If someone were to volunteer to die in place of Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, we would not think that justice, nor even mercy, had been served. Show justice — if the death penalty is your thing — by killing him. Show mercy by not killing him. But kill someone else to satisfy the demands of justice? Ridiculous.
That is the problem with the substitutionary atonement model. We moderns don’t believe in it in principle. This is why the various parables out there that try to explain the atonement are so poor. There’s the whipping of the school boy to save his friend, which only leaves you wondering why the sadistic teacher should be whipping anyone. Or there’s the drawbridge keeper who sacrifices his son to save the train but which reduces Jesus to an unfortunate little boy caught on the tracks.
I imagine most Christians hold to some kind of vicarious sacrifice model of atonement. It is, after all, a view mandated in scripture (Hebrews 9). Alarms should be ringing, however: our unsatisfactory attempts to make it comprehensible are indicative of its shortcomings and serve only to make God a monster who whips innocent boys. Typically this incomprehensibility is justified by means of the mysteries of godliness, but this is to make a mistake. The fact is, the substitutionary sacrifice of Jesus on the cross would have been easily comprehensible to an ancient audience, where ideas around blood atonement, the kinsmen redeemer, and blood payments were part of their world view. For such people, Jesus’ death was indeed a vicarious sacrifice. For us? Perhaps not.
The atonement, at least in the way it is experienced by humans, was a trick. It’s a good trick so don’t freak out, but a trick nonetheless. Once again, the key here is the Jewish temple.
As I wrote in my first post, it is Jesus’ rejection of the temple (representing the old way) that is foremost in the narrative and rituals of Holy Week (which represent the new way). I believe that Jesus wants his disciples to strike a new path away from the temple and the pious emptiness it represented. To do this he offers a new body and new blood: the bread and wine of the communal meal, stripped of the elite commensality that was religious feasting in the first century. This meal was to be the centre of a new religion without regard for Jew or Greek, male or female — a kingdom for the outcasts.
But this was not enough. How can one abandon the temple when its sacrifices bring atonement for sin? Jesus had already done this when he bypassed the priestly channel of God’s mercy and went around offering forgiveness with nary a whiff of incense or the spilling of blood. But old habits die hard. In order to wrench his people away from temple he would need to engage in the biggest performance of prophetic enactment the world had ever seen: he would be their “high priest of the good things” — no more goats or bulls but the flesh of the Holy One of Israel, a new High Priest.
Prophetic enactment is a strategy by some religious figures who use symbolic (often eccentric) actions to highlight the will of God. One thinks of Simeon the Stylite who lived on a pillar for 36 years, or Isaiah’s naked stroll through Jerusalem. The Jewish followers of Jesus, if they were to accept Jesus’ new body and new blood as substitutes for the temple, would need an epic act of religious drama if he was going to crush the pious habits of a lifetime.
So here’s the crux: with their Passover minds washed with the blood of a salvific lamb, Jesus offered himself as an atoning sacrifice, not because God demanded it but because his disciples needed it. The veil of the temple — and the seat of atonement it was so obsessively hiding — was ripped in two for his disciples’ sake, not God’s. You do not need Herod’s temple any more (if you ever did)!
Thus Jesus was indeed a substitutionary sacrifice but not to fulfil some cosmic law that thinks justice is served when children are whipped for their friends. Instead, he enacted in his own body a culturally-bound ritual in order to found a new Judaism. The atonement has power because it is eternal, meaning it satisfies our spiritual needs and turns us to God in all times and cultures. Some of us recoil from the notion of substitutionary sacrifice in the way it is typically presented in Christianity, but that is fine, as the atonement was only ever that for people who needed it to be that.
One is then left asking what the atonement means to us today, if it isn’t to satisfy God’s (or the devil’s, or The Law’s) need for blood (but rather the first century disciples’ belief that it was to satisfy God’s need for blood). Because Christianity is true, I have no doubt that Jesus’ suffering and death can have multiple meanings. I am also sure it will have other meanings in centuries hence.