Part 3 – Sin and Scapegoats

We heard in Part 2 that Jesus died for our sins. But do we really know the meaning of the word ‘sin’?

Most people assume that sin means disobeying God’s law, or failing to live up to God’s standards. But when we read the Bible, we see that sin is living in such a way that is unhealthy for us and those around us. If we continue to live in sin, this leads to alienation from God, from creation and from one another.

When we do these things, we often blame others, including God. We might make a scapegoat of him, saying that he gave us no other choice, or that God wants to kill our rivals just as much as we do. This is what happens when people are killed in the name of God.

Sin is not so much about pride and rebellion or thinking we know better than God, as it is about living in a way that dehumanizes ourselves and others, and seeks to become rivals with others instead of partners in the divinely ordained task of tending to this world.

Sin is primarily violence and the things that lead to violence. We see this result in Genesis, when Cain murders his brother, Abel. Adam and Eve, Cain’s parents, had disobeyed God by eating from the tree of knowledge. This results in a chain of events including rivalry that culminates in Cain killing Abel. The word sin is not actually mentioned at the point when Adam and Eve disobey God, but only at the when we see the final result–Abel’s murder. Further on in Genesis, we see more evidence of rivalry leading to murder, when Lamech kills a man for ‘harming’ him.

But didn’t God command killing of people in the Old Testament? Probably not. My own reading has led me to believe that this was simply what Israel believed when they were killing in God’s name. This is supposed to shock us, so we can see where the law was taking us. We were killing others in God’s name and making a scapegoat out of God.

But what about sacrifice? Didn’t God command animal sacrifices to pay for sins? I will show in the next part that God has never required it. All sacrifices in the Bible were described in such a way as to show us that God did not approve of them.

Furthermore, God completely rejected human sacrifice, and would not even permit it. So how did God deal with the sin of mankind?

God has always forgiven all people of all their sins, no matter what.

Even in the Old Testament. Even when his people were under the Mosaic Law. For example, in 2 Chronicles 7:14, we read:

if my people, who are called by my name, will humble themselves and pray and seek my face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven, and I will forgive their sin and will heal their land. [NIV]

But so often we see that his people did not return to God and ask for his forgiveness in order to restore their relationship. Instead, they tried to keep God at arm’s length, relying on following a system of laws and sacrifices.

Instead of believing that God is loving and wants to relate with each of us directly, we believe that he is angry with us. This leads to us trying to placate him through following laws and making sacrifices.

But doesn’t the Old Testament contain laws requiring sacrifices? Wasn’t sacrifice God’s idea in the first place?

We’ll find out in Part 4!

Part 2 – What we often hear in church

In Part 1, we talked about the atonement and why we need to understand this so that we can understand what it means to us. We’ll now look at the explanation given by most mainstream evangelical churches, and see how how well it is supported in scripture.

Over the centuries, there have been many attempts to explain the  atonement. Each attempt, or theory, gives a different perspective on the meaning behind it. We’ll start with the more common one first.

Penal Substitutionary Atonement (PSA)

Do you want the good news or the bad news first? Well, the bad news is that we have sinned and this has offended God’s honour. The good news is that Jesus took the blame instead of us. At least, that’s what this theory tells us.

In 1098, Anselm of Canterbury published his work on Satisfaction Theory. The theory was that when Jesus went to the cross, he was taking the place of humanity. As all had sinned, Jesus was saving everyone from this punishment by taking it on our behalf. This was known as Satisfaction Theory.

And why did this sin need to be punished? Anselm said that sin dishonoured God, so God demanded justice.

John Calvin was a French Protestant Reformer. In the 1500s, he came up with his theory of Penal Substitution. As with Anselm’s theory, Calvin posited that when Jesus died, he stood in for humanity. But instead of Jesus being punished for our sins, it was sin itself that was being punished.

Most Christians will likely recognise at least some form of this theory. It is the one most preached in churches around the world today. It’s easy enough for us to understand given our familiarity with concepts of justice. And as a scholar of the laws, the legalism probably resounded strongly with Calvin.

Many churches use a simple analogy to help their members understand this concept. The analogy usually goes something like this. A criminal appears before a judge, convicted of a very serious crime, which warrants a hefty fine. As the judge is upright and just, he cannot simply let the crime go unpunished. He also understands that this man is very poor and has a family to support. So instead of throwing the criminal into jail, the judge steps down and pays the fine on the man’s behalf.

Proponents of this theory often point to Bible verses such as Isaiah 53:8. In the New International Version of the Bible, we see:

For the transgressions of my people he was punished

Isaiah 53:10 seems to take this further:

Yet it was the LORD’s will to crush him and cause him to suffer

But older translations of the Bible, such as the Greek LXX, do not even mention punishment here. In the literal English translation of the LXX (Septuagent), we see the following:

And the Lord desires to purify him of the plague…

So the LXX regards sin as being a plague, which the Lord wants to purify Jesus from.

Many followers find it difficult to understand how PSA works, how it makes us right with God and how it was sin itself that was being punished instead of Jesus.

PSA also does not attempt to explain the purpose of Jesus’ resurrection. It does not even seem to consider it as part of the atonement itself. So why did Jesus rise from the dead? Supporters of PSA will often explain that Jesus’ resurrection was necessary to prove his divinity. However this is not supported in scripture. The Bible also tells us that the resurrection secured our victory over death. For example, in Ephesians 2:6 we see:

And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus (NIV)

So clearly, there is more to the resurrection of Jesus than proving that he was whom he claimed to be.

Critics of PSA also point out that the Bible tells us clearly that God forgave our sins. If PSA is telling us that God needed a penalty to be paid, then we could not then say that he was forgiving. We would say he was just accepting the penalty paid by Jesus on our behalf.

Supporters of PSA often point to the words spoken by Jesus as he was dying on the cross. The words were:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?

We are often told in church that this was Jesus feeling separation from God the Father as the Father’s wrath was poured out on his son. But in reality Jesus was simply quoting Psalm 22. We need to remember that in Jesus’ day, everyone learned the scriptures by heart, so to simply quote them the first line of a psalm was to remind them of the whole thing. It has a very solemn start:

My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?
    Why are you so far from saving me,
    so far from my cries of anguish?
 My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer,
    by night, but I find no rest. [NIV]

But in verse 22, things start to become clear:

I will declare your name to my people;
    in the assembly I will praise you.
 You who fear the Lord, praise him!
    All you descendants of Jacob, honour him!
    Revere him, all you descendants of Israel!
 For he has not despised or scorned
    the suffering of the afflicted one;
he has not hidden his face from him
    but has listened to his cry for help. [NIV]

Notice how this contradicts the popular claim that God the Father turned his face away from Jesus when he was on the cross?

Finally, in verse 29, we learn of Jesus’ victory:

All the rich of the earth will feast and worship;
    all who go down to the dust will kneel before him—
    those who cannot keep themselves alive.
 Posterity will serve him;
    future generations will be told about the Lord.
 They will proclaim his righteousness,
    declaring to a people yet unborn:
    He has done it!

So Jesus was not really suffering under God’s wrath on the cross. There must be another explanation.

We do know that he died because of our sins. But why? And what was the victory that Psalm 22 speaks of?

Let’s find out more in Part 3!

What does the cross mean for us?

Part 1 – How could a violent act, perpetrated against a single man over 2,000 years ago, have any relevance to us today?

Believers and non-believers alike have asked this question for almost as long as that. Why? Because the answer can tell us an infinite amount about who God is and what he’s like.

The mystery of the cross I cannot comprehend“, laments Christian songwriter, Pat Sczebel. Haven’t we all pondered this thought at some time? But there is no great mystery here at all. Nothing is hidden from us–it is the most important piece of news in the history of the world, and it’s all in the Bible.

When we read the Bible, we often don’t see the meaning it once had. This is because we bring along baggage that we have collected over the years. This is especially so if we have attended church for most of our lives. This baggage is all the teaching and experience we have collected along our journey. Some will likely be good and some not so good. It affects our image of God, and what we understand when we read his word. If we believe that God is an angry judge, then we will see God as an angry judge in the Bible.

But we can’t learn anything new if we think we already have all the answers. We need to be reading it to draw meaning from the text, and not to fit our understanding into God’s word.

Our understanding of the Word may also be affected by our cultural context. Jesus’ crucifixion took place in the country of Israel, when it was part of the Roman Empire, more than 2,000 years ago. Life was very different then compared to now. Another point to bear in mind is that there was no printing press in those days! So God’s people (the Jews), learned the scriptures in depth and committed most of them to memory. The New Testament is often written with people of this background in mind.

So let’s put our baggage down as we look to the Word. Let’s do our best to understand it within the original historical context. Just as the first readers would have.

What’s the result?

“The Atonement” is the name of this story. The name comes from the words “at-one-ment”. The atonement was a gift to all humanity from God. When we give our lives to Christ and accept his atonement gift, it affects us in two liberating ways:

  1. It restores our relationship with God
  2. We are no longer trapped in a sinful nature

We will cover these in more detail as we progress.

Over the next few articles you will also begin to see how and why Jesus’ death on the cross caused us to come back into being one with God. We’ll also begin to see more about what God is really like. Is he an angry monster who wants to send us all to hell? Or is he someone we might actually want to know?

Join me on this journey as we find the answers!

Continue to Part 2.