Saturday night I heard Rob Bell speak in Pittsburgh. It was ok, I like Rob a lot, I think he is a dynamic communicator and handles his success with great humility. His presentation has left many thoughts and questions have been ruminating in my mind since then. Rob painted a picture of the God of Israel being a God who reverses and operates outside of the system of sacrificial appeasement and control like the Sumerian and most other ancient religious systems. Yahweh demonstrates his reversal of this by providing a sacrificial substitute for Abraham’s son Isaac and he provides a peace meal within the elaborate sacrificial system of Leviticus. This all culminates in Jesus’ rebuking the sacrificial system and claiming himself to be the temple and ultimate sacrifice so that all humanity will not have to live any longer under the stress, anxiety and fear of not knowing whether or not they have appeased the gods and God. Jesus was killed by the sacrificial system itself. He did not resist or fight back he willingly submitted to the corrupt sacrificial system of the Jews and the Romans and died. The once and for all sacrificial system ending sacrifice of Jesus gives humanity and all creation freedom from this perpetual ambiguity and fear of not knowing if we are at peace with the God. This is a grossly over-simplified summary of Rob’s brilliant presentation, but...
...there are questions that are maybe intentionally unanswered are about the nature of God’s involvement in the death of Jesus, that seems to me to be a part of the same kind of sacrificial appeasement system. At one point Rob asked a question that went something like this: what kind of god do you serve that needs to be appeased by the shedding of blood? Didn’t Jesus need to die in order to appease God’s anger? Aren’t those the reformed doctrines of propitiation and atonement? Did Jesus have to die on the cross in order for the reversal of the system of sacrificial appeasement and control to be overturned once and for all? And in reversing that system isn’t God implicitly involved in participating in that system and therefore complicit in the sacrifice of his own son? Let me state it explicitly. Did God need the blood of his own son to be shed (like the Jewish and other sacrificial systems)? If so how does that differentiate God from the whole system of sacrificial appeasement and control?
I certainly believe that in and through the death of Jesus and even more so his resurrection we are free from sin and its power but I must confess that the I have been thinking about the necessity of what has been called penal substitution, where the punishment for sin must involve the shedding of blood. As Rob explained, in the Hebrew Scriptures, this was the ritual sacrifice of animals; in the NT it involves the sacrifice of Jesus. God in this atonement theory seems unwilling or incapable of forgiving sin in any other way then through the shedding of blood.
I realize that these are large, very large and potentially threatening questions to what some would call the reformed and evengelical faith but I just thought I would pose them since they seemed unanswered by Rob and were ringing in my head throughout this week. I am interested in your thoughts.