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Jesus is our sacrifice? What does that even mean?

What does it mean when Christians say that Jesus died for you, as a sacrifice for your sins?

It’s a bit complicated because two apparently contradictory things have to be held in tension:

that 1) Jesus died on the cross as a “blood sacrifice” for our sins, and that 2) the Christian Godunlike the pagan gods of Jesus’ day – actually despises it when He is offered human sacrifice.

A bit of background: Christian theologians call the process by which death is vanquished and by which humans are reconciled back to God the “atonement.”  This word sounds heavy, and it definitely has a lot of primordial weight, but it shouldn’t simply be dismissed as an ancient grasp at the Divine.

From Old English, the “at-one-ment,” or “reunite-ing” of God and His alienated creation is traditionally viewed as being accomplished by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.  This has been explained in many different ways by the many faithful who have preceded us.

The earliest Christians – newly traumatized by the death of their rabbi and similarly floored by his subsequent resurrection –  witnessed everything that happened to Him with their own two eyes, and, quite understandably, wanted to tell the rest of the world about it.  So these wild men and women got together and they started writing letters and opening churches and set about using a plethora of different metaphors to explain exactly how humanity and God “got back together.” *

Are you with me so far?  As firsthand witnesses to the “cross-cultural” healing that their teacher’s death ignited, they looked around their 1st-century world and picked out the things that could best describe the significance of this event to their families and friends and neighbors and co-workers.

This is why we hear the writers of the New Testament speaking of the Christian gospel in rather common parlance, often invoking domestic and financial imagery – Atonement as something lost being found (Luke 15:4-7, 8-10, 22-32), Gospel as a great debt being cancelled (Matthew 18:32), as a ransom being paid (1 Timothy 2:6), as a simultaneous lowering and raising of ones’ social class in becoming a slave to righteousness (Romans 6:18).

There are many different ideas offered in the scriptures that attempt to explain what exactly happened on the cross, but suffice it to say this: most Christians believe that the atonement means that Jesus, a holy and living sacrifice, died for our sins (in accordance with the holy scriptures) to reconcile us back to God.

Again, the process by which God and humanity were made “at-one” again, generally understood to be Jesus Christ’s primary mission, is called the “atonement.”  Some early believers understood this event as similar to something broken and ugly being redeemed, to a criminal getting off for a crime, something like sins being forgotten, like scarlet stains being washed white as snow.

a picture of Jesus on the cross I’ve pulled from this children’s coloring book.

Now, some of my friends insist that the atonement is primarily to be understood as an act of vengeance as well as love – because God is holy, God is somehow obligated by this aspect of his nature to demand satisfaction by innocent blood.

However, upon any level of thought, this falls apart.

Because God is God, and because God – by definition – can do whatever God pleases, whenever God wants, God did not somehow “need to punish Jesus instead of us because of his angry, holy nature” in order to forgive us of our sins.

Jesus indeed died as a sacrifice for our sins.

But I don’t believe the Bible consistently supports the idea that God turned His holy wrath upon Jesus instead of us.

Rather, Jesus sacrificially took the weight and the cosmic stain of human sin entirely upon Himself, and this spiritual poison killed Him.  Jesus then gloriously rose from the dead to empty death of its sting, ushering in an entirely new era of creation, and delivering the message that God Wins.

Jesus foreshadows this tackling of human sin when he tells his disciples that “greater love has no one than this: that one lay down his life for one’s friends” (John 15:13).

I don’t believe in the idea of “cosmic child abuse,” but I do believe that Jesus died on the cross in an at-one-ing sacrifice for our sins (and not only for our sins but also for the sins of the entire world) (1 John 2:2).  Our healing was still accomplished in cooperation with God’s atoning plan to reconcile the entire universe back to Himself (Colossians 1:20) so that we could be free to live a life of peace and wholeness in communion our Creator.

Jesus indeed died as a sacrifice for our sins.

But it’s important to remember that Jesus did not do this in a sacrifice to God, only in a sacrifice for us.

Big difference.

For us, not to someone.

If I see a speeding truck heading towards you, I can push you out of the way and sacrifice myself to save you.

I have sacrificed myself for you, yes, but not to some higher power, not to the truck.  Just for you.

God is the pusher-out-of-the-way-er.

We do ourselves a monumental disservice by casting God as the truck.

Says another early Christian: “God’s Son appeared for this purpose: to destroy the works of the devil” (1 John 3:8).

The Bible consistently reminds us that the truck in this analogy is the devil, sin, and death itself.  The same Protector and Defender spoken of by the Psalmist (Psalm 91) is instead our advocate (1 John 2:1), the one who saves us from the truck.

Death – as our destiny, by the natural result of sin (Romans 6:23) – is the speeding truck.

Not God.

God is our Rescuer, not the violent condemner – that’s Satan.

The Christian God is not an Accuser pleased with torture and punishment culminating in blood sacrifice.

I think you’re thinking of Moctezuma.

Christ Pantocrator

I believe it deep in my bones that Jesus “personally carried our sins in his body on the cross so that we can be dead to sin and live for what is right.” (1 Peter 2:24).

I see this idea throughout the Bible.

But what the concept that God punished Jesus instead of us does is pit God the Father against God the Son in some sort of twisted, abusive household dynamic.  Rather, how much more does the cross represent the defeat of the death, the damnation of damnation, the elimination of all evil by divine action against the powers of darkness that inhabit this earth.

The atonement was orchestrated by God for the restoration or “welcoming-home” of humanity.  By the cross, Jesus bridged the gap between Heaven and Earth, conquering all evil, eternally defeating the devil, and fully overturning the powers and principalities of this world, robbing them of their power.

The atonement was not bloody vengeance, but God’s destruction of Hades, an act of dealing death to death himself.

Jesus, our enduring sacrifice, lifted our sins upon his back and took them far away, to somewhere they could never again stare us in the face, simmering in religious condemnation.  The lie that you’ll never be good enough, says Jesus, I’ve in fact taken it upon my own back and out of this universe.

In this view then, Jesus, as God, cooperates with God to remove our sins.

God is still God and God is still holy and Jesus is still, today and forever, God’s enduring sacrifice for humanity.

No child abuse required.

* * * * *

*I am grateful to author Rob Bell for this observation.

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