Quid pro quo?
The near-sacrifice of Isaac by Abraham in today’s Genesis passage raises the whole issue of sacrifice, which is as old as the religious quest to relate to God, or the gods. The impulse to offer something to deities, in hopes of receiving something – bountiful harvests, success in war, pardon for wrongdoing – is as old as humanity itself.
The Hebrews advanced religion dramatically from other ancient models: first by asserting one God instead of many. The second advancement concerns human sacrifice – typically the offering of a first-born son as God’s due. This entailed human sacrifice, as Abraham was about to do, to our horror. But in the story God stops the sacrifice, and God substitutes a ram for Abraham’s son. Furthermore, God provides the ram as a sacrifice – a new and strange twist.
So, in Hebrew religion we see no more human sacrifice – thank God. But the sacrifices of animals and foodstuffs would continue as long as there was a temple in Jerusalem in which to offer them. This ended completely in 70 C.E. when the second temple was destroyed by the Romans – a few decades after the life of Jesus.
Sacrifice enters Christian theology as the early church tried to figure out and describe what Jesus’ death and resurrection meant. Many saw Jesus as sacrificing his life on the cross – and clearly he did accept that punishment for rocking the uneasy boat of Roman-Temple cooperation to keep the Jews peaceful.
But if Jesus’ life and death were a sacrifice, then to whom were they offered, what benefit (quid pro quo) was derived, and who received the benefit?
To answer these questions, a whole array of Atonement Theories have arisen during the history of the church, and (wisely) the church universal has never specified just one as the correct understanding. One such theory as risen to the fore in the Western church, and was recently voted by the Southern Baptist Convention USA to be the only way to understand Jesus’ work on the cross in that denomination: “penal substitutionary atonement.” In short, this theory asserts that only human beings can repay the debt to God’s justice that was/is incurred by our willful disobedience to God (sin). To save us from the rightful penalty for sin (death), God sent Jesus to die in place of all humanity. This satisfies God’s justice (or wrath).
This no doubt sounds familiar from hymn texts, some Scriptures, and parts of our liturgy. But is it the only way to understand Jesus’ death on the cross? Is it the best way? I don’t believe so.
I object to this theory on a couple of counts. First, it is transactionary: it involves a quid pro quo. But Christian faith teaches us to live a life based on love and grace, not buying and selling. Why, if love and forgiveness are paramount in Christian life, can God not simply and freely forgive humanity for our sins? Why exact a terrible price, to be paid by an innocent bystander (Jesus)? Why would God use violence to solve the problem of sin?
Historically, many parts of the church have never assented to this theory. The Franciscans, for instance, see Jesus’ death as a sign of his suffering with all humanity, especially poor and oppressed people. Jesus’ love for us means he is willing to be vulnerable as we are, to walk with us even through death itself.