“Behold the Lamb of God, who takes away the sins of the world.” (JOHN 1:29b)
Those are, of course, the words of John the Baptist, and he is referring to Jesus the Christ. The people who heard John say that would have recognized the allusion to animal sacrifice and the concept of atoning blood. Twenty-first-century people, though … Well, John’s declaration leaves most of us scratching our heads.
In a blog post like this one, I haven’t room to even begin to properly discuss the institution of temple sacrifice. But let me try to explain in very simplified—perhaps overly simplified—terms. To the Hebrew people—and to other ancient peoples—the idea of sacrifice as something that could take away sin was both deeply spiritual and very commonplace.
As I said, I’m oversimplifying. But in a nutshell, the belief was that an individual could somehow place his or her sins upon a living animal—quite often a lamb—and then offer it for sacrifice. When the animal died, the sins died with it, and therefore the person who brought the sacrifice was free of the bondage of sin—at least, for a while.
Now, that brings us back to Jesus being the “Lamb of God” who would bear humanity’s sins and take them to the cross. By dying as a sacrifice to God, Jesus assumed our punishment and made us holy in the eyes of God. Again, an oversimplification, but that has been—more or less—the prevailing doctrine through most of Christian history.
However, I have to admit that this idea has always made me uncomfortable. And maybe it’s supposed to! Trouble is—to the vast majority of modern folk—the idea of “substitutionary atonement” is not merely nonsensical, but actually offensive!
At this point, it has to be said that most of Jesus’ contemporaries also found the idea offensive. Sacrificing an animal was one thing, but human sacrifice was strictly forbidden (and was viewed with horror by Jews and Romans alike). That’s what the apostle Paul is getting at when he writes: “we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling-block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles” (1 Cor. 1:23).
And it is a horrifying idea, is it not? For one thing, it appears unjust. After all, where is the justice in requiring Christ—who was guilty of nothing—to bear the punishment we deserve? How could it really help, anyway? And how could a just God accept such an unjust sacrifice? Critics have a point when they say this reduces Christ to a sort of cosmic whipping boy.
I wonder: is it possible to re-examine these ancient conceptions? To see them in a way that applies a different meaning to the Biblical ideas of sin and sacrifice? In what way is Jesus a lamb? In what sense does he “take away the sins of the world?”
Hmmm … that’s another huge discussion. I think the best thing I can do here is tell you a story. It’s a true story—and it is suffused with lessons about grace. At least, I think it is. So here’s the story …
When I pastored a church in Kamloops, I came to know a woman who was a former heroin addict. I still hear from her occasionally.
I’ll call her Susan. She did all kinds of unpleasant and ugly things to get money to support her habit. By her own account, she worked for a while as a prostitute in Vancouver’s infamous Downtown Eastside. A few times, she made some half-hearted efforts to get clean—but without success. Susan now says part of her problem was that she really didn’t see any good reason for quitting.
That is, not until her baby girl was born. Then it quickly became clear that Susan’s drug use had caused great damage to the tiny child. The baby looked normal enough, but she screamed and cried all the time, and she was very sick most of the time. When Susan saw this, it broke her heart. She had not realized that she would love this little girl so much, and she was appalled by what she herself had done.
Then social workers from the government came and took the baby away, because they realized that Susan was unable to care for her. They placed the child in foster care. But Susan wanted her baby back. And so, for the first time in her life, she had a compelling reason for straightening herself out. She went into a special treatment centre for women with drug problems, and worked very hard to get well. After that, she joined a support group and made some tremendous positive changes in her life.
To make a long story short, after Susan had been drug-free for about a year, her child was returned to her. That was over 20 years ago now, and Susan has managed to stay away from drugs throughout all that time. Her little girl is now a fine young woman. Susan turned out to be a very good mother.
If you were to ask her what made the difference for her—what finally made her want to turn her life around—Susan would tell you it was the sight of her newborn baby in severe distress. In that moment, she found out what love feels like—and also saw how terrible her addiction (her “sin,” if you like) truly was. And her love for her child was what finally propelled her into rehab.
In a very real sense, it seems to me, Susan’s daughter became as Christ to her. She literally bore her mother’s sin, and—ultimately—she took it away.
I believe the sight of Jesus upon the cross can be like that. If we love him, we cannot help but be profoundly affected by his violent, painful death. When we consider that the One who was sent to demonstrate God’s love for humanity ended up being killed by human hatred and fear, does it not make us realize how desperately we need to change? When we hear the phrase, “Jesus died for our sins,” we may interpret it as being—at the very least—an example of God trying to get our attention.
“Look at me!” we may imagine Jesus saying. “All of your human history has been about war and suffering and injustice. Now it’s come to this. Here I am, hanging on the cross. This is what your hatred and selfishness has led to, for countless millions of innocent victims. When will you stop hating?”
Such an interpretation has been favoured by more than a few theologians over the centuries (including Peter Abelard). Some have called it the “Moral Influence Theory” of atonement.*
Of course, this presumes that we truly do love Jesus! For only if we love him will his suffering move us to change our own behaviour, or to labour for a better world.
Fortunately, Christ’s love is available freely to anyone who will accept it—and that, my friends, is why the good news really is good news! May we never cease proclaiming it—for it remains a story our world needs desperately to hear.