The  True  Sacrifice

by John Wijngaards, The Tablet 25 March/1 April 1st 1989, pp. 342-343.

“The images presented by Scripture to describe Jesus’s redemptive work may never be interpreted in such a way as to cast the Father in the role of an executioner, hostage-keeper or avenger.”  A Mill Hill Missionary considers various Christian attempts to formulate how salvation comes through the blood of the Lamb.

I am told that not so long ago a six-year-old boy, visiting Mill Hill College with his parents, fled in terror from a realistic image of Jesus on the cross. Living in a post-Christian home as he did, he had never seen a crucifix. Unlike most of us who have become immune to the sight, he was upset by the pain and degradation visible in Jesus’ bleeding, contorted body. It reminds me of a remark a Buddhist friend from Japan once made to me. She felt, as a psychologist, that such a “sick entity symbol’’ could easily unleash in people “sadistic religious feelings”.

Her warning is well taken if we were ever to forget that the crucifixion itself was an ugly and brutal injustice, as repugnant to God as to any right-minded human being. I am appalled, therefore, to find that many Christians still harbour the sickening, unscriptural and almost blasphe­mous notion that God the Father actually wanted and engineered the crucifixion. He insisted on having it, they believe, because it appeased his honour.

To explain the Father’s bloodthirsty behaviour they adopt a form of reasoning that came into existence with St Anselm of Canterbury. Offences, we are told, should be measured by the dignity of the person offended: Since God is infinite, any sin infringes his infinite honour and requires infinite atonement. Since we human beings could never offer such infinite satisfaction, we were doomed to perish without hope once sin had infected the human race. Redemption was only made possible when God’s Son assumed human nature and agreed vicariously to undergo the punish­ment we deserved; thus giving the ultimate proof of God’s love.

But did he? If God’s Son needed to die because the Father exacted it as a price, was the Son not the good God saving us from the hard God? Does it not rather prove that in his deepest origin, in his being Father, God is vindictive justice rather than love, demanding his infinite “pound of flesh”? When parents killed their children in sacrifice, the Old Testa­ment decried it as an abomination (Deut. 18:10-12), a crime cutting them off from God’s people (Lev. 20:3), something so awful “it has never entered God’s mind” (Jer. 7:31). But if the Father demanded the death of his Son, would it not amount to precisely such a cruel parental sacrifice, now elevated to cosmic proportions?

Anselm hailed from Aosta in northern Italy. During his youth the Justinian code of Roman law was rediscovered, making juridical thought the cream of eleventh- century studies. Anselm imbibed it from Lanfranc, his teacher at the monastery of Bee who had studied law in Bologna and Pavia. Legal categories of maintaining the right order, of punitive justice and restor­ing injured honour may have helped stabil­ise feudal society in his days. Juridical notions, however, were to serve Anselm badly as a theologian defending God’s mercy.

God, Anselm taught, cannot be merci­ful. God must be just to himself. He is bound to preserve “the honour of his self-respect”. If a creature has sinned, God has to exact punishment. He cannot simply wipe out guilt in an act of creative mercy. “Putting sin in order requires punishment. Without punishment sin would be forgiven against the proper order. It is not right for God to forgive in a way that upsets the right order. Therefore, it would be wrong for God to forgive sin without exacting punishment.” In other words, because

God is a slave to this “proper order”, to his “sense of justice”, he has to exact punitive vengeance; if he cannot do so on sinful human beings, he must on his incarnate Son.

But surely, one could argue as people did in Anselm’s days, we are told by the Gospel to forgive without exacting a price? Should God not forgive in that way too? Anselm’s answer is categorical. God’s mer­cy cannot overlook the restitution of his honour. “Such mercy would completely contradict his sense of justice according to which he must insist that sin is paid for by punishment. As little as God can contra­dict himself, could he show mercy of this kind.” The consequence is clear: either God must punish human sinners eternally, or he must demand equivalent satisfaction through punishment laid on his Son. In both cases justice triumphs, not mercy; thus contradicting Scripture.

Free gift of love

Jesus portrays his Father’s love for sinners in the unconditional welcome given to the prodigal son: the father does not insist on restitution (Luke 15:11-32). In the parable of the unforgiving servant the gratuitous and wholehearted forgiveness by God is contrasted with our insistence on payment (Mt. 18:21-35). God’s salvation is a free gift, says Paul, not something earned, but an act of grace, an unmerited bestowal of his mercy (Rom. 3:24). Our reconciliation worked in Christ reveals not only Christ’s love, but that of the Father (Rom 5:1-11, 8:31-39).

Until recently Christian theologians in the West, with few exceptions, were so preoccupied with “righting the injustice done to God” that the Father’s love retained its sadistic link with vicarious vengeance. God showed us his love, we are told, by not sparing his Son on our behalf (Rom. 8:32). God made Jesus the expia­tion for our sins (Rom. 3:25). “For our sake he made him to be (a sacrifice for) sin who knew no sin” (2 Cor. 5:21). The scholastics spoke in terms of satisfaction, the Reformers of God laying our punish­ment on Jesus. All implied that God showed his love for us by taking out his anger on Jesus. All implicitly portrayed the Father as the awesome judge who decreed Jesus’ passion with unswerving determina­tion.

It is this image which still lingers on in popular belief and personal spirituality. It is this same image which may be responsi­ble for making many Christians even today more intolerant, more militaristic, more authoritarian and more inclined to solve social problems through force than non- Christians are; as some surveys have shown. After all, we reflect in our be­haviour the God we believe in, a fact being currently demonstrated in the Salman Rushdie affair.

We need to study the Passion again, from the Father’s point of view. The Father, we can be sure, did not want Jesus to suffer and die. We know this from his repugnance to human sacrifice already so forcefully expressed in the Old Testament. We can also deduce it from the simple fact that the injustice inflicted on Jesus was a sin. Jesus told Pilate that those who hand­ed him over were guilty of “greater sin” (Jn. 19:11). The Jewish leaders who press­ed for Jesus’ death could not escape guilt by pleading blindness (Jn. 9:41). But if the crucifixion was a sin, as it was, the Father could not have willed it by his own design. God is holy. He cannot decree a sin — whatever good may follow from it.

Good shepherd

Why then the Passion? It came about, as the gospels tell us, by the powers of our dark and sinful society opposing the light (Jn. 1:9-11). If the human family had received Jesus’ message with open arms, the Passion would not have been required. The Word would have saved us simply by becoming flesh and revealing the Father’s glory (Jn. 1:14). Every single act of Jesus, the God-among-us, sufficed to free us from sin by making us with him to be children of the Father (Jn. 1:12-13). Humanly speak­ing, in God’s design there was no need for suffering.


However, unavoidably perhaps given our human condition, Jesus met opposi­tion, and understood what the eventual end would be. At this moment he himself decided he would be faithful to his mission until death. He knew he was called to be a good shepherd, who cares for the sheep, not a hireling who runs away when he sees a wolf coming (Jn. 10:11-15). He did not accept death because the Father forced him to but because his love demanded it from him. “No one takes my life from me. I give it up of my own free will. I have the right to give it up and the right to take it back” (Jn. 10:18). Jesus knew that this love pleased the Father. “The Father loves me because I am willing to give up my life” (Jn. 10:17). It was in that restricted sense of “being pleased with his love” that the Father wanted him to die.


This is also how Jesus understood the prophecy of the suffering servant (Is. 52:13-53:12). A religious leader was un­justly tortured and put to death. His followers realised God was present; not in engineering the suffering, but in giving it a higher purpose. With their Hebrew mind which expresses permission as causation, they might make God say, “It was my will that he should suffer”; they knew it meant: “In my supreme transcending will I allowed him to suffer” so that the execu­tion of the leader could become a vicarious sacrifice. That is also how Jesus under­stood it and applied it to himself.

Citing the text from Isaiah, he began to characterise his mission as a “giving of his life for the redemption of many” (Mt. 20:28). And when the final confrontation came, he instituted the Eucharist, again typifying his death as a vicarious sacrifice: “This is my blood poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins” (Mt. 26:28). This self-dedication of Jesus, not imposition from above, made his Passion and death the supreme expression of his love, the peak of his salvific human life.

It is in this culmination of Jesus’ love that the Father’s involvement should be seen. In his agony at Gethsemane Jesus did not pit his own feeling of being a victim against the cruel demand of his Father. Rather, his natural human aversion to pain clashed with the high ideal of love he shared with the Father. He knew love must win and in this the Father supported him. The Father wanted him, faithful to us even at the cost of death, to fill these ugly events with purifying, liberating and transforming love, so that resurrection could happen. As Thomas Aquinas succinctly put it, “God the Father only handed Christ over to his passion in so far as he inspired him with the wish to suffer for us, that is: by infusing love into him”.

The images presented by Scripture to describe Jesus’ redemptive work — the victorious defeat of evil, the acquittal of the accused in a court of law, the payment of ransom for hostages, the cleansing with blood, the offering of sacrifice for sin, may never be interpreted in such a way as to cast the Father in the role of executioner, hostage-keeper or avenger. We may in­deed say that Jesus gave “satisfaction” to the Father, that he “atoned” for our sins. We may not imply thereby that God’s mercy was subordinate to his punitive justice. If there is one thing Scripture tells us, it is that God is love; that his love was revealed most in Jesus (1 Jn. 4:7-10). And love can do unexpected things.

Here, I believe, lay the greatest mistake of St Anselm, and of most Western theolo­gians after him. Anselm was convinced the human mind mirrored God’s perfectly. For him reason corresponded intrinsically to the same principles of right order and truth that determined God’s being. Small won­der he formulated the so-called ontological proof of God: an argument that deduces God’s existence from the notion of God we have in our mind. Small wonder too that in Cur Deus homo? he attempted to prove the intrinsic necessity of the Incarnation and Passion from pure reason: ‘remoto Christo’ — without involving the actual details of Christ.

This approach robs God of that most precious gift in any free person: uncon­ditional, generous, overwhelming love. But God revealed himself as a Lover; in fact, a Trinity of love. As Father, Son and Holy Spirit he did surprising things for us. He keeps surprising us by what he does, continuing to fill us with love so that even our suffering can be meaningful. In this way the cross, far from being a “sick identity symbol” can express our faithful­ness to love until death; as it did for Jesus.