Fraser denies that Jesus was a Sacrifice

Just when you thought he’d quietened down and stopped spouting unbiblical nonsense, Giles Fraser has been at it again this weekend in this wonderful column in the Guardian.

But what would I have made of yesterday’s Good Friday service? Could I really have coped with all that sacrificial imagery so commonly applied to the death of Christ? For this is also a region with a frightening reputation as a centre for ritual murders.

Thinking about the celebration of Holy Week in my new adopted cathedral brings home to me quite how important it is for Christians to insist upon a non-sacrificial reading of the death of Christ. For too long, Christians have put up with a theory of salvation that has at its core the idea that God requires the sacrifice of his own son so that human sin can be cancelled. “There was no other good enough to pay the price of sin,” we will all sing. The fact this is a disgusting idea, and morally degenerate, is obvious to all but those indoctrinated into a very narrow reading of the cross.

No, Jesus is not a blood sacrifice to appease a vicious God. The story is not an endorsement of the idea that sacrifice brings peace with God but an attack on it. “I desire mercy, not sacrifice,” Jesus insists, going on to side with the scapegoats themselves. The Gospel is clear. I am with the hunchback. I am with the one cast out. He became one with the rejected and the cast out. And thus he suffered the same fate. This is not to endorse sacrificial theology but to condemn it.

Yet despite this clear identification with the victim, much official Christianity holds on to the sacrificial reading of Christ’s death. The present pope has insisted that the Eucharist must be seen as a sacrifice rather than as a meal among friends, and evangelical Christians remain committed to their theory of Christ being sacrificed to offset human sin. Lord have mercy.

Where to start? Well let’s begin with Isaiah 53:

But he was wounded for our transgressions;
he was crushed for our iniquities;
upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace,
and with his stripes we are healed.

Now of course, I’m just a humble curate and Giles is an academic genius, but even I can see what the text says – “transgressions”, “chastisement”. Love that chastisement – it’s the Hebrew מוּסַ֤ר and there’s simply no way you can translate it to mean “not punishment but actually just suffering because life has picked on me”.

Let’s move onto verse 10:

Yet it was the will of the LORD to crush him; he has put him to grief; when his soul makes an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring; he shall prolong his days; the will of the LORD shall prosper in his hand.

“His soul makes an offering for sin” – אִם־תָּשִׂ֤ים אָשָׁם֙ נַפְשֹׁ֔ו. What does that mean? Offering here is the expression “to set for”. The grammar is very clear – the Messiah offers himself in exchange for sin, as a substitute for it. There is simply no getting around it – the very thing Fraser denies is explicit in the text.

Fast forward to Paul. Romans 3:25 says that Christ “offered himself as a sacrifice, a propitiation” – The Greek is “ἱλαστήριον“, the place where sins are forgiven. So Paul is clear – Jesus becomes the place where sins are forgiven, but Fraser’s penultimate paragraph is determined to deny the need to forgive sins. Yes, the atonement is also about handling our hurt and suffering (go and read Isaiah 53 again if you don’t get that), but it is more than that. The cross is the place where the punishment for my sin is enacted.

More Paul from 1 Cor 5:7-8. Christ is the Passover Lamb, the one who is wounded and killed so that judgement passes over the Hebrews. The Greek is ἐτύθη and you could translate that as “has been slaughtered” or “has been killed”, but almost every single translation goes for “has been sacrificed” because those doing the translation work understand exactly what the reference to the Passover sacrifice is about.

But the killer is the Letter to the Hebrews. Here the word “sacrifice” is unambigiously just that – a sacrifice. For example, in Hebrews 7:27 the first sacrifice (that performed by the High Priests) is the Greek θυσίας and there is no question about this being “sacrifice”. Christ is then described as the one who “did this once for all” (referring to that previous action – the explicit offering of a sacrifice) when he “offered himself up” – ἀνενέγκας. This “offering up” is almost always used in the context of offering a sacrifice (i.e. James uses it in James 2:21 to talk about Abraham offering up Isaac). The other possible uses of the word (“go up”, “bear the burden”) don’t make sense of the verse *unless* you first argue that the High Priests actually bore on themselves the sacrificial punishment for the people.

But if you’re not convinced by this then move to Hebrews 9:26 – Here the “sacrifice of himself” that Jesus commits is that original θυσίας that was used of the High Priests’ sacrifice. You simply cannot translate it another way. Christ is a sacrifice.

Let’s be very clear on this – Hebrews 9:26 says that Christ is a sacrifice, the exact same kind of sacrifice that the High Priests performed day after day to cover the sin guilt of the people. Fraser says “No, Jesus is not a blood sacrifice”. Who are we going to believe?

Jacob at the Mockingbird Blog has an interesting insight on all this:

Jesus says in John 10:18 “No one takes my life from me, but I lay it down of my own accord. I have authority to lay it down, and I have authority to take it up again.” In John 19:30 we are told that Jesus gives up his Spirit. Indeed, a theology of the cross sees the world through suffering and death, but not with the view of, “poor me and poor Jesus.” Rather a theology of the cross points out that Jesus suffered and died alone because all of us poor misunderstood victims, are actually at odds with God and were in the crowd shouting “crucify him.” As Forde points out, a theology of the cross allows us to call “a spade a spade.” It sees all of us not as victims who are just misunderstood, but as the victimizers who have killed Jesus. It is a theology that sees us as sinners for whom Jesus became sin and died in order to forgive (2 Cor. 5:21).

Therefore, a theology of the cross, as opposed to simply inoculating our conscience to sin and our own culpability in it, finds us guilty of the sin that we have committed, and states that we should be justly condemned for it, while at the same time stating our penalty has been paid for and we are 100% forgiven. A theology of the cross keeps us in our proper place, as helpless sinners, and keeps Christ in His proper place, as our Lord and Savior.

Profound. The attempt to deny the sacrificial death of Jesus is an attempt to avoid the consequences of my sin. That’s worth us all considering.

Update : Matt Kennedy at Stand Firm nails this perfectly:

What do we call a judge who acquits a guilty person on the basis of a loving personal relationship?


The first comment on the thread completes the story:

… or merciful, if the guilt is applied justly to another who is willing to serve the penalty to render the decision effective.

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