For us to reframe our doctrine of God according to Jesus, as I argued here (click), we need to tackle the issue of God’s relation to sacrificial practices. This, to my mind, is what is going to allow us to coherently say that Jesus and the Father are in sync in their hearts, and are of one mind. A Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory perspective, though, will admittedly force us to say that there are two sides to the Father, one that wants to forgive (because it is merciful) and one that needs to punish (because it is just).
A main concern with Penal Substitution is that, in it, Jesus is demoted: he’s no longer a gift from God, but a solution to the problem of sin – and it becomes more problematic when we understand that it is not our problem, but God’s! He is the one who cannot forgive without the death of an innocent, we do this all the time. He is the one who needs Jesus to step in and solve the problem if he is to forgive humanity. Without Jesus, the Father can’t be merciful. And so the Father runs the Son through the sacrificial machinery of the cross, discharges divine wrath, and finally has all conditions to mercy met. Basically, Penal Substitution makes Jesus God’s duct tape.
Thankfully, Penal Substitution is not the only game in town and has never been the historical view of how the cross works in God’s redemption. Just because it has been force-fed by reformed theology as the gospel itself it doesn’t mean we have to swallow it. Penal Substitution is a later development in theology which has its roots in Anselm and reaches a full theological workout in Calvin. The early church knew nothing of Jesus taking on the Father’s wrath on our behalf and did not see sacrifice (much less human sacrifice!) as a requirement to forgiveness. There’s a lot about recapitulation, identification, and reconciliation through the incarnation, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus (Irenaeus), but no appeasing before forgiving. The Church Fathers all agreed on this and talked about evil, sin, satan, and death having been defeated by the cross, but no wrath or blood sacrifices were needed (even protestants recognize that, check it out).
That is where I stand historically. Now how do I deal with the bible and its demands of blood and sacrifice? Well, first of all we must recognize that in the bible there’s a clear movement away from sacrifice: in Abraham, human sacrifice ceased. In the prophets, animal sacrificed was denounced. In Jesus, sacrifice came to an end altogether – and not because it was eternally efficacious, but because it was demonstrably inadequate to deal with sin. Blood doesn’t take away sin (Hebrews), forgiveness does. Forgiveness is a gift from God’s grace alone (Paul). God forgives whomever and however he wants (Romans). God never needed anything outside of himself to forgive us, and who am I to argue with God if he decides to work like that (Romans)?
Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 (the stronghold of Penal Substitution) are not about substitutionary atonement at all, one is about a mob killing and the other about perpetrators realizing they scapegoated an innocent man as God points to the innocent victim to expose their violence. These are passages that have to do first and foremost with the way the nation of Israel felt collectively.
Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was not for God, it was for us. It doesn’t change God, it changes us. It was not God’s requirement, it was ours. It didn’t meet divine requirements, it met human ones. Jesus is the lamb of God, not for God. Humanity sacrificed the lamb God provided, and not the one whose death God needed in order to do what even the worst of us can do: forgive without demands. We were the ones who needed to see and hear the cry of innocent blood.
Sacrificial cerimonies to suck up to the divine were around way before Judaism, so it is not surprising that ancient Jews would think their god would require them too (specially after having lived under so many empires that practiced religiously). We created religions that required a lot of blood for there to be reconciliation, and God gave us just the right amount of it to disgust us into understanding he doesn’t need it at all.
Jesus fulfilled the law and its demands of blood, violence and death. The law, after being fulfilled, serves only to point to the one who fulfilled it (or should I say overcame it?). But that doesn’t mean it was perfect or God-given. It just means it was there, it was part of Jesus’ religion and, like many other laws and religions, required blood.
So to sum up …
Jesus is not our substitute, he’s our liberating price. What did he liberate us from? Death. He killed death by dying. As Louis Marcos put it, he didn’t go in and out of death, he went through it. Jesus’ death liberates us from death and sin by destroying one and forgiving the other. It seems that the biblical language is not saying that Jesus takes our place in the sense of substitution, as if he stepped in and we stepped down, but of taking our place as in walking in our shoes, becoming like us, suffering and dying like us (again, Irenaeus) so that we might resurrect like him.
Jesus’ sacrifice is not God replacing the bait in the mouse trap, it is God getting onto the mouse trap, letting it snap, and breaking it apart. God never needed a bloody sacrifice, but he used it to shame our religions and do away with them forever.