The Violence of Atonement

“For the wages of sin is death, but the free gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

— Romans 6:23, NASB

I just finished reading Leviticus. This is a challenging book for many modern-day believers, largely because we can’t really relate to the cultural context. I would submit that it’s precisely because we don’t understand the context that we should read this book. In general, I think the Old Testament is somewhat neglected by the modern church (outside of moralized Bible stories for children’s church, that is). Let’s face it–the Torah is tough to work through, and it’s hard to see the relevance of hygiene laws for a church that has been given freedom from such. However, to read all of these laws is to get a better grasp on the whole story of redemption.

Case in point: the practice of sacrifice as presented in Leviticus.

I recently read through the Bible as quickly as I could, starting last October and finishing in June. Really, on that reading, I was just consuming the way that a man dying of thirst might welcome a freshwater stream. I gulped.

On this reading, I am trying to slow down and meditate on what I read. As I’m working through all of this culture-building in the Old Testament, I’m trying to understand the meaning behind the rules God gave and what answers might be applicable to some of the big questions I hear about the Old Testament.

One question I have heard many times is, “why was it necessary for Christ to die?” We often give a sort of church-y answer to this, I think–something akin to, “well, there has to be a blood price paid for sin, just like in the Old Testament.” We see the Old Testament sacrifices as an imperfect picture of the ultimate sacrifice offered by Christ.

While this picture is true, I think it might be a little bit incomplete.

On this reading of Leviticus, I have been struck by the sheer violence of the atoning act. The priests were instructed on how to kill the animals brought to them, where and how to sprinkle the blood of the animal, how to dispose of its flesh, etc. They were even instructed on how to clean their robes of blood.

This is something that is easily overlooked, I think. We don’t sacrifice animals in church, so how can we really understand how much blood must have been present in the tabernacle and the temple? The altar was surely bloodstained. The priests perhaps had to kill animals several times a day. It’s no wonder God chose the Levites for the priesthood–they had no qualms about killing!

Why so much violence? Why was such a violent act necessary?

We might, perhaps, understand why a big sacrifice is necessary for a “big” sin or for a bundle of sins. But why so much blood for just every day, ordinary uncleanliness?

I think we underestimate the violence of sin.

I’m not a theologian, but I suspect this might go back to original sin. That moment, that act, separated us from God. We say that so easily in Evangelical circles–“sin separates us from God”–but do we understand what that means?

We sometimes communicate this separation as a temporary vacation from the eye of an overbearing dictator. In reality, this separation is an amputation from the one place where our souls were whole.

Original sin was an assault on God’s creation. It was a violent, bloody, painful act. It created permanent damage to not only our earthly flesh, but to our eternal souls. And what’s more, this violent act was perpetrated upon God. This assault on our souls, our flesh, was an assault upon the Creator as well. But it’s an assault that backfired; He’s still whole and perfect, but we walk around on injured soil as injured souls living in injured flesh.

As the assaulted party, God has the right to demand restitution. The restitution He has demanded in other places is pretty simple: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth. No more, no less. But God was kind enough to demand less from the Israelites. He could have demanded their eyes, their teeth, and their blood, but He didn’t. Instead, He offered the substitutionary atonement model, and in His grace and mercy, He offered a path to eternity to those who believed on faith that the model was just a picture of something bigger to come.

So why did Jesus have to die?

Because we were dead.

Let us never forget the violence of sin. Let us never forget that our sin is a crime committed against a Holy, Perfect God. Let us never forget the violence of atonement, and that the price paid for our salvation was sufficient in its violence and pain and suffering.

Let us never minimize this truth.

Till next we meet . . .