Is God the Father Bloodthirsty?

Monday, April 12, 2004


Is God the Father Blood Thirsty?


Return to Part I: The Absurdity of the Cross

Part Two of Seven on the Cross

In yesterday's meditation on the meaning of the cross, I dwelled on the crucifixion from the point of view of Jesus' humanity, and I speculated on his possible temptations and psychological state in his last hours. I suggested that the theology of vicarious or substitutionary atonement was not part of the theology of the historical Jesus, and that the cross itself may have tempted Jesus to despair.

I suspect this speculation may shock some readers. There are those who read the Gospels in a nearly fundamentalist fashion and assume that Jesus marched to the cross with complete foreknowledge of his death and its meaning and the inevitability of his resurrection. We are taught to believe that Jesus approached the cross with a sense of mission, willfully offering himself as a sacrificial victim for the sake of us sinners.

As heroic as this interpretation of the events may sound, the absurdity of this position is made apparent by looking at the crucifixion through the eyes of an atheist or agnostic. What kind of God is it who would demand a human sacrifice? Such a God is hardly worthy of our worship.

Did God the Father demand a human sacrifice in order to atone for our sins?

I went to a Protestant site called Bible Gateway that permits word searches. The actual word "atonement" appears in the NIV translation of the New Testament only 4 times: Rom 3:25, Heb 2:17 and 9:5, and in reference to Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement) in Acts 27:9. In the American Standard Version, which is supposedly as close as we can get to a literal word for word literal translation of the Greek, the word "atonement" does not appear in the entire New Testament.

I do not have a searchable software for the Catholic New American Bible, but the point is that the notion of atonement is not emphasized even in Protestant Bibles the way it is emphasized in popular preaching today sometimes.

The word "expiation" is also not used in the NIV. Neither is the word "impute" or "imputed". Going by memory alone, I only recall the word "expiation" in the Catholic New American Bible in 1 John 2:2.

Even the word "redeem" and its variants only find 8 occurrences in the NIV. The word "propitiation" is not found in the NIV at all.

I am not saying these concepts are absent in Scripture. However, they are not as heavily emphasized as many of us are lead to believe by popular preaching in both Protestant and Catholic churches.

The fundamentalist camp will hold that God is perfectly just, and his justice demands that blood be paid for blood. Sin brought death into the world in the Book of Genesis, and even the slightest disobedience to God is an affirmation of the choice of Adam. To sin, even venially, is to affirm the entrance of death into the created realm, and makes all of us guilty of murder. Only human blood can atone for the cost of the human blood we shed by participation in sin. All of this seems pretty clearly spelled out in Saint Paul's letter to the Romans (particularly 3:25 and chapter 5), even if the word "atonement" is not specifically used.

I believe that we need to unpack this a bit if we are to make sense of atonement.

First, I think we need to realize that the Gospels and other New Testament literature are not "objective" historical accounts in the sense modern people mean the term. Even a casual perusal of the New Testament literature would reveal that there are differences in the way each author narrates the story of Jesus. For example, the Lord's prayer is different in Matthew's Gospel than in Luke's. The words of institution of the Eucharist are different in each narration. Rather than having the actual words of Jesus, what we have in the New Testament are paraphrases.

In the past, the differences in the narratives tended to be ignored by theologians and Biblical scholars. Often, the fathers and doctors of the Church tried to harmonize the accounts. Many speculated that maybe Jesus did some things more than once, so that two different accounts of the same event could be said to be true at different times. Beginning in the seventeenth century and continuing into present times, Biblical scholars began to recognize that a better approach was to realize that each individual author is crafting his particular paraphrase a certain way to make a certain point.

In our own day, we know that when we read the opinion columns in the newspaper, we are getting an interpretation of events, rather than an objective account of events. There are real events informing an opinion column, and each columnist is telling the truth as she or he sees it. Yet, the opinion column is not unbiased, nor completely "factual" in the style of front page newspaper account.

What modern Biblical scholarship has come to realize is that in ancient times, almost all history, news, and biography was narrated in a style more akin to opinion columns than to the hard news on the front page. The Biblical authors not only reported their raw unbiased perception of the facts, but their interpretation of the facts was woven into the telling of the story. Even the earliest church fathers recognized this, and their exegesis often was more similar to modern exegesis than the later exegesis of the middle ages or the exegesis of modern fundamentalists.

Thus, as we try to discern the meaning of the crucifixion event twenty centuries after the fact, we need to be careful to distinguish between the events that may be the history behind the text, and the interpretation of the events that may be the author's individual theological interpretation of those same events.

Rather than telling us the history and the biography of Jesus in an objective fashion, the New Testament tells us the truth about Jesus as interpreted by each individual author. We believe in faith that each author is inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit in his crafting of the narrative. However, this does not mean that an interpretation of meaning in the event is exactly what Jesus said or did or thought during his earthly ministry. The New Testament even gives evidence to a development of thought after the resurrection!

The word "Trinity" is not found in the entire Bible, and yet the Church holds that the doctrine of the Trinity is an infallibly defined and central article of faith that is implied in Scripture. It took several centuries for this doctrine to develop into its current linguistic expression. The doctrine of the Immaculate Conception took nineteen centuries to develop into an infallible definition. Catholics believe that doctrine develops in clarity over time, and we call this development Sacred Tradition.

In a similar manner, the formation of the New Testament itself is simply the earliest written phases of Sacred Tradition. There is a progression in understanding and clarifying who Jesus was and what he meant to his disciples from the earliest writings by Mark and Paul to the latest writings of John and some of the later epistles.

For example, Mark's Gospel, which was likely the first Gospel written, by itself does not strongly emphasize the divinity of Christ in any clear and cogent fashion. At best, the divinity of Christ is implied loosely in a small number of phrases and titles. By the time we get to the later writing of John's Gospel, the author is nearly hitting us over the head with the notion that Christ is divine. Perhaps the author of John felt Mark simply wasn't clear enough, and that may have been how he experienced the Holy Spirit inspiring him to write more than what Mark had already written.

What this reveals is a development of thought in very early Christian tradition after the crucifixion and resurrection event that placed more and more emphasis and clarity on who the Church believes Jesus to be.

Paul is one of the earliest writers in the New Testament, and depending on when we date the Gospel of Mark, he may be the earliest. One of the characteristics of Paul is that we have very little biographical information about Jesus in his letters. He seldom, if ever, quotes Jesus. Paul's concerns are immediate problems he faces in the Church, and his theology is very cosmic, rather than grounded in particulars.

Paul's theology is also not fully developed, and receives clarification in later New Testament writing, and later Church tradition. Thus, the author of 2 Peter says that Paul is sometimes hard to understand, and can be distorted (2 Pet 3:16).

We believe that Paul is inspired and guided by the Holy Spirit, and his letters comprise a portion of what we have come to believe is the Word of God. As such, his writing is "true". However, we need to be careful to read Paul with some nuance, and within the context of the whole of Sacred Scripture and Sacred Tradition.

Let me switch gears here for a moment and then come back to Paul.

I recall that when I was in the seminary learning to pray the Liturgy of the Hours, a particular line of Scripture seemed to leap off the page and struck me like a ton of bricks. The passage comes from Revelations 12:10:

Then I heard a loud voice in heaven say: "Now have salvation and power come, and the kingdom of our God and the authority of his Anointed. For the accuser of our brothers is cast out, who accuses them before our God day and night.
The word for "the accuser" in Hebrew is "Satan", and it is found in the Old Testament in Zec 3:1 and 1 Chron 21:1. Satan's role in the Bible is that of tester and accuser. He tempts us, and then points the finger of accusation against us if we fall to the temptation. Paul was likely familiar with this view of Satan.

I believe that understanding Satan's role in Scripture is critical to understanding what Paul likely meant when he says that a righteous man died on behalf of the unrighteous.

Perhaps, it is not God the Father who sought blood sacrifice to satisfy justice, but Satan!

In Galatians 3:13, Paul writes:
Christ ransomed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us, for it is written, "Cursed be everyone who hangs on a tree"
Paul was a Pharisee well versed in the law and zealous in living it (see Phil 3:5). Many Scripture scholars suggest that during the period that Paul persecuted Christians, he honestly believed that Jesus could not be the Messiah because the law (possibly Dt 21:23) says everyone who hangs on a tree is cursed by God!

When Paul underwent his conversion, he likely struggled to rebut his own prior rhetoric against the early Church. If formerly he believed that the law proved Jesus was cursed, after his encounter with the Risen One, he now had to explain how Jesus could be hung on a tree and not be personally cursed.

Not from the preaching of Jesus directly, but from his own internal conflict, Paul came to speculate that if a righteous man bore a curse, he bore it on behalf of the unrighteous. This became the centerpiece of Pauline theology that is most clearly expressed in the Letter to the Romans. Paul then reinterpreted much of the Old Testament in light of this insight to bolster his position.

Even in its most developed form, Paul never really says that God the Father is a bloodthirsty tyrant who seeks blood sacrifices to win his favor. The problem Paul was addressing in his theology of atonement was not really how justice is satisfied for the sinner, nor even what pleases God the Father. Rather, the problem he set out to solve is why a righteous man bore the injustice of an undeserved curse. The solution he arrived at was that Jesus had died for him, and for all who acknowledge themselves as sinners. This seminal notion continues to be fleshed out in Sacred Tradition.

But who really desires blood sacrifice as an atonement for sin?

Jesus likely never preached such a concept himself. There is little to no trace of such a theology in the Gospel traditions that try to narrate the words and deeds of Jesus as remembered by the early community of faith. Indeed, Jesus never portrays his Daddy (Abba) as such a harsh figure, even when he uses the metaphor of judge.

For Jesus, it appears that the Father is against human suffering. His Father will grant any request, and the reign of his Father will usher in an age where the blind see, the lame walk, and the oppressed are set free. His Father forgives all who seek forgiveness, without asking anything in return. Suffering may be inflicted for correction of fault, but not merely to exact justice. Jesus' God always lets mercy triumph over justice.

And isn't this the way most Christian fathers experience actually being a father? Even when we punish a child, our concern is not to exact justice or revenge. If two of our children are fighting, we do not strike one because she or he struck the other. Rather, we seek the fighting to stop. If we strike a child at all, it is only to correct the behavior. If a child would correct her or his behavior on his or her own without punishment, what father would still seek retribution?

Am I saying, therefore, that Paul was simply wrong?

Of course not. Paul was inspired by the Holy Spirit, and all of us can somehow ultimately relate to the message that we are sinners and that an innocent man bore the penalty earned by our sins. However, I would suggest that in the context of the rest of Scripture that we come to see just who it is that ultimately desires blood sacrifice. It is not God the Father who sought the blood of an innocent son. Rather, it is Satan!

We've probably all heard an Evangelical Protestant paint an image of our final judgment before a perfectly just judge, and the image is often extended in such a way that the judge imposed a penalty or fine upon us. Then the image is extended to say Jesus walks in and pays the fine for us. But we're left with a bit of fear of the judge.

As helpful as the image is to some people, I would say the Bible actually portrays a more sophisticated image that addresses the atheist or agnostic concern about a blood thirsty God.

The way the image plays out in the Bible is actually that when we face the judge, we stand before a judge who is our father, and who loves us the way any father loves a child. It is true that because he is a perfect judge, he is also bound to uphold the law. As we stand before our father, our defense attorney (paraclete) is the Holy Spirit.

It is Satan who is the prosecuting attorney demanding blood sacrifice as the penalty for the sins of the human race - and he wants it imposed on all humanity. Satan has a powerful case, and a just God cannot ignore Satan's righteous argument, no matter how painful the outcome. Remember that Satan is an angel very like God, and the justice of Satan appears to be right. But God the Father is not a completely unbiased judge at heart, and God wants Satan to lose this case against his own children.

The Father is desiring a way to get the case thrown out of court. Because Satan accidentally killed an innocent man (our brother, Jesus), the Holy Spirit has a strong argument before a favorable judge to have the entire case against humanity thrown out of court!

Such an interpretation of the atonement also clarifies the depth of loss felt by God the Father when the Gospel of John says: "For God so loved the world, that he gave his sole begotten son." God did not seek anyone's blood, but in his justice, he needed to silence Satan.

While Paul's imagery may not be literally rooted in the explicit teaching of Jesus, the interpretation Paul gives the event of the crucifixion conveys the same love of God the Father that Jesus sought to convey. The imagery is cosmic and abstract compared to the concrete parables of Jesus, and the actual historical event of idealistic preacher being senselessly crucified.

The meaning Paul draws from the event was not something inherently obvious in the history behind the texts of the New Testament. At the same time, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, Paul communicated the same love of God Jesus wished to convey.

Furthermore, Christians believe that Paul conveyed the same love God wished to convey in the events of incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection. In Jesus, God has joined himself completely to the human condition, even to the point of suffering with us. In the resurrection, God has conquered death and the power of sin that leads to death. In this sense, Paul's interpretation is God's word to us, and all who can relate to the imagery in faith are being saved by it.

Yet, the interpretation of these events in such cosmic imagery is one person's interpretation - and not necessarily the primary interpretation that Jesus may have given the events himself. Even the other New Testament authors offer us variant interpretations.

Furthermore, Paul's own interpretation underwent development in the New Testament era, and continued to develop even into the fourth century when Augustine developed the concept of original sin. Tomorrow, I will write a bit more on how the cross reveals our sinfulness.

What I am emphasizing is two things. First, the interpretation of the cross as atonement is one of many possible valid interpretations of the event of the cross. Second, the interpretation of the cross as atonement is a doctrine that is under development in the Church under the guidance of the Holy Spirit. Paul's word is the first word in a discussion taking place in history, but not the final word. We can take from Paul what is meaningful and good, and continue to clarify that we do not believe God the Father is a bloodthirsty tyrant needing human blood to satisfy his sense of justice.

Part III: A Sign of Contradiction

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posted by Jcecil3 3:22 PM

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