Atonement as Liturgy: The Cross Re-examined

In recent weeks, I have explained why I feel compelled to reject the Penal Substitution Atonement philosophies that underpin many of the theologies and practices in the Western church. But if PSA is no longer adequate for explaining atonement for me, then I need to re-evaluate some of the key questions (Why did God choose to become man? What is the significance of Jesus’ death?). Today I wish to focus on the question of forgiveness. If the forgiveness of sins was an important part of Jesus’ mission, and his death was an important part of that process, how might we reframe our theology so that it speaks to these questions in a way that does not necessitate the propitiation of an angry God? Today I will draw heavily on the work of a Catholic theologian for whom I have a great deal of respect, James Alison, in attempting to grapple with that question.


James Alison (Some Thoughts on the Atonement, 2004, available from suggests that part of the problem with the prevalent PSA paradigm is that it encourages us to think of the atonement in terms of a theory rather than a liturgy. In other words, we think of atonement as something to be grasped, and over which we therefore have some degree of control, rather than as a liturgy: something that is done to/ for us, and which is designed to promote reflection on the part of the ‘viewer’. Atonement understood through a purely theoretical framework, Alison argues, has significant (and problematic) ethical consequences. It means that atonement is an idea to be understood, and once we have “got it”, a divide is created between those who have and those who have not. Thus the primary instrument in driving atonement is the capacity of the individual to comprehend the theory. The agency behind salvation becomes human. Once one adds liturgical elements, atonement is being demonstrated. The agency becomes divine and humans become participants. That makes more sense to me.


The fact of the matter is that much of what Jesus did preceding the Easter events was clearly liturgical in nature, and the disciples understood this. In fact, if one examines the history of atonement outlined in the Scriptures, it becomes abundantly clear that the entire sacrificial system of the Old Testament is liturgical in nature. At no point are we asked to believe that the sacrifices actually remove sin. If the sacrifices were necessary and, in real terms, able to cleanse people of sin, then how ought we to make sense of statements like:


For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge of God rather than burnt offerings.(Hosea 6:6)


To do righteousness and justice is more acceptable to the Lord than sacrifice.(Proverbs 21:3)


In sacrifice and offering you have not delighted, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required. Then I said, “Behold, I have come; in the scroll of the book it is written of me: I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.” (Psalm 40:6-8)


For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins. (Hebrews 10:4)

For in the day that I brought them out of the land of Egypt, I did not speak to your fathers or command them concerning burnt offerings and sacrifices. But this command I gave them: ‘Obey my voice, and I will be your God, and you shall be my people. And walk in all the way that I command you, that it may be well with you.’ (Jeremiah 7:22-23)


“I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream (Amos 5:21-24)


“With what shall I come before the Lord, and bow myself before God on high? Shall I come before him with burnt offerings, with calves a year old? Will the Lord be pleased with thousands of rams, with ten thousands of rivers of oil? Shall I give my firstborn for my transgression, the fruit of my body for the sin of my soul?” He has told you, O man, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? (Micah 6:6-8)


Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’ For I came not to call the righteous, but sinners.” (Matthew 9:13)


And to love him with all the heart and with all the understanding and with all the strength, and to love one’s neighbour as oneself, is much more than all whole burnt offerings and sacrifices.” (Mark 12:33)



If this is the consistent message regarding sacrifice, then why on earth would God demand that Jesus be sacrificed? God does not demand sacrifice; we do. What, then, are we to make of the sacrificial system in the Old Testament? I think God uses our demand for sacrifice to demonstrate to us an essential truth about atonement. But what is that?


To understand that, we would need to explore the atonement liturgy outlined in Leviticus 16. The priest, on behalf of the people, after expiating his own sins by sacrificing a bull, enters the temple with two goats: one “as the Lord” and one “as Azazel” (the devil). Some translations have “for the Lord” and “for Azazel”, but that translation raises the tricky question of why the priest, having purified himself, would make a sacrifice to the devil. My NSV version does both – “for the Lord” and “as a scapegoat”, but the root word is the same. It makes sense to me to translate it as “as” rather than “for”. Anyway, the priest then dons the seamless white robes, called The Name, which in effect makes him God (remember, this is meant as a liturgy, and not to be taken literally). Having taken on The Name (of God), symbolised in the Name being contained in phylacteries wrapped around his forehead or arms, he enters the Holy of Holies with the ‘Lord’ goat. This he sacrifices, and sprinkles the blood around what is to be seen as a microcosm of creation, in some way diminished by sin, to heal it. Then he comes to the veil that separates the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple – the place where God dwells from the rest of His creation. The veil is made of rich cloth, symbolising the material world. The priest dons a robe of the same material – representing God entering into our world – and sprinkles the blood in the rest of the temple too. Then the “sin” he has accumulated is placed on the head of the Azazel “scapegoat”, and it is driven out of the Temple; removed from Creation.


The thing to note, in all of this, is that – as Alison notes – the primary movement is not inwards, towards where God is, but is of God moving outwards, towards His Creation. There is no sense that the Jewish liturgy of atonement resembles what Alison calls the “Aztec mentality” that we seem to have adopted regarding sacrifice. This is not about appeasing an angry God. It is about God, requiring nothing from His creation (there is no goat representing humanity that gets spared), giving His life to restore His Creation.


And the disciples and Paul understood this. There are numerous references in the New Testament to Jesus as a “priest in the order of Melchizedek”. Alison points out that Jesus’ last speech to his disciples in John 17 is based on the priestly atonement prayer. When Jesus applies “Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord” (Matthew 23:39) to himself, it is a reference to this exact ceremony, with the priest coming out of the Holy of Holies as God. And so when Jesus cries “It is finished!”, perhaps he means that the liturgy of atonement has been fulfilled.


But Alison points out that it is not only about liturgy. He insists that Jesus is subverting the sacrificial system from within, by placing Himself – both God and man – at the centre of it. The only reason, Alison contests, that animals or crops are sacrificed in our sacrificial systems is because human sacrifice becomes too traumatic, impractical and obviously ethically dubious. But the animals still represent human sacrifice. That, for Alison, is why at the last supper, Jesus points out that instead of bread and wine, the sacrifice is the Lamb. And the Lamb is human. It is murder. As both the priest in the Atonement liturgy and the victim, Jesus both fulfils it and exposes it for what it is, restoring creation Himself and abolishing our attempts to do so through our flawed understanding of what God requires. When Jesus points out the blood he sheds is for us (not God), the body broken is for us (not God), We – claims Alison – are the angry deity being propitiated. That is what Jesus asks us to remember when we participate in the Eucharist. Through his death he both fulfils and abolishes sacrificial systems, and opens up the possibility of life in God that is abundant and free of death. But not because He requires it. Because we do.


That still leaves many questions: what is sin and how does it affect our relationship with God? What is so terrible about it that it required God to become human (especially if it is not about punishment)? What is forgiveness? Who is being forgiven and for what? What does it mean to be forgiven? All these need to be rethought. And if I am honest, those questions excite and terrify me. Part of me does feel heretical. After all, my whole Christian existence has been saturated with Penal Substitution theory. I am certain that many of my friends read this and despair for me, are – as we speak – praying for me as I “lose my way”. But I am too far down this path to turn back. And even if I could, I would not. I cannot cling to what does not make sense. And I know God knows my heart. I do not believe he requires “right belief” of me; He simply loves. As Franciscan monk, Richard Rohr, puts it: “Jesus did not come to change the mind of God about humanity, Jesus came to change the mind of humanity about God”.

5 thoughts on “Atonement as Liturgy: The Cross Re-examined

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  1. Thankyou for your thoughtful reply to my comment…
    As I consider the other posts on your blog, I can see that there is little that the arguments of fleshly mankind can do to return you to the central truths of our faith. You seem set on pursuing what I perceive as an emasculated form of Christianity: one without atonement and without the authority of scripture.
    I sincerely hope, and I really mean sincerely hope, that you can yet know deep within, and experience at a level of marrow and soul, the peace, light, joy, strength, and transformation of living a life totally dedicated to Jesus: one where – as I can testify – the glorious freedom of knowing sins forgiven by Jesus’ death on the cross, liberates you to revel in being a living sacrifice and to adore him with a passion. This is the life that brings peace as the world can never give; gives us the power to bring Christ’s comfort and love to others, sensitizes us to our sin so that we grow to ever-increasingly loathe it, and makes us eternally grateful for the gift of life, both physical and spiritual. This is the life that daily brings us to our knees to beg Jesus to save the lost, to direct us in his paths of compassion every day, and to forgive our stumbling along the way.
    This is the life that is worth more than gold to me and to millions of others through the centuries.
    I cannot believe it is wise to jettison the entire thinking about the central place of atonement in Christanity over the last 2000 years, just on the meanderings of some recent thoughts on the matter.
    No, I cannot do it.
    I love my Jesus as I know Him: my Saviour and Redeemer. I love the word of God that I read in the bible. It is alive to me daily, and it speaks endlessly of God’s love for us and for all mankind; how we are to be his hands and feet and voice, and comfort the lonely and the marginalized and the oppressed. It shows me how God abhors sin…mine and everyone else’s. Most of all, throughout the bible I find the recurring themes of justice and compassion, mercy and love, immortally intertwined. I may not (I certainly do not) understand everything, but I believe in redemption by atonement, with all my heart.
    I honestly wonder if, what is actually left when one scoops out the centre of our faith (which, I confess, is the way I see your blog taking me). But I know my God to be gracious and compassionate, and I can see that you love Jesus, so I must leave you firmly in His hand of love. I have never posted a comment on a blog before, and probably will never again. But the subject on which you have been writing, demanded a response.
    I commit you into the Lord’s care.


    1. Dear Chrysalis

      If this is your first (and last!) comment on a blog, then I am very touched that you have taken the time to respond to me with such care. It does mean a lot to me.

      I am still not sure that you have understood mt position, though. I am not rejecting the idea of atonement at all. It is absolutely central to my theology, to Christian theology in general. I am only reframing my understaanding of it: instead of seeing it as primarily about punishment, I think it is more accurate to view atonement as primarily about healing. How one views the atonement is shaped by how one understands what sin is. I do not think sin is a behavioral problem so much as an ontological one. Thus dealing with it through the atonement does not necessitate punishment but healing.

      And I believe that this is the stance adopted by the gospel writers and Paul, as well as the early church. I am not rejecting the Bible – it is, after all, how we come to know about Jesus at all. But I think we need to see it for what it is: a collection of narratives about humanity’s encounters with God, written from many different perspectives and with many different and sometimes comtradictory theologies. The real “Word of God” is Jesus. To put the Bible above the revealed word of God is idolatry. And this is, if one reads Paul carefully, and looks at the teachings of the early church, exactly how we are supposed to understand the atonement. I am not rejecting an ancient way of understanding the cross; I am rejecting Calvin’s 16th Century interpretation of it, which dominates modern thought. The contemporary scholarship I refer to is not inventing new ways of understanding the cross, but returning to the early church understandings.

      And I know these thoughts might seem heretical, and that is what saddens me. What you noted in your earlier comment was not, I think, my disdain for those who see it differently, but a deep sadness for a church that Calvinistic thinking has alienated from God, by compelling them to see Him as vindictive and vengeful, when He is really loving and merciful. And following from that, is a passion for reintroducing the modern church to the Jesus of the Scriptures. This Jesus, I think, gets hidden when we try to see the Bible as expressing one cohesive voice. Because then we must reconcile wrath and love, and they are incompatible. I think we only see the truth of the SCriptures when we reject the idea (which only originates in the 16th Century), that the Bible is inerrant.

      Lastly, I do not see this as an emasculated gospel. It is easier to hate and fear than to lvoe and forgive. It is a gospel for which Jesus, Paul, and countless Christian martyrs have given their lives. Preaching peace is not weakness. It requires enormous strength to turn the other cheek, walk the extra mile, restrain oneself from violence, forgive those who hurt us. Jesus sweated blood in Gethsemane when making the decision of nonviolence. There is absolutely nothing weak about a gospel that preaches forgiveness over wrath.

      I appreciate your concern, I really do. And I am moved by the fact that you are able to see my love for Jesus, despite your disagreeing with my theology. That takes courage. I don’t know that we will ever find ourselves in agreement, but we remain family in Christ; two souls searching for the heart of God. I commit your journey to Him, too, my friend, my sister.

      Love Peter


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