Sacrifice and Atonement

Normandy American Cemetery and Memorial

Our lives are finite, and life is fragile. Homo sapiens have survived because – at least in part – we sacrifice for others: our loved ones, our family, our group, our tribe.  We save lives, sometimes at the cost of our own.  We give up things so others might have what they need.  Most sentient beings on earth do the same.  We quite properly revere and respect anyone who has made sacrifices.  It is so much a part of the fabric of life on earth that we have elevated sacrifice to the level of holy.  It is no wonder that peoples throughout history have made sacrifices to appease the gods.  That’s how humans work, so that must be how God(s) work, too.  And thus, we make God in our own image.

Atonement theology has a long history.  Spilling blood to “make reparation for an offence or injury”  has been around since humans first started feeling guilty.  We make a sacrifice to atone for our sins, a sacrifice of either money, time, or property (e.g., sacrificing the best lamb).  Votive offerings have a long history in human behavior.  Religious rules list different sacrifices required for different sins. Human sacrifice is atonement taken to the extreme, and yet this is not foreign to human history. (See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Human_sacrifice.)

In Christian theology, atonement is made for the sins of the world by the sacrifice of Jesus’ death.  Atonement theology is so ingrained in Christian thought that to reject it or attempt to understand it differently brings charges of heresy.  In a nutshell: Jesus, as the perfect person – and also God, and the Son of God – had to be sacrificed to appease God the Father and atone for our sins so that we can be saved.

The novel, Flatland, by E.A. Abbot, first published in 1884, describes a world of two dimensions.  All the inhabitants are two-dimensional figures: circles, squares, triangles, lines, etc.  One of the squares has a vision of being taken into a three dimensional world, where there are cubes, and spheres, and pyramids, etc. The square then tries to explain this to his two-dimensional world, with no success.  “It goes UP!”  “You mean North.”  “No, UP!” “There is no UP, you’re crazy.”

What if our notion of atonement for sin is can only be informed by our human experience of sacrifice?  After all, when we sacrifice something, we lose something.  What if God cannot lose anything?  What if God is complete and full and can give away forever without losing any substance?  What if Jesus died because he challenged the empire of the day, and not because his blood had to be spilled to “save” us?

Our atonement theology is limited by our two dimensional understanding of sacrifice.  We forget that God’s ways are not our ways.

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