Sacrifice and Substitution?

love book-cropped

I received two notes last week on the day I posted about “Restoration not Retribution.” The first one was from a man who beautifully and articulately described his Christian faith in God and Jesus, along with the Christian practice of communion and its meaning in his own life.

He just couldn’t believe that Jesus died as a sacrifice for our sins or that God would demand such a death. And so he worried that he might not be Christian. I think his experience and concern is a very common one. The idea that Jesus sacrifices himself in place of us and pays our debt to God has (unfortunately) become synonymous with Christianity for many people.

How we think about God and Christ matters, but being Christian doesn’t depend on believing in substitute sacrifice. Some people will disagree with me about that, and that’s okay. I also disagree with them.

The second note I received that day was from a respected colleague, also a Presbyterian pastor, who felt that my piece had a quality of “slap down” of people who do understand Jesus’ death as a substitute sacrifice. I took his critique seriously. Even though I need to keep writing what I am writing, I need to be more thoughtful about my tone.

I reread my piece from last week and did edit one short sentence in which I regrettably called the ideas I was taught as a child “ridiculous.” It did imply, although I wasn’t thinking about this, that people who believe those ideas are also ridiculous.

Writing from my own pain led me to be too extreme in my language. So I edited that sentence to say that the ideas “seemed crazy to me at the time.” That might still seem too judgmental, but I don’t yet know a better way to say this and convey the emotion I have about it. Part of my emotional reaction to it is from being told that I am not Christian because I don’t believe those ideas.

The other great point that my colleague made was that we need to be presenting the alternative theologies, the different ways to think about and understand the crucifixion and resurrection. I agree! And so I promised him that I would keep working on this as a project.

Lent and Holy Week, and even the Easter season seems a great time to continue reflecting on some of the many ways Christians can understand God’s saving work in the world.

Last week I wrote, “If you don’t accept the idea that sacrificial substitution works as a mechanism in the universe, then this explanation of God will never make sense to you either.” I got this idea from Greg Love, a professor at the San Francisco Theological Seminary.

Professor Love (whose name fabulously reflects his work), wrote a book called “Love, Violence and the Cross: How the Nonviolent God Saves Us through the Cross of Christ.”

He systematically works through eleven different ways that Christians understand God’s work of salvation. As part of that he talks about the “strengths and weaknesses” of each theory and why different theories make sense to different people.

I was lucky to get to study with him for a week in January this year, with a group of pastors from around the country who gather each year for intensive bible study.

Professor Love made the point that to believe that Jesus died as a substitute for us on the cross, you have to believe that substitute sacrifice “works” as a concept. This helped me understand myself better– I don’t believe in this larger paradigm. It was helpful to name that.

In his book, Professor Love divides the eleven theologies about salvation into three categories. The first category is Penal Substitution, in which God saves the world through violent means as Jesus takes the punishment we deserve. Salvation happens through redemptive suffering and through paying a debt owed.

The second category, which includes 4 different models, God saves the world through love, service, and community embodied in Christ in his life and resurrection, and in the Holy Spirit after the resurrection. Salvation happens not in or through the death of Jesus, but in the life that happens before and after the death.

The third category, which includes 5 different models, the salvation happens through the work of Christ and the cross plays a role–but Jesus does not substitute for us, and God does not require payment for our sins. God is understood as nonviolent and unambivalent in God’s love for us.

One of the things I found helpful in the book was Professor Love’s explanation of the multiple kinds of sacrifice practiced in biblical times. Biblical sacrifices included gift offerings, communion offerings, and sin offerings. Understanding these biblical practices can help us understand how the New Testament writers interpreted what happened to Jesus.

That’s about all I can squeeze into one blog post. But I hope you’ll follow along with future posts! And take a look at that book…


  1. Chad says:

    You write, “Jesus…pays our debt to God has (unfortunately) become synonymous…” What is “unfortunate” about this line of thinking? You have insight and a Spiritual conviction of heart, and have pursued an understanding of this field. Just as I can speak of the varied timbre of tones, or appreciate the beauty of mind, you are better able to share Spiritual insight. And therefore, as one who reads – please share or exchange some of these thoughts. The elders spoke to the people in their time, and used metaphor, symbols and such understandable in their time. We have intellectually evolved; hopefully so too our understanding. And you write, “And I also disagree with them.” Independent thinker – Thank you HaShem.

    • Hi Chad, What I find unfortunate is that the theory has been made the “only” acceptable way of understanding the crucifixion and that some people believe that this interpretation *is* Christianity. In other words, if you don’t believe this, then you aren’t Christian. So, the “synonymous” part is the part that I find unfortunate.

      Some people find it very meaningful and moving to understand Jesus’ action as substituting for them and taking their punishment. But others, like myself, do not find this meaningful or moving. And I am still Christian, and strongly Christian.

      What I am beginning in this post is to map out a few different ways that Christians understand Jesus’ life and death and resurrection. I’m not doing it to be disagreeable, and nor do I want to seem critical of people who believe in penal substitution. I’m doing it because many people have renounced Christianity over this one doctrine and I don’t believe they have to. People need to know that they can be Christian and hold diverse understandings about Jesus’ death and resurrection.

      Thanks for commenting.

  2. Susan says:

    Hi Nanette! I have found so many Christians wrapped up in their desire to acknowledge their sin and that Christ died for them, for them personally. – A kind of mea cupa that always puzzles me. I personally have always felt that the people of Jesus’ time needed to understood Jesus’ death as a sacrifice for them. And were confused when this sacrifice was soon preached as being for all people. As I am getting older, I find myself wondering, what if Jesus never died so violently, but instead could have continued to live and teach and died in his bed at a ripe old age surrounded by kids and grand kids. Would it change His ministry to people? Would it change our understanding of a loving and forgiving God that He was sent to define for us all? Could/can we not all learn to love God, and to love our neighbor as ourselves with all the implications of those two statements without the violent death of Jesus on a cross? I like the resurrection because it gives me hope of something beyond the grave besides oblivion. But the concept of the Lamb of God has always bothered me. Be well and a Happy and Joyous Easter to you.

    • Thanks, Susan! Be sure to tune in for my next post about different kinds of sacrifice in the bible. I found it very interesting to read about in Greg Love’s book, and I’ll be passing it on as soon as I can write that next post! Happy Easter to you and yours!

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