) Jim’s dad Bill recently published a memoir where he wrote about needing a transfusion as a child. He screamed in terror as they wheeled him down the hospital hall, into a room where his father was lying in the other bed. His father gave him the transfusion the old-fashioned way – arm to arm – and saved his life.
Blood is life. Sacrifice is “for us.” Let us come to the cross expecting to learn.