I have appreciated the comments and questions from Len in a few of my "atonement" posts. I'll attempt to respond to some of his questions over the next number of posts.
There is however a question about God's nature that touches every question about Christ's death, any question about atonement. It is this: Is there violence in God? Did God command the wholesale slaughter of nations, the wiping out of false prophets, the killing of first born, and so on?
If yes, then God's supposed institution of rites and ritual sacrifice, both to recall some of these events and for obtaining virtual purification makes sense. As well, with respect to purification, the recognition that sacrificing bulls and goats is a temporary solution until the ultimate (human/god) sacrifice could be enacted, also makes sense.
In this case God is a good God but with a violent and sacrificial side. A god, in other words, that is not unlike the pagan gods, except, perhaps, much stronger. To equate God's violent side with God's acts of justice, as is sometimes done, seems to me, only adds to the confusion.
If however, Jesus is the perfect ontological reflection of God, or as the New Testament has it, "the exact imprint of God's very being", then the sacrificial mechanism, that is, the mechanism of doing away with others to preserve and solidify the group or nation, needs to be exposed and undone. And the Hebrew sacrificial system of formal rites and rituals, needs to be re-storied.
If Jesus, who prayed for and loved his enemies, is "the image of the invisible God", then there is no violence, retribution, or vengeance with God. Jesus in fact is God moving toward us, standing in as ultimate victim, not as payment, but as self-gift. As such the substitutional atonement which is violent at its core, asks to be reinterpreted in light of God's having-nothing-to-do-with-sacrificial violence.
To call Jesus' self-gift as the "ultimate sacrifice" is of course legitimate as long as sacrifice is understood rhetorically and not as sacrifice as payment or appeasement.