You who build these altars now
to sacrifice these children,
you must not do it anymore.
A scheme is not a vision
and you never have been tempted
by a demon or a god.
You who stand above them now,
your hatchets blunt and bloody,
you were not there before,
when I lay upon a mountain
and my father's hand was trembling
with the beauty of the word.
Leonard Cohen The Butcher:
I came upon a butcher,
he was slaughtering a lamb,
I accused him there
with his tortured lamb.
I saw some flowers growing up
where that lamb fell down;
was I supposed to praise my Lord,
make some kind of joyful sound?
A few thoughts from Harry Emerson Fosdick:
Must we, then, go on forever, using the analogy of bloody animal sacrifice to express our interpretation of Christ’s death? I answer emphatically, No! Here, once more, some clergymen confuse those whom they would persuade by using an obsolete, contemporaneously meaningless vocabulary.
I take it that the way I have just put the matter is at least understandable. It states the meaning of Christ’s cross in familiar words. So, age after age, Christians, feeling the necessity of explaining Christ’s sacrificial death, have thought and spoken about it in the terms of their own generation. As the Eskimo houses his family in igloos of snow and ice because they are the materials at hand, while a dweller in the tropics uses bamboo and palmwood for the same reason, so different generations have enshrined their explanations of Christ’s death in terms of thinking peculiar to their times. The result we call theories of the atonement. Isn’t it a paradox that some of the most controversial words in Christian theology -- "Trinity" and "atonement," for example -- are not to be found in the New Testament? In the King James Version "atonement" occurs only once -- Romans 5: l l --but the revised versions correct that translation and use "reconciliation."
At any rate, what we call theories of the atonement have been many and varied. I must not undertake to give you a course in theology, but just to relieve your mind of any suspicion that there is one orthodox doctrine of the atonement, which a Christian is expected to accept, let me give you a sample or two.
The earliest Christian literature, deeply and gratefully impressed by the fact that "God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself," and that the cross was the indispensable factor in that reconciliation, did not at first theorize about how the death of Christ saved men. Analogies from current life were used: Christ’s death was a ransom, by which slaves of sin were freed from serfdom, or the paying of a debt, which released the debtor from his prison. But then the theologians began to speculate -- Origen, for example, in the third century. His theory was that man’s sin had put man in thralldom to Satan, so that Satan owned mankind. But Satan bargained with God that he would surrender his lordship over fallen man, if God would give him his Son in exchange. So Christ came to earth and was crucified, and man was set free, but the bargain turned out to be a "pious fraud" on God’s part, for by his resurrection from Sheol Christ escaped from Satan after all. Believe it or not, that theory of the atonement, in one form or another, was orthodox doctrine for centuries!
Then, in the eleventh century, Anselm came and started off on another tack. His thinking was thoroughly saturated with Roman legalism. "Every sin must be followed either by satisfaction or punishment"-- that was his basic principle. God to him was the infinite Feudal Lord. Every man, being the Lord’s vassal, owed him perfect obedience. For a man to sin is to defraud God of his due, and so by dishonoring the Infinite to acquire infinite guilt. But infinite guilt demands infinite punishment, in man’s case his eternal doom in hell. There is only one way out: the infinite price must be paid. Man, being finite, cannot do this, neither can anyone not human do it, for because the sin is human the reparation must be made by the human. Therefore, only the God-man, both deity and humanity, can make the necessary sacrifice. This Christ does in his death on Calvary. He pays the adequate ransom, not as in Origen’s theory to Satan, but to God.
How pitifully inadequate all our analogies are to explain what the ancients rightly called the mysterium crucis, the mystery of the cross! We face there one of the basic principles of creation, vicarious sacrifice: any salvation from human need dependent on someone, who does not have to do so, voluntarily caring enough to identify himself with the needy and give his sacrificial all for their help. That principle is surely at the very heart of Calvary’s meaning. But, the older I grow, the more I think that I understand the cross best when I stop trying to analyze it and just stand in awe before it.