The Sacrifice at Golgotha

The Death of the MasterI am hoping you will be able to resolve a very important issue confronting the very foundation of Christianity.

God’s way of testing Abraham by calling for the sacrifice of Isaac…and then the abrupt staying of the knife…was intended to demonstrate that God abhorred human sacrifice and would not accept it (Gen 22.12). When the great central Law of Judaism (the TORAH) was revealed at Sinai, it called for animal sacrifices. The slaying of an animal and the offering of its blood according to certain prescribed rites, symbolized God’s mercy to the sinner, for this would have been his fate. Later in the Law, Moses gives warning to Israel not to worship God in the manner of the pagans (through human sacrifice) for it is an abomination unto the LORD in any way or form it is practiced (Deut 12.30-32).

Turning to the New Testament, Jesus states that he completely upholds the precepts of the Judaic Law until its complete spiritual enactment through-out the world. This great authorization of the central Law of Judaism renders it supreme (Matt 5.18). Nevertheless, here is where a trouble-some contradiction arises. According to Romans 5.6-11, Jesus’ death was a vicarious atonement. But this is a human sacrifice which is expressly forbidden by the very same Law sanctioned by Jesus.

True, Jesus is unique in being both human and Divine. But by sanctioning the Law He did not allow His uniqueness to detract from His subjection to the Law which is understandable since the Law is the perfect Word of God.

In sum, if Jesus was upholding the Law then His death cannot be sacrificial. Or, if His death is sacrificial, He has rejected the Law which He claimed to uphold. In either case, Christianity’s central doctrine of the sacrificial death of Jesus is proven to be scripturally untenable. Christianity is therefore in peril of crumbling away. The stakes are very high. If Christianity succumbs to an inner breakdown, the moral order in the world will soon follow….

This contradiction can only be satisfactorily resolved by reference to Scripture. Scripture is a single, self-consistent truth, but beginning to end. Each verse urges its own truth. When two verses appear to exhibit incompatible claims, a contradiction develops. We must then attempt to resolve this contradiction by reference to another verse(s) which will reconcile the two opposing viewpoints…

When reconciliation is not forthcoming, the contradiction remains and the verse(s) in question are not Divinely revealed facts, but have been spoken by the prophet out of his own authority…

The defensibility of Jesus’ sacrificial death has been troubling me for a long while. I am unable to resolve it according to Scripture. I would be very grateful to you if you could clear it up for me…

Quoted from christianthinktank.com

Have you ever been asked a question you were so sure you knew the answer to that you never even worried about it, and then, when you tried to answer the question, realized you didn’t really know how to respond?

That happened to me yesterday afternoon. Let me explain.

On most Thursdays after work, I meet with a couple of other guys for coffee and discussion. There’s no set agenda, but we usually talk about matters of faith and questions that come up in the Bible that sometimes drive us crazy. We are all reasonably comfortable questioning the traditional Christian assumptions and our coffee meetings give us an opportunity to ask questions we could never ask in church.

I commute to and from work with my son David. On Thursdays I usually drop him off at his place, then go to the coffee shop for my meeting. Yesterday, my daughter-in-law had an activity planned with some female friends at their place and asked if David and I could hang out together. I asked him if he wanted to join my meeting and he said, “OK.”

David was the first of my children to develop a sense of spirituality. When he was little, he went to church with my wife’s brother Steve whenever Steve was visiting from the Bay Area. After David went to church with Steve, he’d ask my wife and me why the rest of us didn’t go to church and believe in Jesus (this was years before my wife and I became religious). That was kind of awkward.

Somewhere between childhood and adulthood, David set his faith aside but it’s always been on the back burner, so to speak. Thursday allowed him to revisit old territory and to ask some of those questions that would drive most Christians nuts.

The four of us were having a fairly stimulating conversation when the question of human sacrifice came up. David sees the death of Jesus on the cross to atone for the sins of the world as a direct violation of the commandment not to sacrifice a human being.

So here we are, three guys from different backgrounds but who all have the same fundamental belief in Christ as Messiah and Savior trying to address this question.

I shot off my big mouth first.

Understand, that this is a very troubling question with no simple answer. Also understand that one of the reasons that I am attracted to Jewish mysticism and particularly the Chassidim, is because I don’t think that there is any other way to explain certain things about the Messiah, including his bloody, sacrificial death, outside of a deeply mystic framework.

Just how can a human sacrifice, even that of the Messiah, atone for the sins of the world? What’s the mechanism that makes it possible and that doesn’t violate God’s prohibition against human sacrifice?

My answer was based on the understanding of the death of a tzaddik being able to atone for the sins of a community or even of an entire generation. Of course, my answer was founded entirely on the Chassidic mystic understanding of this process; something which most Jews, particularly in modern times, do not agree with.

So where is this explained in the Bible?

My friend Russ offered David what I would consider the traditional Christian explanation for the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross. As I listened to him answering David, I realized that I didn’t find the Christian viewpoint particularly satisfying. I know that I’ve had this explained to me before at some point, but my memory is a leaky container and a lot of stuff has dribbled away over time, so I don’t remember exactly what was said or when that conversation occurred.

This really bothered me.

The conversation ended with more questions than answers, which is fairly typical for our little group, but where was David now? He continues to focus on the Torah and the Prophets as the foundation of his understanding about God and the Jewish people, though I’m sure he would benefit from a review of his knowledge base, but the New Testament seems to him like so many exceptions and contradictions to his understanding of Torah. On the drive back to my place, David and I continued our conversation, and I decided to encourage David to start where he is. If the Torah and Judaism are the rock on which he now stands, then I will support him returning to and exploring the cornerstone of his faith.

But it still bothered me that not only could I not give a satisfactory answer to his questions about Jesus, but I couldn’t really answer my own questions. I can’t solely rely on the “mystic” explanation for how a tzaddik’s death provides atonement, and assuming the traditional Christian response to this query is also lacking, then what is the answer?

I don’t know.

I know that faith is sometimes the mortar that fills in the spaces in religious understanding, but I’m uncomfortable with it being the putty that replaces solid Biblical knowledge let alone logic.

OK, I know that logic is the beginning of wisdom and not its conclusion and that once we accept the existence of God, we also must accept the supernatural, but David did bring up what seems to be a huge disconnect between the Tanakh (Old Testament) and the New Testament in terms of death, atonement, and sacrifice. You’ve probably already clicked the link I provided above and read the christianthinktank.com reply to this question. I did too, but I’m not sure I’m buying it.

Do we see any example of the death of a righteous man providing atonement for the sins of other people in the Tanakh? Was any man in the Old Testament deliberately killed in order to turn away God’s wrath toward other human beings? We talk about men like Joseph, Moses, and David being “types and shadows” of the Messiah. But we don’t see that their deaths really did anything to illuminate the problem of Jesus being a human sacrifice to turn away God’s fatal judgment from all people everywhere across time who accept Christ as Lord and Savior.

I’m not that smart. Some people think I’m smart. My wife thinks I’m smart (except when she disagrees with me, then I’m not too bright at all *wink*). But it’s not really true. I suppose it’s more accurate to say that in this particular area, I’m not very well-educated. I feel ill-equipped to manage these sorts of questions. On some level, I think that it’s not very easy or maybe even not very possible to use human language and human logic to explain the mysterious, mystical way the death of the Messiah somehow atones for the sins of people.

And yet, that’s all we have to work with. Assuming extra-Biblical and particularly mystical (when my wife learned about this conversation, her response to me was to ask in an incredulous tone, “You talked to him about mysticism?”) sources are not considered valid in this discussion, then we must rely on scripture. But if the Old Testament and New Testament don’t agree that the Messiah must die to atone for sins, then what do we have?

A big, fat, furry mess, that’s what.

So I’m opening up yet another can of worms and throwing this topic out to the public via the Internet. I’m seeking out a greater imagination or at least a more scholarly believer. What’s the answer to how the death of Jesus isn’t human sacrifice? Is there an answer that doesn’t contradict the commandment to not sacrifice people?

The comments section is now open. What do you think?

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23 thoughts on “The Sacrifice at Golgotha”

  1. I think that only God Himself could legally atone for our sins. I also believe the Messiah was God in the flesh.

  2. Hi Grace.

    Thanks for commenting. I was wondering if you could expand your answer a bit. Is there anything you can point to in the Old Testament that supports the New Testament witness of Christ dying, as God in the flesh, to atone for the sins of humanity.

    I’m not trying to be difficult, but this is an important question, not only for my son and me, but I suspect for a great many people, both believers and unbelievers.

    Thanks.

  3. I’ll have to get back to you on that later, since I’m heading out soon. Do you read Hebrew?

  4. Great post James, I have often pondered the same things. I agree with you that a Chassidic, mystical interpretation can answer the question pretty well. The scriptural answer must lie in the heavenly, spiritual nature of Messiah as his physical death would not have accomplished atonement, just as an animal’s physical death did not atone for sin. Rather his sacrifice was not offered in this world, but in the next, In a heavenly temple that is by nature superior to an earthly one.

  5. James: some thoughts to your good problngs of heart and soul and mind…. asking questions that would ‘cross a rabbi’s eyes’….or a theologian’s (Fiddler)

    Is God bound by anything He made, even His Laws? He did not write those laws for Himself, He wrote them for the ones He created in His Image, and whom He blessed. He does need laws….we do, and He has never called on us to sacrifice our children for our sins because it would do no good, Divine Blood not just mortal blood was needed. LIFE IS IN THE BLOOD He said. Eternal Life not just the life that passes like grass…..

    Is God limited by His revelations of Himself? Is He a Trinity (perhaps that is church doctrine) or is He more than a trinity? is it not possible that He can also reveal Himself as the Angel of the Lord, as the Shekinah Glory that can reside and then depart from the temple at His Will? How can He reside in the Holy of Holies in such an intense encapsulated way, and yet still be in command at the same time of all things in the Highest Heaven to the dust of the earth, and below? When He is fully in the Son it might seem to us that He would then be killing His own child, but He is not because He is always Fully God and not a created man. He is not limited by anything, it only looks to US like He is limiting or ‘compromising’ Himself.

    This morning i was reading Isaiah 49 through 53 as a continuum. “Before I was born the LORD called me: from my birth he has made mention of my name. He made my mouth like a sharpened sword, in the shadow of his hand he hid me….He said to me, ‘You are my servant, Israel, in whom I will display my splendor, ….he formed me in the womb to be his servant to bring Jacob back to Him and to gather Israel to himdself….I offered my back to those who beat me, my cheeks to those who pulled out my beard; i did not hide my face from mocking and spitting…..your God who defends his people, see i have taken out of your hand the cup that made you stagger, from that cup, the globlet of wrath you will never drink again….”

    when i read these chapters like a scroll, i knew i was reading about the One who was given the name Jesus, and i cried. Our Father who made man in his image counts us so important that He would do anyting for us, even break His law, which He has every right to do.

    It will always remain a divine mystery, even human love remains a mystery……

  6. Thanks for your comments, Sean. I suspect that when all is said and done, your answer may be the prevailing opinion among believers (of course, I’ve been wrong before). There would still have to have been some sort of understanding among the early Jewish disciples of the Jewish Messiah that would have let them see Christ’s death as atoning for both Israel’s sin and the nations. I’m hoping to gain some insight in that area and to be able to connect it back to the Tanakh.

  7. addendum: i was trying to say the God is always One, His manifestations are always just that…manifestations, for our sakes. He can never be divided against Himself, it just looks to us like He is, or maybe so people who want to be divisive can form new sects…Hear O Israel, the Lord is One still stands…….

  8. Is God bound by anything He made, even His Laws? He did not write those laws for Himself, He wrote them for the ones He created in His Image, and whom He blessed. He does need laws….we do…

    …Is God limited by His revelations of Himself?

    That’s the $64,000 question Louise, and it cuts deeply into the nature of God. I don’t believe God is bound by the limits of our physical universe and He doesn’t have to be bound by the Torah He gave at Sinai, but it would be uncharacteristic of Him to violate that Torah as well. If He did so, then the Jewish people would have been terrifically confused and God could be seen not only as unpredictable but unreliable (and I’m sure some people see God as such anyway).

    For the Jews to endure the tremendous amunt of suffering that they have over the long centuries, they had to have a God who they saw as absolutely dependable; a rock upon whom to build the foundation of the Jewish people, even as they struggled as slaves or as they were gassed during the Holocaust.

    We Christians too need to know that God is as consistent as His word, otherwise what do we depend upon, not only for our own lives, but for our ability to witness about God to others. I don’t think He would make an absolute law saying that a human being must not have his life sacrificed as atonement for sins and then say that only the death of the Messiah in a human body could atone for the sins of the world.

    That’s just my point of view of course, but if God does choose to exercise His right to defy Torah in front of the entire world in order to perform the most important act of redemption in this history of all mankind, what is mankind to think?

  9. Hi James – a thought or two before Shabbat. You commented that it would be uncharacteristic of God to violate Torah. I disagree. God could only “violate Torah” if he is bound by it. I see no evidence that he is and don’t understand why we think he should be. A look at the list (http://www.jewfaq.org/613.htm) seems to reveal that the commandments given on Sinai are relevant for human members of the covenant but not such a great fit for God (who is partner to the covenant people, not one of them). Some would be odd to apply to God, e.g. “You (God) must love God (that is, yourself) with all your heart, soul, and strength” and “honor your father and mother,” while God has consistently violated others from the get go, e.g, “slaughter a Passover lamb for yourself” and “live in a Sukkah during Sukkot.” God clearly is not bound by “do not kill” (viz. Korach, his followers, and their families) or the laws of tithing.

    So I don’t see how God’s sacrifice of his fully consenting son for the sake others is, or can be, a violation of Torah. Along with God commanding Abraham to sacrifice his son, it may offend sensibilities, perhaps very deeply. But the real question, it seems to me, is whether it was moral – and even to ask the question with integrity requires us to adopt or construct a moral system to which we can hold God accountable (rather than assume that he should be accountable to Torah in some way or to our sensibilities).

    In order to get at the moral issues, I wish we’d start by looking at the situation God faced. You remember Sophie’s choice? She had to choose which child would die in order to save both. Although her choice was only vaguely parallel to God’s, the agony she experienced from that point on is somewhat suggestive of the pain God experienced and, I believe, still experiences over his choice, not any less because no one forced his hand – he did it out of pure love. IMO, to treat it as a violation of Torah does not only misconstrue God’s relationship with Torah, it marginalizes God’s own love suffering (not to mention his son’s) as the brutal price that had to be paid for human sin.

  10. Hi Carl. Thanks for coming by and participating.

    I probably misspoke myself and didn’t mean to suggest that God would be bound to obey all of the 613 commandments given to the Children of Israel. However, on the surface, it does seem like a glaring inconsistency for God to forbid human sacrifice and then to require it in order to redeem humanity. I suppose you could say that God forbade the Jews from sacrificing a human being but that it was still necessary for God to do so for the sake of the world.

    I agree that we are not qualified to judge God’s morality (though we do so all the time) but I know I struggle with trying to understand God, particularly in this instance. My son is a very literal thinker, so it might take quite a paradigm shift for him to comprehend what you’re suggesting. I know it is challenging for me.

    Is this a circumstance that one easily settles into? Once the question has been raised, I can’t help but ponder it.

    At any rate, I know time is winding down and any further conversation with you will have to wait until after Shabbat.

    Good Shabbos.

  11. Also I think gos with this, that many are losings is the fact that we are not worshipers of the book! But a people to walk in Raw Faith and Trust with the God of the book . And I think to many people are becoming Worshipers of the book. and Losing there Raw Trust and Faith in the Elohim of the Book… There forgetting we are to be a people like Abraham and He didn’t have a book. maybe not even half of a book! and Yet He TRUSTED AND HAD GREAT FAITH IN THE ELOHIM OF THE BOOK!

  12. In answer to your question, I don’t know of any OT Scriptures that spell it out. Although Isaiah 7:14 confirms the identity of the Messiah. The fact that He was brought to trial and executed as a criminal at the will of the people also provides a nice loophole… as He was not a “sacrifice” in the usual meaning of the term.
    I also agree with Sean’s response.

  13. An addition to my previous comment: God’s accountability to his own Torah or (as I prefer to put it) moral standards can not be so strict as to prevent him from fulfilling the moral impetus to save humanity.

    It seems to me that God’s dilemma (if I may put it that way) arose from a human condition that is so dire, so extreme, that individuals can’t remedy it by our own repentance and good deeds. I suspect that our thoughts about the rightness of God’s remedy depends heavily on whether or not we accept that verdict on the human condition. If we accept the verdict, we should also keep in mind the agony involved in God’s decision to act as he did rather than let humanity go down the tubes. If we do not accept the verdict, God’s decision can only seem cruel and arbitrary.

  14. Good morning, everyone.

    So as I understand it so far, that God forbade human beings (and specifically the Children of Israel at Sinai) to sacrifice other human beings to pagan gods or even to the One God doesn’t mean there wasn’t the incredible and tragic requirement that the human Messiah must be die horribly for the sake of atoning for mankind’s sins. It’s certainly compelling, but I can see especially my very literal son struggling with this one. I’ll need to take some time to absorb all of this myself.

    But let’s say that that it was absolutely required for the Messiah to die as a substitutionary atonement for the human race. What about the timing? Why did it happen the way it happened and especially when it happened? What about everyone who lived and died before Christ was born, lived, died, and was resurrected?

    Also, although the Messiah opens the door to atonement of sins and reconciliation with God, how goes this change the nature of Jews in relation to God, the Torah, and particularly the Temple? I have my own ideas about the answers to these questions, but the death of Jesus Christ seems to be the “cosmic lynchpin” that holds all of human history as it relates to God, together. There is a tremendous amount of meaning compressed into this one event.

    Can the crucifixion be understood or will it always be a mystery that we cannot fully comprehend, let alone explain?

  15. @Menashe Dovid: Your blog is vast. Any specific blog posts you’d recommend that addresses my query or could you write a comment here that presents your core response? Your About page says you are not a believer in Jesus an any sense, so I imagine what you’re saying is that my quest to find meaning in the death and life of Jesus is something of a fool’s errand.

  16. BTW, part of the standard Jewish response to the atoning death of Yeshua (that God does engage in human sacrifice) does not take into account his apparent violation of the more general commandment “do not kill.” Apart from the adults who were judged for their sin, how can one account for the death of so many children, even infants, in the Flood, the destruction of Sodom and Gemorrah, etc. It seems to me that in all these instances, only a greater moral imperative can account for God’s actions.

  17. The nature of Jesus as Messiah and the universal impact of his sacrificial death always seems to come back to this:

    Of course, earliest Christian discourse did not refer to Jesus and God in the terms that later became common, such as divine “essence” and divine “persons”. We can’t read the christological/theological discourse of the 3rd-4th centuries back into the first years. Indeed, it appears that the vocabulary and the questions of “ontology” weren’t a part of the discourse that earliest believers used. Note: It isn’t that they considered such language and rejected it; instead, it simply wasn’t a part of their discourse-world. So, they referred to Jesus as sharing and reflecting the glory of God, as bearing/sharing the divine name, etc., and this is pretty heady stuff. Most significantly, I have argued, they also included Jesus in their devotional practice in ways that were without precedent in Jewish tradition and that were otherwise reserved for God. Crucially, all indications are that this was not an issue between Paul and Jerusalem.

    -Larry Hurtado
    An “Early High Christology” (July 1, 2012)

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