I’m convinced we’ve often got God wrong.
Now, given that we are small, finite creatures and God is the infinite creator, this should come as no great surprise. However, I’m not talking about getting God wrong in small and relatively inconsequential ways; I’m talking about getting him so fundamentally, utterly wrong that the God we think we understand and worship is as different from the real God and Father of Jesus as chalk is from cheddar.
You may think I’m coming on rather strong here, and I am. But I feel entitled to do so, because this is personal: I have myself got God wrong for a great many years. (Again, I’m sure I continue to get him wrong in many ways today — to claim otherwise would be arrogant in the extreme; but hopefully the ways in which I get him wrong now are less grievous than the ways in which I’ve misconstrued him in the past.)
One of the main ways in which I think we get God wrong is by thinking that he required the life of his son Jesus as a sacrifice in order to forgive and redeem mankind. This is, of course, often taught as a (if not the) central tenet of the Christian faith, so to question it may seem shocking to you. But let’s let the scriptures speak for themselves and see what they tell us.
“For you have no delight in sacrifice; if I were to give a burnt offering, you would not be pleased.” (Psalm 51:16, NRSV)
In this verse from David’s famous psalm of repentance, we see that David, who is referred to in Acts 13:22 as “a man after God’s own heart”, seems to have understood that sacrifice was not something God required, approved of or was remotely pleased by.
It seems to me we have two options here.
First, we might conclude that David was mistaken. This, at least, removes the need to question God’s requirement for sacrifice; however, it raises a challenge for those who hold to the inerrancy of scripture.
Our second option is to assume that David was correct in saying that God does not require sacrifice. This raises a much bigger challenge: what do we do with all the Old Testament texts wherein God appears to command Moses and the people of Israel to perform a seemingly endless litany of sacrifices?
To help us answer this question, let’s turn to another scripture:
“For on the day that I brought your ancestors out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to them or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices.”
(Jer 7:22, NRSV)
Here we have the prophet Jeremiah making it clear that whatever instructions Israel thought they had received about sacrificial offerings, they didn’t get them from God. I bet you never heard a sermon preached about that.
Once again, we have two choices here: either Jeremiah was declaring God’s words faithfully and accurately, or he wasn’t. If he wasn’t, we can dismiss his words and continue with business as usual (though we are again left with a question about scriptural infallibility). But if Jeremiah was right, which I believe he was, we are left with a much bigger question.
The question David’s and Jeremiah’s words confront us with is this: if God does not require or delight in sacrifice — if he, in fact, never commanded Israel to make sacrifices to him in the first place — why on earth do we continue to insist that God required Jesus’ life as a sacrificial offering to atone for our sins?
Friends, it’s time to realise something of profound, paradigm-shifting importance: God has never required sacrifice, whether of goats and bulls or of his own Son, to balance the scales of divine justice. God forgives freely; this is why he can reasonably demand that those who claim to live under his banner do the same. I mean, think about it: Jesus didn’t tell his followers to forgive others as long as appropriate penance had been made. He told them to forgive seventy times seven, without stipulation or condition. Why would Jesus give such an instruction if God didn’t already forgive us equally freely?
Accepting that God did not and does not require any kind of sacrifice is not something to be taken lightly. It goes against the grain of much of what is taught in churches around the world. It has serious implications. But these implications are, for me, overwhelmingly positive: suddenly I find that God is not obsessed with some abstract form of justice, but is in fact every bit as compassionate, merciful and forgiving as Jesus described him to be. And he asks us in turn to be just that compassionate, merciful and forgiving towards others.
The question inevitably arises, if God did not require Jesus’ life as a sacrifice — if Jesus did not die at God’s decree — why then did Jesus have to die at all? My answer, simply put, is this: Jesus died because we (humanity) couldn’t tolerate how he exposed and threatened our religious, political and cultural systems. He died because in our darkness, bigotry and hatred, we could not tolerate the brightness and clarity of his light.
Listen: our forgiveness was not and is not dependent upon Jesus’ death. Jesus’ death was necessary not for God to be able to forgive us, but for us to be able to finally see and be convinced that God’s only response to sin, however grievous, is “I forgive you”. This is why, even as his executioners drove the nails into his hands, the prayer that fell from Jesus’ broken lips was not a cry for vengeance but a plea for forgiveness.
God did not engineer the death of Jesus. God does not require blood in order to forgive.
Think about that, and see what it does to your theology. If you let it, it’ll lead you into a greater freedom than you ever imagined.
[ Image: The Sacrifice of Isaac by Juan de Valdés Leal — photo by Reji]