The Big Story of the Bible
In early November on the Sentinel Facebook page I posted a succinct summary of the biblical story:
God wanted a family (the divine council).
God wanted another family (human imagers).
God was betrayed by both his divine and human families.
God chose to join and save (glorify) his human family.
God succeeds and will be with his new family forever.
So what does the bible teach us about what God wants? The answer is simple: He wants you. That might surprise you. You may doubt it. That's okay. But it's the right answer.
It didn't take long for atheists to respond in an emotionally negative manner. I won't re-paste the discussion, though I recommend you read how it transpired. Most of their assertions demonstrated that they had no clue what the bible says, and I have written before that most atheists were brought up within fringe religious backgrounds, and afterward believe that their activism is against what they perceive to be the correct biblical story. In reality, they are merely reacting toward their own fringe upbringing. Thus, this post will be about the true biblical story that Christians (and atheists) ought to know and appreciate. Though it's summarized above in red, I shall now take the time to lay out a larger overview of exactly those points, starting with some preliminary concerns.
1. Preface: My Five Concerns for the Christian Church
To know what the bible is about, to know its larger story, we need to experience the stories, plot-lines, and themes snaking through scripture much like we need to drive (and even get lost in) the highways which lead into and around a city. We can't just jump in and experience a few right and left turns and say we know what the bible is about. We need to draw back, look at our map, and even get lost. It is in this context that I have five concerns for the Christian Church today:
Christians are content to describe the story of the bible without appealing to what is actually happening in the bible. Christians have been so busy making right and left turns through the bible, that we have lost sight of the big picture. In fact, the solution is not by making more careful turns either! The only way out of this problem is to step back and notice what is linking one story to another, or even linking one book to another. I will recommend not thinking of the bookends of the traditional story (sin and atonement) as the shiny objects that demand our attention, but instead spend time looking at what is lining up on the shelf between those bookends. When we do that we will notice that the bible does not render sin management as its main narrative.
Christians have been taught to ask what the bible means to us instead of asking what it meant to the biblical authors. We are doing a good thing when we read the bible for ourselves. But no ancient document (and not even the bible) can be understood without first drawing it through the lens of its original authorship and readership. The main narrative of the bible is not hiding from us, but happily standing out in plain view for those who simply read the bible in its original context.
Evangelicalism, especially the modern American version of the movement, has concentrated on providing answers to the wrong questions. This is where I have come to appreciate the books of N. T. Wright. If you have not read any of his books, I would recommend starting with Simply Christian: Why Christianity Makes Sense and then trying The Day the Revolution Began: Reconsidering the Meaning of Jesus's Crucifixion. The first book will give you a scent of Wright's story of the bible, and the second wades into the details. Wright's genius in my opinion is challenging the questions that Luther and Calvin tried to answer when reforming the Roman Catholic Church in the 16th century. He is an evangelical writing to evangelicals. But he thinks that evangelicals should basically start over when interpreting the bible's story. While I do not end up subscribing to everything he maintains, listening to him challenge long-held views within the Western Christian tradition is refreshing and will lead us to think for ourselves, especially when trying to rethink our original questions.
Christians need to seriously take stock of the reality of other gods. I would recommend reading Michael Heiser's The Unseen Realm: Recovering the Supernatural Worldview of the Bible. There would have been nothing more commonsensical to the ancient bible writer than the reality of an unseen host of gods ruling over the affairs of men from the heavens, and for this reason there is no more commonsensical place to start for understanding the larger story of the bible.
Christians should not describe God as a payment-based being. I want to challenge this "sin paid for" model of the bible story, where it not only fails the bible, but fails in explaining God's character. It is a serious thing to damage God's character, and I believe a leading culprit in this regard is the idea that God can be satisfied with payment for sin. I look forward to explaining this further.
2. What is the Big Story of the Bible?
As explained above, locating the story of the bible can be difficult, and that simply being more fluent in the bible does not solve the challenge. But, our modern Sunday sermon shares some of the blame: we are dropped into a text and then guided, often expertly, through right and left turns while never backing up (or backing out) to hear what is generally going on.
During the sermon I suspect that everyone assumes (even the preacher) that everyone else knows how the text works in the larger scheme of things. When the sermon ends, we leave knowing the bible better; yet the main story of the bible is either assumed, or left out, and very likely left unchallenged. I think you know the drill. But while no one is hiding the main story of the bible from us, neither is our current evangelical climate excited at the prospect of rethinking it. I speak here from personal experience. I have seen academic deans, bible departments, denominational leaders, and even college presidents who are simply not interested in reviewing the story of the bible. When the question is asked, I sense that a siege mentality appears: why challenge the system?
But why is precisely my burden here. Why would a movement so interested in explaining the bible clam up (or worse, clamp down) on the greatest question we could ever ask of the bible? I begin to wonder if we are hiding something after all. It's as if the only thing a modern Sunday sermon can offer is the "creation-fall-redemption-consummation" story, where the problem of sin on the front end (called "the fall," coming on the heels of the creation) is solved by atonement on the back end (Jesus’ redemption, followed by the consummation). The story goes from Genesis 1 to Genesis 3, then jumps to Matthew 26 and finally to Revelation 22. It is the distance and time between Genesis 3 and Matthew 26 about which I am most concerned. As referenced above, N. T. Wright has cynically described this as “helicoptering our way” over the bible, arriving at our destination with suspiciously clean feet. We certainly wouldn't want a big story that makes us trudge through the details! Thus, here are the details.
Proposition #1 - Adam disobeyed God in the garden of Eden
From what we know about the story of Adam and Eve, this point seems clear. Adam was told not to eat from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:17), and he did just that (Genesis 3:6). This was an act of disobedience.
Proposition #2 - Adam's sin and its ramifications for all humans
The exact nature of Adam's threatened punishment (“you will certainly die during the day that you eat from it,” Genesis 2:17) seems rather clear on the face of it, not least because God chose to use a word which turns out to be the most common way of describing physical death throughout the OT (mot, appearing 827 times). It is repeated by Eve in Genesis 3:3, and by the serpent in Genesis 3:4. From everything said in the story we would suspect that God was threatening Adam with physical death if he ate from the tree. Mot describes Adam's physical death in Genesis 5:5 as well as each individual who is reported to die throughout Genesis 5. So I think it is safest to say that God kept his death-promise to Adam in the sense that Adam eventually died. That is easy enough. What we do not know is what would have happened if Adam had not disobeyed. Augustine thought it was possible that, as a being created from dust, Adam was destined to die a natural death no matter what happened in Genesis 3, and that Adam's sin only made his life more miserable while waiting for the inevitable. Calvin later agreed in principle with Augustine's suspicion, admitting that we simply don't know what would have happened if Adam had walked away from the tree. So this much we do know: Adam disobeyed, and he later died. God kept his promise.
God's means of keeping this promise was as simple as keeping Adam away from the tree of life (Genesis 3:22, “so he won’t reach out, also take from the tree of life, eat, and then live forever”). Scripture never ties human death in principle to Adam’s tree-sin until Paul does so in Romans (5:12, 15, 17, 21; 8:10), and no writer in either the OT or the NT will ever make the claim that Adam’s sin resulted in the punishment of hell for all humanity. What has happened is that over time the phrase “the wages of sin is death” (Romans 6:23) has been interpreted as referring to spiritual death, and thus hell. But this triangulation is unwarranted, or it at least has no place in the story of scripture as it is presented. If people go to hell, they apparently go for some other reason than because of what Adam did in the garden. Michael Heiser has written an excellent series on Romans 5:12, showcasing the incoherence of this teaching, since Christians wrongly interpret Paul as apparently saying that the original sin of Adam’s guilt is transferred to the rest of humanity. However, when rightly understood, Romans 5:12 shows that we are all guilty before God because of what we do (we sin individually), not because Adam sinned. It was death that passed to all humankind because of Adam, not Adamic guilt. God's wrath on anyone is due to their own sin. The following chart should illustrate my point (I hold to the "Naked Bible" view):
Proposition #3 - Adam's sin and its ramifications for the creation
After Adam sinned God cursed the “ground” (adamah, Genesis 3:17), a word that carries general meaning for dirt or earth. It denotes the whole world in Genesis 6:1 (“human beings had increased throughout the earth”), so our suspicion is that what happened in the garden was indicative of what happened worldwide. Humans now toiled through thorns and thistles. But, was the pre-fall creation “perfect” as Young-Earth creationists want you to believe? God said that he thought his work was “very good” (tov meod, Genesis 1:31), which indicates that he was very pleased. Indeed it is very good. However, it doesn't necessarily mean that everything is perfect. How does one define ontological perfection? Did mosquitoes bite Adam? Did plants that Adam ate “die” in his stomach? These kinds of questions are often multiplied, and it is not long before we realize that we do not know how to delimit God's definition of “very good.” In almost the same breath God admitted that Adam's lack of a human mate was “not good” (Genesis 2:18). Paul will much later speak of the painful state of creation ("because the creation has become subject to futility, though not by anything it did," Romans 8:21). Notice, that the futility of creation is never applied to Adam's sin (since Young-Earth creationists teach that his sin resulted in the change of state for the creation). The creation has always been futile (as seen in the watery-chaos imagery in Genesis 1:2).
Proposition #4 - Adam’s sin and its ramifications on God’s wrath
This hearkens back to Michael Heiser's series on Romans 5:12. Does the word “Adam” ever appear in the same verse as “wrath” or “anger,” whether in speaking of God or anyone else? Nowhere in scripture is Adam's guilt the primary cause of God's wrath on humanity. Paul did say that Adam's sin caused our “condemnation” (katakrima, Romans 5:16), but this is in reference to being condemned to physically die (Romans 5:12, 15, 17, 21), or to have a “body that is infected by death” (Romans 7:24). There will be plenty of fuel for God's anger in scripture. But, God is not angry with us because of Adam, or our relationship to Adam.
Proposition #5 - Adam's sin and its ramifications for Total Depravity
There may be no more common theorem in Christian theology than man’s sinfulness. It is the basis for many other Christian doctrines, especially those having to do with salvation. But I have been bothered by this for some time. What is at stake is its precise wording. No one doubts that humans can be remarkably evil. We cannot get through the news without hearing stories of deliberate, unprovoked wickedness and cruelty. But here I am concerned with the word "total" (by which the word "natural" is also used in regards to the "depravity" of the human heart). Are we naturally evil in the sense that we “sin by nature,” much as we breathe by nature? If we were to settle this question biblically, we would need to find the place in scripture where this is both posed and settled in context with such ideas as “naturally” and “totally.
When the subject of man’s sinfulness occurs, the biblical writer quickly and unequivocally finds weakness and sinfulness to be our present lot. We easily sin. The bible (following the pattern set out by Job and the psalmists) presents a pessimistic anthropology in that it does not believe that humans have the ability to be consistently good, moral, or ethical for long stretches (Job 5:7; 15:14-16; 22:5; 28:12-13; 33:12; 35:2; Psalm 39:4-6; 51:5; 70:5; 73:22; 78:39; 94:11; 103:14; 109:22; 119:176; 144:3-4). But these same writers also claim that humans can be very good and very moral at times, even very faithful to God (the entire basis of Job's story is the fact that he was considered “was blameless as well as upright. He feared God and kept away from evil,” Job 1:1; and compare with Psalm 40:1, 4, 8). So why the back-and-forth? Traditional Judaism has a quick answer: that’s the way we actually are.
We are both good and evil at the same time in the sense that, assuming normal mental health, any human at any time has the choice to do good or to do evil. It sounds just like Genesis 3:5 has happened in that we have the knowledge (and ability) of good and evil at our fingertips. Think of it this way. If we were naturally evil, would we know we are evil or even what evil is? Does a fish know it is wet? At a funeral, does anyone praise the dead person's evilness? Just the opposite, in fact: it appears that we know what good and evil are, and we want to be good while we end up being (at times) very evil.
I find that all biblical passages which set out (in context) to talk about man's sinfulness agrees with this basic point. We do not have to sin. We choose to. And that is what makes evil so evil. In my opinion, the Reformed tradition comes to its view of human depravity as the result of reading lengthily developed conclusions backwards into such texts as Romans 3:10-18 (“not even one person is righteous”), to then frame out the idea that mankind is naturally and totally sinful. It serves their purpose to say this because it sets up their later understanding of grace and salvation. But I do not believe this tradition is found while reading the bible from start to finish, as I watch the stories of scripture unfold. What we do discover is that man's behavioral depravity (however it is defined) is not the problem that Jesus came to solve, nor a problem that even involves itself in the story of human salvation!
Proposition #6 - Does God's holiness demand moral perfection from us?
What did Jesus mean when he said “be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:48)? Behind the English word “perfect,” you might be asking yourself what Jesus meant by this in Aramaic (the spoken language of his sermon), or what Matthew meant by this in Hebrew (most scholars think that Matthew wrote in Hebrew), or how the Greek-reading person would have later understood it (our only surviving copies of Matthew are in Greek).
Neither Jesus nor Matthew was teasing his audience, telling them to be teleios while knowing they would fail. He was asking them to be complete or mature (the most tangible meaning of teleios in the NT) in respect to loving the unlovable, their enemies (Matthew 5:43-47). This is hard to do, maybe one of the hardest things a person can do who is truly suffering under the cruelty of another. But that is what God the Father is like, and the point that Jesus was trying to make. If listening to Jesus while being familiar with the OT, we would have connected Jesus’ request of perfection to the OT requirement to be tamim (often translated as “blameless,” Deuteronomy 18:13). Numerous OT people were considered, or considered themselves to be, tamim (Abraham in Genesis 17:1; David in 2 Samuel 22:24; Psalm 18:23; and Job in Job 1:1). It was even the goal for the average Yahwist to be tamim (Psalm 37:37; Proverbs 13:6). What is missing from every occurrence of tamim is any hint of perfection in the sense of moral sinlessness. Being righteous or upright before God was a million miles away from any sense of behavioral perfection.
Considering the biblical story in its larger scope, do we ever hear that moral perfection is demanded by God? I know this has been drummed into our heads since Sunday school, but I am frankly left scratching my head when I start looking for this idea in the bible. It's a rumor, and a terrible one. Old Testament writers celebrate Torah without fearing that it sets out an impossible goal (Deuteronomy 10:12-13; 30:11-20; Psalm 119), and NT writers agree (Romans 13:8-10; 1 Peter 3:8-12; James 1:25; Titus 3:5). Most importantly, Israel knew Yahweh as a deity who was both righteous/just and forgiving at the same time; a very unique combination (“The Lord is gracious and righteous; our God is compassionate,” Psalm 116:5; and compare with Psalm 36:5-6, 10; 37:21; 85:10; 89:14; 103:17; 112:4; 145:7-9, 17; Proverbs 12:10; 21:21; Isaiah 57:1; Daniel 4:27; 9:18; Jeremiah 10:24; Hosea 2:19; 10:12; Micah 6:8).
So, very importantly, this turns out to be a character issue regarding what kind of God we have. To say that God's holiness demands sinless perfection on the part of humans is to do almost irreparable harm to the story of the bible. If that is offensive to your interpretation of the story, I ask that you wait for biblical definitions of “holiness” and “righteous.” It will encourage you to enjoy God’s holiness and righteousness even while being imperfect.
Proposition #7 - Does God's holiness demand that he cannot be in the presence of moral sinfulness?
Let's consider the meaning of God's “holiness,” especially in its relation to sin. The Hebrew word most commonly translated as “holy” in the OT is qodesh (first appearing in Exodus 3:5, “the place where you are standing is holy ground”), appearing over 400 times. The general meaning of qodesh is not contested (“holy or sacred; set apart as dedicated to God”), though its use within the bible has at times led to confusion.
Here is why. While we know that qodesh may be used to describe non-moral things, such as a day of the week or clothing (“a holy Sabbath to the Lord,” Exodus 16:23; “make holy garments,” Exodus 28:2), qodesh also seems to appear in places where the story is trying to describe the non-sinfulness of something or someone (“he is to make atonement on the sacred place on account of the uncleanness of the Israelis, their transgressions, and all their sins,” Leviticus 16:16; “you will not be able to serve the Lord, because he is a God of Holiness. He is a jealous God, and he will forgive neither your transgressions nor your sins,” Joshua 24:19).
So it is easy to see why the idea of “being qodesh” has become associated with “being non-sinful.” Thus, in this regard, I recommend looking into “holiness” (and its cognate term “sanctify”) with the help of Michael Heiser's podcasts on Leviticus. Here is what you will find: qodesh consistently relates to, or is used when describing, the ceremonial or ritualistic elements within Israel’s religion. Holy does not mean “non-sinful.” It means “special" or "sacred.” So the opposite of “holy” will not be “sinful,” but “profane”; something along the lines of normal, regular, or common (“observe the Sabbath, because it’s holy for you. Whoever profanes it is certainly to die; indeed, whoever does work on it is to be cut off from among his people,” Exodus 31:14).
So if God’s “holiness” is not directly related to the absence of sin, who came up with the idea that God cannot be in the presence of evil? It developed over time as we tried to express how God was against moral evil. When we began to allow the word “holy” to poke its nose into the tent as the operative word for describing God's sinlessness, it was not long before we had a full-fledged doctrine announcing that God can't be in the presence of evil. But this simply wasn't true. As it turns out, God can be in the presence of moral evil if he so decides to be. He can also decide if he does not want to be in the presence of sin. It is his choice.
Proposition #8 - Does God's holiness demand that sin must always be punished?
This idea does not come out of scripture. Thus, who started the rumor that God cannot forgive sin without also punishing it? I know that Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) is generally credited with the theology of “satisfaction,” or the idea that God's honor was in need of repair because of human sin, the kind of repair that could not be satisfied by mere forgiveness of sin. But it would be out of step for the evangelical movement, to depend on a medieval theologian for their view of God and the punishment of sin. I have been around the block numerous times with my Reformed friends about this issue, and I think I have come to understand why they resist believing that God could just forgive sin without punishing it.
We must ask, is sin really serious if God can forgive without requiring some form of penalty or punishment? If God forgives sin (or “just” forgives sin, whatever that means), this means God does not think the sin was all that serious. Forgivable sins cannot be taken seriously. That is why they are forgivable. The very idea behind forgiveness is being able to punish, to know that the other person deserves punishment, and then deciding not to punish. I am not trying to be difficult when I say that I am honestly confused by this. Jesus told us to forgive people, even beyond seeming respectability (for example, “Peter came up and asked him, “Lord, how many times may my brother sin against me and I have to forgive him? Seven times?” Jesus told him, “I tell you, not just seven times, but 77 times,” Matthew 18:21-22).
I feel we are going down a very dangerous path, an opposite direction from that of Jesus, when we believe that forgiven sin cannot be seriously-taken sin. Of course sin is serious. That is why forgiveness is serious!
Proposition #9 - Did God institute OT sacrifices to teach of his hatred toward sin?
Evangelicals take a great interest in the subject of sacrifice in the bible, but I find it interesting that we tend to think through the subject backwards. By this I mean that we don’t start where sacrifice starts (watching the ritual played out in pre-biblical Mesopotamia), but instead dwell on the sacrificial meaning of Jesus’ death and only then work our way back into such books as Exodus and Leviticus. If that sounds too bold an assertion, try this experiment the next time you go to church: lean over and ask your friend what sacrifice meant in the bible. Then compare their answer to the article on sacrifice in the Dictionary of the Ancient Near East.
I’m not saying which answer is right. I am merely saying that the difference between these two answers exposes a more serious problem. We are approaching the subject of sacrifice from two different directions. So what was sacrifice in the days of the OT, and what did it mean? Who started it? We really know so very little of this ancient practice, largely because, well, it is just so very old. We are told that humans were sacrificing as early as Genesis 4 (Cain and Abel), but we are not told why. We are not necessarily told that God “instituted” sacrifice any more than he invented the harp and flute (Genesis 4:21) or the process of smelting bronze and iron (Genesis 4:22). We want to give sacrifice meaning, especially religious meaning, but we may be moving too fast. After Genesis 4, it will be thousands of years and possibly millions of sacrifices before Moses is even born! From there, many of the whens, whys, and hows associated with sacrifice in Torah are still left unanswered, and any ability to psycho-analyze the mind of the worshipper during sacrifice is simply not afforded to us.
Ancient Near-Eastern scholars would love to walk up to the prehistoric sacrificer and ask, “Why are you doing this?” In reading the bible from start to finish, it appears that sacrifice was an early invention of mankind, possibly being associated with early “religion,” though that word reflects a rather modern construct. The individual participated in sacrifice as a communal event, such as during a feast, and in this sense it was not attached to individual belief as much as to some kind of public social performance. Here is how Emerita Susan Cole understands the practice (from A Handbook Of Ancient Religion):
“What mattered most was the expected traditional gesture, made in the right way, at the right time. For the population at large, traditional rituals reinforced confidence in the belief that the security of the community required the attention of the gods. Communal rituals [such as sacrifice] represented the group acting as one and invited the gods to participate in human endeavor. Conversely, failure to perform a communal ritual properly could put the entire community at risk.”
Though Cole is describing ancient Greek ritual tradition (going back as far as the 8th century b.c.), I think she is putting into words how Abraham (and maybe even Cain and Abel) would have interpreted sacrifice. It was a public means of communing with a deity, a human way of bridging the gap between the physical and spiritual worlds. Whether the deity would “accept” the sacrifice, or hear the plea of the sacrificer, was a difficult matter to determine. There were no guarantees. Sacrifices connected the community with the gods, but it also reiterated a kind of expected social order in which implied responsibilities existing between the humans and the gods. The supplicant constantly faced the possibility that he had offended his god in the smallest of matters (for example, did he pronounce his god’s name correctly? was the fruit properly ripe?), and so sacrifices were often done in an over-the-top style. Animal sacrifice was considered the most impressive means of gaining the attention of a god, though vegetables or grains were more common (and certainly more affordable if the entire sacrifice was to be burnt away). The special requirements for participation in sacrifice (gender, status, kinship, and profession) depended upon local interpretation of the god’s requirements, usually interpreted by the king or priest.
So if this is how scholars generally handle the subject of ancient sacrifice, did God institute OT sacrifices to teach of his hatred for sin? I am going to side with the secular historian on this one and say no. I do not sense that God “instituted” sacrifice at all, but that it developed as a natural response among humans as we tried to commune with the world above us. It would be like asking who started the tradition of folding our hands and closing our eyes when we prayed as children. God certainly didn’t “tell” us to do this, but we somewhere along the way decided that it was a proper posture for talking to God. So why did individuals in the OT sacrifice? The biblical record shows that altars were constructed with regularity, whether by Noah (Genesis 8:20), Abraham (Genesis 12:6ff.; 13:18; 22:9), Isaac (Genesis 26:25), Jacob (Genesis 33:20; 35:1-7), Moses (Exodus 17:15), Joshua (Joshua 8:30ff.; cf. Deuteronomy 27:5), Gideon (Judges 6:24ff.), or David (2 Samuel 24:18-25). I believe that these individuals were simply following cultural norm, whether living before or after Moses.
This view is not uncommon among evangelical authors. Daniel Block argues that most of the categories of sacrifice found in Leviticus 1-5 are attested to outside of Israel (in Biblical Faith And Other Religions: An Evangelical Assessment). These are the:
- zebah (sacrifice, sacrificial meals),
- selamim (peace/well-being offerings),
- ola (whole burnt offerings),
- mincha (gift, grain/cereal offerings).
But what about sin? When God instructed Moses on the practice of sacrifice at Sinai, was this in any sense due to his desire to teach Israel about the seriousness of moral sin, or his hatred of it? As much as I would like to say yes to this idea (as it makes sense if I don’t think about it too deeply), I simply cannot find enough evidence to do so, and in fact find strong evidence in the opposite direction. If the question was changed to “did God instruct Moses within Torah about the seriousness of sin, and his hatred of it?” then the answer would be an easy yes; so notice that the issue here concerns sacrifice, not Torah.
If sacrifice had been designed to teach the seriousness of sin, then the rules on sacrifice would have looked much different than they do, namely, the bigger the sin, the bigger the sacrifice. But that is not what we find. The biggest sins of all (murder) had no sacrificial equivalent. Something else must have been going on with the meaning of sacrifice when it came to Moses’ teaching.
Proposition #10 - Did God institute OT sacrifices to teach the general concept of substitution?
As seen above, the practice of animal sacrifice was not invented by God. We know that sacrifices and offerings were part of ancient religion long before Moses, and that Torah’s instructions regarding sacrifice mirrored many of the ceremonial practices of foreign nations. It is often helpful to turn to traditional Judaism for a question such as this, especially when it concerns a practice so foundational to Israel’s history and culture. Here is a summary by Shai Cherry (from his academic course on the Introduction to Judaism), concerning the origin of animal sacrifice:
“Sacrifice was a commandment, but it was also a concession to human psychology. Here’s how it works. [The medieval Jewish theologian] Maimonides said in The Guide of the Perplexed, that, quote, ‘A sudden transition from one opposite to another is impossible.’ What he means is that people can’t go from understanding everything about the world in one way to understanding everything about the world in a completely different way. They need time to adjust. He says this in context of the Israelites being freed from slavery in Egypt where they were steeped in idolatrous practices. Those practices included animal sacrifices. So Maimonides says that when God brought the Israelites out of Egypt into the desert, the only way the Israelites knew to worship God was through these animal sacrifices. So as a ‘gracious ruse,’ or as a ‘noble lie’—there are different translations of that platonic idea—God allowed the Israelites to continue in this idolatrous practice of sacrificing animals, but to the right address. In other words, the only thing that changed was the address, so that way the Israelites could still feel that what they were doing was efficacious. What they were doing was still worshipping God, even though that’s not the most noble, the most authentic way of worshipping God—because God doesn’t need it.”
I realize we should be wary of labelling any one view within Judaism as “standard.” The rabbis have always been adept at collecting and even appreciating dissenting and minority opinions among their ranks. At the same time modern Jews hold the views of Maimonides in highest respect. Personally, I believe his opinion about the origin of sacrifice makes good and practical sense. So if it is accurate, if sacrifice makes its way into the bible not as an invention by God but as a concession to the psychology of mankind, akin to divorce laws (Deuteronomy 24:1-4; and compare with Matthew 19:8), then we as evangelicals are guilty of giving sacrifice too much meaning in our theology. We need to change the word “instituted” to something closer to “allowed” or “permitted,” before moving on to what OT Israelites were supposed to learn from the sacrificial system.
But now let’s move on to the question of substitution. Did God allow OT sacrifices to teach the general concept of substitution? Here are key questions that need answers:
- What do we gain by believing that sacrifice includes substitution? What would we lose if we do not include substitution within sacrifice? Why should I include substitution in sacrifice? What is the value?
- When an answer to the above is offered, does it come directly from the bible?
- If sacrificing taught substitution, what is exactly being substituted for what? For example, if I were bringing a trespass offering after contacting an unclean carcass (Leviticus 5:2-6), I may experience a passing sense that the animal is taking my place on the altar, but this would be a momentary emotion only. I know I do not deserve to die; I’ve only touched a carcass, and probably plan on touching another carcass next week; and yet I have just killed an animal for my trouble! There is no substitution here. If the argument comes back “but you did deserve to die,” I would need to hear this discussion played out in the bible. Torah gives us plenty of opportunity to say something like this, and it is never said.
- What does substitution say about God? Knowing what we know of Yahweh, how would he be satisfied in substituting one thing for another, such as an animal for a person? Jesus acknowledged that animals are nowhere as valuable as people (Luke 12:24), and yet substitutional sacrifice seems to presume at least some kind of equality. I find the entire concept of substitution out-of-bounds for the character of God.
- Do we as humans ever deal in substitutes? We are not allowed to do it in a court of law, for example: “your honor, my neighbor has volunteered to go to jail for me.” Nor do we imagine doing it in the course of human relationships, for example: “sorry I offended your spouse. Is there something I can give you?” Why would God be open to the idea of substitution when our normal human condition is opposed to it? In fact, the only real example of where this is actually practiced in this context is the remarkable teaching within Islam, that if I were to kill my neighbor's wife, he has the right to kill my wife! This is the reading of the Quran: "retaliation is decreed on you for the murdered, the free man for the free, and the slave for the slave, and the female for the female" (Sura 2:178).
- Why is the bible silent on the topic of substitutionary sacrifice when given the chance? The Hebrew and Greek words for “substitute” or “exchange” (chalaph and mur, Leviticus 27:10; antallagma, Mark 8:37) are not uncommon, but they are never used for the subject of how sacrifice works. In test-driving the idea of substitutionary sacrifice, one of the first proofs we would look for would be a text which states the idea simply and clearly. But this is not what we find. Maybe it can be reworded, as the idea of a “proxy” (a representative who leads the way for others while not actually becoming a substitute for them) will certainly play a significant role in describing our ultimate salvation.
Proposition #11 - Was God’s wrath against sin temporarily assuaged because of OT sacrifices?
If Jesus’ death finally solved God’s wrath against sin, and if Jesus’ death was a substitutionary sacrifice, then that means that the substitutionary sacrifices which came before Jesus (OT sacrifices) must not have finally solved God’s wrath against sin. Thus the logical inference is that OT sacrifices did partially what Jesus’ sacrifice did fully, as it concerned God’s wrath. I recommend that this whole idea is unnecessary, and that the logic is faulty on the front end. This question is based on Romans 3:25, the verse which is commonly appealed to for arguing this post-ponement idea: “whom God offered as a place where atonement by the Messiah’s blood would occur through faith. He did this to demonstrate his righteousness, because he had waited patiently to deal with sins committed in the past.”
The following excerpt is from Douglas Moo’s commentary on Romans:
“Paul’s meaning is rather that God “postponed” the full penalty due sins in the Old Covenant, allowing sinners to stand before him without their having provided an adequate “satisfaction” of the demands of his holy justice (cf. Heb. 10:4). In view of this, it is clear that “his righteousness” must have reference to some aspect of God’s character that might have been called into question because of his treating sins in the past with less than full severity, and that has now been demonstrated in setting forth Christ as “the propitiatory.””
Thus, according to Moo, God’s wrath is postponed presumably through OT sacrifices. But now let’s ask what Paul could have meant by “waited patiently to deal with sins” in Romans 3:25. Notice that Paul’s larger argument concerns God’s righteousness, concluding with the realization that no one can boast because of it (Romans 3:27) and that the same God will save Jews and Gentiles in the same way, through faith (Romans 3:30). Many commentators interpret the idea of righteousness (dikaiosune, used 92 times) along the lines of legal justice, even repayment, but I find this to be a forced idea that does not bear up behind the normal use of the word across the NT (for example, 2 Corinthians 9:10 uses dikaiosune in the sense of gratuity and kindness, almost the opposite of justice or repayment, and numerous other uses [Matthew 5:6, 10; 6:33; Romans 6:18; Galatians 5:5; Ephesians 5:9; 1 Timothy 6:11; 2 Peter 3:13] signal general virtue which would not be associated with straightforward justice).
My point is that we need to decide the general meaning of righteousness before figuring out what “waited patiently to deal with sins” means since the two ideas are so closely tied together in Romans 3:25. If we pre-package dikaiosune to mean justice in the legal sense, we will likely interpret “waited patiently to deal with sins” legally as well. This is what Moo does, coming up with the idea of “postponing the full penalty due sins” as his explanation of how God “waited patiently to deal with sins committed in the past.”
So let’s pause and ask what Paul would have thought about righteousness. Did he think that God’s righteousness (in Hebrew, tzedaqah) was primarily a legal concept, something that demanded a get-what-you-deserve “justice”? On the contrary, Paul read an OT which commonly tied God’s righteousness to his mercy and grace (“The Lord is gracious and righteous; our God is compassionate,” Psalm 116:5; and compare with Psalm 36:5-6, 10; 37:21; 85:10; 89:14; 145:7-9, 17; Prov. 12:10; 21:21; Hosea 2:19; 10:12; Micah 6:8; Isaiah 57:1; Jeremiah 10:24; Daniel 4:27; 9:18). This OT evidence leads me to suspect that Paul’s reference to “waited patiently to deal with sins” in Romans 3:25 is hinting toward God’s graciousness more than to what Moo calls the “adequate “satisfaction” of the demands of his holy justice.” In fact, it strikes me that Moo is making this idea up out of thin air! In the OT, God was in the business of forgiving sin (“he, being merciful, forgave their iniquity and didn’t destroy them; He restrained his anger and didn’t vent all his wrath,” Psalm 78:38). Various analogies are used to describe God forgiving sins, including:
- “bearing” or “lifting” them (nasaʾ, Genesis 50:17),
- “releasing” or “pardoning” them (salach, Leviticus 4:20; Numbers 30:5),
- “covering” them (kasah, Psalm 32: 1; 85:2),
- “healing” them (raphaʾ, Psalm 103:3).
We never get the sense from these common word pictures that God is postponing his anger for some later time as he bears/lifts/covers someone’s sins. Thus, we are not surprised to also hear that God “waited patiently to deal with sins” with no hint of post-ponement or deferment of punishment. As we read from this OT prophet: “Is there any God like you, forgiving iniquity, passing over transgressions by the survivors who are your heritage? He is not angry forever, because he delights in gracious love” (Micah 7:18).
Paul may have had Micah’s prayer in mind when he spoke of God passing over sins. Even if he didn’t, the theology of “passing over” sins holds; it is synonymous with forgiveness. There is nothing in the biblical phrase generally, nor in Romans 3:25 specifically, that indicates that God is postponing punishment. So what role does righteousness have in God’s forgiveness? What might Paul have meant by saying that God “did this to demonstrate his righteousness” when he forgave previous sins; presumably those in the OT? Again, I think the answer is fairly simple, coming straight out of the OT story: by faithfully and consistently forgiving the sins of his people, God was showing his propriety or his righteousness as the covenant-keeping God of Israel (Exodus 34:6-7; Numbers 14:18; 2 Chronicles 30:9; Nehemiah 9:17; Psalm 86:15; 103:8; 111:4; 112:4; 116:5; 145:8; Joel 2:13; Jonah 4:2; Nahum 1:3).
God was righteous in the sense that he always did what he said he would do, in this case forgiving the sins of those who were faithful to him. Drop this idea into Romans 3:25-26, and Romans 3:27-30 makes sense. Think again about the original question: Was God’s wrath against sin temporarily assuaged because of OT sacrifices? How would the bible sound if this were true? It is reasonable to assume that the words “wrath” or “anger” would appear somewhere in a conversation about sacrifice in the OT. Thus, how many times do the Hebrew words for wrath or anger (the best options would be aph [275 times], evrah [34 times] or qatzaph [34 times]) appear in a verse having to do with sacrifice in either Exodus, Leviticus, or Numbers (where the subject of sacrifice is most prevalent)? The only result I can find is this: “Now Moses diligently sought for the goat that had been offered as a sin offering, but it had already been incinerated, so he was angry with Aaron’s sons who remained. He asked Eleazar and Ithamar” (Leviticus 10:16).
That’s it, one verse—and it isn’t even about God at all!
Proposition #12 - Did God teach that a substitute could take the punishment of a morally guilty person?
In other words, does scripture teach that human moral guilt can be solved in the mind of God through a substitute who is willing to absorb the punishment which is due the guilty person? I have never met anyone who thought this way, nor am I familiar with any culture or society which conducts its business in this fashion. Parents certainly don’t parent their children this way, and judges do not sanction substitutes in their courtrooms. If it is not taught in the bible, the entire evangelical story will need to be adjusted. Again, how would the bible sound if God accepted substitutes for solving moral guilt? I don't think the subject would be handled quietly. To the contrary, it would be seen as huge news: God accepts substitutes! Guilt is transferrable!
I believe this captivating (if not incredible) idea would be celebrated in the bible’s teaching at all points across the larger story, and discussions about God’s character would proceed in light of it. But this is not what we find. As shown above, the original words for “substitute” or “exchange” (chalaph and mur, Leviticus 27:10; antallagma, Mark 8:37) appear ~50 times, and that they are never used for the subject of how sacrifice works. Thus, the bible never uses “substitute” or “exchange” in any discussion of how God handles human moral guilt. So now we need to ask how this idea could have become so popular within evangelicalism. In fact, as the following excerpt from the Dictionary of Biblical Imagery asserts:
“While Christ’s substitutionary atonement is the central theological doctrine of the Christian faith, the imagery of substitution in the Bible is remarkably scarce. Because Christ fulfilled the OT sacrificial system, it is easy for a NT reader to see a substitutionary aspect in OT animal sacrifices (which took the place of the penalty that sinful humanity would otherwise have to pay before a just God), but the portrayal of sacrifices in the OT does not stress this aspect.”
If we flip the two clauses of this sentence around we discover an interesting admission: the imagery of substitution in the bible is remarkably scarce, and yet Christ’s substitutionary atonement is the central theological doctrine of the Christian faith. Said another way, Jesus becomes the answer (“he is my substitute”) before we even settle the question (“does God accept substitutes?”). It is biblically sound to assert that Jesus died for our sins. The text says as much, so we know it is true. But the question here is whether Jesus’ death for us, or for our sins, is teaching literal substitution in the sense of solving our moral guilt. I don't think so.
First, consider how substitution works, or what we mean by it. We think of a substitute as something that switches with something else, as in a replacement teacher or a pinch-hitter, because procedural standards allow for it. When we say that God “allows a substitute to take the punishment of a morally guilty person,” we are saying God’s intentions and expectations and means of satisfaction are non-personal because he is operating by some kind of standard which gives the concept of substitution its room to work. Any situation which accepts substitutes must in the end be impersonal. This is important, because we are trying to understand how God ultimately solves moral guilt, a highly personal issue.
Second, literal substitution is not what is meant when Jesus dies “for us.” If we were to hear someone pray, “Jesus, thank you for dying on the cross for my sins so that I wouldn’t have to die on the cross for my sins,” we would be simultaneously impressed by their attempt at accuracy, and also by their distinct lack of accuracy. No careful theologian has ever claimed that you or I deserved to be on Jesus’ cross that day, nor that our death would have done any good, for anyone. Literal substitution is not in view when we hear of Jesus “dying for our sins.” Numerous steps are required to get from “Jesus died for my sins” to “my moral guilt is therefore solved” even if most people mistake this for a single process. I am honestly not trying to create a brain twister here, but I can count at least seven logical steps that make up the gap between these two ideas, that if “Jesus died for my sins”:
- The word "sins" refers to issues concerning my personal moral guilt.
- The words "died for" mean died as a replacement for the punishment for my personal moral guilt.
- The punishment that my guilt deserved was eternal hell.
- This punishment cannot be forgiven, but must be served by either me or an innocent substitute.
- Since Jesus was sinless, he qualifies as this innocent substitute for me and for all other guilty people since his physical death counts as eternal punishment.
- This means that God never really forgives us because he chooses to go ahead with our punishment by means of punishing our substitute.
- In this way my moral guilt is therefore solved.
Each of these steps deserves a conversation in their own right. So, what does the bible teach about the relationship between substitution and moral guilt? I recommend we start with the words of James Garrett, a Southern Baptist professor who is a proponent of substitutionary atonement himself (from his Systematic Theology, Volume 2, Second Edition):
“The NT evidence for Jesus’ death as his punitive substitution for the death due to be suffered by sinful humans is less pervasive than some of its modern defenders have claimed.”
Substitution has become a forced concept in our theology and that it is not part of the story of the bible. If the bible wanted to use words like “exchange” and “substitute” for God’s dealing with moral guilt, it could have. But it doesn’t. Instead, the bible argues for a nearly opposite view: everyone will be judged for what they do, and whatever guilt a person carries, they themselves bear it alone without hope of transference to anyone else.
This is what we read from the biblical authors (“the person who keeps on sinning is going to die,” Ezekiel 18:4; “If I tell the righteous person that he will certainly live, if he trusts in his own righteousness and commits evil, none of his righteousness will be remembered, and he will die because of the wrong that he commits,” Ezekiel 33:13; “For he will repay everyone according to what that person has done: eternal life to those who strive for glory, honor, and immortality by patiently doing good; but wrath and fury for those who in their selfish pride refuse to believe the truth and practice wickedness instead. There will be suffering and anguish for every human being who practices doing evil, for Jews first and for Greeks as well. But there will be glory, honor, and peace for everyone who practices doing good, initially for Jews but also for Greeks as well, because God does not show partiality,” Romans 2:6-12; “each of us will give an account of himself to God,” Romans 14:12).
Substitution is both unnecessary to the story and even contrary to it, principally because sin should never have been placed at the beginning of the conversation for why people face the judgment of God. We started wrong, so we got the whole story wrong. I can’t help but think that the greater message of substitution (the concept that God needs to replace me and what I’m really like with something morally perfect, even Jesus) has harmed our modern presentation of the gospel a lot (I see this all the time when I interact with non-Christians online, especially Muslims). I can see why many people are confused when they hear that God loves them but that he also can’t stand being around them. That would confuse me too. The courtroom substitution picture that we have so often appealed to is also confusing. A judge who accepts someone else’s death for what I have done may sound romantic to some, but it does not sound romantic to me, nor to most of my non-Christian friends. I know this because they have told me. To paraphrase what one of my atheist friends said about the courtroom picture he was given at church:
“I did not understand then, nor do I understand now, how this shows love, or shows forgiveness, or how it ultimately solves the situation. After Jesus dies I am just as guilty as I was before. The ‘good news’ Christians speak of only deals with the punishment phase of the story, not with the person who is still left standing in the courtroom.”
Of course the bible will use plaintiff / judge terminology in describing our relationship to God, but this will be the exception. Most commonly our relationship to God is defined in terms of ancestry, asking to which family do we belong? And that becomes a beautiful story of love, forgiveness, and solving my moral guilt. I can understand why substitution is necessary for those who describe salvation in terms of sin management, since in this view God ultimately is satisfied by nothing less than moral perfection, whether mine or Jesus’. But substitution will never enter the discussion for those who see salvation as primarily relational, or family-oriented. Parents don’t need substitutes for their children. I don’t need to be substituted! God accepts me, the real me, as his child! And as for moral guilt, be assured that once your relationship with God is settled (when you are a member of his family), your moral guilt will certainly be solved in God’s chosen way. Thank God!
Proposition #13 - Did priestly actions in the OT (sacrifice, atonement, etc.) play a role in OT salvation?
Christian tradition has been careful to avoid saying that an OT priest (or any priest for that matter) could affect the spiritual state of a worshipper. To put it positively, Christians believe that a person in both the OT and the NT can be right with God only through their individual faith, and that bare rituals or ceremonies play no role in a person’s salvation. I agree with this. Thus, was it true that priestly actions in the OT played a role in salvation? The answer involves Jesus’ priestly actions (sacrifice, atonement, etc.) that played a role in human salvation! Since Jesus’ priestly actions in the NT were salvific (principally in his atoning sacrifice), it stands to reason that OT priestly actions must have been salvific as well. We can assume that the Christian is trying to be consistent in describing what a priest did, or the effect that his actions carried, across both the OT and the NT. I am not comparing the effectiveness of Jesus’ priestly sacrifice to the ineffectiveness of OT animal sacrifices, as Paul highlights in Hebrews 10:1-4. I am instead considering the meaning of sacrifices in general. What were they meant to accomplish? What did they mean to the life of the OT Israelite? What did they accomplish in the mind of God? Most importantly, did sacrifices play a role in salvation? The OT nowhere ties righteousness (Hebrew, tsedaqah) to priestly activity, and numerous OT stories tell of people who were considered righteous without a priest or tabernacle in sight (Noah in Genesis 6:9; Abraham in Genesis 15:6; the inhabitants of Sodom in Genesis 18:23; exiles in Babylon in Ezekiel 3:20). Christians must give theological account for the long stretches of time (the exile is our best example) when Jewish priests and their sacrifices were not available to God’s people. In believing that righteousness was by faith we are forced to admit that access to a priest did not affect one’s ability to be right with God. I am not aware of any argument by Christian scholarship that contradicts this rather simple point.
Proposition #14 - Did priestly actions in the OT (sacrifice, atonement, etc.) prefigure Jesus’ future priestly actions?
“The citation in Heb 10:6–8 is particularly significant where burnt offerings, in association with other offerings, are shown to be inferior to the sacrifice of Jesus Christ, who offered himself as a sacrifice for sin once for all (Heb 10:1–4, 10). This suggests that the sacrificial system and particularly the burnt offering foreshadows or typifies the death of Christ for sins.”
Rooker uses the words “foreshadows” and “typifies” where I am using the word “prefigured.” The larger point is that Christians have traditionally interpreted OT priestly activity as predicting what Jesus would someday do, and they believe it is important for the reader of the story of the bible to catch this connection. But there is a potential problem with this idea, or at least something to think about. It is probable that the idea of a priest (a person acting as a divine/human intermediary or arbiter) was not invented by God at all. Instead, the idea seems to originate along with sacrifice and other religious practices within ancient cultures which pre-dated Israel (as mentioned above). The law for divorce got into the Torah, not because God invented divorce, but because human experience led to the need of clarifying the practice (Deuteronomy 24:1-5; Matthew 19:8). The same can also be said for the origin of the law for slavery (Exodus 21:2) and the l