Essay: Biblical Blood Atonement
To understand what Jesus accomplished by dying on the cross and the implications for homophobia in the church, it’s necessary to unpack the biblical significance of death itself. This, then, is an atonement theory.
In school, our biology teachers taught that the hemoglobin protein in a blood cell binds to iron molecules. Those iron molecules bind to oxygen molecules to give us red — the font colour some publishers instinctively chose for Jesus’ words in the bible.
We also learned that this oxygen enters our bodies and blood through breath. That’s why we say life is “in the blood”. Scripturally, breath is synonymous with spirit and life. God “breathed into [man’s] nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being.”
The Tree In Eden
Genesis has a story in which God tells man not to eat fruit from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil because if he did, he’d die. Let us assume the Knowledge of Good and Evil is exactly that, or some sort of Moral Law. Now, why would God put warning labels like “dangerous” and “toxic” on a kind of knowledge we’d think is good?
Consider what happened after Adam (the first man) ate this fruit. God asked what had happened. Adam avoided the death sentence by putting himself in the Right and putting God and the woman God had made, in the Wrong. This is what that knowledge causes us to do. “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” This attempt at self-preservation at the cost of others is literally putting one’s life ahead of other people’s.
God immediately flew into one of his Old Testament rages and cursed the ground and dust that the first man had been made of, saying that no matter what he did, it would never amount to anything that could prevent death. This doomed man’s every attempt at self-vindication (under any moral system) at the expense of others, to failure. This means that every argument that implicitly says, “I deserve advancement, and you don’t, on this moral basis”, is inherently hypocritical.
Adam’s self-righteous, self-justifying, self-vindicating self-defense was murderous, self-preserving and self-serving: God saw through it, and judged it as such. Humanity would die because the first man had tried to pass to others the death sentence he should have taken responsibility for incurring. But there were no others: humanity was one organism. In treating itself as “other” in an attempt to self-preserve, the species suicided instead.
So what made the Knowledge of Good and Evil so dangerous was it would be co-opted by the self-preservation instinct to put self in the Right and others, in the Wrong. This self-preservation instinct promises life and security, but God would always judge it for the cost it externalized against others. The fruit’s danger lay in its power to open people’s eyes to the blame- and shame-game. Once we know this game, we manipulate its loopholes and use the “nakedness” of others as a cover for our own.
Eyes Wide Shut
The problem is that however open our eyes are to the self-serving possibilities presented by the blame-and-shame game, there is one player whose guilt will miraculously be seen, in our eyes, as a speck in comparison to the logs seen in others’ eyes: self. Self is the blind-spot, the one for whom rules are softened and for whom starting assumptions are likely very charitable and convenient. The Pharisees’ eyes were “open” to the possibilities and advantages presented by this game, but this blinded them to its impact on their relationship with God. Their notion of sin targeted everyone except themselves. That is what happens when “sin” is simply “breaking the rules” when it should be, “A self-serving relationship with the rules that makes a mock of the One who gave the rules.”
I submit our self-justifying, self-preserving participation in this “game” is what the bible is talking about when it describes “sin”. We cannot bring ourselves to do something hurtful unless we feel it is justified; driven by the self-preserving, self-advancing instinct, we will slice and dice the rules to our own advantage over and against others to justify giving them the short end of the stick and ourselves, the better end.
Think of any action you know in your heart is “wrong”, and you will see how it is a shortcut to an experience of “life” that requires someone else’s “death”. Lust fits this definition because through it, we diminish the personhood of “the other”, reducing him or her to a set of body parts to fulfil not only our need for physical gratification (which is innocent enough, I think) but also our need for status before others, which further allows us power in “the game”. We “consume” the personhood of others to increase our own; the sin of the woman caught in adultery was that she used sex with the wrong man to play the game normally reserved for just men. Jesus was therefore less concerned about her than she was about the men waiting to stone her for violating God’s Law. Hadn’t they as well?
One of the ways humanity had failed to keep God’s Law, as Jesus explained it, was people had allowed the hundreds of rules that make up the Law to qualify the first two and most important rules: love God, and love your neighbour. Had humans been willing to do just those two things, their treatment of every other rule would have automatically been correct. The fact that religious people allowed the technicalities of the other rules to qualify and condition how they lived out the first two, showed that those who purported to love the Law were only listening for the bits where they could hate the neighbours they had been commanded to love. People took the Law and used it to serve self-righteousness. The first commandment is to love. So is the second. Anyone who stops at a rule further down the list and prioritises that ahead of the first two, has an agenda.
Hamartia: the Study of Sin
This leads to the next point. Religion breeds sin. Because for me to pass myself off as a saint, there must be a standard (though I do not consistently keep it, thank you log in your eye and speck in mine) by which I am not a sinner but you certainly are. Your damnation is necessary for my salvation. You must be disgusting so I can be whole and pure. I have to put you in the Wrong so I may be in the Right.
The bible paints an ugly picture of humanity in which everyone is playing this evil “game”. No one has the power to resist it. It’s tied into our survival instinct, what biologists call “homeostasis”, and it permeates everything we do.
To get out, one has to do the exact opposite of putting others in the Wrong so that one may be in the Right: one has to die even if one is arguably “Good” (compared to others who are presumably “Evil”). In other words, one has to act as though one’s status as “Good” (whether real or presumed) does not entitle one to putting one’s own existence and life ahead of other people’s lives and existence, no matter how little they deserve to exist relative to the merit we could claim for ourselves in “the game”. To get out of the game, one has to never believe the most basic moral premises underpinning human civilization. One has to uneat the fruit of Knowing Good and Evil.
The death that’s needed is best accomplished by bleeding; this is why the bible repeatedly says that “atonement” requires bloodshed. It is only through death by bloodshed that the dissolution of “spirit” happens from the “flesh” we’d been trying to preserve at the expense of others. When we surrender the lives we would stand to gain at others’ expense had we continued playing “the game”, we prove the game has no power over us. That we’re all alive in such an unjust world arguably shows that “the game” has done very well by us. Name any unjust system, and you will see its beneficiaries defend it and minimize the evil that was perpetrated in their name.
This presents a problem, of course: death may get people out of “the game” and clear them from the guilt of participating in it. But as a rehabilitative system, it sucks. It presents a 100% failure rate at reintegrating people into society as healthy members thereof. The only way it would not suck is if it were followed by resurrection. (Are you seeing where I am going with this?)
The Cross Anticipated
In the Old Testament, God worked around this dilemma by passing down the Law of Moses. The Law of Moses served several purposes.
- The first was exposing the hypocritical behaviour of the self-preserving impulse against a set of rules no human could keep, despite his most sincere claims to righteousness and justification by those rules. The Pharisees in Jesus’ day took great pride in defending their privileged positions over and against others on the basis of this Law; no wonder Jesus spent every waking hour in the bible railing against their hypocrisy. You can’t prove people’s self-preserving, self-righteous instincts without drawing them up a Law to show that instinct against.
- The second purpose the Law served was making sin exceedingly sinful. This, it did by formalising and dignifying the rules and social structures in which this hypocrisy would play out. Human hypocrisy took the fullest advantage of the Law. But Newton Law III (“For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction”) made it so on the inside of this hypocrisy, an awareness of the cognitive dissonance triggered a “reverse psychology” response to the Law whereby any commandment, “Thou shalt not do this” stirred up the most delicious and persistent fantasies about doing what had just been forbidden. People who cover up their guilt will unconsciously attract more things to feel guilty about. It has always been that beneath a veneer of self-control and civility, the most unbridled passions tormented the self-righteous. Their repression worsened their treatment of themselves and others, leading them into a vicious cycle that is its own self-imposed hell and bondage.
- The third purpose of the Law was to act as the strength of sin, spiralling it out of control despite said veneer of civility. Because that’s what happens when you give hypocritical, self-serving, self-justifying, self-righteous, self-aggrandizing, sanctimonious people a bunch of rules: their participation in “the game” in which they defeat the purpose of these legal instruments for their own gain becomes so obvious, their hypocrisy so blatant, that there is no denying it. Look at people who condemn abortion but are okay with kids being killed of separated by their families, and you will start to see why the Moral Religious Law results not in the growth of some latent capacity for loving others, but of hypocrisy and double-standardizing. God had a picture of this self-preservation: the animal blood sacrificial system.
- The fourth purpose was seen in that when people killed animals to cover their own “sin”, they were forced to come face-to-face with the bloody effects of their self-preservation against others. In the book You Have To Be Gay To Know God, I point out that the dove represented the Holy Spirit while the Lamb represented God’s Son (there was also a scapegoat thrown in to drive the point home); when humans sacrificed these to atone for their sins, they were admitting through their actions that their participation in “the game” ultimately hurt and used other people and God.
- The fifth purpose was that through sacrifices, people would vicariously “die” and make atonement for participating in “the game”. The problem with this was that the sacrifice system, too, was co-opted by humans into “the game” instead of showing people how the game was hurting everyone. “In Adam all die”. So powerful was the allure of privilege, of power over others — of this toxic version of what humans called “life” — that people would slaughter sacrificial animals without recognising the harm they were causing; instead, they’d be proud that they were observing sacrificial ceremonies that “those unwashed sinners over there” hadn’t observed! And since the Law failed at this last purpose, we can work backwards and show how it failed at all the other goals:
The Law of God As Spectacular Failure
- Instead of coming face-to-face with the bloody effects of their self-preservation, people covered it up using religion and hijacked religion into their own agendas, in God’s Name. God became a tool, a means to an end.
- The Law failed in that it it had people cherry-picking (with impunity) from the rules, instead of recognising that they cherry-picked to serve their participation in “the game”.
- The Law failed and succeeded at its second purpose in that it camouflaged and normalised the hypocrisy it was meant to expose; the Law concealed the nakedness of human hypocrisy by putting it out in the open where everyone looked right past its obviousness. It’s a bit like clothes: we wear them because we’re all hiding the exact same fact. We’re all naked under them.
- A tangent is needed: the Law’s simultaneous failure and success at this point is instructive about the nature of divine revelation. Numerous theologians (from John Calvin to Professor Gregory Andrew Boyd) have said God “accommodates” his self-revelation to wherever his human audiences happen to be, developmentally. If God reveals the whole truth about human self-righteousness to a person all at once, the psychic effect on that one person may be devastating, or received differently than it would be for someone else. That worsens rather than removes enmity, and doubtless complicates matters. That’s why the scriptures are written in a way that’s palatable to vindictive, tribalistic human beings while inviting readers to “hear” the Spirit that “breathed” beyond the Letter that the scribe had been inspired to use: just as Christ gave himself over for crucifixion, so, too, does God give his reputation to be accommodated to the violent self-preserving, us-versus-them mentality of the humanity he is talking to. By breathing his life into a “flawed” scripture despite the cost to his reputation, God is simply extending into the scriptural revelation exactly the love that caused him to bleed out the lifeblood that held his last breath. This is an extension of the idea that God breathed the breath of life into man. It is an extension of the idea that God is love. The next time you see an “ugly” verse in the bible, cherish it the way you would the ugliness of the cross. Those letters are red for a good reason.
Let us return to the Law’s failure at its first purpose, which was to kill human self-righteousness. So powerful was the instinct that the Law was meant to subdue and expose, that the instinct instead assimilated the Law into its own expression and agenda. I remember a scene from the movie Serial Mom in which a priest is encouraging his congregation to vote for the death sentence.
Priest: Jesus said nothing to condemn capital punishment as he hung on the cross, did he?
Priest: If ever there was a time to go on record against the death penalty, wasn’t it that night? Capital punishment is already the law in the state of Maryland. So what are we waiting for, fellow Christians? Let’s just do it.
And the people replied, “Amen.”
It is too easy to miss what the New Testament says of its central figure, Jesus the Christ — that he was the teleos, or logical conclusion, of Religious Law. It is easier still to allow what we see in the Old Testament to qualify what the New Testament says.
Jesus preached two messages. Most of his listeners couldn’t decide which was more offensive, or whether to be repulsed by or attracted to him. His first message was on the global human failure to vindicate any claim to moral merit over and against other humans under the Law. Where people watered the Law down or assimilated it into their agendas so their failures would be less evident, Jesus called hypocrisy.
His second message was of God’s unconditional, perfect and boundless love for those religion had labeled “sinners” — a love that graciously overlooked humanity’s relentless hatred of any love could not be co-opted into the agendas of those who were doing well by “the game”. When called a “friend of sinners”, Jesus would shrug and reckon wisdom would be justified by her children; he would argue that it was “the sick”, not “the well” who needed a physician. Of course, “the well” were worse off than the sick, and those who claimed to see were all the blinder for insisting they could see.
In healing and embracing “the unworthy”, Jesus unceremoniously circumvented every rule and requirement for holiness that the Law put forward. There will be other essays about the Woman at the Well and the Woman caught in adultery as well as what Jesus said about marriage and divorce, but the point remains: the whole rigmarole of earning God’s approval or justification simply had no basis in God himself. Billions of have been perfectly pleasing before God without observing a single rule. We happen to call them children, and Jesus often said the Kingdom of God was for their kind.
Why, Then, Was The Law Given At All?
This is what people have never really thought through (or maybe not said out loud): you follow 613 rules. Then what? What do you gain? A medal? A brownie-point? “Then God will consider you righteous in his sight,” the religious say.
But this answer is the opposite of what the scriptures say will happen if we seriously observe the Law: we will just become more aware of our hypocritical capacity for participation in “the game” for “by Law is consciousness of sin.” By the same token, people worry that not observing the Law (and living by grace instead) will lead to lawlessness. But that is the opposite of God’s promise, which is that someone who trusts in his love alone will be vindicated just as Jesus was resurrected. Make no mistake: when you call people who live by grace “unclean”, you judge also that grace and its Source.
Organised religion says to trust God plus something else for justification. Here’s a formula to help see through this: loved people love people. Judged people judge people. Conditionally loved people will conditionally love people. Condemned people will condemn people. We each do unto others what we believe God does unto us. If we believe God will only love us one he gets something from us (such as the “correct” behavior) then we will also turn around and treat other people as a means to an end. If we believe we are a step removed from perfection in God’s eyes, everyone around us will appear a step removed from perfection as well. If we believe God’s grace is sufficient to perfect us, we will treat others as though our love and patience believes all good things about them, and in treating them like that, we will prove ourselves sanctified as well. This is by grace. When we mix grace with something else, we will consume other people’s personhood to augment our own instead of embracing and affirming their “isness” as worthy upfront of all our love.
Because he was and is perfect love, God’s complete lack of interest in people’s moral scorecards (the corollary of which was God’s abiding outrage towards human hypocrisy) was a huge problem for those who’d grown quite powerful and wealthy as a result of hijacking the Law into “the game” and their own agendas. But Jesus would not modify or compromise the message of grace alone, even if adhering to it cost him his life.
So eventually, to preserve their grace-free systems, the religious, godly people of the time put God’s Son in the Wrong in order to shore up their sense that they were in the Right. (This is a lot like Rene Girard’s Scapegoat Theory of the Atonement). They conspired to have him die a death reserved for sinners. Steadfast in his solidarity with “those wicked sinners over there”, and refusing to be numbered amongst “those righteous people over here” who “deserved” live and protection and safety, Jesus yielded to the cross.
Of course, when Jesus was killed for his conviction regarding God’s outrageous love for “sinners” on the one hand and his conviction regarding God’s uncompromised awareness of human hypocrisy on the other, everything the Law had tried to do, was suddenly accomplished. This is why he says, “It is accomplished” with his last breath:
- There is no more perfect revelation of human religious hypocrisy than people killing their own God in order to preserve the power they’d been using God for. Christ’s dead body is the crystallization of what the Law and the Prophets had been saying. It also fulfils the sacrificial aspect of the Law in that what the animal sacrifices had been pointing at, is finally revealed.
- Christ crucified fulfills everything the Law had attempted in that by shedding God’s own blood on a cross previously said to represent God’s curse, Christ gave the Law a sacrifice greater than which could not be conceived. This effectively terminated the Law and (at least in principle) humanity’s ridiculous cherry-picking from its rules.
- Christ fulfilled the Law in that he turned the tables on the whole morality game. Here was someone on whom no one had actually pinned any sin in a lawful trial, giving his life as though he was the embodiment of sin itself. He therefore overturned “the game” the way he had overturned the tables with the profits people made right outside the Temple from playing “the game”.
- Christ’s refusal of the privileges afforded by self-righteousness is symbolized in his shedding his life-blood. When he died, he ended “the game”. His shed blood is accessible to others by faith, meaning when people believe in Jesus, they vicariously “die” to their self-righteousness; they vicariously die to the notion that they are “good” and can claim the privileges that come with having worked for their righteousness. They therefore do psychologically what Jesus did physically. That they by faith surrender their self-righteousness in exchange for Christ’s righteousness is why God can credit them with the genuine righteousness of what Jesus did as though they were “one flesh” with him at the cross.
It is impossible, then, to hold on to self-righteousness and Christ-righteousness at the same time. And if one has rescinded self-righteousness by receiving Christ-righteousness by faith, one is essentially freed from sin’s power, and that without having to observe the Law. For one of the other purposes of the Law was restraining and regulating the violence that can break out when people participate in “the game”. When one tries to regulate one’s behaviour according to a set of rules, then one inevitably backslides into self-righteousness and sin because the power of sin is the Law and we use the flesh (which was doomed to failure) to accomplish what God does not wish to see accomplished in ego. When our egos fail, we blame-shift to others and use them like sacrificial animals. The LGBTI community is the latest, most convenient scapegoat for humanity’s global failure to uphold the demands of Religious Law. In John 5:45 and 1 John 3:4, we see that whoever sins also breaks the very Law he thought would vindicate his claim to moral merit. “The flesh profits nothing,” Jesus had pointed out, anticipating the apostles’ teaching that observing Religious Law does nothing except magnify one’s self-righteousness.
The genius of the cross is that as sin entered the world through one man, so, too, does salvation enter through one man. This is important because if God instead handed out a DIY method of salvation, humans would all end up competing in just another version of “the game” and therefore not saved from it at all. But if one died, then that’s sufficient cause to say all died from sin by the death of the one. This is Christianity in a nutshell.
At the risk of spouting Christian cliches, I call the above hypothesis the Biblical Blood Atonement Theory. There exist about 7 atonement theories in theology. The atonement theory preached by any religious institution creates a framework that potentially designates some as “sinners” and others as “saved”. The danger with some of these frameworks is they, too, are hijacked into “the game”. Homophobia is another permutation of this game. It’s important for religious institutions to think critically about what it is that the death of Jesus saves people from, and how it accomplishes that. If, as it’s sometimes said, “Jesus died to save people from the sin of homosexuality” in the same sense that we think he died to save thieves from the sin of theft and liars from the sin of deceit, three things happen.
- The first is we adopt a shallow and harmful notion of sin. The results have been slavery, racism, rape culture, and many other social ills often justified in the name of God. Homophobia, transphobia, biphobia and the like are just the latest results of Christendom’s warped definition of “sin”.
- This leads to the second effect: a legalistic, checklist idea of sin and righteousness, one going by “the letter” and not “the Spirit” of the written revelation. When we fail to “read between the lines”, we embrace a rules-based religion that the bible itself calls a “ministry of death”. Many churches say that breaking the Law is sin, and Christ died to pay the price for this Law-breaking. But not one bible verse supports this version of the Penal Substitutionary Atonement Theory. Rather, the bible says there is a curse for not observing the whole law, and Christ’s death on the cross rescues people from this curse curse by rescuing them from the reason they needed to be under the Law in the first place. For the curse of not observing the whole Law is a reiteration of God’s curse on Adam’s hypocrisy. The cross is so grizzly because it’s a picture of God’s abhorrence the human claim to righteousness under moral systems we do not observe consistently but are happy to put others in the Wrong under, when it serves to put us in the Right. By becoming sin though he had no sin, Jesus made it possible for people to become the righteousness of God.
- The third consequence of an incomplete atonement theory is that God’s justice is presented too simplistically to be taken seriously. This is why some debates on Christian ethics include questions like, “Could a Christian hiding a Jew in Nazi-Germany have gone to hell for lying about it unless they ‘repented’ and prayed to God for forgiveness?” The answer, of course, is God is too fixated on what people are being relationally, in their hearts, to worry about what they do to express what they are being. What people do is simply an expression of what they are being. Do not worry about whether your neighbour is in a homosexual or heterosexual relationship. Worry more about whether he or she knows the unconditional love of God. Loved people love people. The conditions of how they love are as secondary as the conditions on the love they received in the first place.
Until people embrace this picture of a wise and insightful God, it isn’t difficult to see why they would give heterosexual relationships a moral “head start” homosexual relationships will never have, even if the participants of those homosexual relationships offer one another more love and support (and overcome more obstacles to love one another) than typical participants of heterosexual relationships.
Conclusion and Invitation
Does this essay split every verse and argument that’s used against the LGBTIQ+ community? You Have To Be Gay To Know God does that better; here, I have shared a glimpse of the core hypothesis and invited people into discussion and dialogue. Let me know if we can have an event near where you are to discuss this topic further. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
Ultimately, I submit that religious people hold to their homophobia despite (and never because of) the Word of God.