He Died For What?

By: Brian Robertson

(see also: I Get The Point)

In either of the following quotes, do you find anything that supports the concept of Jesus’ death being an event demanded by God to satisfy what is perceived as humankind’s “debt of sin”?

Go and learn what this means, ‘I desire mercy, and not sacrifice.’
Jesus, Matthew 9:13

For I desire steadfast love and not sacrifice, the knowledge
of God rather than burnt offerings.

Hos 6:6

Recently, in another posting, an insightful comment asked what my own take was on the idea of Jesus “dying for our sins.” Before I go any farther, I want to make one point as clear as possible — in’s blog, there are often personal opinions and reflections that thoughtful people in Christianity can disagree with and differ on. One does not have to be thought of as a “Christian mystic” by agreeing with whatever I say, thankfully. The tradition of the mystic within Christianity has included a wide variety of opinions and ideas, yet at the heart of each one is this — we are driven to the experience of God’s loving Presence.

I think the confusion and attitude about vicarious atonement for sins — Jesus’ death was for our sins — can actually be traced to Paul’ particular and often very quirky views, not to Jesus.

It is worth noting that the Jews had given up sacrifice back in 590 BCE following the destruction of their Temple. Paul’s notions, therefore, were in direct contradiction to both Old Testament teaching (Hosea 6:6) and even to the teaching of Jesus himself (Mat. 9:13) which stressed how God desired good virtues, not sacrifice.

While Paul stressed that God’s “love” was behind the sacrifice of Jesus (Rom. 5:8), the Doctrine of Atonement instead shows a harsh Deity satisfied only by the murder of his own innocent son. Paul was way off base here, for the Old Testament is full of references to the love and mercy of God to man (Ps. 36:5-10; Ps. 103:8-17) revealed through His forgiveness (Ex. 34:6,7; Ps. 86:5-7), of which even Jesus spoke (Mat. 6:12).

If I may, this is the clearest I can offer up things from my very humble point of view. If there was validity in the idea of Jesus dying for others sins. Had that been valid, then in Jesus’ remarkable story of the Prodigal Son, before the wandering son was allowed to return, his father would have said, “Yes, you can come back as my dearest, blameless, but first let me run ahead of you and sacrifice your older brother to rid you of all sin.”

It didn’t happen that way. Take with that idea a mixture of the two quotes at the first of this entry, one from Jesus and then the Old Testament quote to which he refers.

Of course, what I wrote in that one paragraph about the Prodigal Son is not everything I could and so say on the subject, it’s simply the end product. In looking elsewhere, I found that Rev. Lee Woofenden wrote a most interesting sermon that included the following:

Into this mental and spiritual confusion roared a multitude of false and contradictory ideas. One of the most damaging was the Vicarious Atonement, with its accompanying dogma that faith alone saves without the need for good works. Here is the Vicarious Atonement in a nutshell: All people are born sinful, and can never satisfy the “perfect justice” of God the Father. Therefore, God has condemned the entire human race to eternal death. God the Father’s justice can be satisfied only through the perfect death of God the Son. All who believe that the Son died for them are saved. (This is the “vicarious” part.) All who do not believe remain under divine condemnation to eternal death. So it is faith alone that saves us.

This doctrine of the Vicarious Atonement applies traits to God that we would be ashamed to apply to the most insane, tyrannical dictator on earth. Not even the worst despot would condemn to death every one of his subjects because they fall short of standards that they cannot possibly meet, and then be mollified only by the bloody death of his own son.

Much of Christianity still labors under this gross corruption of the Gospel message. As I talk to people who are still caught in a Vicarious Atonement, faith alone theology, my heart goes out to them. They struggle so valiantly to turn these dregs of doctrine into something beautiful and compelling that will give meaning and purpose to their lives. Of course, there are some harsh fundamentalists who seem to glory in the heavy-handed, us-versus-them nature of faith alone theology. But most fundamentalist and evangelical Christians are basically good-hearted people who sincerely desire the eternal welfare of all people.

We watch as their human decency struggles with the harshness of the faith they have been taught: that all who do not believe what they believe will be condemned to eternal death. And we watch the sad spectacle of needless conflicts that fundamentalist Christians get themselves into with so many people of good will whose primary “sin” is that they do not and cannot share that harsh Vicarious Atonement faith.

I hope some of these thoughts have been of help in explaining my own feelings on the subject. I admit they are sort of like looking into a scrapbook to get a complete answer but, for me, it forms a very clear answer.

Next day or so, I’d like to get back to what it means to be on a journey to Become Christ.

If that tidbit doesn’t at least catch someone’s attention, I’m not sure what will!





[How small we have made God. How exciting it is watching him expand himself into our consciousness again :)

How refreshing to know that salvation is an ongoing, daily process, one that I enter into and experience through my good works. It’s all starting to make so much more sense now ;) ]


[I have to respectfully disagree with you about the meaning of the first quote you have used, Matthew 9:13 (I will limit this comment to that verse alone for simplicity’s sake). In that verse, Jesus is modeling how it is that we should live as opposed to what He “requires” for our sin. I don\’t think it is intended to tell us how we are to be saved, but more how we are to act towards others. Because Christ was sitting with the tax collectors and sinners, the Pharisees were critical of him. Since they, the pharisees, (who, like Israel in Hosea -see ref. on 6:6- should have knows God’s love and intentions better than others who do not know Him) are so quick to judge and withhold mercy, Christ corrects them and references an Old Testament teaching (with which they would certainly be familiar, as pious as they are) to show them that they have missed the boat. Of course, Christ’s model for us is to love and have mercy on all. This should serve as a lesson in how to live (to have mercy on others) rather than as a commentary on the nature of how we are saved or what was required to save us.]



Thanks for your comment!

I’d have to say, though, that Jesus didn’t say, “What God wants is love, not sacrifice, except when it comes to me as His Son, when it’s ok.” In other words, Jesus’ words apply to a general and basic understanding of the nature of God.

Secondly, Matthew and Luke (and Mark to a major extent) worked with sayings of Jesus and wove narratives around them. The placement of some of the sayings can, to some, seem to alter their meanings. Again, though, I take Jesus’ main quote to apply across the board. If the Pharisees fit the nature of the quote — and I believe they did — then so be it.

In short, I reject that Jesus meant the phrase and the reflection only for Pharisees and that the saying by God was placed in Hosea for future use against same.

My point is very simple. God is not interested in sacrifices, and it is ludicrous to try to make God into some monster who demands blood of his son to atone for the sins of millions unborn. The simple answer is often the best — God is mercy, not blood letting; prizing the human heart over burnt offerings, much less the death of Jesus.



[1 John 4:9-10
9 This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him. 10 This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.

Isaiah 53:4-6
4 Surely he has borne our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. 5 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. 6 All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned—every one—to his own way; and the Lord has laid on him the iniquity of us all.]



Thanks for your thoughts.

(1) John is written far later than the time of the gospels and reflects a community’s belief; one of many different communities and beliefs. The concept of sacrificing a son was acceptable to that particular strain of belief. The facts remain — Jesus’ quite obvious statement (no matter how much fishtailing one might choose to do) and the enlightened view in the OT that God did not want sacrifice. It is absurd to think that if your neighbor killed his son and claimed it was for the good of the world you would simply nod in agreement and, in fact, worship the nutcase. How much more so when talking of God — as evidenced in the character, teachings and life of Jesus!

(2) Matthew, appealing to a Judaic community, eagerly looked through the OT to bolster his version of events. This is normal in the NT, such as misinterpreting the word “young woman” by substituting “virgin” when talking about Jesus’ birth. That mistake which appeared in the scriptures of writers of the NT was picked up and used as part of the invented narrative. See Brown and others on that thread of thought.

Likewise, the Isaiah quote is picked up to explain Jesus, when the concept of the “suffering servant” traditionally referred to Israel. In the same way, seeking to give a narrative structure and sense of meaning to events, details can be found in Ps 22 which mentions “They divide my garments among them and cast lots for my clothing” and more which were placed into the crucifixion accounts. Indeed, it is Ps. 22 that Jesus refers to in the version of his death in which he says, “My Lord, why hast thou forsaken me ….” What follows is a narrative outline on which was placed and modeled the events of the time. Isaiah’s other pronouncements are converted likewise into details of the event of Jesus’ Crucifixion.

These sorts of arguments are interesting, and have gone on for quite some time. More to the point, though, they are smokescreens for the real question. Did Jesus have a sense that his blood was required for the miracle of absolving all sins for all time? Of course not. Is God just to make such a demand? Of course not. It is abysmal and wretched and should one turn away from that sort of God? Of course. Does it go against the quotes of Jesus and of Hosea? Definitely.

Now, and I did not intend to get into all this, before someone starts shouting about the Eucharist and Jesus’ blood, etc, I want to make this clear — After communion we thank God for joining the mystical Body of Christ. To me that is the meaning of the Eucharist in a nutshell — we become part of, symbolically and allegorically and powerfully, part of the Mystical Body of Jesus which is present today.

If one insists on a literal meaning of the blood of Jesus and the certainty of a God who sacrifices his son, flying in the face of deeper, more spiritual meanings which exist, there is nothing I or anyone else can do to convince otherwise. Nor should we.

Many have taken the spirituality/religion of Jesus and made it into the religion about Jesus, two very different things. If there is one thing a Christian mystic believes in, it’s the amazing Love of God as voiced by Jesus and through the years in countless ways. While others opt for exclusiveness, near psychotic episodes of ransom and sacrifice, the insecurity of a God made as inhuman as we can be, one must zero in on the essential message of Jesus — the kingdom of God, made up of love and acceptance and longing and protection and forgiveness, is here, now.



[With this cord of affinity he drew men to the Godhead, Whom He always resembles. In order that God may draw more to Himself, and forget His wrath, the Son saith, “Beloved Father, seeing that Thou wouldest not forgive sins because of all the former sacrifices offered, lo I, Thine Only begotten Son, Who resemble Thy Godhead in all things, in Whom Thou hast hidden all the riches of divine love, I come to the Cross, that I may be a living sacrifice before Thine eyes; that out of Thy fatherly compassion Thou mayest bend and look on Me, Thine only Son, and on My Blood flowing from My wounds, and slake the fiery sword with which in the angel’s hands Thou hast barred the way to Paradise, that all who have repented and bewailed their sins through Me, may enter therein.”

The Attractive Power of God by Meister Eckhart]