An Open Letter to Christianity Today

With respect, the following is an Open letter to Christianity Today regarding Pastor Mark Dever’s article, “Nothing But the Blood” (

Mark Dever laments that a growing number of evangelicals believe Christ’s atoning death is merely a grotesque creation of the medieval imagination. Well, this is good news. It means that the sacrificial reading of scripture is finally giving way to Christ’s echo of Hosea, “Go and learn what this means, I desire mercy not sacrifice.”


Pastor Dever sees substitutionary atonement as necessary because of a perceived need for a judicial/forensic transaction in blood that pays for our sin. This, he says, is the essence of Christianity…that without this penal sacrifice, without this substitution of Jesus’ blood for us, we would remain in our sin. This is of course the conventional view, formalized by St. Anselm. But is it true that God (the Father) required appeasement through the blood of his son Jesus?

With the possible exception of Hebrews–an Epistle whose place in the canon was long disputed–no text in the gospels or the New Testament requires a sacrificial interpretation of the Passion. All references to the atonement can be read non-sacrificially.

In this respect it is disappointing that Pastor Dever does not mention, in his walk through the scriptures, any of the passages that work to subvert sacrificial atonement theory. For example, “Sacrifice and offering you do not desire; but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required (Psalm 40:6).”

Rene Girard, in, “Things Hidden Since the Foundation of the World”, shows that it is not legitimate to extrapolate a sacrificial reading, shows that scripture invites a non-sacrificial reading…that in fact all of scripture, culminating in the Gospels, has to do with one grand movement towards bringing to light the mechanisms of sacrificial violence that found our religions.

But because we have been steeped in the sacrificial atonement doctrine, we must go to the text afresh in order to see this. We go with justification. In Girard’s words, “To say that Jesus dies, not as sacrifice, but in order that there may be no more sacrifices, is to recognize in him the word of God: ‘I wish for mercy and not sacrifices.'”

It’s truly disappointing that Mark Dever mentions in passing, and so easily dismisses the work of Rene Girard. To scratch the surface of this anthropologist’s thinking is to understand that the language of sacrificial atonement finally serves not to promote but to undermine every form of sacrifice.

The sweep of Girards hypothesis is immense and devastatingly simple. It locates something that defies exposure because it is so close to all of us. His hypothesis, that the founding principle of all culture and all religion is the scapegoating mechanism (sacrifice, redemptive violence), can be seen in Christ’s parable of the murderous labourers in the vinyard. God made use of this principle (Satan is another possible word for the founding principle.) not in order to sacralize it, as conventional atonement does, but in order to forever expose it. (“I watched Satan fall from heaven like a flash of lightning.” Luke 10)

But if we were listening to what the gospel tells us about God, “But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your Father in heaven (Matthew 5).”, we would have already been wary about attributing any form of violence to God. Penal atonement involves God in violence and subsequently, although perhaps not consciously, has permitted us to justify our own violence. But it was not God whose wrath needed appeasing, it was ours. It was not God who sacrificed his Son, it was us.

Is it true as well that we need this doctrine to save us, as Pastor Dever says, from moralism and legalism? We’ve been inculcated with this version of the atonement for centuries and we’ve not been without our share of legalistic and moralistic Christianity. In fact, legalism and moralism can readily spring from a sacrificial reading of the scripture. That is because substitution-atonement theory provides us with a formula to plug ourselves into. And any doctrine that acts as formula is immediately prone to engender legal and moral codes.

Penal substitution leaves intact the logic of scapegoating violence, the very thing that Christ came to expose and save us from. The logic of the gospel on the other hand, that is, atonement as “liturgy-in-action” (James Alison), God’s self-giving movement towards us–through our subsequent sacrificing of God–undoes all our sacrificial ways. It leaves us with the dizzying freedom of seeing who it is we are, and how we structure our society through scapegoating. It is from this vantage point, and this point alone, that we are finally and radically confronted by our ways of saving ourselves through excluding others. And in this way, as theologian James Alison has shown, the ethical and liturgical are brought together. This was Christ’s “genius”.

Atonement is not something we acknowledge as clandestine pact between Father and Son that saves us. “Atonement” is something we undergo, it is how we are moved from being “slaves to sin”, to being set free from sin.

When we approach the New Testament with “mercy not sacrifice” as our rightful frame of reference, the notion of penal substitution is seen for what it is, something like an Aztec or Greek (“pagan”) notion. On the other hand we gain back a true “Atonement”. That is, a true fulfillment of the priestly-liturgy that always pointed to something radically beyond itself, namely, a “sacrifice” born of love that subverts and unmasks all sacrificing. This frame of reference, “mercy not sacrifice”, is crucial for nothing short of the “rebirth” of Christianity.

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  1. Wonderful post … entirely correct too, IMHO. I’m curious if you ever picked up a book by Rebecca Parker called “Proverbs of Ashes?” She not only suggests that violent atonement theories are unnecessary in the scope of Gospel, but also that our foundational and negative social characteristics – in the West – are a result of our base and violent religious expressions. It is an interesting read, to be sure.

    Great blog …

  2. Great letter

    I don’t know if I agree with your thesis because I don’t know if I understand it yet.
    What was the death of Jesus about in your theology? Was it an example for us to emulate? Was it an exposure of evil that would repel us away from it? Was it an oblect lesson in the futility of sacrifice?
    Are you saying that Jesus’ death does away with the scarifical system of religion practiced in the Old Testament, but doesn’t the traditional intepretation say the same? His death is the sacrifice that ends all sacrifice, isn’t it?
    Does the concept of judgement and hell (which is disatasteful to say the least) motivate your desire to interpret Jesus’ death in a non sacrifical way?
    I can certainly sympathize with wanting to overthrow the narrow definition of salvation that is prevalent in evangelical christianity but isn’t throwing out the reconciliation of substituionaly death more radical than required to address this?

    BTW I am all in favour of a rebirth of the faith brought about by a reformation if not a revolution. I’m just not sure if your theological appraoch is the way ahead.
    I am open to be convinced and I will try to investigate this more.

    Thanks for the great info.

  3. I should qualify. I don’t actually think all sacrifice has ended. In an attempt to give dignity to those who suffer, especially the severely disabled, I have concluded that like Paul said in Col. 1:24, suffeing continues to be redemptive. The suffering innocnets are making up what was lacking (or behind) in the sufferings of Christ. In some sense Matt. 25 tells us it is Jesus in the flesh (much like Mother Tersea taught) that confronts us in the suffering people around us in our day.
    this is a call for allChrisitans to minister, as you do, to the marginalized and the suffering.

    So I think in some sense suffering is redemptive if not exactly sacrificial.
    It must at least be substitutionary though because many innocents suffer immensely while great sinners often go their graves fat and happy.
    And to give meaning to the sufering of innocents I feel they must be closely allied with Jesus in this suffering redemptive plan. And their suffering is for some large ultimate good and not for nothing.

  4. What do you think of the early church idea of atonement that mankind was in self imposed bondage to Satan and we needed ransoming and Jesus paid the ransom to Satan not to God?

    I think the Eastern Orthodox Church still holds to this form and believes that Jesus’ death brings us victory over death and provides for the ultimate transformation of humanity into divinity. Contrast this with it simply giving us an escape from hell and our being returned to the ordinary Garden variety of Adamic existence.
    For me the prospect of becoming like Jesus is more appealing on many levels than the idea of returning to the Edenic condition.

    I have not settled on which approach is the truest one yet but I am leaning heavily towards the ancient Orhtodox Christus Victus(?) position.

    I do think there is an element of neccessity in the Fall because only by allowing us the full reign of our freedom can we enter into the process required for the Sons of God to be created and revealed. So in some regard I think the Fall is part of God’s plan and provsion to get us into the game that will result in making us fit companions for Jesus, the spirit and the King. The fellowship of suffering plays heavily into my conception and the cross is a good approximation of the worst that any of us can go thru in our earthly existence. Perhaps this is also part of what was being accompished in Jesus’ death.

    The traditional Christus Victus would be modified in my position but it is much closer to my thinking than the penal substituionary idea that you are speaking against.

  5. These are very interesting and foundational issues you are addressing.

    It could be revolutionary or at least radical (returning to roots).

  6. The ancient atonement theory is usually called Chrsitus Victor. My ADD memory and attention span gave us Christus Victus.
    Sorry about that.

    Victus can be translated as food.

    Perhaps Jesus as food for the journey giving strength for mankind to endure the crosses it finds itself upon is worth contemplating as well?

  7. I would agree with the direction but not the timing…in my limited undertstanding, Jesus put and end to the sacrificial requirements with His final sacrific for all…while there is a way around it, not sure why we would try?

  8. Steve… Love your site. And thanks for your comment on my blog on “Grace” on the Next site. The “trusted friend” I spoke of was, of course, Dean, and I believe he was probably loosley quoting you. So thanks for your input!

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