Part 2: Crossan on the Meaning of Christ’s Sacrifice

The following is excerpted from John Domonic Crossan’s book, “God and Empire”:


Apart from narrativity, let alone historicity, there is the deeper question of the theology within which Jesus’s execution is understood then and now by Christian believers. For The Passion of the Christ and millions of Christians, it was a theology of substitutionary atonement or vicarious satisfaction. Here is its content:

God was offended by human sin, and because that sin was a human affront to divinity, no adequate satisfaction was possible. Therefore, in his mercy, God sent his only begotten Son to suffer and die in our place. That is why Mel Gibson’s film is two hours of unspeakable suffering as Jesus bears punishment for all the sins against God since the dawn of creation. In that theology, God is imagined as a Divine Judge who can no more forgive everyone than a human judge could walk into the courtroom and forgive all those under indictment.

Notice, however, that the traditional metaphor for God is Father rather than Judge, and that in human courts we expect a father to recuse himself from judging his own child. We do not think one can be Judge and Parent at the same time

My purpose here, however, is not to highlight the transcendental conflict between Divine Parent and Divine Judge, but rather to point out the confusion in that theology between sacrifice, substitution, and suffering, as well as the mistaken presumption that whenever the New Testament mentions the sacrifice of Jesus, those other two aspects must and do accompany it.

Think about how we ordinarily use the term “sacrifice” today. A building is on fire, a child is trapped upstairs, and the firefighter who rushes in to save him manages to drop the child safely to the net below. Then the roof collapses and kills the firefighter. The next day the local paper bears the headline “Firefighter Sacrifices Her Life.” We are not ancients but moderns, and yet that is still an absolutely acceptable statement. On the one hand, all human life and all human death are sacred. On the other, that firefighter has made her own death peculiarly, especially, emphatically sacred by giving her life up to save the life of another. So far so good. Now imagine if somebody confused sacrifice with suffering and denied that the firefighter had made a sacrifice because she died instantly and without intolerable suffering. Or imagine if somebody confused sacrifice with substitution and said that God wanted somebody dead that day and accepted the firefighter in lieu of the child. And worst of all, imagine that somebody brought together sacrifice, suffering, and substitution by claiming that the firefighter had to die in agony as atonement for the sins of the child’s parents. That theology would be a crime against divinity.

Human beings have always known two basic ways of creating, maintaining, or restoring good relations with one another— the gift and the meal. Both the proffered gift and the shared meal represent the external manifestation of an internal disposition, and both events have their delicate protocols of what and whom they involve and when and why they take place.

These elements of the gift and the meal came together in animal sacrifice. How was one to create, maintain, or restore good relations between a human person and a divine being? What visible acts could do that with an Invisible Being? If by gift, the animal was totally destroyed, at least as far as the offerer was concerned. No doubt the smoke and the smell rising upward symbolized the transition of the gift from earth to heaven and from human being to God. If by meal, the animal was transferred to God by having its blood poured over the altar and was then returned to the offerer as divine food for a feast with God. In other words, it was not so much that the offerer invited God to a meal, but that God invited the offerer to a meal.

That understanding of sacrifice clarifies the etymology of the term. It derives from the Latin sacrum facere, that is, to make (facere) sacred (sacrum). In a sacrifice, the animal is made sacred and given to God as a sacred gift or returned to the offerer as a sacred meal.

Sacrificial offerers never thought that the point of sacrifice was to make the animal suffer or that the greatest sacrifice was one in which the animal suffered lengthily and terribly. Whether for a human meal or a divine meal, an animal had to be slain, but that was done swiftly and efficiently— ancient priests were also excellent butchers. Likewise, sacrificial offerers never thought that the animal was dying in their place, that they deserved to be killed in punishment for their sins but that God would accept the slain animal as substitutionary atonement or vicarious satisfaction. Blood sacrifice should never be confused with or collapsed into either suffering or substitution, let alone substitutionary suffering. We may or may not like ancient blood sacrifice, but we should neither caricature it nor libel it.

It is certainly correct, therefore, to call Jesus’s death— or in fact the death of any martyr— a sacrifice, but substitution and suffering are not the point of sacrifice. Substitutionary atonement is bad as theoretical Christian theology just as suicidal terrorism is bad as practical Islamic theology. Jesus died because of our sins, or from our sins, but that should never be misread as for our sins. In Jesus, the radicality of God became incarnate, and the normalcy of civilization’s brutal violence (our sins, or better, Our Sin) executed him. Jesus’s execution asks us to face the truth that, across human evolution, injustice has been created and maintained by violence while justice has been opposed and avoided by violence. That warning, if heeded, can be salvation.        [John Dominic Crossan, God and Empire]



  1. #1 by alex on August 7, 2009 - 12:35 pm

    oh dear.

  2. #2 by Christian Beyer on August 8, 2009 - 7:31 pm

    C’mon, “man of few words” – expound, please.

  3. #3 by netprophet on August 11, 2009 - 1:01 pm

    Jesus died because all humans must die. If you adhere to the theology of the Jewish and Christian faith then you must agree with the idea that originally the fate of man was not to die at all. It is because of sin we must die. Death became the punishment for sin ( the first death). Jesus had to die not as a sacrificial substitution for our sin, but as He himself said, I must die or the comforter will not come. (a renewal of spiritual communication with the Father). Jesus died for the resurrection. He became the “way”. He is now our Judge. He is our salvation. He is our Savior.

    • #4 by Christian on August 11, 2009 - 4:10 pm

      “Jesus died for the resurrection. He became the “way”. He is now our Judge. He is our salvation. He is our Savior.”

      Sure, Net. But as you know, those statements (and I agree with them) are loaded. When we ‘unpack’ them we find out that they can mean different things to different people. And (risking the wrath of those who are terrified of anything less than absolutism) they might all be correct.

  4. #5 by Alex on August 11, 2009 - 1:39 pm

    Where is it recorded that He said that? I know that He did say that He needed to ‘go away’ but that is referring to His ascension to the Father’s right hand.

    Actually my ‘oh dear’ was in trepidation for the huge wave of responses, but I guess I was kind of off the mark from that one.

    Another thing to add to his statement is the idea of forgiveness. Are punishment and forgiveness consistent with eachother? I think not.

    • #6 by Christian on August 11, 2009 - 4:15 pm

      Yeah, your trepidition was wasted. Not too much action these days. Nice to see you and Net sharing your thoughts.

  5. #7 by Christian on August 11, 2009 - 4:14 pm

    “Are punishment and forgiveness consistent with eachother? I think not.”

    Yes, exactly. Although someone will say that you can punish someone AND forgive them, but I think that’s a bit of a stretch. Something that I think is a little bit harder to defend is that God extends his infinite grace and mercy yet punishes certain people for…various reasons. If there are conditions to be met then it is not grace. It is either a payment of reward.

  6. #8 by Alex on August 11, 2009 - 10:52 pm

    I think a lot of this may actually come down to the negation of freedom (of both man and God) within certain traditions.

  7. #9 by netprophet on August 12, 2009 - 12:31 pm

    “Where is it recorded that He said that? I know that He did say that He needed to ‘go away’ but that is referring to His ascension to the Father’s right hand.”

    Alex. I am referring to the overall contextual message of John 14. As Chris stated, you may have a different understanding of this chapter than I do but I think you will have to agree that the main purpose of Jesus’ coming was to teach the Spiritual ways of the Father not support the religious teachings that were being proposed at that time.

    He fulfilled the law and reopened the door to spiritual communication with God. “If you have seen me, you have seen the Father.” That is a very provocative statement, don’t you think? What do you think that meant?

  8. #10 by Alex on August 12, 2009 - 12:43 pm


    I agree. It is very provocative. I think that it means that Jesus is the image of the Father. I remember hearing at some point that biblically He is called the ‘exegesis’ of the Father, but I forget where.

  9. #11 by Christian Beyer on August 12, 2009 - 4:15 pm

    OK, you’ve both touched upon something which caused me much ‘cognitive dissonance’ back in the days when I was a struggling Evanglical: when I see Jesus I don’t see this God that much of religion (especially Western Christianity) has been pushing for centuries. The way some people portray God they could not possibly see him as having any commonality with Jesus as he is portrayed in the Gospels (let’s forget about John of Patmos’ “dream” for now). Unless we resort to that awfully convenient idea of a God that has many sides to him, including one of human sacrifice, violence and murder; “The ways of God are too mysterious for us to understand”. That’s not how Jesus put it to his disciples.

  10. #12 by Alex on August 12, 2009 - 8:26 pm

    Of course :). That’s because you were right.

    The God of Christianity is a God of light, not of confusion.

    There is a stark difference, though, between that, and the rationalism that ultimately bore the very incorrect notions of god and salvation that you (rightly) find problematic.

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